In Search of an Ethic
Church and garden. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham
An environmental ethic can take many forms: Belinda Thomas (above), the pastor's wife, checks out the rain gardens, drainage trenches and rain barrels that will reduce stormwater runoff from the Empowering Believers Church of the Apostolic Faith in northern Anne Arundel County. Amanda Briody (below) is a biology teacher inspired by Buddhist teachings who co-founded an urban food garden in Baltimore called the Mondawin Urban Green Space to help her students connect with the earth and create food for the neighborhood. Photographs, Michael W. Fincham
Urban garden. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

WHAT ARE THE KEYS to restoring the Chesapeake Bay?

Here are some familiar answers: more research, better technologies for treating sewage runoff and air pollution, new controls on stormwater runoff from cities and suburbs, reductions in nutrient runoff from farms, perhaps a cap and trade approach, certainly smarter regulation of fishing. The list goes on and nearly every step is needed for restoring the country's largest estuary.

A number of activists have another answer to add to the list. They're calling for an environmental ethic — and they suggest it should be at the top of the list. Science findings may explain how we can restore the Bay. But they don't explain why we should. That's the role of an ethic.

Why is the why so important? Because the how of restoring the Chesapeake, according to the science of recent decades, requires changing dozens of behaviors by millions of people. Restoring the Bay and preserving the planet take more than government legislation and regulation and funding. It takes people changing the way they farm their land, drive their cars, power their homes, cultivate their lawns, landscape their yards — that list could also be longer.

An environmental ethic, in theory, provides an ethical framework for viewing nature and understanding our responsibilities for preserving rather than just exploiting its resources. Without a shared ethic, it's easier to keep overharvesting the Bay's fish stocks and flooding its creeks and rivers and mainstem with stormwater runoff and farmland runoff and sewage from wastewater treatment plants.

The need for an ethic focused on the Chesapeake Bay was well noted years ago. In 1991, the first major study of environmental activism in Maryland surveyed 85 environmental organizations and interviewed more then 250 activists and environmental professionals. The principal author was the late Ellen Fraites, an environmental advisor to former Governor Harry Hughes during the creation of the Chesapeake Bay restoration program. Fraites was well aware activists don't always agree with each other, but in her survey, published by Maryland Sea Grant, she found clear consensus on this issue: "The major challenge facing Maryland's environmental movement is instilling a deeper environmental ethic within the citizenry."

Only a few environmentalists in the Fraites study called for bringing religion into their movement. One even asked, "How many environmentalists do you meet that go to church on Sunday?" For many activists, environmentalism seemed to be a secular religion in itself — one that didn't need deities or moral duties.

Now it turns out that a lot of environmentalists probably do go to church. According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans identify with a religion, and half of them attend a service every month. And in recent decades a religious environmental movement — originally spurred by the science community — has begun emerging in this country and advocating for a faith-based ethic focused on stewardship of the earth and eco-justice for the poor.

That movement arrived in this region recently, and in the words of one leader it has these goals: to recruit faith-based communities and get them "to work together to add the moral voice to the Chesapeake Bay restoration movement."

The questions for this edition of our magazine: Where did this faith-based activism came from? And what role could it play in the 33-year-old effort to restore Chesapeake Bay?

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Chesapeake Quarterly covers pressing issues facing the Bay and its watershed.
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Chesapeake Quarterly and Bay Journal teamed up in 2014 to produce a series of articles about sea level rise, coastal flooding, and the Chesapeake Bay. Articles appeared in both print and online. This 72-page, full-color report compiles this content along with a new foreword to offer a comprehensive look at the subject. Download a pdf of the report here.

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