BMPs for an Imperfect World

May 1, 2000

You keep writing editorials about ecology issues in a magazine that promotes producing and sustaining those same issues. Either you are a continually worse fraud for persisting in such double-speak or you should fire yourself or quit, depending on which is the real you.

How ’bout putting your magazine where your mouth is and showing not a few ways of capping landfills and channeling the runoff, but the thousands of square miles of covered garbage and where the extra runoff goes and what actually happens along the way. Or show the mountains already blasted to bits to make the millions of acres of rock revetments that are partly washed away. Or follow the billions of tons of plastics that you show us how to include in the increasingly artificial surface of our increasingly unsustainable continent. Or do anything you keep telling us we should be doing, or not doing. Or just can the…

When I opened the above Letter to the Editor, I was stung by its vitriol. My first inclination was to make a joke out of it, then after a while I became angry. By the end of the day I was I suspect its writer intended. So what do I do? Fire myself, as he suggests? Fight back? Attempt to dispute the significance of the issues he raises? Just how does one proceed in the face of such a challenge? What I find irreconcilable is that while our means for dealing with the world around us is action, it is the initiator of consequences that spawns the need for even more action. Some of the consequences are obvious, but most aren’t.

As I was wrestling with this and a number of other related dilemmas, I came upon a contribution by Rand Fisher of the Washington County Soil & Water Conservation District of Hillsboro, OR, to an Internet listserve (WaterForum: A Worldwide Water Discussion, While his observations were directed toward the maintenance of habitat, they seem particularly appropriate to this discussion:

“We all (or most of us) endeavor to make decisions for the best overall good. Unfortunately we are often limited in many ways in making the best decisions, and we base our judgments weighted on immediacy of impacts. Those effects which we perceive as closest to us in time, in distance, in magnitude, in affections receive higher value ranking than effects farther from us, which we perceive as less relevant, or we perceive with inaccuracy, or we fail to perceive at all. If the immediate were the whole of reality, the decisions would be clear for a majority of those not affiliated with some animal rights group.

“Anyone who has studied streambank erosion control knows examples of where putting an erosion control structure in one place just displaced and amplified the erosion farther downstream. Until we understand the effects of every small thing on the whole interacting system, we take risks in any action we do.

“In some but not necessarily all cases, paying the price of inconvenience to reduce our water availability to sustain frogs, fish, or bugs might possibly avert a much higher cost to humans somewhere down the path of time through the ecosystem. That would seem in some respects to be ‘fair play.’

“I would be very surprised if there were not clear examples of where keeping water in streams to save frogs was not found to be beneficial to people. I would also be surprised if there were not also examples of where removing water from some stream for some period of time appears to have resulted in no noticeable negative effect.

“It’s all within the context of the site, time, circumstances, and our perceptions. It’s hard to be aware of or keep track of all the little details within the big picture and to appreciate how they are in fact part of that big picture and at the same time part of ourselves.”

Whereas the majority of our feature articles focus their attention on how different practitioners solve problems, I try to use my column to look at broader issues-a situation that puts me out on a limb from time to time. We’re a long way from having it all “right,” but I believe the more we work with the issues, the better our answers become. Perhaps some say we’ll be able to take into account all of the factors the letter suggests.