Choosing a Future for the Puget Sound: We can’t have it both ways

By Mike Johnson, Environmental Planner

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece by Dr. Erle Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland. In his article, Dr. Ellis confronts climate change not only as a planetary crisis unfolding all around us, but also as an opportunity for us, “across all our many diverse peoples and cultures [to] navigate together toward the better futures we wish for, in our different ways.” He goes on to describe his view that the only “force of nature” that can help us is the human aspiration for a better future.

The aspirations that Dr. Ellis describes drive us at the Partnership and others across the broader “partnership” of conservation-minded individuals and organizations to work toward a better future for our eco-region. They include a vision of a desired future state that embraces healthy and verdant ecosystems, thriving with natural life — a vision that engenders attachment and a positive sense of place while supporting the wellbeing of the millions that call Puget Sound home. This vision inspires a story we share about where we live and how we want to be.

We can’t have it both ways

Dr. Ellis adds in his article that, “No one wants a hotter, more polluted and less biodiverse planet, though most people want the modern lifestyles made possible by cheap energy, abundant food and industrial productivity.”

These words will resonate with Washingtonians who are experiencing summers of volatile wildfires and heat-stressed mountain rivers, toxins in our waters poisoning salmon and orca, and native species being outcompeted or threatened by persistent invasive species. At the same time we all benefit from inexpensive and consistent hydropower and productive cropland, and we are neighbors to some of the most industrious and economically profitable companies in the country. A conflict exists between the way we have chosen to organize ourselves, and the way we would like our future to unfold but simply, we can’t have it both ways. There is a cost to the convenience that progress brings, and the reckoning for the wonders of our modern world is past due. We must learn to strike a balance, and shift the scales in an ecologically positive direction.

Finding the way forward

So what do we want, and how can we get there? Short of the widespread systemic change that is required to unleash the potential of a regenerative ecological coexistence, there are steps we can take now to focus our creative potential toward beneficial outcomes.

In response to the solicitation of the conservation community, the Puget Sound Partnership received several hundred action plans from scores of partners who are willing to make the hard decisions to invest today in plans and projects that will get us closer to that better future. The total of those projects, aimed at being completed in the next 2–4 years, is estimated to cost over $1.1 billion. That’s a hefty sum, but a fraction of the investment needed for our community (yes, that is all of us) to commit to restoring and protecting the health of the Puget Sound.

Funding all of these actions won’t cure all that ails Puget Sound. But choosing to make real investments in protection and restoration projects is a demonstration of our will and desire to do something that will have an impact, right here where we live and in a way that will allow us to measure progress in the near future.

Ellis closes his article with these lines: “To engage productively with the world we are creating, we must focus on strategies for working more effectively together across all of our diverse and unequal social worlds….Collectively, we have the potential to create a much better planet than the one we are creating now…The planet we make will reflect the people we are.”

Charting the course for recovery

For each of us, the health we allow in Puget Sound reflects the people we are. As citizens of the Puget Sound region, we express our collective values through the actions and institutions in which we invest our time and resources. If together we feel that the path we are walking is the best, then we must accept the consequences of those decisions.

But if instead, we choose to focus our collective will and efforts toward actions that will accelerate a transition away from detrimental behaviors and toward a sustainable future, we can be in charge of and create the better future that we desire.

In this line of work there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. We have the power to create the future that we seek, and the opportunity to act in such a way that when we are held accountable for our actions by those in the future, we will be able to take pride in the decisions we make today.

The health of Puget Sound, and all of its inhabitants is a reflection of the people we are. Let’s make sure that when we see that reflection, we are proud of what we see.