An intriguing new report has just been issued by the EPA's Science Advisory Board, an independent group of scientists, engineers and other professionals who provide technical advice and information to the administrator. Titled "Beyond the Horizon: Using Foresight to Protect the Environmental Future," it provides a lot of food for thought for those of us working to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
The working thesis of the report is that too much of the environmental protection effort has gone into dealing with present threats and correcting past mistakes, and that correspondingly too little time is spent anticipating future problems and avoiding them. The board argues that even in this time of shrinking government budgets and threats of sweeping regulatory reform, when everyone seems focused on the current crises, we would do better to think more about the future challenges we will meet.
Thinking about the future makes sense, the report says, because the pace of technological change is accelerating, because avoidance costs are often a fraction of remediation costs (think of our polluted harbors), and because avoidance and prevention reduce the costs of a clean environment to future generations. Perhaps most important, focusing on the problems we may face in the future allows all of us to better shape the world we live in and pass on to our children.
Here in the Chesapeake region, we have prided ourselves on efforts to clean up our streams and rivers, restore the Bay's habitat and living resources, and maintain a unique quality of life. We work hard to retain that special way the lands and the waters relate to each other and to man's activities on the land and on the water. A lot of the effort is focused on bringing things back to the way they were. We have a deep sense of history and tradition and don't want that lost. So we are very comfortable with terms like "restoration," "return," and "recapture."
This should not concern us one bit. In fact, thinking about the future with confidence is facilitated by a strong sense of the past and what we want to preserve from it. Every one of the forces of change highlighted in the board's report - population growth and urbanization, economic expansion and resource consumption, technological development, environmental attitudes and institutions - are things we have had to deal with in spades in the Chesapeake region during the past 20 years.
We should seek sustenance and accept the challenges set out in the report's recommendations that affect us:
- that as much attention be given to avoiding future environmental problems as to controlling current ones;
- that we establish early-warning systems to identify potential future environmental risks; and
- that we be especially concerned about the sustainability of terrestrial habitats, air pollutant loadings, and new sources of environmental stress.
There are already under way in the Chesapeake a number of activities which respond well to the call to think more about the future. One of the earliest efforts was the development of the "2020 Report," which laid the groundwork for state debates over the need for land use reforms and ultimately the enactment of new laws. Today, the challenge has turned to better defining local government's critical role in the Bay cleanup from a number of perspectives - implementation of the nutrient tributary strategies, protection of stream corridors and wetlands, and carrying out programs to educate the public on pollution prevention for toxics, to name but a few. In recognition of the key role of local governments in the future of the Bay Program, the Land, Growth and Stewardship Subcommittee is planning a watershed-wide conference on these issues in December.
Other examples of thinking about the future in the Bay Program come to mind. The current initiatives by both Maryland and Virginia to lower the pressure on the blue crab harvest is an encouraging sign; it is taken in response to information about the size of future populations of harvestable crabs, not after the fishery has crashed. If the legislatures and the state courts will allow the experts to prevail, we may actually be able to avoid a problem, rather than wrangle for years on how to correct it.
The recent release of the Chesapeake Bay Commission's Report and Recommendations on ballast water as a source of non-indigenous species is another example of our ability to get out ahead of a potential problem. In this case, acting broadly to deal with the threat of the introduction of non-native species up and down the East Coast could avoid a major manmade natural disaster to estuarine systems like the Chesapeake.
So we can use our foresight and occasionally we do. What this EPA report should do is make us think deeper and more often about the future of the Bay.
Copies of the report, #EPA-SAB-EC-95-007 are available from the Science Advisory Board, USEPA, Washington, D.C. 20460.