About the Northwest

A 400 mile corridor with eight million residents stretches from Eugene, Oregon, through Seattle, Washington to Vancouver, B.C. This region accounts for more than $250 billion in annual economic output and if ranked as a nation-state would be the 10th largest economy in the world. Put this against a backdrop of dramatic alpine peaks and glittering waters, and you have the present day "American Northwest". Computer "techies" with hiking tans; cougars attacking family pets in "satellite" communities; and cabins high up in the mountains with all the comforts of a four-bedroom home.

During the last few decades of the 20th century, the shifts in the economy of the Pacific Northwest has had its effects on individual livelihoods and lifestyles in the Northwest. An interesting perspective on the region's trends, not immediately obvious to the traveler passing through, come from longtime writer and environmental spokesperson and current director of the Seattle research center, Northwest Environment Watch, Alan Thein Durning. (An exemplary citizen of Ecotopia?) Durning has taken a snapshot of these changes and their effects in his book Green-Collar Jobs; Working in the New Northwest. In it he sets out the good news and the bad news.

Changing Economy
"Since the early 70s, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia have seen 500 lumber and paper mills shut their gates, 8,000 fishing boats come out of the water, and 15,000 farms and ranches close." In 1946 Montana wheat farmers could expect to get $2.46 per bushel. Now it sells for $2 a bushel. This is the bumpy transition away from a resource-hungry economy to low-impact, value-added work. Yet surprisingly, the 90s has seen a slow-down in the decline, or even an upswing of the rural population. "In Washington, rural growth has actually outpaced urban growth this decade."

A New Economy
What is going on here? The answer, Durning is pleased to tell us, is the good news. "In the information age, environmental quality and economic vitality are compatible, and possibly inseparable." People care about living close to unspoiled nature, and the Northwest offers this in spades. The rugged beauty of the Northwest attracts entrepreneurs, as a place to set up shop. It is the kind of location a skilled labor force will choose, as seen in the regular influx of college graduates. "Retirement and investment income are the largest sources of new income in the Pacific Northwest", indicating that people with the means to "vote with their feet" are announcing their preference for a proximity to a wilderness. In fact "the rural zones that have grown the most, have been counties containing protected wildlands like national parks".

The Up-side
What some of these new rural-ites are getting up to, indicates the promise of the new economy to provide a low-impact, middle-class way of life, that could be a model for the world. Tourism with its leisure travel and recreation services has provided alternative livelihoods. Towns like Leavenworth in Washington, and Nelson in British Columbia, have positioned themselves as travel destinations. A development out of the logging industry, is "the value-added wood products industry, a growing sector that already employs 54,000 furniture makers and other Northwest workers". Bend, Oregon, the fastest-growing city in the Northwest, was once home to the two largest pine sawmills in the world, and is now a recreation and retirement mecca with an emerging high-tech sector. Conservation itself potentially offers plenty of work if funding can be found. "The Pacific Northwest has enough backcountry miles of eroding logging roads to loop around the equator 20 times."

Rising environmental standards, such as the federal listing of local salmon as a threatened species, have played their part in the waning of the timber, mining, fishing and agriculture sectors. In which case, as Durning argues, far from hindering the economy, they have given it a boost. For an environmentalist, this is the icing on the cake.

The Down-side
The bad news is in two parts. The new economy is increasing the gap between rich and poor. The rich constitute a new threat to the environment.

Here are some sobering facts. Puget Sound, a kind of "urban cybertopia" has per-capita, the highest number of billionaires and "lesser info-riche" in the world. Six individual Northwesterners own ten percent of all private wealth in the region, while ten percent of Northwesterners live in trailers. Gated communities and prisons are among the fastest-growing forms of housing." Economic stress could be behind Seattle's reputation as the teenage runaway capital and correspondingly high level of homelessness and heroin use. It is a characteristic of the new economy that low skills translates to low pay. The wood-products and hospitality industries, mentioned above, provide workers with a more meager existence than did logging or fishing.

Consumerism among the fortunate in the form of "trophy dwellings", "second-home sprawl", motor homes, personal watercraft and sports utility vehicles (SUVs), the "yank-tank" of the 90s, are the emerging threat to the environment.

As Durning says, the Northwest's transitions in livelihoods has been "swift and brutal". The new eco-economy offers both promise and pitfall.

Back to Northwest Culture and Economy.

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