About the Northwest

The Northwest is a distinctive economic, cultural and biological region of North America. This article aims to give visitors a taste of the unique flavors they might experience when traveling here.

Pacific Northwest economy and cultureA source from which one can extract a provocative description of the Northwest region is Joel Garreau's classic text, The Nine Nations of North America. Published in 1981, it is unfortunately somewhat dated, however much of it still rings true, especially as a recent history. In a humorous, engaging read, Garreau puts forth his contention that the North American continent has seen the emergence of nine distinct regions or "nations" which have little to do with acknowledged political borders. Each region has its own economy, capital city, culture and political agenda, including attitudes towards it own environment and the other regions. As you can see on the map, the area covered by Go Northwest! sits primarily across two of Garreau's regions; Ecotopia and The Empty Quarter, with the divide basically following the Cascade Mountains.

Garreau gets the name Ecotopia from the title of Ernest Callenbach's popular 1975 novel about an ecological utopia. The novel is emblematic of the values of this region which all revolve around "quality-of-life" and the willingness of people to explore new ideas and "follow their love of nature to its political conclusions, in support for environmental policies at the ballot box". "This is the first place in North America in which even the middle class has moved on the idea that a person may have to lower his monetarily described standard of living in order to raise his overall quality of life." Issues that aroused controversy at the time of Garreau's writing revolved around "energy futures", and resulted in legislative efforts to reduce energy consumption.

The reason the counter culture ideals were put into practice here in the sixties and seventies, was that this isolated edge of the continent had remained relatively under-populated and undeveloped, despite being fertile. Steep terrain, the mountain barrier to the east and few natural harbors on the coastline made it difficult to grow or export crops, and mineral extraction was mainly limited to the gold rushes. In the sixties "a thundering market suddenly appeared for all this...untrammeled beauty near population centers and the mildest, most temperate climate in North America".

What Ecotopia does have is water. "Its endless lush variations on the color green contrast markedly with the reds and browns and grays of the rest of the West." Water can be tapped as "hydro" power. "Politics and economics have been shaped by renewable resources - particularly the bargain-priced hydroelectric power from the Columbia Basin project." Hydro in turn, enabled the World War II aluminum boom. "A good sized aluminum plant uses as much power as a city of 175,000 people." Boeing, "the world's largest airplane manufacturer", is a major consumer of aluminum. These conditions were probably conducive to Boeing remaining in the northwest, however the company initially "benefited from being located near a different strong, light aircraft building material - spruce."

This leads to the fact that Ecotopia presents a strange contradiction. "It's the home of Boeing's cruise missile and the base for the Trident submarine - two of the most devastating weapons systems ever devised." The best answer Garreau could garner from the inhabitants to his question "doesn't it seem a bit mad to be working on the ultimate vehicles of death in the midst of a land that reveres quality of life?" was "We've got a lot of aluminum... And apart from that - it's a clean industry."

Ecotopia's other distinguishing feature is its status as a Pacific Rim nation. "Its trade with Asia appears to be more significant than its trade with the rest of North America." Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle "had been ports from which North America's trade with China had flourished, simply because they're the closest." On Ecotopia's city streets "there are twice as many Japanese automobiles as there are in the East." There were even fears of becoming a "banana republic...selling all our logs and fish for TVs." (Fellow Australians will prick up their ears at that one!)

The Empty Quarter
"When people talk about the "West" these days, they aren't really talking about the West [everything to the left of the 100th meridian]. They're talking about The Empty Quarter." Climate (dry - average rainfall below 20 inches), geography (high - above two thousand feet in elevation, "big sky" country where the stars do seem closer), and "a repository of values, ideas, memories, and vistas that date back to the frontier" - these are what define The Empty Quarter.

This "empty" region is actually full of untapped resource wealth. In North America, "known recoverable reserves of coal and oil shale... are capable of providing synthetic fuels equivalent to one trillion barrels of oil... it's enough to sustain a synthetic fuels industry producing 15 million barrels of oil a day for 175 years... almost 80 percent would have to come out of the nation of the Empty Quarter". For example, Montana has three times the proven coal reserves of West Virginia and Wyoming. "Trapped in the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta alone, there is more oil than in the entire Persian Gulf." "There is a portion of Saudia Arabia, dry and unpopulated, whose energy resources are dwarfed by those of North America's Intermountain West. In Arabic, it is called Rub 'al Khali: The Empty Quarter" - hence the name Garreau gives to this region.

There are costs associated with tapping into this wealth, both social and environmental. At the time of writing, Garreau is describing a region weighing up the pros and cons, coming to terms with the task of determining future directions. There are forced choices between agriculture, industrialization, urbanization, and wilderness, and the process is being impacted by the dreams and values of those outside the region.

Towns like Billings in Montana, are "now important as staging areas for the assault on energy and mineral wealth". If they are not prepared for the problems of growth, they will bloom with "a boutique of modern urban pathologies" such as crime, violence, and family dysfunction. For example, Garreau renders an image of "women stuck, day in day out, in mobile homes literally forty miles from nowhere, with zero to do except watch men poke holes in the ground. They go crazy."

The resource development schemes consume a lot of water and produce a lot of hazardous waste. In this dry region water can be more valuable to a farmer as rights sold to mining companies, than used to raise stock. That's a choice about lifestyle. There are specters of trillion-ton mountains of oil-shale tailings producing choking dust and leaching poisonous minerals, and of coal tar, "one of the most potent cancer-causing substances known to man". All this being created in a region that is also "is the site of some of the continent's most spectacular and precious vistas...and the only major stretches of wilderness left". It is a region viewed elsewhere on the continent as representing "a freedom that is meaningful only when compared to the confines of the city." There is "political content" to having thousands who want "the option to escape the rat race" to continue to exist, and a practical content as seen the growth of towns like Boise in Idaho. There are controversial choices between preservation and development to be made.

This decision-making process is not just in the hands of the "blue-eyed Arabs". Indian tribes, including the Blackfoot and Spokane control at least a hundred year's supply of low-sulfur, strippable coal. (That translates as good quality, easy-to-get-at coal.) They formed an organization called the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. What's more, on the U.S. side of the region, a vast portion of the land is controlled by the federal government. In fact, the eastern boundary of The Empty Quarter indicates "where federal control over the land becomes dominant... west of this line, it's national parks, national monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges... in the federal district - the District of Columbia - the government controls far less land, in percentage terms, than it does west of The Empty Quarter line." The decisions of bureaucrats in Washington D.C. have far more weight than the opinions of local, elected officials, and they often come down on the side of land preservation. This is "a condition that has triggered the "Sagebrush Rebellion", as the drive to gain more local control of this region's future is called." For "Unlike Ecotopia, development is a religion in The Empty Quarter which has done with so little for so long". As one who has seen the kind of environment produced by industrialization, Garreau "couldn't get over the enthusiasm I met in this, the land of the proverbial wide-open spaces, for coal mines and steel mills and boom towns."

Updating Garreau
For Ecotopia, an update of Garreau's description would probably include issues such as the recent rapid growth in population, and the listing of salmon on the endangered species list, (salmon and dams etc). For the Empty Quarter, we need an update on its resource development, and perhaps a closer look at how towns like Boise and Missoula provide a comfortable urban lifestyle. To fill in some of these gaps, read on...

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