top of page

Maryland Oysters and the Issue with Technocrats

This is the story of W. K. Brooks, a man who made it his mission to save Maryland’s oyster population, and his failure. He could be construed as a visionary who warned about the dangers of a declining ecology well before his time, but he is more interesting for his technocratic viewpoint and his inability to understand the disastrous impact of his proposed solution. Yet through examining his failure we can uncover not only his own shortsightedness, but also lessons to learn in our own age.

Brooks’s Forethought

Brooks was an eminent zoologist in the late nineteenth century. He spent a substantial portion of his time in Maryland and became fascinated with the Oyster, literally writing the book on the topic simply called The Oyster. However, by the early 1880s, the number of oysters harvested in Maryland fell 30% from the peak of the 1875 harvest.[1] Concerned, and ever on search for a new project, Brooks undertook a survey of the Maryland oyster beds in order to properly gauge their health. His findings had an apocalyptical ring. According to the findings, there was an “imminent danger of complete destruction” of the population of oysters in Maryland.[2] Without a change there would be irreversible decline, but all was not doom-and-gloom.

Brooks, ever the dutiful scientist, had a solution. If the problem was overharvesting, the easiest solution was to create an incentive for the oystermen to restrain their harvesting. Oysters in Maryland were harvested in publicly-held waters, open to anyone with a boat and free to access. Brooks’s solution, therefore, was to divide up the publicly-held oyster beds and rent plots, thereby privatizing the oyster beds.[3] Books perceived the tragedy of the oyster to be a tragedy of the commons. There is nothing economically wrong with his proposed solution, and it is well within the realm of plausibility that the proposals would have benefited the environment, but there was a problem with Brooks’s proposed solution.

Brooks’s Folly

Brooks, for all his scientific knowledge and accurate data, ignored the problems inherent in his solution. Not all oystermen could afford to purchase a lease to the oyster beds. The privatization would have hurt small, local oystermen and helped corporations. It would have caused countless watermen to lose their jobs, disrupting the economic system of the Bay. Corporations could then monopolize the industry, forcing small oystermen to lose their autonomy as independent harvesters. These large companies had access to greater economic resources, which would have allowed them to out-compete smaller oystermen and survive economic cycles.

This was made more demonstrable, in the eyes of the oystermen, by the unstable economic conditions of the time. Six years of the decade of the 1880s were spent in economic depressions: 1882-1885 and 1887-1888. These were no minor economic recessions, but prolonged, highly-unstable periods of economic uncertainty. The Depression of 1882-1885, for instance, saw a 32% reduction in business.[4] Perhaps in a more stable economic climate oystermen could survive, but alas the oystermen would have been priced out under Brooks’s scheme. This undermined Brooks’s credibility. Seemingly uncaring about the ability of oystermen to adapt to the proposed solutions, Brooks unwittingly made himself — in the eyes of his enemies — into an ally of corporate power intent on monopolizing the Chesapeake Bay.[5] He attempted to save the oyster, but would have killed the oysterman.

The final sign of Brooks’s folly was the failure of his apocalyptical prediction. The oyster harvests had rebounded by 1890, reaching all-time highs. The harvests never returned to the lows recorded by Brooks until 1905.[6] With the benefit of hindsight we can clearly trace a decline, as could Brooks by calculating harvests and prices, but for those directly involved, discerning a trend is more difficult. To those living during the time, the fluctuations could be seen as simply normal variations without any broader trend line. Too quick to forecast doom and with a proposal which would have harmed the oystermen, Brooks and his findings and proposals wallowed in disgrace.

With a complete lack of understanding of the problems his proposal entailed, coupled with his slightly premature declaration of the death of the oyster in Maryland, Brooks spent cultural capital afforded to science which it could not pay. Trust in the scientists — trust in the experts — collapsed, and the oyster industry ignored the warnings of Brooks’s successors until too late.[7] As only logical given the circumstances, Brooks’s proposal died.[8]

Present Predicaments

While claims as to whether we live in a post-truth world have been and will continue to be debated into the future, the rejection of science and experts in the midst of the greatest pandemic in a century is astounding. A general dislike of expert solutions by segments of the population is evident. The cultural capital of science is waning. Brooks’s story is therefore a point of warning, and of learning.

Brooks, by acting as both an expert and as a politician, became a technocrat, seeing every problem as having a technical solution. This is an attractive viewpoint, and appeals to the notion that decisions should be made by experts. Yet this ignores the human aspect. As Brooks failed to understand, his technocratic solution ignored the full scope of its human impacts. The failure of his proposal to gain traction is a logical consequence of his myopia.

Now, as we are in the midst of a Covid world and planning for radical changes in the post-Covid world, it is important to realize and remember the impact any and all proposed changes have on humans. Nearly every decision helps some while harming others. This is the biggest danger to accidentally destroying the accumulated cultural capital of science. Politicians are replaceable and have the job of deciding who to help and who to, usually inadvertently, harm. We need experts to advise, aid, and assist politicians, but — as Brooks demonstrated — it is dangerous for science when the expert becomes the technocrat. If we fail to account for those impacts we risk misspending the already precious cultural capital afforded to experts.

This is not to dismiss the value of the environment, far from it, but if we fail to account for the humans who will be harmed we run the risk of another round of Trump-esque nostalgic-driven anti-expert populism. We need grand solutions to complex problems, but we also need to protect experts from the political fallout which inevitably occurs in politics. As Brooks failed to understand, we need solutions which solve the issue while being palatable to the population.


[1] Victor S. Kennedy, Shifting Baselines in the Chesapeake Bay, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2018), 44.

[2] Christine Keiner, “W. K. Brooks and the Oyster Question: Science, Politics, and Resource Management in Maryland, 1880-1930,” Journal of the History of Biology 31, No. 3 (Autumn 1998), 401.

[3] Keiner, “W. K. Brooks and the Oyster Question,” 396.

[4] Victor Zarnowitz, Business Cycles: Theory, History, Indicators, and Forecasting, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 226.

[5] Keiner, “W. K. Brooks and the Oyster Question,” 414.

[6] Kennedy, Shifting Baselines, 46.

[7] Keiner, “W. K. Brooks and the Oyster Question,” 423.

[8] Keiner, “W. K. Brooks and the Oyster Question,” 408.

bottom of page