This essay is the final installment in the Bay Journal’s Growing Concern series, which examines the consequences of population and traditional economic growth on the Bay’s restoration.

“Growth is good. Growth is necessary. Growth will come. Growth can be accommodated. These are the greatest, most uncritically accepted and fatally flawed assumptions made by those charged with protecting Chesapeake Bay.”
— “Growing, Growing, Gone,” an Abell Foundation report, 2008.

Six years after the author of this piece wrote the “Growing, Growing, Gone” report for the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, limiting growth remains absent from discussions on restoring the Chesapeake ecosystem. It is the missing piece of the puzzle, the taboo subject.

Growing smarter, growing greener, growing more efficiently, growing with a smaller per capita “footprint,” offsetting growth, mitigating growth, we pursue these all — rightly — but with decidedly mixed success.

We won’t consider whether the sheer size of today’s population and the human economy inevitably erodes our smartest, greenest efforts to “grow” our way to a better Bay.

The Bay Journal, along with the Chesapeake Research Consortium, is planning a two-day conference next year that will bring leading thinkers from around the country to challenge the growth taboo held by Chesapeake decision makers and environmental groups.

It’s past time to reconsider the outdated “grow or die” mentality, to stop pretending growth doesn’t matter, or is beyond our control — just as earlier, failed Bay cleanup plans regarded air pollution as an “uncontrollable” impact on the estuary. It’s time to recognize the elephant in the room, to dare to think there are preferable alternatives to growth.

The notion is hardly new. Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a founder of Earth Day in 1970, told Congress 44 years ago that “restoring our environment will require reshaping our values…and greatly increased attention to the problem of our expanding population.”

Nelson was followed two years later by a remarkable, bipartisan, presidential commission’s report to Richard Nixon that concluded continued growth was not in the social, economic or environmental interest of the country:

“It is comfortable to believe,” the Rockefeller Commission wrote, “that education and better fertility control information and services will solve our population problem…they will not…nothing less than a different set of values toward nature, the transcendence of a laissez-faire market system, a rethinking of human identity in terms other than consumerism, and a radical change, if not abandonment of the growth ethic will suffice.”

Since then, the United States has added more than 100 million people. Our population is 316 million, headed toward half a billion in this century. The size of the economy, adjusted for inflation, has more than tripled. The Chesapeake region has tracked those trends. The health of Chesapeake Bay, despite a vast expansion of public and private environmental agendas, has deteriorated.

Limiting growth offers no panacea for the Bay. It would not invalidate current programs to reduce pollution, rein in sprawl development and harvest seafood sustainably. But it would help them work.

Conversely, pretending it doesn’t matter how large the population or the economy grows ensures, at best, that we continue sliding toward a “Chesapeake style” Bay, like the crab cakes that are now mostly made, “Baystyle” with backfin from half a world away. They are palatable enough, but no are longer connected to local water quality, divorced from needing more than pretty waterside venues for seafood dining — a slippery slope indeed.

To their credit, the EPA and Bay watershed states have acknowledged in recent restoration plans that we must reckon with the environmental impacts of adding millions more people (about 1.5 million a decade) to the region.

Their concept is to “decouple” future growth from adding more nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment to the Bay; in other words, to make it so the Bay won’t even know more people moved here.

It is a scheme that is on the one hand narrowly drawn—only looking at a few water pollutants. On the other hand. it is wildly ambitious.

In a few places, for short periods of time and for specific pollutants, humans have managed to decouple growth from pollution. Sewage treatment is the Bay’s shining example — technology has reduced polluting nutrients from sewage discharges even as the population has risen. Airborne nitrogen from vehicles and smokestacks is following a similar path, for now.

But sewage treatment is nearing technical and financial limits, and growth is projected to ratchet pollution back up within the next couple of decades. Plus, nitrogen and phosphorus hardly represent the total pressures that millions more humans bring to bear on the Chesapeake ecosystem. For example, more paving for more development and the stormwater runoff that come with it threaten to tip one of the Bay’s finest creeks, the Mattawoman in southern Maryland, over the edge.

It’s fair to say that no place on Earth has figured out how to permanently restore a large, complex ecosystem like the Chesapeake amid rapid growth.

Accounting for Growth, as the Bay Program’s plan to offset increases in population and other sources of nutrients is known, relies on wringing substantial pollution reductions from agriculture, the Bay’s largest single polluter, as technological solutions with sewage and air push against their limits.

The concept relies on “nutrient trading,” a practice in which a suburban county where growth is straining the limits of technology or the limits of cost-effectiveness to cap and reduce pollution, will shift its water quality expenditures to agricultural regions. It will choose to pay willing farmers to take extraordinary control measures to reduce pollution from their fertilizers and manures to offset the county’s growth and meet the farms’ own pollution reduction requirements.

