Why Cascadia: Our Framework for Change

“Where are you from?” she asks. “From the Northwest,” he replies automatically, without thinking. Then she shoots back, “Northwest of what?”

As described by Cascadia Institute director David McCloskey — Cascadia is a construct that shapes an identity and place. This region has had many similar names in the near past: New Spain, New Caledonia, New Archangel, New Georgia, the Columbia Department, the Oregon Territory, the Northwest, the Pacific Southwest, the Pacific Slope, Ecotopia, the New Pacific, Ecolopolis, each chosen to convey an idea, often imposed by a different ruler or power, often thousands of miles away with little connection other than a few lines and names on a map.

Cascadia is the name of the land, given to it by the people who live here. Rather than names representing far off people or places, Cascadia highlights the importance of the water we all rely on, and the cascading cascades as the the first drop hits the ground, through evergreen forests and desert canyons, as it journeys on its way to the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean. Just as it’s a new name, it gives us a new opportunity to forge something new, something positive together, from a culture rooted in place and the shared values that arise from sharing our home. Just as the people who have lived here for thousands of years, Cascadia is an opportunity to connect to the practices that have thrived, developed and adapted from this region, break down the ones we find negative, and forge a new shared vision for what is possible.

Stretching along more than 2500 miles of Pacific coastline, Cascadia is known for its connection with Salmon, and it’s borders stretch for as long and as far as the Salmon swim — from the glacial cold Copper River Watershed in South East Alaska to Cape Mendecino in the South and the Yellowstone Caldera in the East. In its interior, Cascadia contains the largest tracts of untouched old growth temperate rainforests in the world, including 7 of the top 10 world’s carbon absorbing forests, the world’s tallest trees, thousands of volcanoes, hot springs, rivers, lakes, inlets, desert gorges, waterfalls, island and ocean, including some of the last diminishing, though still impressive wild habitats of salmon, wolves, bear, whale, orca. In all — more than 350 bird and mammal species, 48 reptiles, hundreds of fungi, lichen, and and thousands of invertebrates and soil organisms call Cascadia home.

Rather than a citizenship assigned by birth, a ‘Cascadian’ identity is voluntary and to be celebrated, a member of a bioregional community rooted in a love of place, that we identify with because we want to, through our actions and values, with a definition we create together. Cascadians live throughout the bioregion, as well as all over the world — some long for home, or love the forests, rivers, mountains, or the cities, culture and people — who are actively still carrying forward the ideals of bioregionalism. These are our ambassadors, who represent the idea, or the things things we find so special about our home to the world, just as there are other bioregional denizens, living in millions of communities and watersheds from around the world, each working to make a better life for themselves and each other.

While bioregions are the physical spaces on which we can break global issues down to a local level and impact change — the Cascadia movement, and our Cascadian identity is how we adapt the principles of bioregionalism for our own watersheds, communities and society, and translate our theory into action. Every different region will be a little bit different, and every community will be a little bit different. Just as in a natural ecosystem, this diversity is what gives bioregionalism, and Cascadia it’s greatest strength.

For the people living here, Cascadia is more than simply a place. Cascadia is a state of mind and a terrain of consciousness — the most effective framework of scale where connectedness and identity make sense. If you explore different aspects of this region — the Cascadia bioregion emerges. If you look at how our money moves, the language groups of first nations pre-western settler contact, who supports what sports teams, or even Massachusetts Institute Technology studies of who we talk to via phone or internet — you will see the same map.

Together, Cascadia has a population akin to many other countries around the globe, the worlds 9th largest economy, and is roughly the size of Mongolia. Culturally, Cascadia is one of the most literature and educated regions in the world — with one of the highest living standards, GDP per capita, accesses to advances and research in healthcare. Cascadia also generates and exports a large portion of its own energy from renewable resources, and more than 80% of the population live in the Cascadia megaregion, a term created to help define where “boundaries that begin to blur, creating a new scale of geography” between Vancouver BC and Eugene, Oregon, representative of only 17% of the overall landmass.

