Friday, December 26, 2008

Learning from the Collapse of Chesapeake Bay

The news in late 2008 cites the impending collapse of Chesapeake Bay after a generation of unworkable, non-binding agreements.
After 25 years Bay authorities now call for:
* Changing development patterns to reduce sprawl.
* Reducing agricultural pollutants.
* Improving fishery management to improve bay health.
* Requiring pollution reduction on a river-by-river basis.
* Reducing individual pollution loads.
But they wonder where they will find the funds.

Just when the environment reaches the tipping point, we wonder if we can afford to help it survive. Ironically, as Jared diamond points out repeatedly in Collapse, without a healthy, functioning environment, no economy survives.
The D.C/Baltimore/Virginia watershed has over 5 million inhabitants, plus the effluent from industrial sized pig farms (an apt metaphor for some of the behaviors in D.C.) .

Western industrial society is self-destructive in ways Marx failed to observe, but ways fortunately that Paul Ehrlich has identified for us, and Jared Diamond has adroitly chronicled. The total weight and diverse forms of toxic pollution from that disperse from that large and technologically reliant a population reshape everything in the environment. How far they reshape nature we continue to discover.
The consequences of 5 million people polluting a watershed have been predictable from Rachel Carson onward. Actually predictable from Semmelweis onward, as Semmelweis may be the original observer of how toxic pollution disseminates and what must be done to limit it.

In a political analogue, consider the rule of law as the environment that makes possible the function of a democratic government, the underlying necessity on which government relies. .
Then consider how blind we will be (how blind in fact Nancy Pelosi has been) to ignore the need to prosecute the breaches of the law and the constitution by Republican public officials sworn to uphold the laws and the constitution. Congressional Democrats have argued the pragmatism of passing needed legislation instead of dealing with the collapse of the rule of law under W. Two years after recapturing their Congressional power, Democrats have little to show for having been in power. They fail to observe that like Chesapeake Bay, what is necessary for survival, the rule of law, has eroded and risks collapse, perhaps passing a critical tipping point.

The precautionary principle has to operate in democratic politics the way it is supposed to operate in science. Otherwise we should not expect a functioning democracy to survive. The history of democracy shows it always in danger of collapsing into autocracy combined with chaos. So we are rowing against the current, but row we must. Like the environment, democracy has tipping points that must be observed.

And in passing, it appears that a non-binding agreement turns out to be an oxymoron, a euphemism for no agreement at all.