The EPA and other Bay decision makers have said for years that this is the way of the future, and yet…“I believe (nutrient trading) is the most written-about activity I’ve seen compared to how little has actually happened,” said Beth McGee, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist.

McGee and the Bay Foundation have been actively exploring nutrient trading opportunities between urban sewage and stormwater runoff and farmers. To date, they have found more obstacles than opportunities.

“Farmers are reluctant,” she said. “The market is not there and there is a lot of concern over accountability. It’s no panacea. We still think it’s worth continuing to explore.”

Accounting may prove to be the Achilles heel of nutrient trading. How do you compare pollution between a precisely measured sewage pipe and thousands of acres of farmland with a changing mix of farming techniques, crops and fertilization and rainfall regimes?

Farmers historically have been reluctant to disclose even minimal data on how much fertilizer is in their soil and groundwater, let alone allow government to install monitoring devices that would constantly evaluate runoff from their farms to waterways.

Other questions that must be fully resolved: Would the trade allow a sewage plant to keep polluting a Bay river in return for pollution reductions somewhere outside that river? Has the farmer done all he is required to do legally to reduce pollution before he gets public money? Will local governments crack down hard enough on pollution from urban/suburban sources to, in effect, create a market for paying farmers?

Some early actions are not encouraging. One of the easiest to account for nutrient reductions that a farmer might “trade” would be to turn his farm into a forest, which is the least-polluting land use. Both Maryland and Pennsylvania have forbidden such trades, apparently for fear of taking farmland out of production.

A similar, simpler program Maryland began years ago to offset forest losses suffers from accountability problems. Under the state’s so-called “tree bill,” developers who destroy forests are allowed to pay money into a fund that goes to plant trees elsewhere. Knowledgeable observers think the program is working, but say it is virtually impossible statewide to track where the money goes and how the planted forests are performing.

Larger programs to offset impacts of growth and development have been similarly plagued by lack of accountability. Journalist Heather Rogers in the recent book, “Green Gone Wrong,” looked into popular schemes that planted trees or financed clean energy to offset carbon dioxide using money from people traveling by jet or performing other CO2-creating activities.

Verification of many offset projects was difficult to impossible. In addition, it was hard to know whether a given project would have happened anyhow, without offset payments.

To date, most successes with trading programs are limited and involve point-to-point trades, where say, an aging power plant pays a modern one to reduce pollution enough to offset the old plant’s obligation more cheaply.

“Other than point-to-point, it’s hard to know yet if nutrient trading can work…I think it’s going to be a limited tool,” said Roy Hoagland, an environmental consultant and former CBF vice president.

At best, it appears that accounting for and offsetting growth’s impacts on the Chesapeake through nutrient trading would entail a mammoth and complex accounting and monitoring exercise. Far simpler programs around the watershed that manipulate the landscape to control sediment and stormwater runoff chronically suffer from understaffing and a lack of funding.

If trading nutrients seems a precarious and untested approach on which to hang the future of the Bay restoration, it may be because the alternative would be to discuss limits to growth.

Currently, it is simply not allowable to raise such a prospect. Maryland’s draft Accounting for Growth plan (it is the only watershed state to have produced one) make this clear:

“The Accounting for Growth program cannot undermine other important state policies such as growing the economy.”

Constructing ever more elaborate and shaky scenarios for saving the Bay, while not being permitted to question a major force — growth — that degrades it has historical parallels. Virginia Tech researcher Eileen Crist discussed this in a recent essay, “Ptolemaic Environmentalism.”

Ptolemy’s view of an Earth-centered universe held sway for 1,400 years until about 400 years ago when Copernicus proved that everything revolved around the sun, Crist said. Even before Copernicus, astronomers had been forced to construct and reconstruct increasingly Byzantine explanations to support an insupportable theory.

But the notion that the Earth, and humans, were not the center of creation was simply “not subject to question,” Crist notes.

Her essay was written in a larger context than the Chesapeake, to argue the need for modern environmentalism to move away from human-centeredness, toward including the rest of creation in visions of sustainability.

But its message might give pause to those who would construct ever more elaborate and bureaucratic Chesapeake cleanup scenarios to avoid uttering the forbidden words: limits to growth.

A common reaction to talk of limiting growth is that such a movement would have to be national, or global; that there is little a state, or even a region could do.

But Vermont has made a very credible start with a study that examines what would be a sustainable population there. Maryland has become the first state in the nation to embrace an alternate method of accounting for economic progress: the Genuine Progress Index, or GPI.

In contrast to the more official Gross State Product, the GPI gives a more honest and less enthusiastic appraisal of growth, subtracting for its environmental and social impacts.

And a growing body of research, some of which will be presented at the conference on growth and the Chesapeake early next year, has found high growth rates have little tie to a region’s poverty rate, unemployment rate or per capita income.

In other words, there are plenty of places to start rethinking growth at state and local levels.

First and foremost: Simply acknowledge that we are not likely to grow our way to a restored Bay.