Cascadia: The Trouble With Bioregionalism

I am Cascadian.

But I don’t believe in Bioregionalism.

The Cascadia “Bioregion”

This is the real Cascadia:

Democratic Federation of Cascadia using ArcGis Online
States of Cascadia using ArcGis Online

Here’s why.

The definition of bioregion varies slightly with each dictionary, but Merriam-Webster’s is clear and succinct: “a region whose limits are naturally defined by topographic and biological features (such as mountain ranges and ecosystems).”

Bioregionalism is an ideology — an internally consistent way of thinking about the world. It is a set of ideas that culminate in a prescription for how people should live.

Ideology can never serve as the basis for a sustainable society. Capitalism, Racism, Socialism, Nazism, Fascism, Communism — these are all ideologies. They are philosophical programs adopted by some humans to organize their business.

Worse, although most of its well-meaning proponents don’t realize this is the case, bioregionalism has fundamentally racist and colonial roots.

The environmental movement, which bioregionalism emerged from, has historically been dominated by wealthy white people. And because of the structural racism plaguing white society, certain deeply-damaging racist notions have embedded deep into the fabric of environmentalism.

From the beginning, environmentalists like John Muir came to prominence by claiming there existed a deep spiritual connection with nature people living in modern society had lost. Alienated from the wild, sequestered in unnatural industrial urban areas rife with pollution and poverty, city-dwellers with disposable income could reconnect with their mythic roots by traveling to “unspoiled” places far from civilization.

Trouble is, by the 1900s there was no longer any habitable place on Earth that was remotely unspoiled. Wherever humans go — like many animals — they do what they can to modify the environment to make living easier. Early environmentalists understood this — and so to re-create this supposedly pristine nature they embarked on a global effort to set aside vast reserves of economically poor lands.

The exact same lands the fast-expanding European colonial states had pushed indigenous nations onto years before.

National and State Parks around the world were — and in some places still are — established by disenfranchising indigenous people from lands they had often managed for generations. These Parks were supposed to be left alone (except, of course, for paying visitors) to return to a natural state, something that had never truly existed anywhere.

Only in the past few decades has this unsavory past been fully revealed as indigenous scholars finally break into the upper tiers of the scientific community. And because most scholars have historically been white men, many of these same racist ideas were incorporated into the bedrock of what became the environmental sciences.

Overpopulation, ‘pristine’ natural spaces — these notions, originally purely scientific concepts with limited, precise applications, became part of the conventional wisdom taught to generations of students. The environmental movement more broadly imbibed them, millions of well-meaning people repeating what amounted to a set of myths derived from a narrowly white, European, and Christian worldview.

Bioregionalism cloaks itself in scientific language while at the same time pushing deeply ascientific ideas. The existence of a defined Cascadian bioregion itself is a good example.

Scientific terms like bioregion emerge out of the need to describe patterns in data in some reasonably consistent way. The boundaries are always shifting — if slowly — over time, depending on how well a particular definition works for the scientists involved at the given moment.

So the bounds of a given Bioregion is largely in the eye of the beholder — there are plenty of maps showing all of California as a Bioregon, for example, but California is also described as being composed of bioregions. And bioregions aren’t static in time — plant and animal ranges are always shifting.

Most scientists working in ecology actually use a different term to differentiate between areas: ecoregion. The two terms are largely interchangeable, and the boundaries overlap. And just like bioregions, ecoregion boundaries will change with time and scientific advances.

EPA Level III Ecoregions — US West Subset
Subset from Ecoregions of the Continents

Local environment is shaped by much more than the watershed — it is a combination of all the factors needed to sustain life. Ecoregion offers as good a basis for defining Cascadia as bioregion. The essence of Cascadia, though, runs far deeper. It combines nature, people, and the volcanism under our feet. Abstract definitions are only useful if they describe actual real-world relationships and patterns.

None of this is to say that bioregionalism is a bad thing — it is a noble and fascinating idea. But the Cascadian bioregion is not real in a tangible, natural sense. It claims a particular distinctiveness, both naturally and culturally, that doesn’t exist and never has.

The commonly-used definition of the Cascadia bioregion — the watersheds of the rivers passing through the Pacific Northwest Temperate zone — has no real tie to pre-European indigenous languages, habitation, or trade networks. Frankly, it is extremely unlikely the First Cascadians themselves ever conceived of themselves as occupying anything like a distinct bioregion — and how they organized themselves defines Cascadia more than any European intellectual theory.

Then as today, the people living in greater Idaho and Alberta — the vast, sparsely-populated lands centered on the upper Rocky Mountains — were culturally much closer to the peoples of the Great Plains. They, like their eastern neighbors, were forced to cope with much colder and more arid conditions than prevail along the spine of the Cascades. Evidence of trade connections shows that north-south connectivity was more typical than east-west beyond the Columbia Plateau and the present-day Interstate 5 corridor largely follows the path of the old indigenous trade routes.

