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Cascadia Bioregion

Cascadia should be first and foremost an ecotopia

Northwest Writing and Regional Identity: Introductory Essay

"Cascadia should be first and foremost an ecotopia"

It's been a persistent dream for both earnest separatists and ironic freedom-fighters for decades: to create an independent nation of the Pacific Northwest. If you were to wake up in Cascadia tomorrow, what would it really be like, anyway?

by Frieda Luk, Features Writer

Western Alienation. The West wants in. With the election of a conservative government, some pundits say that the West is finally in, as if the insular cabal running Ottawa has suddenly showed Stephen Harper the secret handshake and gave him the password to Canadian politics. We are finally one of them. But a closer look at the West that everybody is referring to may be a shocker to British Columbians; it's really Alberta that's calling the shots and it's the conservative ideology of Calgary that counts and not that of left-leaning Vancouver. You can almost hear a collective tantrum in BC over the din of the continuing soft wood lumber dispute and angry protest against the defection of ex-Liberal David Emerson. So what is the West Coast to do? Flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one side and Ralph Klein's Alberta on the other, it seems BC is marooned from its ideological soul mates. Or is it?

Now is perhaps the right time to revisit the concept of Cascadia. Long entrenched in the West Coast psyche, Cascadia is the rather quixotic notion of a Pacific Northwest region that stretches from British Columbia to Oregon. Of course the issue of boundary is rather contentious, but the main point is that Cascadia is the manifestation of an intrinsic Pacific Northwest bond. To Atlantic Canada, British Columbians may be just a bunch of tree-hugging hippies, but Oregonians share our concern for the environment; they just get it. Paul Koberstein, editor at Cascadia Times, refers to the Cascadian ethic that binds the region together. The cultural, political, and economic similarities of the Pacific coast demand a closer examination of what Cascadia really means to British Columbians.

Our true and native land

For Cascadia Institute's David McCloskey, who had been part of the original regional solidarity movement in the 70s, Cascadia seems to transcend a conventional geographic defintion. It is an idea, which has, above all, manifested itself in a thriving cultural movement. McCloskey affirms that Cascadia is already a success, but not in political terms: politics for him is just a side story. What comes first, he says, is actual life, family, and the usual representations of Cascadia is the same old story of the state over society. Cascadia is a cultural consciousness and its visionaries are the people. McCloskey is disappointed in politics especially the American red-blue divide, which he says "leaves people purple and bruised." What really matters, he continues, is restoring the natural system, the trees and the reservoirs. It is important, he adds, to revitalise local communities and ecological regions. Cascadia, for McCloskey, is about the politics of the place, the building of the local relationships and a focus on larger issues and reference points. The focus on ecological health in the region is echoed by Koberstein who views Cascadia as the torchbearer of the ethics of conservationism and environmental justice. The Cascadia Times newspaper is a reflection of this ethos, which he believes is primordial to the Pacific Northwest.

The actual boundaries of Cascadia are as vague as the definitions. David McCloskey subscribes to the notion that geographic boundaries are defined not by maplines, but by ecological regions. His field-work in the late 1990s led him to define Cascadia as the region encompassing Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Western Montana, Northern California, British Columbia and South East Alaska. In a similar fashion, Koberstein employs an ecological definition of Cascadia that could possibly include areas around the arctic Bering Sea down to the Hawaiian archipelago. He says that there are no specific boundaries because nature doesn't allow for such man-made distinctions. The black sea turtle, Koberstein emphasises, travels from Oregon to Papa New Guinea and he adds, the Humpback whale travels from Alaska to Hawaii, so geographically Cascadia may be defined beyond the Pacific Northwest archetype depending on who you ask. However, Koberstein deadpanned that he may have included Hawaii so that he could go there if Cascadia ever becomes an autonomous region.

