The Dirty Road to Abilene


“Nibbling around the edges” is the way I would describe the last decade of efforts to reduce polluted runoff in the Chesapeake Bay, particularly when it comes to the agricultural sector’s piece of the mess.  Despite widespread efforts by government and the environmental community to work in partnership with agricultural interests and farmers to reduce pollution through voluntary measures and incentives, we remain a long way off from making a meaningful progress.  As seen in recent dialogue about the Chesapeake Bay’s pollution problems, some leaders in the agricultural community don’t see themselves as a critical part of the problem (or the solution), meanwhile all of the other sectors are stepping up.

The situation reminds me of a management concept developed by Jerry Harvey called the Abilene paradox that gets its name from the anecdote used to describe perils of groupthink –when individuals are reticent to act contrary to the prevailing viewpoint of those around them.  I can’t say for sure that groupthink is how we got here, but, when it comes to dealing with agricultural pollution, it’s looking an awful lot like Abilene –a place that none wants to be.  Many environmental organizations have worked hard to develop partnerships with the agriculture sector to address our pollution problems.  It’s an understandable approach given the collaborative mind-set of many organizations and an earnest desire to reduce pollution without fueling conflict.  The leaders of the agricultural community are resisting meaningful pollution solutions with all their might, an understandable approach given their perception that avoiding regulation will bear short-term benefits and disbelief about the scientific facts.   The dialogue is stuck in a bad feedback loop.

Increasingly, there are voices offering a different perspective on the problem, as seen in these op eds by Waterkeepers ChesapeakeSenior Scientists and Policymakers for the Chesapeake Bay,  and farmer, William Morrow, published in the Baltimore Sun.  We’re not on our way out of Abilene just yet, but there are signs that a pathway forward may soon appear.

Hope at the End of the Hoop House Tunnel

If there are two things I am constantly reminded of living on the shore, they are the importance of local food and the need for smart growth.  The first is a constant with local farmer’s markets and produce stands throughout the shore.  The other (at least in my neck of the woods – Cambridge, MD) is lacking in a way, particularly in regards to an over-abundance of large developed “big box” strip mall buildings, left vacant along Route 50.

How amazing would it be if you could magically morph both issues – local foods and abandoned lots/buildings – to create a super project aimed at targeting vacant, urban land in poverty stricken areas to construct greenhouses to act as urban farms, while providing jobs and increasing the supply of fresh, local produce to a city?    Woah that was a lot..

This super project sounds like a myth right?  Well let me just brighten your day, by telling you this is exactly what is occurring in Baltimore with Big City Farms!  Located in a South Baltimore parking lot, on a paved-over brownfield, is the Middle Branch Farm, a collection of six large hoop houses that grow everything from arugula to spicy edible flowers.  These six hoop greenhouses can yield 6x six times more per-acre than a standard dirt farm.

The produce grown here by the Middle Branch Farm, a subsidiary of Big City Farms, is sold at local farmer’s markets and supplies 15 local Baltimore restaurants.  And even with the capacity to plant approximately 9,300 seedlings, Big City Farms is reporting a higher demand than they can meet.

What a great, yet scary a problem to have – while it is great that demand for local foods is there, it is terribly telling of the need for more local produces.  Big City Farms not only hopes to expand to 100 similar farms throughout Baltimore, creating 300 jobs in the process, but also to develop the project throughout other cities.  This is not the only urban food operation project.  There is also GreensGrow Farms in Philadelphia and Growing Power in Milwaukee.

The potential of this project and similar projects like it is simply astounding.  To take a vacant lot in an urban setting and provide not only jobs, but communities with healthy, local options that they would not necessarily have access to, is immensely impactful.  I mean, we all have vacant lots somewhere around us!  We could all be providing local jobs, as well as supplying local vendors with fresh produce.  And did I mention the ability to better the lives of those in low-income, poverty stricken neighborhoods?  This is an absolute no brainer!

As my elementary school guidance counselor would always say  – this is a “win win situation”.

We Can See the Forest Because We Are the Trees

Bob Massie is not someone that you would want to bet against.

In the 56 years since he was born with a severe case of classic hemophilia, Bob has picked up degrees from Princeton University, the Yale Divinity School and the Harvard Business School. He’s contracted HIV and Hepatitis C from contaminated blood products and medications, and undergone a liver transplant. He’s directed the Project on Business Values and the Economy at Harvard Divinity School, written a prize winning book about the anti apartheid movement, served as Executive Director of  Ceres, and made an unsuccessful run as the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.

As befits someone with these kinds of accomplishments, Bob’s new challenge – as President of the New Economics Institute –  is no less than the transformation of the global economy.

The New Economics Institute  (NEI) was established to respond to the need for a U.S. voice for a ‘New Economics’.  NEI hopes to help develop and effectively promote systemic solutions to the ‘series of systemic problems that now face humanity’, including the sustainability crisis of climate change and dwindling natural resources; the social crisis of global inequality; the financial crisis of systemic instability, and the ‘well-being’ crisis in which rising income does not translate into rising happiness.  Last weekend I attended NEI’s inaugural Strategies for a New Economy Conference which also served as a platform for launching Bob’s new Presidency.

Held at Bard College on the Eastern shore of the  Hudson River,  the conference included leading New Economy activists from across the country, as well as a healthy contingent from NEI’s sister organization in Great Britain, the new economics foundation.

