I spent a day this week with three other men and a waterman, Capt. John Van Alstine, out on his Hooper’s Island style workboat tonging for oysters and trotlining for crabs. Even though the crabs and oyster were not abundant, it was a great way to spend a day out of the office.
Halfway through the day, one of my landlubber colleagues, Mark, asked me, “Why do we continue to spend so much money on trying to save the Chesapeake Bay? Isn’t its decline just a natural result of population growth and progress?”
The question took me aback. I did not take it as an attack against my efforts or perspective, but more of a philosophical or logic question that needed careful thought, and one that needed an answer. Trying to maintain some balance between growth and preserving the natural world has been a passion of mine for many years. But here was a thoughtful CEO asking the question in a way that made me want to fully consider the question he had asked. I wanted to be able to understand and articulate, from a business perspective, why we should be pursuing this goal when there are so many other needs.
I think his concern came from the constant need to invest money into restoring the Bay and the perspective that it never seems to get better. It is discouraging to many that the Bay is still threatened after all of these years of restoring it.
So I guess the first thing we have to recognize is that we have accomplished much in cleaning up our country in the past century. Our water, our air, and our food supply are much better today than they were decades ago. This did not just happen by chance. A lot of effort, debate, and money has gone into creating the healthier society we live in today. However, as our population has continued to expand and we consume and waste more and more, we will have to stay on top of our wasteful behaviors that are damaging our health, our communities and our environment. This requires investments and regulations.
So, to put things in perspective, the efforts and costs we are incurring today are just the latest steps we need to take to preserve our country for the future. It will not end till our population stabilizes.
Here are a few of the critical steps we have taken in the past:
1860s 1900 – We debated the need for preserving forested land to conserve our water resources.
1900s – We debated the need for modern sewer systems in our cities.
1930s – We debated the need to replant our forest with billions of new trees.
1950s – We debated the need to clean up the air in our industrial cities (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, London).
1960s – We debated the need to clean up our rivers which were catching on fire (Cayahoga).
1970s – We debated the need to stop using ozone depleting chemicals.
1980s – We debated the need to stop the dumping of our chemical wastes onto the ground.
1990s – We debated the need to clean up our groundwater from leaking storage tanks.
In retrospect, most of us will agree it was good to have taken these steps. We are all much healthier today because we did. Our economy is also much stronger because we took action to make our citizens healthier, more productive, and more creative. In fact, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that the benefit from these regulations has been five times greater than the cost of compliance.
Looking ahead, the costs to take the necessary steps to either maintain the current health of the Chesapeake Bay or to improve it may well be worth the investment. A recent study funded by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that the economic return of a clean bay is far greater than the cost to clean it up. So, yes, from a purely business perspective, we should be taking the necessary steps to save the Chesapeake Bay.
But beyond this type of logic, I believe there is a far more compelling rational for taking action. We are fortunate to have inherited a society that has been created by the hard work and the investment of others. They built our country, and they took the effort to preserve a whole host of wonderful areas where we live, or spend time visiting.
However, if anything, we are not doing our share in preserving this wonderful planet. Many of our favorite places are being threatened. Just in our lifetimes, half of the living creatures on our planet have been wiped out by our actions. This trend of destroying our natural support system does not bode well for the future. I do not want to be here in 20 years and see my children suffering from something I could have prevented. So yes, let’s ask the tough questions, but then let’s act and not delay taking the necessary steps to preserve one of our best local natural resource areas, the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. Let’s keep it productive so our children can enjoy its bounty and, yes, even take a day off from the office to enjoy tonging and trotlining with friends.