A Country Rag--Rustic Refrain

A Country Rag Resource

by Jeannette Harris

Throughout Appalachia, as elsewhere, environmental groups and government agencies meet to consider standards for damage control to lakes, streams, rivers and wetlands -- a subject of great concern and some heartache for regional citizens. Many have lived aside or nearby public waters and have seen them slowly deteriorate in beauty and use by too-liberal standards for commercial and construction purposes and too little care for the fragility of their eco-systems, which ultimately support survival for all organisms, not just aquatic ones.

Where I have lived over the past three decades, Virginia's James River has been closed not just to fishing but even to wading due to legal corporate contamination by chemicals which later proved to be disastrous, not just to recreation but to commercial interests, most particularly those that depended on harvesting the river's products. The Chesapeake Bay has had similar catastrophic kills. So has the Shenandoah River.

The list goes on, but the point is that whatever the apparent short-term economic gains the long-term consequences have not been beneficial for any organism from amoeba to giant corporation ultimately. If we will not guard the dwindling natural bounty of the earth with diligent care, our children and grandchildren will lead increasingly diminished lives in quality and the availability of resources necessary for human survival.

Maybe until recently it has been possible to say: well, just this one little allowance of a development where there shouldn't be one because perhaps there's a wetland here; or just this one corporation may discharge its new and untested chemicals into the river because we need the jobs and the money for our local economy, etc. But now we are at, or nearly beyond, a turning point for salvaging the lands and waters and air that must support us. If we shrug our shoulders in despair, or scratch our heads and go ahead because some money interest pushes us and we're tired and not sure, then recent history suggests that we are hurtling toward an unliveable planet.

It would be lovely to say: no, corporations and governments can't put anything else in the rivers and lakes and oceans or cut down any more trees or fill in any more wetlands for development. Realistically though, growth as populations swell is unavoidable, and it is individuals as well as institutions that have lost or subsumed in some cases their survival connection to the biosphere.

When we walk along waterfronts, we may find hidden beaches with distant islands and unspoiled forests or dunes. To reach them, however, we may have to step around beer cans and plastic holders and assorted unnatural droppings. Parallel to this lack of individual consciousness over the past years has been an increasing disparity of wealth in this country, and around the world. Most corporations, and some individuals, have vast resources at their disposal. At least some have become aware of the social consequences of that inequity and are searching for ways within their paradigm to work toward remedies.

With all that in mind, it is possible to allow the kinds of development that increase general revenues from construction, employment and production while requiring that the companies set aside a percentage of their profits for maintaining public lands and for a campaign, which would also raise awareness of their products, along the lines of Lady Byrd Johnson's Keep America Beautiful project so many years ago. Not only would it be good public business relations but it would remind both individual and corporate interests that ultimately, rich or poor, we all share in the fate of the planet. To stretch an analogy, if garbage strewn by businesses and citizens leaches into public waters, including ground waters, eventually the natural corruption will reach even the wealthy and powerful whose progeny also must in part love oceans, into which rivers eventually discharge.

In being "our brother's keeper," we might watch each other's public behavior and suggest, or in the case of public law require, with civility, that respect for our connection to earth and to its biosphere be incorporated in the details of everyday life. In other words, the fine print in allowing recreation and development on all levels might enforce penalties and rewards for honoring the heritage we are creating and the legacy of values future generations will judge us by.

[adapted from a paper, prepared and presented at the request of Dr. Frances Lamberts for the Washington County Environmental Action Group, to a local government committee]

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graphics and text Jeannette Harris, September 2000. All rights reserved.