Active Hope: The Salish Sea I love is dying. What can I do?

October 27, 2019

I have been called to the water for as long as I can remember. As a kid, you couldn’t get me out of the pool without tears. As a teen, every angsty after-school activity was at one of the dozen beaches within my 20-mile radius. As an adult, the water is where I went when each of my parents died before their time, when my sister had a psychotic breakdown, before I said my vows to my husband, before my son was born. Water has always been the refuge I turn to.
But something has changed over the years. I used to go to the water for peace, for clarity, for that sense of connection to my “place in the order of things,” as poet Mary Oliver put it. After five minutes I could feel my tensions melt away. After 10 minutes, a shift in perspective as a (desperately needed) parasympathetic state settles in. After 15, I’m nearly entranced as my eyes are full of the endless horizon, my ears full of the reassuring pattern of lapping waves, my heart full of the mystery of water’s power and almost maternal healing hallmark—mysteries my ancestors have experienced and explored in countless ways for countless generations.
The fact is, I love the Salish Sea with my whole heart. I always have. I love it as my oldest, wisest, most nurturing grandmother. She feeds me. She heals me. She restores me to balance.
However, amid the wonder and tranquility, my experience at the water is now interspersed with apologies for the degradation we’ve caused. My joy is layered between moments of grief and sorrow for the loss—the pollution, the algae blooms, the warming waters, the species die-off. And in the break between waves washing ashore, I think about my son’s future. I worry about the rising seas, the droughts and the storms that will shape his experience. He may not get to take his children fishing or crabbing. He may not be able to safely jump into the water for a swim. He may never know the joy of eating an oyster off the beach, and may never see an orca whale in the San Juan Islands. I trust he will adapt, and may not even experience loss over what he does not know. But I may not be able to share with him some of the most awe-inspiring ways of interacting with the natural world.
Facing these feelings is overwhelming at best, at worst, it’s crippling. I know these are common feelings. Most of my colleagues and friends feel the same. And almost every gathering with friends ends with the question, “So, what do we do?”

In all of this sorrow, I have found peace and hope in this truth: the contributions I make are creating little pockets of beauty and healing. While climate scientists have their supercomputer algorithms to analyze tens of thousands of potential catastrophic outcomes, they cannot predict the positive influence of a growing movement of respect, compassion and generosity.

And the truth is, there is so much that can be done. Today. Right here. There are reparations that my community and I have the ability to effect in my lifetime.
In this country, we are lucky enough to be able to leverage the laws and processes of a democratic society. A groundswell of public will, if applied correctly with strategy and accuracy, can have incredible strength. I’ve witnessed it multiple times over my two decades in activism and 10 years working at RE Sources. There are multiple bright opportunities on the horizon today that can bring about unknowable repair and shifting in the collective psyche that is so fractured and adrift today.
In some cases, these changes are what ecologist Joanna Macy calls in her book Active Hope, “Holding actions.” This is basically holding the line to prevent further degradation and destruction. It’s only one leg of the stool, but it’s an essential one.
Today, Trump’s (Anti) Environmental Protection Agency is providing us many opportunities to strengthen our holding-action muscles. As EPA director Wheeler systematically works to strip waters of bare minimum protections, and strip states of their constitutional right to establish their own environmental oversight, it could be seen as an invitation to flex the muscles of our individual and collective holding power to say, “We cannot allow that.” We have every likelihood of winning in these cases. The law is on our side. The strategy, intelligence, and legal knowhow is on our side (thanks to justice-seeking organizations like RE Sources, our North Sound Baykeeper, and the partners we work with in coalitions like Waterkeepers Washington). We have the roadmap for a movement that can, and will, win.

