After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Nutrient Trading, Poultry Farms and Planetary Finitude

(Posted by Stuart Clarke)

(This is the seventh in an ongoing series of posts on What’s It Going to Take?: A look at how the environmental community can regain the initiative and build the political will necessary to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.)
Whats It Going to Take?

The Town Creek Foundation will be spending out our endowment and closing our doors in the next ten years. As we approach our sunset, we are working to blend our concern with achieving tangible progress restoring the Chesapeake Bay with our desire to help catalyze the systemic transformations necessary to make that progress sustainable.

We believe that Maryland’s efforts to restore the Bay have evolved to the point where a special window of opportunity has opened for substantial progress. With the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and the Watershed Implementation Plan process, Maryland has established clear goals, an ambitious timetable, and reasonably robust planning processes. Much work remains to be done to sustain this effort where it is strong and to strengthen it where it is weak, and over the next ten years we will be investing in this work.

In this we are partnering with groups that are sharply focused on reducing stormwater and agricultural runoff in order to improve water quality in the local tributaries that flow into the Bay. We share their concern with these kinds of discrete outcomes, and we recognize that specific changes in policy and practice can help to achieve them.

At the same time, we view a degraded Bay as not simply a consequence of bad policies and practices, but also as a dramatic symptom of systemic dysfunction. A degraded Bay is a logical outcome of local and regional systems of production and consumption that deplete resources and generate wastes at unsustainable rates. These local and regional systems reflect and reinforce a global system that is itself in crisis.

Ecological imbalance is the signature of the Bay’s deterioration, just as surely as it explains global deforestation and desertification, the worldwide depletion of aquifers and fisheries, and global climate change.

We believe that both levels of systemic dysfunction – the local and the global – will have severe consequences for Maryland’s ability to sustainably achieve its environmental goals.

At the local and regional level, Maryland’s ability to sustain progress on restoring the Bay is vulnerable to its continued commitment to systemic practices that ignore some of the fundamental realities of life on a finite planet. Our Bay restoration initiatives are consensus products of a particular political moment that ignores the consequences of planetary finitude and operates as if ‘balancing the economy and the environment’ can and should mean protecting our ecological systems while also continuing to consume and dispose of ever increasing amounts of stuff.

Ultimately we will need to crack open this consensus in order to ask and answer some of the really tough questions about the Bay’s future. Is a sustainably restored Bay compatible with the maintenance and expansion of a system of industrial agriculture that concentrates animals on areas of land that are too small to absorb those wastes? Does one of our most politically popular strategies for reconciling environmental and economic imperatives  – market based nutrient trading schemes – exist in part to convince us that the environmental impacts of perpetual growth can be perpetually deferred? Is this a tenable proposition?

We expect that accelerating systemic dysfunction at the global level will mean that Maryland will be seeking to sustain progress on restoring the Bay under conditions that are quite different from those with which we have become familiar. It is not difficult, for example, to imagine how the acceleration and intensification of extreme weather events that is predicted by climate scientists could overwhelm our current Bay restoration strategies. But climate change is only the tip of the iceberg – global ecosystems are under full on assault, and embattled ecosystems are prone to producing dramatic waves of economic and political instability. Researchers and policymakers are expressing growing concern about an increase in “the frequency and intensity of environmental crises associated with accelerating human-induced global change.” Many expect that ‘concatenated crises’ like the oil‐food‐financial crisis of 2007 ‐ 2008 will be more rather than less frequent in the future. The direction and consequences of these are unknown, but it’s a fair bet that – at the very least –they will continue to reduce the room for fiscal maneuver that has been indispensable to ecosystem restoration.

Approaching the deterioration of the Bay as a systemic problem – or, more precisely, as a predictable outcome of dysfunctional systems – suggests a critical need for reducing our reliance on unsustainable local and regional systems while also increasing our resilience in the face of accelerating global instability. Maryland’s ambitious initiatives to restore the bay are important steps towards greater sustainability and resilience, but we doubt that they will be enough.

We think that true sustainability and resilience for Maryland ‐ in an increasingly unstable, crisis-prone world – will depend on fundamental transformations of the systems (including the value systems) by which everyday life is organized. In this regard bringing the economy and the environment into balance does not mean protecting the environment only so long as doing so won’t undermine economic growth. It means right-sizing and reorganizing the economy so that it can sustain itself on a finite planet.

