Canoes, But No Kayaks: Thoughts on Environmental Studies

11/18/2011 06:57 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2012

This fall, I took my environmental studies students out of the classroom for two field trips. For the first, we joined a pair of young environmental educators from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for a canoe trip on a lake just up the hill from the Susquehanna River, the main trunk of the Chesapeake. We did the usual things one does on such trips: we paddled around; we used seining nets to look for benthic macroinvertebrates; we tested the water for phosphates and nitrogen. We talked about pollution.

But there was something much more interesting, and more complicated, going on just beyond our view. The 100-acre lake we were paddling -- and the woods and fields that surround it -- were part of the Muddy Run Recreational Park, operated not by the state of Pennsylvania but by the Exelon Corporation, an energy conglomerate based in Chicago. There were company logos on signs throughout the park, reminding us that the land (and the water) were controlled not by the public, but by a distant corporation. The signs also reminded us that no one was permitted beyond the park boundary.

Peering over the fence, my students and I could see that the lake where our canoes were tied up was just a tiny fraction of a much larger reservoir, maintained as a "pumped storage facility" by Exelon. Our guides told us that at night, when energy costs to the company were cheap, Exelon pumped water uphill from the Susquehanna into the reservoir, which holds some 60,000-acre feet of water. During the day, when energy demand (and energy prices) is higher, the company releases the water into its hydroelectric turbines. Every 24 hours the reservoir rises and falls by 80 feet, our guide said -- a dramatic boom-and-bust cycle that (had we been able to examine it more closely) would no doubt have revealed a micro habitat in crisis.

The lower Susquehanna is like this: a gorgeous river that for centuries has borne the burden of energy production. Long contaminated by the transportation of anthracite coal, the Susquehanna continues to drive four hydroelectric dams and provide cooling water for the nearby Peach Bottom nuclear reactor. (Just a few miles downstream from where we were paddling, Exelon also operates the Conowingo hydroelectric dam, which, when it was built in 1928, was the largest power plant in the world.)

So, I wondered, what should my students be studying? Microscopic water bugs or macroscopic corporate ownership of our rivers? Or the complex and often opaque relationship between the two?

A couple of weeks later, my students and I ventured into another corner of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this time to East Baltimore, one of the most beleaguered neighborhoods in that post-industrial city. We met our guide, Glenn Ross, beneath a painted brick wall -- pocked by bullet holes -- outside the Men and Families Center, a community outreach organization that teaches parenting skills and community support for, among others, the recently incarcerated. It also houses a makeshift examination room, where, once a week, people from the neighborhood receive rudimentary medical attention from volunteer doctors and nurses. Not long before we arrived, we were told, volunteers had saved the life of a man who stumbled into the clinic with a hypodermic needle sticking out of his neck.

Ross is a long-time community activist who had agreed to take my students and I on a "toxic tour" of East Baltimore. He wanted us to understand that the "environment" was not only a place to paddle a boat on a pretty fall afternoon. "When we talk to most environmentalists, all they want to talk about is saving the salmon, and snow-capped mountains, and kayaking," Ross said. "In this neighborhood, we don't kayak."

For years, Ross has been poking his nose into the brown fields, landfills, and bulldozed building sites that dot his neighborhood like the bullet holes at the Men and Families Center. For our visit, we passed through block after block of abandoned and boarded up townhouses. There were no supermarkets. There were no office buildings. For much of the neighborhood, there was nowhere to shop - or to work - except for a handful of liquor stores. Ross would stop us every few blocks to point out notable landmarks: a multi-story mountain of glass shards, an abandoned oil refinery, a baseball field built over the top of a brown field that, when it rains, oozes black liquid. Everywhere, he says, there is industrial dust -- the airborne detritus left over from decades of demolition, and the urban asthma epidemic that has gone along with it. All this within two blocks of Johns Hopkins Medical Center and its Bloomberg School of Public Health, both of which, though internationally famous for their health care and research, are fundamentally disconnected from the people living in the shadow of their own campus, Ross says.

So again: what should we be studying? Threatened landscapes, or threatened people? In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, at least, the answer has to be both.