I'm aiming to start a new power company, Chesapeake Power & Light, we'll call it. Though it owns not a drop of oil, controls nary a crumb of coal or uranium, it offers bounteous energy and a full range of utilities, all non-polluting-and so pretty the public will clamor to extend the grid and applaud every new generating facility. CP&L's power never runs out and it's cheap-all we have to do is stop messing with the circuits.
It is early light in midsummer; an old smooth, brown river gleaming past hibiscus-flecked marshes, is flowing to the Bay. A photographer and I are there to make a classic juxtaposition picture: Southern Maryland's broad Patuxent River and its wetlands are the foreground; rising behind them are the nine smokestacks and twin cooling towers of the mighty, coal-fired Chalk Point power plant. We've been watching its strobe-lit bulk loom for almost two days of paddling, and we'll travel another day before it fades from view.
If you see the shot in a magazine someday, the human-natural contrast is what you'll notice, but more important is this: We desperately need to figure out how to reconcile the fossil-fuel power of our Chalk Points with the natural energies coursing through our rivers and woods and marshes-before the former entirely short-circuits the latter.
Floating beneath the concrete towers of Chalk Point, I recalled the lyrics of a song, "Southern Maryland River Country Way." My friend Tom Wisner, the Chesapeake poet, storyteller and singer, wrote it decades ago when the farming and seafood harvesting Patuxent region experienced a wave of bold, new energy projects-the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, the Cove Point liquid natural gas terminal and Chalk Point, about 20 miles upstream from the river's mouth around Solomons, MD.
"Changes in the poetry," Tom sang, "are comin' in our time.
No way to speak of power in the rhythm and the rhyme
Of that old easy flowin', downright knowin'
Southern Maryland river country way."
It was more than an elegy for times that were changing as central Maryland counties upstream on the Patuxent began to boom with suburbia that now forms a near solid Baltimore-Washington corridor. The lyrics also spoke-still speak-of our profound inability to grasp how the human and natural worlds might fit together, coexist for the long haul. A big part of the answer has to do with how we comprehend energy.
Consider the ospreys nesting atop a pole in the riverbed off Chalk Point. As if performing for the camera, one swoops to pluck a fish from the water, a white perch by the shape and size of it. The perch, a slow grower, has spent years achieving its half-pound or so of flesh by capturing the nourishment in hundreds of pounds of lesser fish. Those perch-prey in turn embodied the food energy in thousands of pounds of barely-visible zooplankton, which captured their energy from tens of thousands of pounds of algae. The algae are product of millions of BTUs of sunlight falling on the water, and tons of nutrients washed by rain and tides from hundreds of square miles of the Patuxent's forests, fields and wetlands.
If you could distill into a single bright burst all of the energy that must be marshaled to fuel a single osprey, it would strike you blind.
We easily measure and meter and value the output from our Chalk Points-how many megawatts, how many homes it heats and cools, the price of electricity, the handsome annual property taxes its owners pay. (Calvert county on the Patuxent went overnight from being among Maryland's poorer counties to one of its more affluent when taxes from Calvert Cliffs came on line.)
But how do we meter and price ospreys, and by implication the massive energetics of nature that sustain them? Or the schools of baby rockfish and shad and river herring riffling the river's shallows, and the rich stew of nutrients they feed on, washed from the decaying marsh vegetation. Such marshes not only feed and shelter the young of crabs and fishes and birds; they do the work, Baywide, of billions of dollars of sewage treatment plants, removing pollution, sopping up the carbon that's causing global warming.
But these energies and cleansing works of nature, compared to that of sewer and power plants, are diverse, unfocused and transmitted throughout thousands of pathways instead of a few pipes or cables. Natural power is not about turning on a light switch or tromping on the gas pedal. No one is ever mailed a bill for it.
Ecologically minded economists have made some rough cuts at estimating the annual value of all nature's services, from pollination and soil formation to pollution control and habitat. For the globe, they came up with about $38 trillion, more than equal the size of the human economy. More specific attempts have demonstrated that intact coral reefs, wetlands and mangrove forests return more net value than what accrues from destroying them for human productions like farming and aquaculture.
But the bottom line doesn't reflect this. When we tote up the GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, the broadest gauge of our nation's economic progress, we count the economic activity generated by building and operating the Chalk Points, but not much of what nature provides. Worse, when we destroy or degrade a wetland to build a factory, the GDP subtracts nothing. We may agree that it is hurtful to lose parts of nature, but we don't as yet have a meaningful way of showing it. Bottom line: As the GDP has boomed, nature has followed a distinctly more bearish path.
