Envisioning a sustainable Chesapeake

The Capital, February 16, 2008

The global conversation about environmental sustainability has grown exponentially in recent years, particularly as our society has begun to wrestle with the future implications of human-induced climate change and the need for renewable sources of energy. As a scientist, it's been amazing watching these discussions move from scientific laboratories and lecture halls, to coffee shops and dinner tables, and even to boardrooms of the world's largest corporations. But as a Marylander, it's been most inspiring to see these discussions begin to address the future of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay.

When it comes to the bay, the term sustainability is a recent entry into the lexicon of bay restoration. It's often used in combination with other terms, like "sustainable farming" or "sustainable fisheries" or "sustainable development." Such terms imply some softening of the impacts of what could be an environmentally harmful activity, but they prompt us to ask: "What does a sustainable Chesapeake really mean?"

As an environmental scientist, my vision of a sustainable Chesapeake Bay is built upon a foundation of a balanced, vibrant ecosystem teeming with fish, shellfish, underwater grasses and clear, healthy waters. But to be truly sustainable, the Chesapeake ecosystem needs to exist - long into the future - while also supporting the region's human population.

Creating a sustainable Chesapeake will not be easy. It will take bold leadership from all segments of our society - from governments to individuals - to make this vision a reality.

But as we look around the state, we're seeing more and more positive steps being taken.

Recently, the Maryland Commission on Climate Change made a series of recommendations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving energy throughout the state to help slow global warming and sea level rise. If implemented, these actions will require that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent within the next 12 years.

Last week, the University System of Maryland launched an Environmental Sustainability Initiative that will not only reduce the environmental impact of the state's universities, but also seek to instill a sense of environmental stewardship among the 28,000 students graduating from the system's 13 institutions each year. It will also foster advanced research and help prepare the new "green" workforce, both needed to achieve regional to global sustainability.

As the leader of this statewide effort, my job will be to marshal the enthusiasm and creativity of students and faculty and ensure we incorporate the best ideas from our universities and those outside of Maryland.

As with every environmental issue, we cannot solely rely on government to fix the problem. There is a sense of personal responsibility we must recognize. Through our daily actions, each of us wastes energy, consumes resources and creates pollution - whether through the miles we drive, the water we use or the energy we consume.

But rather than seeing our personal impact as a curse, we should look at it as an opportunity. By changing our own actions, each of us has the ability to reduce our impact on the bay and on the planet.

While these steps are critical in getting us on the route to sustainability, we need to recognize that they are only the on-ramp to where we need to go. As long as the region's population continues to grow, and we continue to develop lands even faster than needed to accommodate that growth, we make it more difficult to maintain the intergenerational requirement of the sustainability equation.

Bay restoration is a never-ending road. We have struggled more than 20 years to reduce the amount of pollution flowing into the bay. While we've made some hard-fought gains, we are still far from where we need to be. But if we are to truly have a sustainable Chesapeake, we need to recognize that another 10, 20 or 30 years of pollution-fighting efforts will still not be enough. Bay restoration efforts will be needed in perpetuity.

If we are smart about it, our new struggle to slow global warming by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases actually offers opportunities to achieve bay restoration. It requires us to think about sustainability and to find new ways for conserving energy, for transportation, for farming and for living on the land.

We need to manage for sustainability by keeping our eyes on the road ahead, remaining keenly aware of what will cross our path in the future. If we opt to manage by looking only in the rearview mirror - and act only after we see the results of our mistakes - we will be destined to fall short of a sustainable Chesapeake Bay.

Annapolis resident Dr. Donald F. Boesch is president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and vice chancellor of environmental sustainability for the University System of Maryland.

(Revised Feb 2008)