Beyond the stereotype

The watchword is not so much political Cascadia but a Cascadia in abstract. McCloskey rejects the idea that a political definition of Cascadia can be its only legitimate expression. He reiterates that Cascadia as an ideology is already a tour de force in changing the mentality of the region and doing good work. The watershed groups, like the Mackenzie Watershed group, are his unsung heroes who work to enhance and preserve the economic integrity of the watershed and support salmon restoration projects. Cascadia should be first and foremost an ecotopia. The inertia of the Cascadian ideology has according to McCloskey fuelled other environmental advocacy groups and socially conscious businesses like the Cascadia Revolving Fund that encourages local economic renovation, and housing projects like Cascadia housing. Needless to say, the movement has not been forestalled by political inaction or trends. These success stories are heartening for Cascadians everywhere, but it doesn't address the problem of actual political and economic difficulties, especially for British Columbians.

Richard Johnston, the head of the UBC political science department, cautions that if British Columbia were to be part of Cascadia, it would be the biggest loser. BC is defined mainly by the Lower Mainland and is doomed to insignificance against two robust American states. Vancouver would lose out to a more competitive Portland and Seattle because, as Johnston explains, Vancouver's economic and political relevance depends on being in Canada. Within Cascadia, Seattle would dominate due to better port access and economic strength from well-developed aerospace and technology sectors. To counter this imminent demise, Vancouver would have to exploit its cosmopolitanism, diversity and connections to Asia.

In terms of economics, BC doesn't stand to do too well, but Steve Moddemeyer, a proponent of ecological sustainability in Oregon, emphasises the role of Vancouver, Portland and Seattle in redefining and progressing urban sustainability. Moddemeyer especially lauds Portland and Vancouver's innovation on this front. Still, according to Johnston, the links between the regions are not that strong. Culturally speaking he concedes that there are 'green' concerns common to the three territories and transportation initiatives that might be beneficial to the region. However he points out that 9-11 has spawned security concerns that make the 49th parallel more important than ever and that opponents to Canada's stance to the softwood lumber dispute might provide salient obstacles to integration. Furthermore, Johnson continues, Vancouver is more like Los Angeles and San Francisco in its ethnic and cultural makeup than Portland or Seattle.

Tenuous optimism

Cascadia as a genuine political entity does not seem to be feasible. Koberstein muses, though, that regional cooperation and the Cascadia ethic has already spawned progress. Case in point: the recent announcement to protect the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. According to Koberstein, the move shows that protecting these eco-regions is a communal responsibility and that "we don't have to screw up the environment." We should put aside our nationalism and create better social dialogue. Like McCloskey, he believes that all politics is local because what undergirds politics is individuals and families. The conception of Cascadia should not be glued strictly to politics or economics because it has evolved beyond that and into a cultural phenomenon.

McClosky says things have changed since the 70s and 80s, when the the Internet wasn't available. To date, the search word 'cascadia' has garnered more than two million hits. It does indeed seem like an extraordinary movement that has manifested into a sort of "cultural effervescence" with no political party, no leader, and no bureaucracy. He remarks that it has been a tremendous phenomenon, as if it were a free flowing river of Cascadian imagery, names and diversity of businesses. Tens of thousands of people have been touched by the idea of Cascadia, says McCloskey, because of its authentic identity, its bottom up culture, and its awareness of the importance of place. It is a potentially lasting movement that has evolved beyond ideology. The primary motive, of Cascadia he finally sums up, is to call forth the people belonging to the place and realise the values that this region embodies. A cynic might dismiss this as idealism at its worst, that culture is nothing more than the social manifestations of politics and economics and the Cascadian ethic is nothing more than a fabricated notion from idealistic dreamers. But nonetheless, Cascadia, in all its nebulous glory, has managed to wedge its way into the collective political consciousness spawning websites like Republic of Cascadia website, which reads:

Now is the time for the citizens of Cascadia to demand their freedom from the oppressive governments of Canada and the United States. For too long have our people put up with indifference and condescendence from distant seats of power.

Despite the militant and outrageous language, it manages to succinctly sum up British Columbia's frustration with Canadian politics. If we feel so left out, it is logical to seek out those with similar values that Steve Moddemeyer sees as being socially liberal, pro-business, having fair environmental ethics, and comparable urban cultures. No, we don't have to separate from the country to spurn Ottawa. Instead it seems in Cascadia, there is a support group of like-minded states in which to emote. Suddenly, British Columbia doesn't seem so alone.

The ubyssey article: "Cascadia should be first and foremost an ecotopia"