Chesapeake Quarterly
Nature to the Rescue?
marshes - photo by Sandy Rodgers
Natural nutrient processors, marshes offer a perfect example of how plants in the right place remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus — but we need more help than marshes can now provide. Credit: Sandy Rodgers.

CHANGE IS IN THE AIR. Literally. Greenhouse gases now peak at record levels. Global temperatures are on the rise. Extreme weather seems commonplace.

But a sense of public accountability for global environmental woes also builds stronger every day. Newspapers report on airlines initiating new voluntary carbon offset programs, where ecologically conscious travelers can help to counterbalance the negative effects of air travel by donating money for planting trees. A major European grocery chain recently began to "carbon label" some of their products to inform customer decision-making. Consumers can now discover the amount of carbon released through production, transport, and consumption of the food they eat.

Are we nearing a tipping point for behavior change? Rising energy costs and dwindling oil supplies now drive interest in the growth of alternative energy resources. But in the state of Maryland, at least, gas stations do not provide any real alternatives to traditional fossil fuels and most cars cannot yet accommodate them. In a climate of mounting pressures on the environment, coupled with a building sense of personal responsibility, what will ultimately force the cascading effects of real change?

The key, according to many scientists and policy makers, lies in thinking and acting across traditional boundaries. Innovation will likely spring from new technologies. It may come from entrepreneurship. It also may come from unexpected pairings, the creation of new economic incentives to push changes in current practices — creative agents of change in a nation hovering at the brink of economic freefall.

In this issue of Chesapeake Quarterly, we explore innovative pairings of economics and invention, pairings where, if done right, both monetary profit and environmental restoration could go hand-in-hand. It's a story about seizing a moment in time, about how enterprising scientists are capitalizing on a national movement in one area to build momentum, capacity, and financing for much-needed progress in another.

Here in the Chesapeake Bay, we examine a case in which the hot new world of biofuels as a source of alternative energy will link directly to cleaning up nutrient pollution - using an approach some 30 years in the making. It's an attempt to harness the power of living ecosystems to restore ecological balance to a damaged Bay.

In an elementary school science class, I remember "inventing" a backpack that scuba divers could wear. The device would have small trees living inside a sealed plastic sac. As the diver exhaled carbon dioxide through a tube leading to the sac, the tiny trees would transform carbon dioxide into oxygen and return freshly scrubbed air to the diver for his/her next breath. Given the challenge of swimming with the required number of trees, this scheme would never have worked. But the intent was on target — it makes a lot of sense to look to nature for help in solving a human problem.

By looking closely at how nature works, some scientists believe that it will be possible to find that place where economics and invention intersect. A way to get it both ways — to bolster the economy and to restore the environment. In these troubled times, this kind of win-win sounds pretty good.

— Erica Goldman

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March 2009
vol. 8, no. 1
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