Note: this essay is part of a package of articles in this print edition speculating about the future of the West as a cultural region.
Unable any longer to address major new challenges at the national level - whether illegal drugs or education or poverty - but unable to let go of the idea that we should, as a nation, be able to address such issues, our political culture falls into deepening despair and cynicism. We feel blocked and hopeless.
We shouldn't, because there is a cure. It is called regionalism, and it can be roughly described as the breaking down of nation-states into smaller areas determined by geography and economies, as well as the coming together of these regions into a new federal form.
Why would regionalism work when the nation state no longer does? The answer lies with the global economy, and what it is doing to the nation-state. Capitalism today has little use for the nation-state, whether we are talking of a small Caribbean nation dependent on bananas or a behemoth like the United States. There's a second force that has little use for the nation-state: global ecology, whether we are talking of global warming or species extinction or air or water pollution moving across international boundaries. To their mutual surprise, no doubt, those interested in advancing the global economy and those who wish to see a healthier earth have something in common.
The global economy and global ecology speak with one voice in proclaiming both the growing irrelevance of national sovereignty and the inevitable emergence of much more organic global, continental, regional and local forms of government.
We usually don't see this confluence because we focus on the homogenizing effects of globalism - the many ways in which it promotes standardization, whether in setting standards for high-density-resolution television or in the franchises that sell us everything from coffee to sneakers to computer software.
We also usually ignore global capitalism's need for diversity and differentiation. That is because capitalism thrives not just on capital, but on competition. And the essence of competition is diversity, both among firms that attempt to outsell each other and among places that wish to provide better lives and environments for their citizens.
During the industrial era, the nation-state provided the diversity that gave, for example, the Soviet Union and the United State an edge in producing raw materials, and Japan, Britain and Germany an edge in finishing, or adding value, to raw materials. Even today, Japan can squeeze much more finished, high-quality wood out of a log from the Pacific Northwest than can a mill in that region.
But the nation-state can no longer provide the kind of diversity that is needed. As capital has achieved a new plateau of global integration, it no longer finds the nation-state form of geographic differentiation congenial. In the old days, capital's desires would not have mattered much. Most capital was tied to one nation-state or another. But these days, capital flows where it wants, when it wants, in search of the kinds of geographic differentiation of talent and cost and social and political structure that it wants.
We see it most clearly in the rise of continentalism - as in the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement. This startling phenomenon is driven by the instinct for survival in the face of globalism. Following World War II, continental Europe seemed on the verge of relinquishing world leadership and self-determination to the United States and the USSR. In reaction, a handful of leaders led by Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Conrad Adenauer decided that the ancient, bitter national enmities, particularly between France and Germany, must be subordinated so Europe could play a global role as a federated continent. North America has gradually worked its way around to the same conclusion - NAFTA.
There is another force at work. This is the dawning realization that boundaries within continents - whether national, state or county - interfere with the global order in ways that cannot long be tolerated or indulged.
For North America to pretend that Seattle has more in common with Miami than with Vancouver, British Columbia, is a competitive disadvantage no self-respecting continent can carry. So, eventually, just as North America will gradually assume more and more attributes of sovereignty, so too will Cascadia emerge around Seattle and Vancouver to play its own global role within a federated continental structure. To the east, New England and the Maritime Provinces will converge as the northeastern balance to Cascadia; the Great Lakes Region will take shape and accrue sovereignty, as will Carribea, Greater Sonora and the Rocky Mountain West.
Meanwhile, global ecology moves in the same direction as the globalized economy. Some issues, like global warming or the thinning of the ozone layer, must be dealt with globally. Others, like desertification or rainforest issues, are continental. Species loss or water quality are best dealt with by bioregions or river basins. But no ecological issue has anything to do with nation, state or provincial boundaries.
Certain features of the Rocky Mountain West have prepared it to act on these ecological truths sooner than other regions. The explorer of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell, argued over a century ago that the West was different, and that because of its uniqueness, it should organize human activity and politics according to the lay of the land. We ignored Powell, trying for a century to fit the West into the gridlike pattern of national policies and programs.
This attempt at rectilinearity runs counter to every impulse we have. Ask people why they live in the West, and the answer will have to do with landscape far more often than in any other region. Map America's public lands, and you have essentially mapped the West. Attend 10 public meetings, and see how many more of them involve land than in any other region.
Regionalism is all about the natural lay and shape of the land. It makes sense that the region most dominated by landscape would be open to regional thinking. Add globalism to our natural instincts, and the West is on its way toward regionalism. The challenge is how to build sustainable prosperity out of its unique assets. In the industrial age, our role as a provider of raw materials was clear. Now, to our horror, the stage seems set for escalating exploitation of the West by multinational corporations, newcomers, or by the more unified, more genuinely "world-class" East and West coasts working their wills on the public lands. At the same time, migration from Asia and from south of the Rio Grande threatens the sense of Western self-determination.
