Cascadia, where moral hand-wringing is an Olympic sport

The Vancouver Olympics captured nicely the two opposing impulses of the Pacific Northwest: the desire to extol our green virtues, and to exploit our future.
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The U.S.-Canada border could see additional lot of traffic when Canadian shoppers are exempted from sales taxes in Bellingham and Blaine.

The Vancouver Olympics captured nicely the two opposing impulses of the Pacific Northwest: the desire to extol our green virtues, and to exploit our future.

The New York Times last week ran a story about how the Vancouver Olympics had not done much to advance the concept of Cascadia, the idea that the Pacific Northwest is kind of an eco-economic region of its own, stretching from British Columbia to Northern California.

Cascadia is the "Salish Sea" of regional political identity, an idealistic and unifying sense of place, climate, water, trees, and aspirations. The article struck me as interesting because it was an example of how the 2010 Winter Olympics have been freighted with baggage.

The regional concept appears to have been a bit of a bust: there were no hordes of tourists flocking to cross the border between Washington and British Columbia. In fact, traffic appeared to be lighter than usual as American Cascadian locals were scared off, tickets hard to come by, and new border travel rules (got to have a passport) restrictive. British Columbians weren't spending billions to host the 2010 Olympics to advance regional prosperity, but their own. They weren't out to make Cascadia a household word but to enhance Vancouver's global status. Cascadia's other capitals, Seattle, Portland and, arguably, San Francisco, could shift for themselves.

There's nothing wrong with that. When Seattle hosted the WTO Summit in 1999, it did so for parochial reasons: the mayor and a port commissioner led the charge of make Seattle a "world class" city. And each of Cascadia's major cities has hosted world's fairs with the same kind of intent: to be seen as a player in international, and especially Pacific, affairs. Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, Spokane and San Francisco have all hosted expositions (some multiple times) as a way of highlighting themselves as the portal to the future. San Francisco attempted to capitalize on the revolutionary Panama Canal, Portland commemorated the glorious path to the Pacific blazed by Lewis and Clark, Seattle established itself as the gateway to Alaska and the Yukon and as the launch pad for Century 21, and Spokane held the first ever environmentally themed world's fair in 1974.

Within the Cascadia concept, regional and metropolitan competition still booms. In a meeting with Seattle Port Commissioners last summer, I was told that the major threat to our economic future was what the British Columbians were cooking up in terms of Port competitiveness to undercut Puget Sound shipping.

Still, the sounds of the Cascadian dream can be heard in the kind of moral freighting that hosting the Vancouver Olympics carried. Yes, there was the importance of pulling off an Olympics that enhanced Canadian national pride. (Thank goodness our neighbors to the north won the hockey gold medal! I can hardly imagine what the brooding giant would have done had they lost; doubtless no American pig on the border would have been safe due to settling old scores here!) But beyond that, there was a high bar set for expectations. The Olympics organizer's promised that these games would be "the greenest games ever," and that Vancouverites "want to become the green capital and take leadership in the future of the planet."

Vancouver hoped to be a spiritual role model as well, interesting for a city in a province that is so secular (it is Cascadia's most unchurched zone). The Christian community was out in force providing food, shelter and sanctuary for Olympics guests, with a kind of "How would Jesus host" ethos. The blog The Search carried a story about a group of Canadian evangelicals and Roman Catholics called More Than Gold that pledged to offer the "'radical hospitality' of Jesus Christ to Olympic visitors." Which version of Jesus they did not specify, but I think it's safe to assume it was not the "cage fighter Jesus" popular among some of Seattle's evangelicals. He was probably checking out the risky bobsled and luge runs.

Other Vancouverites took the opportunity to engage in some introspection. The Vancouver Sun's always interesting religion and values writer, Douglas Todd, who is a Cascadia concept booster, wrote about how locals were looking for ways to "respond authentically" to the games, meaning, could they participate in such a commercial, expensive and boosterish enterprise without surrendering their souls? The polls, he reported, highlighted a conflict: as of mid-February, 60 percent of Vancouverites thought the games a waste of money, but over 70 percent said they were proud of the athletes.

Some locals objected to the crowds and disruptions, others to the hype, many to the spending of millions of dollars on sports venues and spectacles while the province is facing huge budget cuts. Todd's conclusion seemed to be less about what Jesus would do and more what the father of Greek philosophy might advise. The games, after all, are of pagan roots as a tribute to the Olympian gods. Todd writes: "Socrates, I suspect, would have suggested that everyone, British Columbian and otherwise, put a bit of time into developing an authentic response to the Olympics. After all, he was the one who famously taught, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.'"

There's little chance in Cascadia that any civic event will go unexamined. If moral hand-wringing were an Olympic sport, we'd be in line for a medal. But the games do reflect a kind of contradiction within the region, which is a desperate desire for recognition while expressing a latent impulse toward regional secessionism, and exceptionalism. The Cascadia concept is often in a tug of war between Ecotopian idealists who see the region as a green bulwark against a global culture that is rapacious and not progressive, and regional boosters who see the Cascadian concept as, at core, a way of organizing the region to be more competitive globally. Both are highly idealistic, but one school is more protective of the region as a "natural" place and the other touts our "naturalness" as something to sell: tourism, resources, brainpower.

Thus, it is impossible to participate or propose any major global commercial event without conflict. We show off our love of nature and the environment as a way to exploit those very things. Seattle has become much more skeptical, with no better example of acting out the conflict than the WTO riots of '99. Portland seems to pass on big showcases. But Vancouver, the last city in North America to host a world's fair, is still willing to gamble big to get on center stage.

The fact is, the more radical notions of Cascadia are incompatible with the capitalistic boosterism of the region's biggest cheerleaders because those economic interests are both balkanized and antithetical to green ideals of community and sustainability. The oddity of such juxtapositions was evident in the very first book outlining the Cascadian ideal, Ernest Callenbach's 1975 book Ecotopia.

In the book, Washington, Oregon and Northern California have seceded from the U.S. and walled themselves off from the rest of the country as a kind of green North Korea (if North Korea were like a happy Berkeley campus). Yet within this fenced utopia, Callenbach imagines that the Ecotopians are gliding around the region on sleek, mag-lev monorails built by Boeing. Charming as the image is, there would be no Boeing Co. without war, capitalism and cronyism. Boeing would not be able to survive without its defense contracts, its shareholders, its massive subsidies and tax breaks and the politicians who bring home the pork.

To make ourselves feel better, we lard economic enterprises like the Olympics with feel-good, do-good goals, but the essence isn't the furtherance of a real, original, radical Cascadian secession but a marketing of the region with the gloss of superiority. We're smarter, greener and cleaner (environmentally, morally) than the rest of you, at the very least remote and a bit less tainted by the economic powers that are sponsoring this message, but despoiling us just the same.

The Olympics aren't designed to further Cascadia but rather they were a fun way to continue our corruption.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.