However, many of these things we find most special, are at risk. Of our old growth rain forest — more than 90% has been logged or cut down. Because of climate change, ocean acidification, and increasing human encroachment into natural areas, 150–200 specie of plant and animal disappear every day. National Parks are being opened up for private gas and oil speculation and First Nation Tribes that were forcefully displaced and resettled find their very existence at threat by a mere wave of a presidential pen. In urban areas, issues of gentrification, homelessness, growth planning and management, mounting healthcare and costs for even a basic education, as well as now seasonal disaster preparation and response threaten to overwhelm governments locked into a system dependent on these very same causes and scarcity. As many of the traditional elements of our social fabric continue to disintegrate and fade, local and democratic decision making structures — a basic tenet of bioregionalism — are non-existent.

This situation has become so bad that in the United States polling from August 2018 found that only 34% of Americans remain satisfied with the size and power of the federal government, a number which has declined continually for the past 17 years, despite a brief uptick after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of September 11th. This crisis of representation was even worse for congress, with a combined approval rating of only 17% and even from the majority party in power, only 28% of Republicans approved of the job they were doing, while a mere 7% of Democrats approved. North of the border, British Columbia has seen a rise of similar numbers as an increasingly pro-business federal government makes moves to build a pipeline over the protest of legislators, activists, and First Nation groups whose unceded territories it crosses, going so far as to call in active military to ensure its completion. In Canada, in which Quebec nearly declared independence in 1999 by a vote of 48.2% to 48.8%, and which has no stigma of a bloody and horrific civil war, studies have found that nearly 35.2% of adults would favor the idea of Western Canada taking a hike, and separating from their eastern counterparts.

Rather than accidents of geopolitical history, and arbitrary lines on maps which do not accurately reflect the place or the people — Cascadia seeks to find systems which can better reflect the social, cultural, ecological, economic and political realities of the place we live. More than 15 million people live in our region, with more than 10,000 moving here every day. Most are moving here because there is a something that they love here, be it the mountains, the water, forest or desert, or the culture of acceptance. Radical change is needed, and it is up to each of us to help provide accessible pathways for each person to be able to root into something better, something authentic and real.

Cascadia provides a pathway to connect people with an authentic culture for our bioregion, to the people who have been living here for thousands of years, and indigenous ways of living. These first nation organizers were incredibly important in the founding of the Cascadia movement at the first Cascadia bioregional congresses in 1986 and 1988. This interconnectedness is shown every year by Salish canoe journeys as tribal members travel and meet from Vancouver Island to Olympia.

Ultimately, Cascadia embraces the idea that maybe we should care about where our water is coming from, and what we ourselves are dumping as it heads downstream. If we ever want to have a discussion about salmon habitat recovery, un-damming the Columbia, Hanford Reservation or pollution — that conversation must necessarily include all states and provinces that share that river.

Arbitrary boundaries based on fragmented communities and watersheds will never be able to fully represent the place or people. If we ever want to talk about food sovereignty, that conversation can never only include western Washington or Oregon, but must necessarily include both sides of the mountains. One of the largest examples of this is Seattle and Vancouver, the two largest cities in the Cascadia bioregion and only 180 miles a part from one another, and that share the same watershed, but are divided by an international boundary. If Vancouver is polluting into their waterway, or Seattle is, it affects both equally. Each year when there are forest fires and smoke blackening the air, or if there is a drought in Eastern Cascadia affecting our crops, or our rivers are swelling and overflowing in the wintertime, or if there is an earthquake — it affects all of us, and we need to be able to effectively communicate and work together to solve those problems.

Rather than each of these as an individual issue — Cascadia provides a place based, holistic movement to build the inter-dependence, sustainability and resiliency for the Cascadia bioregion. We start from our watersheds, and use the idea of Cascadia as a framework, guided by key principles, to break global issues down to a local level, increase the accountability and transparency of our regional economic and food systems, and move our actions and impacts to where individuals have the greatest say in the issues that affect their lives.

In the end, different communities will have different needs, and will be the best suited to confront the issues facing those communities, but by sharing a land base, we will all have common principles, values and concerns that will pull us together. Rather than divided, this diversity instead allows for a decentralized movement to build viable alternatives that our world needs right now. There is no ‘answer’ — rather there are thousands of answers, and it will take all of them to create the answers, and change we need.

Cascadia then becomes not only a place or identity, but also a vision that we can all be working towards, all be working to create, and a movement that empowers every person to walk out their front door, make a difference about what they care about, and connect with the people already in their community making that change happen. Ultimately, it will take each of us, making small changes and forcing our societies to make large changes to allow our lifestyles create a healthier bioregion, a healthier way of living, and a healthier planet.

Together, we are all Cascadian, and we hope that you will join us.