“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore is funny as a caricature of the pessimist, but it is pathetic in real life. Yet it is the default mode of environmentalism, which is why Eeyore-like environmentalists are seldom the life of any party.
Consider this morning’s lead story in the Washington Post: “Potomac River’s Health Rebounds: Grasses Flourish Again,” which covers the details of a new U.S. Geological Survey study that quantifies the substantial progress in reversing decades of degradation of the Potomac River as found in an 18-year field study. Post environment reporter David Fahrenthold summarizes the central finding thus: “Today, the river is clearer and heavily carpeted with [native] grass. Scientists found that the Potomac’s critical grass beds had doubled in size since 1990.” Fahrenthold then quotes one of the authors, Nancy Rybicki of the U.S. Geological Survey: “These conditions are actually better than they were in the 1950s. The portion of the Potomac we’re talking about was completely devoid of vegetation in the 1950s.”
Sounds like a success story to be celebrated an emulated, no? Of course, numerous problems remain and no one is suggesting that remediation work is fully accomplished. Because of the remaining pollution problems and long-term degradation that have not yet turned around, Fahrenthold cannot resist channeling his inner Eeyore, with his own copy that reads: “So, if the Potomac is an environmental success story, that shows how low the bar for success has been set — both for the long-troubled river and for the nation’s other polluted rivers and bays.”
One wonders, however, whether the “high bar” implied by Eeyore — I mean, Fahrenthold — is realistic. And for evidence behind this question, I turn to a terrific Post news story by . . . David Fahrenthold! Except it’s from 2006. That story from Fahrenthold reviewed a number of studies of watersheds in Virginia and Maryland that drain to the Potomac River which found that waste from geese, muskrats, deer, raccoons, and other wild animals accounts for a substantial amount of water pollution detected in those watersheds. One study found that humans are responsible for less than one-quarter of the water pollution in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. According to the data in this study, wild animal waste would need to be reduced by 83 percent to achieve statutory clean-water standards. Since wild animals can’t be trained to use commodes connected to wastewater treatment plants, the alternative would be to thin their populations drastically, which does not seem plausible.
“That leaves scientists and environmentalists struggling with a more fundamental question,” Fahrenthold wrote; “How clean should we expect nature to be? In certain cases, they say, the water standards themselves might be flawed, if they appear to forbid something as natural as wild animals leaving their dung in the woods.” “If you were here when Captain John Smith rode up the Anacostia River [in 1608], and you tested the water, it would probably have a good bit of coliform in it” because of wildlife, said Robert Boone, president of an environmental group called the Anacostia Watershed Society.
Obviously someone needs to go out and shoot Eeyore and Winnie-the-Pooh’s other pals in nature’s local menagerie. Eeyore’s expecting it anyway.