3 Responses to Nutrient Trading, Poultry Farms and Planetary Finitude

  1. Great big-picture analysis. I particularly agree that the following question needs to be answered, before we support practices that could delay the fundamental changes needed:

    “Does one of our most politically popular strategies for reconciling environmental and economic imperatives – market based nutrient trading schemes – exist in part to convince us that the environmental impacts of perpetual growth can be perpetually deferred?”

    My emphatic answer to this question is YES.

    I fear that in our attempt to grab a new, untested tool like nutrient trading will weaken our abilities to use the best tool we now have – the Clean Water Act. While I know the CWA hasn’t been enough to jolt us out of the dysfunctional system that has led us to where we now stand, and could probably never cause such an overall transformation, I know the Act has great unused power.

  2. The unsustainability of the current Eastern Shore ag model is certainly something that everyone concerned with the Bay should agree on and this article raises important questions about whether the introduction of nutrient trading is the pollution panacea that supporters claim it to be. From our perspective, it is not.

    Ignoring for a moment the very questionable legality of pollutant trading under the Clean Water Act, the notion that nutrient trading is the last gasp effort to save the Bay, after a series of failed attempts, is understandable. Unfortunately, though, those past attempts suffered from the very defect that trading still wholly embraces. Far from offering a “new approach,” as some have suggested, financial incentives to encourage purely voluntary measures to get big ag to clean up its act is the very reason why the Bay is still a mess today. Emerging in the faltering shadow of manure transport, cost share money, taxpayer funding of best management practices and a host of other expensive and failed programs, nutrient trading’s “pay them not to pollute” approach is simply more of the same.

    Nutrient trading begins with the premise that industrial ag has a right to pollute our public trust waterways, and that by allowing them to sell that false right to others, we can somehow clean up the Bay. That’s not the way other pollution sources were cleaned up during the 40 years of Clean Water Act protection in this country and that’s not what’s going to clean up the Bay. Trading does nothing to tackle the real issue of sustainability – its simply more avoidance and a clear path to yet another failed Bay cleanup plan.

    • While I appreciate Dr. Clarke’s big picture view, especially the idea that our economic system is in fact a subset of the biosphere, and not the other way ’round (the current paradigm), we don’t have time to wait for a transformation of our political, social, and economic systems to those that would support a more sustainable world. We need a way to involve local watershed inhabitants in the restoraton and management of their local watershed. Continued reliance on voluntary programs and lawsuits do not change the failed dynamic that has stalemated the Bay cleanup effort.

      I have proposed that a well designed nutrient trading program has the potential to improve currently impaired waters (through required “net improvement offset credits”) as well as offset future economic activity (“offset credits”). The additional needed program design feature is independent third party oversight involving local watershed participation.

      As an example, the Watershed Stewardship Academy sponsored by Anne Arundel County and taught at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center is already producing local watershed inhabitants with the skills needed to steward their local watersheds. What if these graduates could be employed to steward and annually inspect practices that generate nutrient credits that have been certified by a private/public transparent oversight authority, one not run by a political agency without transparency that can only offer “trust us”?

      Immediately you move responsibility away from the failed political economy of public agencies and the political interests to whom they are vulnerable, to one where local citizens are intimately involved and have legal responsibility for the management of their watershed.

      This arrangement is a needed new dynamic, and one that could relatively quickly achieve measurable results. We don’t have to wait; local nutrient trading demonstration programs with legally binding contracts (satisfying “reasonable assurance”) could be created with the participation and support of local jurisdictions. This is in fact the only way successful nutrient trading can be created.

      The alternative is what has failed in the past, and one that solely supports NGO, agency, and jobs for lawyers, while hoping voluntary education and outreach programs will motivate the public to change behaviors. We have spent almost 30 years and almost 6 billion dollars on that false hope; its time to try something new. Lets emply local watershed inhabitants instead and give them the required training and provide transparent oversight with measureable outcomes. This is what is needed to change the failed “unsustainable local and regional systems” that Stuart Clarke is talking about.