The new economy movement should not to be confused with the sustainability movement.  At its best the sustainability movement reflects an important societal shift from approaching the planet as an inexhaustable trust fund and bottomless waste basket to recognizing that the planet has an existence and requirements apart from our needs and wants, and that those requirements impose an incontestable claim on our attention.While this shift does represent progress, sustainability’s mainstream often manifests an inclination to treat the planet as the junior partner in the existence project, embracing the mistaken notion that sustainability can be pursued on our terms, rather than on the planet’s.Whilst erecting the new church of the triple bottom line and worshiping at the altar of alignments that claim to seek to optimize outcomes for people, planet, and profits, the mainstream sustainability movement often functions as if technological innovations will allow for a radical decoupling of economic activity from environmental impact and allow us to continue to pursue the maximization of profits and economic activity.

The new economy movement, on the other hand,  is premised on the notion that the planet is the senior partner in this existence project. As such, the planet sets the terms, which it is unequivocally asserting in the calvacade of ecological crises that we are currently confronting. New economy activists believe that the reality of planetary finitude will require a fundamental transformation to an economy that is driven by different values, governed by different rules, and comprised of different components.

Accordingly NEI’s conference was organized around themes like “Measuring Well Being: Alternative Indicators of Wealth and Progress”; “Banking and Financing a New Economy: Scale, Criteria, Innovation”; “Rebuilding Local Economies: Engines for Resilience”; “Reimagining Ownership and Work: Coops, Stakeholders, Corporate Structure”;  ‘Transforming Money: Structuring, Issuing, and Valuing New Mediums of Exchange”; “Sustainable Production and Consumption: Simplicity, Sufficiency, Abundance”; and “Visioning and Modeling the New Economy: Shared Prosperity within Planetary Limits”.

The keynote and plenary panels (Bill McKibben, Gus Speth, Gar Alperovitz, and David Orr) provided big picture and big inspiration, while the workshops (including one on Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator) highlighted promising initiatives that illuminate and exemplify possible paths forward.

As one might expect, the new economy activists are an intrepid bunch. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the hundreds of compelling examples of new economy practice (many of which were highlighted at the conference, and many more of which can be found herehere, here, and here ) it remains difficult to establish and maintain confidence that the change that is needed can be achieved at the pace that is required. At the same time, it is also difficult to escape the sense that current and expected conditions – stagnation, decay, and intermittent crisis – may be particularly propitious for the exploration, experimentation, and movement building that transformational change will require.

As much as anything, then, the conference sought to build a bridge over the dismay and self-doubt that any transformational challenge inevitably generates. Indeed, some of the conference’s most powerful moments were when keynoters sought to implant in their audience the collective chutzpah that will be necessary in order to act as if we can move history.

On the train ride along the Hudson back to New York’s Penn Station, I was especially moved  by the way that Bob Massie – no stranger  to doubt himself  – exhorted us to  embrace the moment of radical reinvention.  “We can see the forest”, he reminded us, “because we are the trees”.

A Tragedy Found within the Commons and Water Quality

This week marked the 3rd Annual Choose Clean Water Conference (my first professional conference).

Here are just a few things I took away from my experience…

  1. Always pin your nametag on the right.
  2. The best way to learn about stormwater management problems is to get caught in a thunderstorm walking to dinner.
  3. The best way to circumvent Number 2 is to always bring a rain jacket and/or umbrella.  When one is not available, a tree works just as well.
  4. And most importantly, there are a lot of great things happening in regards to water quality, but there is a lot still to be accomplished.

I have been fumbling around for the last week or so trying to write a blog on Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”  I was struck with a writer’s block that would not relent, mostly due to my inability to think of an environmental topic that I found satisfactory to couple with the arguments of the published work.  It was not until sitting in the panel discussions at the conference that I finally realized where I wanted to go with my blog post.

As a society we tend to look at water as an unlimited resource, reliably clean and available at a moment’s notice through the tap.  Yet when it comes to the health of our natural streams and waterways, we continue to point the proverbial finger and place the blame on someone else.

The tragedy of the commons of water, as well as our land use, has caused the pollution and degradation of our surrounding waterways.

For those that are unfamiliar with, or a little rusty on the topic of “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin, here is a quick break down.

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the number of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. (Excerpt taken from the website Population-Environment Balance).”

How we treat the land directly impacts the health of our rivers and streams and how we treat said rivers and streams directly impacts our health.  Do you think that when problems arise regarding our water quality, such as the fish kills due to Mahogany Tides on the Chesapeake Bay, that such quality will not have any effect on our health?  Do you think that if we allow our agricultural waste to flow from the land into nearby waters, that it will somehow not impair the ecosystems and the health of those that depend on the water?

We have to stop looking at our waterways as an unlimited resource, a commons to be taken advantage of.  It is this mindset that promotes their continued degradation with toxics, pesticides, and waste.  We must stop trying to find somebody else to point the proverbial finger at.

Do you really know what’s in your water?  Living in ignorance of the health of surrounding waterways does not eliminate the underlying problem, nor does it eradicate the negative impact on the ecosystem and human health.

Environmental health directly correlates to public health.  The sooner we make this connection as a society, the quicker we can work to affect change and improve those impaired waterways and sources of pollution.


What’s in your water?

A native of Maryland, I have grown up familiar with the Chesapeake Bay and the everyday mention of Bay health.  But my knowledge of the health of the Bay, barely goes beyond the common understanding of stormwater run off and excess nutrients.  As I sit here in my hotel room in Lancaster, Pa waiting for the 3rd Annual Choose Clean Water Conference to begin (my first one) I am affronted with the question of whether I really know what is in our water?  I grew up on the Gunpowder River, lived the last 4 years on the Chester River, and now drive over the Choptank River everyday to work.  I have always enjoyed the aesthetic quality the rivers provided, but when it came to what was in the water I lived happily in ignorance.  In the wake of the recent fish kills and my growing understanding of pesticides and toxics that our flowing into our waterways, the health of the bay goes beyond my simple understanding of eutrophication.

Our health is directly impacted by the health of our waterways.  I still do not know exactly what is my waterways, but I certainly plan to find out.