Holding actions, like standing in the way of corrupt government actions and corporate greed, are critical—we can’t lose any more ground. But the Salish Sea needs us to do more than hold the line. Many of the changes we need to make are “Structural Changes”—the second leg in Macy’s stool. As the architect and systems thinker Buckminster Fuller said, “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Here in our backyards, we can do just that. We have a powerful point of leverage to make the existing model of ever-expanding fossil fuel extraction, shipment, and use obsolete by simply deciding we won’t allow it. The deepwater port at Cherry Point—one of the few remaining of its kind on the West Coast—has been an increasingly sought after locale for the export of coal, coke, tar sands crude oil, fracked gas, and petrochemical byproducts over the past four decades. But as Whatcom County residents, led by Lummi Nation, have proven time and time again, we are the thin green line that will not allow the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve and ancestral grounds to be turned into the gateway for expanding fossil fuel shipments the world cannot even afford to burn.
You remember how people across the Northwest banded together to hold the line against the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal—which was backed by some of the most powerful deep pockets in the nation—for the six-year review process? Then, when victory was wrung in through the power of Lummi Nation’s great stand, we found a way to close the book on the recurring fight for Cherry Point’s future.
RE Sources, activists, families, business owners, students and fisherpeople urged Whatcom County Council to write into law legal protections that would have lasting reign over Cherry Point’s future, allowing it to remain intact as a place of ceremonial significance, an important component of honoring tribal treaty rights, and one of the state’s eight Aquatic Reserves that produces the basic ingredients for the entire Salish Sea web of life. After three years of process, the County Council will finally decide if this history-making code amendment should be written into law in the next few months. I hope you will be inspired to speak up for the Salish Sea, and support the acceptance of these code amendments.
Here’s another example for how we can create new standards and break the mold for how much bare minimum we can bear. In November, the state is inviting the public to participate in the rewrite of an important aspect of the Streamflow Restoration Act. This rulemaking process will address emerging concerns about our limited supply of freshwater and will affect the amount of water in the Nooksack River and the groundwater that is connected to it. Streamflows in the Nooksack basin, an important area for five species of salmon, are frequently too low to actually support the salmon that depend on it for survival.

If you care about the die-off of the Southern Resident orcas, you need to care about the Streamflow Restoration Act and participate in every chance we have to strengthen it. This law can make or break the Salish Sea food chain. Tackling water use now, before hotter summers and population growth make it an all-out crisis, is a powerful structural change we can easily effect if we apply ourselves to the task.

Another structural change we can spark locally is through the Whatcom County Shoreline Management Program. This lawmaking process dictates what can be built within 200 feet of any salt or freshwater shoreline. Water experts have emphasized the importance of shoreline functions for habitat (like the eelgrass beds at Cherry Point that support the Salish Sea web of life), for climate change preparedness (like projects to protect homes and businesses from sea level rise and flooding), and filter polluted stormwater runoff. Taking steps toward proactive climate preparedness and protection, before the damage is upon us, is a fortifying structural change. In order for the County Council to improve the plan to protect our shorelines, Whatcom County residents have to call upon them to do so. In January, they’ll need to hear that you’re paying attention and that you care.
When we respond to opportunities like the few I mentioned—and there are so many more—these holding actions and structural changes will naturally elicit the third leg of Macy’s stool: a shift in consciousness. Macy calls for these three ingredients as the catalysts for the “great turning,” the third revolution in history, the transition from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining model—a transition that will occur much more rapidly because it has the conscious participation of humanity, and because it has to.
Whether you call them holding actions and structural changes, or embodying the thin green line, or a cultural paradigm shift, or everyday activism—the truth is that taking action helps answer the question, “What can we do?” It turns helplessness into a rewarding opportunity to link arms with our neighbors and embody something bigger than ourselves. Action offers us hope that the future just might have some silver linings. And it gives us courage for today.
The other aspect of my relationship with the water that has emerged, as I sit close and breathe in the sea air, is one of reciprocity. Humans’ relationship with the natural world, with the sacred waters of life, have always been and always will be just that—a relationship. I take, I give. I benefit, I care for. She loves, I love back.
Let your love for the Salish Sea be your call to an awakened chapter of action: Visit and sign up for something that speaks to you. Take a risk, attend an event, link arms with your community. Make your money do something truly valuable and support organizations that are fighting for the world we need.