All of this occurs simultaneously with the devolution of power from the national government. To the liberal's eye, devolution is a conservative effort to weaken national protections, safeguards and safety nets. But there is another interpretation: that devolution is how America is beginning to experience the end of the nation-state. Devolution is how regions like the West can learn how to operate on a global and continental scale, rather than letting the existing federal government be our middleman. Viewed this way, devolution looks progressive rather than a force of greed, racism and exploitation.
Is this delusional? If anyone is being deluded, it is Western conservatives. They see devolution as an opening for their long-cherished, states-rights theories. But if the driving economic forces in the global arena are not nations, they even more clearly are not states or provinces.
What will be the result of the parceling out of the powers of the nation-states to the continental scale and the regional scale? Neal Peirce of the Citistates Group in Washington, D.C., concludes that globalism "drives one to visualize our great cities, their suburbs, exurbs, and geographic realms of influence as citistates, entities that perform as critical actors, more on their own in the world economy than anyone would have dreamed since the birth of the nation-state in the 16th and 17th centuries."
The West will begin to emerge as a globally significant and competitive player when business and civic leaders in Edmonton, Calgary, Spokane, Boise, Salt Lake City, Denver and Albuquerque start thinking of the West as a federation of their various mountain-defined city-regions, and then start asking one another what global niche their diverse talents and ability make them best equipped to compete in.
Take Idaho. Fly north out of Salt Lake City and you will see how that city serves as a hub for Ogden and Logan, and for other settlements scattered across the floor of prehistoric Lake Bonneville. But many of the settlements you are seeing, still within Salt Lake City's orbit, are in fact Idaho towns and cities. Pocatello and Salt Lake City will either learn how to cooperate, or they will suffer.
Meanwhile, far to the north in the Idaho panhandle sits Coeur d'Alene, separated from the state capital of Boise by two all-but-impassable mountain ranges. Coeur d'Alene bears no economic connection to Boise, yet is governed by it. The global economy laughs at such fictions, as it does at a place like Spokane, Wash. Spokane is prevented from developing its natural connection to Coeur d'Alene by a state line which divides them.
As a final example, the entrepreneurial city of Boise does its best to position itself to play a global role, a role which has next to nothing to do with being a state capital, but everything to do with serving as the hub of an economic region which reaches throughout the Snake River drainage. Boise has vastly more reason to concern itself with Ontario, Ore., situated where the Snake crosses the Idaho-Oregon line, than it ever will have to concern itself with Coeur d'Alene. Yet the existing structures of sovereignty force Boise to meddle in Coeur d'Alene's affairs while ignoring Ontario.
Sooner rather than later, street-smart leaders from Boise, Spokane, Salt Lake City and all the other mountainous city-states will begin comparing notes about how intolerably damaging this is to their well-being. They will be joined at that table by another set of regionalists - those whose chief concern is thriving ecosystems.
This synthesis is already beginning to happen. For the last decade, all the communities around Yellowstone National Park have experimented with coming together in what they call the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. These communities have identified their niche, and it is both economic and ecological. It is what differentiates them from competing regions. They know that only an intact ecosystem surrounding the park can attract visitors and provide a satisfying quality of life for residents, and so they are on the way to transcending the boundaries of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
Almost exactly the same thing is happening on the Colorado Plateau, the rugged mesa-and-canyon country surrounding the Grand Canyon. Here, communities from parts of four states - Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona - have started to recognize that in the new economy, their states are far less relevant than the plateau they all occupy.
And across the West, dozens of watershed councils are springing up to practice the watershed democracy Powell argued was the proper politics of this landscape.
These bioregional trends have proceeded far beyond the stage where they can be dismissed as fads. They are deep, structural responses to the forces of globalism and devolution, and they will soon become part of the redrawn map of the West.
The driving force behind these movements is that of life and of land, in all their organic manifestations. On the political front, this force will manifest itself in regionalism and federalism. The regionalism we have discussed. The federalism is murkier, but it could consist of the coming together of the various regions into regional federations: some big, some small, some fleeting, some more enduring.
This will be genuine federalism of a kind whose form and feel we have nearly obliterated by continuing to call "federal" a government which has become thoroughly national and centrist and - worst of all - with pretensions of being all-powerful.
A federation is a consensual gathering of sovereigns who agree among themselves on how to deal with issues that require joint action. Not only do we not now have a federal government in that sense, but we do not have the smaller sovereigns which could meaningfully form such a federation.
But we in this country and on this continent are far closer than we might guess to a decision, which boils down roughly to this: whether we will let our attachment to inherited structures of sovereignty and governance undermine our adaptiveness and ultimately our competitiveness in the global order.
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Daniel Kemmis