Nice philosophy, you say. But great modern civilizations need lots of concentrated energy to keep growing, not just the kind found in rivers and their marshes. And we've got laws to protect the latter, and these can always be made better if need be. And cleaner energy's coming soon from ethanol, wind, hydrogen and whatever else technology will surely provide soon.
Nice philosophy, I say. But let's look at some realities. Total air pollution from the aging, but profitable Chalk Point plant actually increased 26 percent during 2003-2005-135 million pounds a year of soot, oxides of sulfur and nitrogen falling on the Bay and its watershed. For the nearly 9,000 violations of the federal Clean Air Act during that time, the plant was fined nothing-"minor violations," explained state regulators. Nonetheless, air pollution from power plants is a significant portion of the pollution implicated in the decline of Chesapeake Bay's water quality and habitat.
But let's be wildly charitable for a moment. Let's assume that the several hundred million dollars that Chalk Point's owners are spending on more pollution controls is the start of a movement that will reduce the impact of electrical power generation on the Patuxent and the Bay to virtually nil.
Indeed, let's not stop there. Let's assume that coming decades will bring technological breakthroughs that will provide clean, limitless, affordable energy for all of us, forever and ever, Amen.
What could be better than that? Actually, what could be worse? Energy is ultimately the limit of all this planet's activities. As a species, we've always seemed compelled to push the limit-and why not?
Mongols harnessed the horse and conquered vast territories; Viking sailors mastered the wind and became the terrors of Europe; Egyptians exploited slave power to construct pyramids for the ages. New Englanders tapped local hydropower to build world-class industry. Like weeds and seedlings competing to populate a newly sunlit clearing in the woods, to those who can seize on new supplies of energy go the spoils, the right to put their stamp on things.
And just look at us now, ingeniously tapping millions of years of stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels from every corner of the planet and the depths of the coastal seas; masters of the atom (though not so hot at disposing of atomic waste).
The osprey, atop its natural energy web, seems a pauper compared to us floating nearby in our petroleum-based fiberglass and Kevlar kayaks, beneficiaries of a society so sopping rich in energy that we can afford to spend whole days doing nothing more productive than watching ospreys fish. We have enough excess energy at our disposal to make ice to cool our thermos of tea. The grain-fed beef in our lunch is a product of an agribusiness that uses a dozen gallons of oil to get a pound of protein to market.
Our power, compared to the osprey's, seems almost godlike. But gods would not have so fouled their nests. The Patuxent in the four decades since Chalk Point was constructed has turned from a highly productive seafood producer to a system beset by slimy, barren bottoms with little or no oxygen most summers, bereft of its former bounties of oysters, fish and crabs.
The bulk of the problem is not Chalk Point per se-but the watershed's population, which has increased more than 16-fold since the early 1960s.
Ironically, we never list that as an environmental problem-rather we say the problem is sewage, it's paving, it's loss of woods and wetlands, it's auto exhausts and smokestacks, it's soil and fertilizer and manure runoff from the agriculture that feeds us, chemicals from the industries where we work.
And we strive to mitigate these specific problems, spending hundreds of millions on the Patuxent alone, acting all the while as if doubling, tripling, 16-timing the people who all contribute to pollution is irrelevant.
We work even harder and spend even more to ensure that enough energy is available to avoid limiting how many of us can populate the region. In assuming without question that unlimited energy is compatible with sustained environmental quality, a durable coexistence with nature, we are less godlike than like addicts, drunks on a binge. Courtesy of recent big subsidies for nuclear, gas and other traditional power sources in the last federal energy bill, Southern Maryland has already embarked on a new round of expansion at Calvert Cliffs and Cove Point.
The osprey population around the Patuxent and the Chesapeake has also been increasing in recent decades as the species recovers from DDT and other lethal pesticides that humans introduced and subsequently banned. But ospreys won't ever multiply without limit. Their power sources are tied to the amount of solar radiation that falls on the planet, and there is no way to increase that.
On the other hand, there is no way solar energy will decrease either. This is why the osprey's gig is sustainable, and ours is not. Shifting the human economy heavily toward renewable, sustainable energies like sun and wind-also emulating nature's highly-evolved energy efficiencies and conservation strategies-might mean an end to never-ending population growth.
But wouldn't that mean an end to progress as we know it?
With any luck, yes. Studies that have subtracted from the booming the GDP of recent decades all of the losses of natural capital that accompanied it, say "real" economic progress, i.e. progress as if nature really counted, has been virtually flat since the 1970s.
What is even more important, national polls taken regularly since World War II, asking people how happy they are, show that the percentage of "very satisfied" peaked in the mid-1950s. Despite exploding material wealth (including energy consumption) since then, national happiness has stayed more or less the same.
It's not the end of progress we should seek, but its redefinition; learning to speak of power in the rhythm and the rhyme...