This basic divide in the Pacific Northwest has only been amplified in modern times. Most of the population lives in the more habitable, fertile areas west of the Cascade volcanoes. The Klamath Mountains to the south, the eastern slopes of the Cascades, and the rugged British Columbia interior are home to a smaller and more thinly spread — but presently fast-growing — population with more mobile lifestyles who often trade with the peoples to the south, north, and west.

But across the sparsely-populated territories between the inland plateaus and the Rocky Mountains live even fewer people, who by and large don’t think of themselves as Cascadian at all. Inland British Columbia and the parts of Oregon and Washington are some of the most conservative parts of North America, with modern-day conservatism being mostly hostile to the environmental movement.

The simple truth is that the Cascadian Bioregion is a modern social invention designed to advance a particular ideology. To be clear: There is nothing wrong with this!

Everyone deserves the right to believe what they want and try to build the better world they imagine.

But this is not the true Cascadia by any stretch of the imagination. It is a vision of Cascadia that could-be, might-be. There are others, must be others, for Cascadia to come into its own — and in my own conversations with actual Cascadians across many years I have discovered a real hunger for the promise of Cascadia, but little lasting taste for bioregionalism. People who are open to the idea of Cascadia want something more than ecotopia — they want to live in a country that makes sense, with a functioning government that works for them and economy strong enough to guarantee their finances.

As I’ve written in more detail, Cascadia is a Nation that has existed for as long as people have lived here. Its borders at any time can only be defined through a democratic process that unites all Cascadians and creates space for multiple ways of living, bioregional or otherwise.

Many advocates for a bioregionalism express a desire to move beyond politics. But politics is an inescapable part of being human — it emerges naturally out of human interactions and cannot be suppressed (over the long term, anyway) any more than you can suppress people’s desire to associate with people they identify with or their drive to pursue a livelihood and improve their material condition in life.

For Cascadia to have any real-world impact, it must take into account the reality of politics, economics, and social values.

It can’t be a narrow ecotopian vision of living in perfect harmony with nature, because that has never been the state of any human beings at any point or in any place. Humans work with and on nature in order to survive, like all other living things do. If they are wise, they manage the lands they rely on carefully and sustainably. If they are not, they sow the seeds of their own destruction.

Getting this balance rights begins with good political institutions — both hard rules and informal codes of conduct — to keep people cooperating without killing one another. Only once you have a coherent, organized government can you hope to prevent social movements (like ideologies) or economic interests (like huge corporations) from consuming nature in one place then picking up stakes and moving on to another, leaving devastation behind.

That’s why Cascadia needs a government of its own, with boundaries that are both rooted in lived history and meaningful given today’s political, economic, and social realities. Bioregional advocates often profess a desire to ‘go beyond borders’ but as the old saying goes: good fences make good neighbors. Borders are always legal constructs set up to make adjudicating disputes easier.

The world will always have borders. That’s why it is so vitally important to have sensible ones. Defined by the Cascade Volcanic Province and Cascadia Subduction Zone that threatens so many lives, the Democratic Federation of Cascadia covers 85% of the actual population of the Cascadia Bioregion and takes into account the very real cultural differences that strongly divide the Pacific Northwest.

More and more, politics is understood as an expression of identity — this is no less true for white people than it is for black, brown, or indigenous. And the right/left divide in the United States and Canada has strong cultural and geographic components tied to the fact that people’s identities are most strongly defined by proximity.

Subset of 2020 US Presidential Election Results by County
British Columbia Political Divide

The closer you get to Idaho and Alberta, the more strongly conservative the electorate becomes. And because environmental issues are one of the major divides between left and right in both the United States and Canada, the close tie between political and personal identity means that a bioregional Cascadia would have 3–4 million people in a geographically contiguous area who mostly will not ascribe to the founding ideals of the Cascadian bioregionalism.

85% of the population of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia live west of the inland plateau, around 50% in the immediate vicinity of Cascadia’s three great cities: Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle. Economically, this Cascadia urban megaregion is tech-heavy and bound to Asia, while Idaho and Alberta are focused on natural resources extraction and see themselves as part of the great North American Heartland, stretching from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico and the interior plateau to the Mississippi River.

This reality will remain fixed for at least a generation, maybe longer — it takes time for social values to shift. And while both the United States and Canada seem likely to fragment in the coming decades, the key divides both face will be social and cultural.

A bioregional Cascadia is unlikely to be viable for half a century or more. A more limited Cascadia, organized as a Democratic Federation, combining the best aspects of the Canadian and American political systems and more democratic than our parent nations, offers the best chance for establishing a self-governing Cascadian Nation.

Cascadia must be built from the ground up as a decolonial government that recognizes the intrinsic sovereign rights of the First Cascadian Nations and gives them a permanent, formal voice. It must have transparent, accountable systems of governance that don’t privilege the voices of the white suburbanites who tend to dominate the environmental movement in North America.

That’s what the Democratic Federation of Cascadia is all about. A plan for Cascadia’s orderly transition to self-governance as a member of the broader global community.

Suggested Reading

Political Ecology by Paul Robbins
Liberation Ecologies by Peet and Watts
Pretty much anything about Environmental Justice

Author, Independent Research Consultant, Cat Devotee

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store