I love the phrase, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Peter Levine, who wrote a book on civic renewal with that title, cites the poetry of June Jordan as the source of this phrase. It has been used in discussing both the civil rights and environmental movements. There are some parallels.

It is no secret that the Chesapeake needs our help. After 30 years of amazing science; new funding and incentive programs; regulations meant to affect all manner of land use; and just plain hard work to tackle lingering problems facing our rivers — we still have a way to go to reach our goal of a healthy Bay ecosystem.

Unlike 30 years ago, the challenges facing today’s Bay are not rooted in a lack of understanding or a need for new computer models or regulatory policies. Rather, they rest on whether we can learn to live in harmony with the natural systems that sustain this national treasure.

For the most part, we have known for some time what needs to be done. Expanding the use of better management practices and new treatment technology; reducing waste; building sustainably; and living with less impact are all part of the equation.

The truth is that progress in the next few decades will rely less on top-down government mandates and more on each of us. “We are the ones we have been waiting for!”

Beyond a need for funding and political leadership, resolving the Chesapeake’s most pressing issues requires citizen stewardship that comes from a strong sense that people care. This kind of action does not arise from science or regulation; it comes from a personal connection to nature — a sense of responsibility for the environment.

Webster’s dictionary defines stewardship as “an individual’s responsibility to manage his life and property with proper regard to the rights of others.”

Who are the others we would be concerned about if we wish to practice good stewardship of the natural environment? Our family, neighbors, community, region, state, nation? All of the above — and more. Our future success depends on a broader, more diverse and truly engaged citizenry with a commitment to stewardship.

Can we make this sense of stewardship more commonplace?

Once upon a time, it was perfectly acceptable to smoke in restaurants, offices, buses and trains. There was no stigma attached. It was common to dispose of used motor oil by pouring it in a hole in the back yard or dumping it down the drain. Once upon a time, it was a sign of strength or success to drive a big muscle car or large SUV with an 8-cylinder engine.

Slowly, social and cultural expectations changed, public will shifted and laws changed to reflect it. Our attitudes about what was right and wrong evolved. Ultimately, activities such as smoking or drinking while driving were seen not as personal acts protected by the right of self-determination, but as threats to others that should be changed on behalf of public welfare.

“No dumping” stencils placed by local volunteers and organizations on thousands of storm drains turned out to be as good as building physical barriers to prevent it.

So it must be with stewardship.

In addition to working on big stormwater projects, sewage treatment plant upgrades and manure storage, we need to work on changing social norms. It needs to be taboo, socially unacceptable and publicly embarrassing to overconsume, waste, destroy or pollute nature or harm our watershed. And it must be really cool to have the most energy-efficient or stormwater-free house on the block rather than the biggest and greenest lawn.

In a commentary in The Baltimore Sun, “Speak up for the environment,” Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin wrote: “We need to learn how to shift cultural attitudes toward a deeper expectation of what brings personal ‘satisfaction’ and ‘success’ and generates social reward. We need to make a pact with each other that we will make this work important and valued and that we will work on this together.”

Stewardship means each one of us reducing our pollution — a sense of individual responsibility equally applicable to farmers, businesses, communities and individuals.

There are no shortages of problems that need fixing. Fortunately, there are thousands of people and organizations working to fix them. From implementing everyday actions that reduce one’s ecological footprint to organizing citizens to revitalize their local community, the power of engaged citizens is immense.

Just recently, I have witnessed stewardship when 300 people attended a county meeting to voice support for reducing stormwater; when 50 volunteers from a church showed up for two days to plant 200 trees in a stream buffer; when a community adopted the challenge of restoring a small wetland in their neighborhood; when in response to a Facebook post, 25 local homeowners showed up to spend their day off pulling out invasive vines to help restore a forest; and when a business supported time off for employees to participate in a stream cleanup project in their local community. In each case, they were rewarded only by the sense that they were doing something good for the environment and the Bay.

As the Chesapeake Bay Program considers a new Bay agreement to guide the restoration effort, I hope our leaders take the time to think differently about the future. Government can’t do all that is needed but can create incentives that enhance the degree to which citizen stewardship is practiced in our watershed. The truth is that an informed, involved local community can do a better job of environmental protection than a distant bureaucracy — and often at a much lower cost. Understanding what is important to one’s community is the place to start.

Aldo Leopold, in “A Sand County Almanac,” wrote: “The conservation movement…viewed in its entirety…is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and the land.”

The Alliance believes that success isn’t only measured in pounds of pollutants reduced. It must also be measured by the number of new local champions inspired, the barriers to action removed, the commitment of an informed public, the education of a next generation of leaders and volunteers engaged, all in a broader, more diverse environmental movement. Community by community, we see the results of citizen stewardship. Together, we can get the job done!

Be a citizen steward:

  • Get to know your local watershed group.
  • Stay in touch with nature. Visit conservation projects. Volunteer and participate in activities offered by local environmental groups.
  • Strive to understand the issues and voice your concerns to local leaders.
  • Shop responsibly; choose products produced locally and with less impact on nature.
  • Share your passion for stewardship with friends, coworkers, neighbors and family.
  • Be a member of a stewardship organization and support their work through donations.