Hundreds of guests gathered in Kane Hall’s gigantic auditorium last week, waiting patiently for UW history professor Linda Nash to present a lecture on Seattle’s environmental past.
“Tonight, I want to propose a different way of looking at Seattle’s history,” she began. “My goal here is to emphasize that our city is not an isolated entity, but is itself a product of connection.”
Through a collection of visuals, ranging from key Seattle leaders to businesses and landscapes, Nash took us on a journey through Seattle’s past on the auditorium’s massive screen.
Seattle’s history cannot be told without acknowledging its very first inhabitants, the Native Americans. They settled in the Puget Sound region around 10,000 years ago, arriving just after the last Ice Age. Tribes throughout the region lived off the land, planting crops, picking berries and plants, fishing for salmon, and hunting deer and elk.
Native Americans were the first true environmentalists. When white settlers arrived in the late 1700s, the natives introduced them to the land's abundant resources – whether it was gathering food, taking heed of safe shelter, or mapping out the area. Settlers relied on Native Americans for many of their daily needs when they first arrived.
Eventually, things began to change as towns were established, with businesses and the search for profits. Arthur Denny, one of Seattle’s founders, dreamed of creating a great metropolis with railroads, businesses, and much more. Leaders like Henry Yesler contributed to Seattle's growing economy with his bustling lumber mill. People near and far ventured to be a part of Seattle’s growing economy, and as time went on companies such as Boeing continued to drive growth in the region.
As the population continued to expand, people began to exploit more and more resources. As the appetite for items such as coal, timber and hydropower grew, so did the toll on the environment. By World War II, aluminum production – a high-energy process which was essential to making planes – expanded in the area, increasing demand for power.
It was only later in the 20th century that Seattleites began to beautify and create more natural landscapes in the city. The rapid growth of industries and population in Seattle sparked the region’s interest in environmentalism. More people were concerned with combating air pollution and reviving our lakes and parks. A Unitarian conservation movement sparked the preservation of our natural resources, especially fisheries.
“A city and certain people within it (wielded power) through their ability to claim and mobilize parts of the natural world,” said Nash. “We overlook the environmental basis of that power…we believe that salmon comes from Whole Foods, electricity from the wall, and aluminum from the hardware store.”
If the lecture taught me anything, it’s that we as a society take the food we eat, the electricity that lights up our TV’s, and the planes that take us from one destination to another for granted. We don’t think about the amount of greenhouse gas emitted when driving our cars or how much water we use every time we take a shower. We’re so accustomed to a certain way of living that we fail to realize that there will not always be an abundant supply of resources if we continue to neglect the environment.
Without changes, eventually the resources will run out. Maybe not in our lifetime, but in generations to come.
“Contemporary struggles for urban sustainability, environmental restoration, and landscape preservation are surely evidence that Seattleites recognize that our lives and those of our children are intellectively tied to the future of the natural world,” said Nash.
She added, “Yet, the vision of a green city will remain (just a vision) unless we see it as part of a much larger struggle to repower working people and marginalized communities both within the city and beyond.”