Assignment 2 | The Chesapeake System

1) For the Bay Game, I was a crop farmer on the Potomac watershed, a region that was relatively economically stable and had relatively stable levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. While my region had relative stability, other regions had declining economies with decreasing levels of nutrient runoff. Why? What accounts for the relationship between the economy, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, and, ultimately, the health of the Chesapeake Bay?

My diagram illustrates just this relationship by examining the effects that crop farming has in relation to the regional economy, the waterman, and the health of the bay. First and foremost, crop yield is affected by the levels of fertilizer, cover crops, and fallow land that a farmer utilizes on his land. These levels depend on the farming method the farmer follows (i.e. conventional, BMP basic, BMP advanced, and sustainable in the game). The yield influences how much a farmer can harvest and his final revenue. The revenue forms a balancing feedback loop through how much equipment a farmer can buy, which replenishes cover crops and fallow land. However, a reinforcing loops is formed through the amount of runoff from the crop yield. With more runoff a farmer constantly adds more fertilizer in order to maintain productivity, but this also decreases the productivity of the land, causing the use of more fertilizer in order to counter this decrease.

The amount of fertilizer used also ultimately affects the health of the bay by adding to nitrogen and phosphorus levels. Too much of these elements can lead to eutrophication, which influences the crab population through a feedback loop. The waterman’s revenue is then affected by the amount of crabs that can be dredged. Thus, ultimately, a waterman is affected by the amount of fertilizer that a crop farmers uses.

The economy comes into the picture because the revenue of both the waterman and the crop farmer replenish the amount of capital within a region, which influences the economy, which influences the policies made by decision-makers in order to maintain economic stability. Choices that the decision-makers select, such as the amount of taxes or incentives, influence both the revenues/profits of both the farmer and waterman, and the choices that a farmer makes in terms of farming methods.

It becomes clear that the decisions of a crop farmer have an effect not only on the health of the bay, but the livelihood of the waterman, the regional economy, the choices of decision-makers, and ultimately on themselves.

2) The Bay Game gave me new insight into how seemingly disparate systems actually all have deep, if not subtle, relationships that affect many facets of life. Personally, I learned how difficult it is for a crop farmer to navigate this system. Farming requires not only considerations of making the most money in the most efficient way possible, but also considerations of environmental impact (which affect bay health, the economy, and the farmer himself). I was especially frustrated by the lack of incentives made by policy-makers. Sustainable farming was never economically stable in the Piedmont region because there were not enough incentives to balance the costs of this mode of farming. However, I feel like I successfully made decisions that, though not completely sustainable, did lead to increased profits and decreased nitrogen and phosphorus levels by taking advantage of the incentives for cover crops and fallow land in BMP farming. It is a matter of being sensitive to what decisions are made in the region and making realistic choices relative to them.

3) Although the Bay Game was insightful of some elements that affect the health of the Chesapeake Bay, it is still only a model of what occurs in the real world, and only in the Chesapeake Watershed at that. It did, however, help to open my eyes to the relationships between both man-made and natural systems, and to ultimately maintain sensitivity of the choices we make as humans. Therefore, I believe that access to information is a key component in improving the health of the bay here and of any ecosystem elsewhere. As Donella Meadows states,

“There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions. That’s why there are so many missing feedback loops – and why this kind of leverage point (information flow) is so often popular with the masses, unpopular with the powers that be, and effective, if you can get the powers that be to permit it to happen (or go around them and make it happen anyway)” (157).

It is a matter of not waiting for decisions to be made by the government, but making personal, educated choices that can lead to a change in our system from the ground up.

One real-world strategy that has been made to improve the bay health through education is the UVa Learning Barge. Although it does not directly influence the health of the bay, its mobility gives many children a chance to interact with and learn about one watershed of the bay, the Elizabeth River, that they would not have otherwise. Education does take time to have any affect, but it can lead to crucial changes in behavior that gear economies to profit not at the expense of natural ecosystems, but to profit with them.

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One thought on “Assignment 2 | The Chesapeake System

  1. The diagram you have created is very interesting. But how do you think the decisions of a land developer to purchase and develop land that could have been farming land would affect your system?

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