Understanding Our History to Better Understand Our Present

McKenzie Meyer
Capitol group and lake, aerial, 1930-1934

Olympia, Washington is situated alongside the southern end of the Budd Inlet. Like many cities in western Washington, Olympia developed alongside a body of water which then provided commerce to the early settlers. When the Washington State capitol building was designed and constructed in 1927 architects sought to take advantage of this waterside location and proposed the construction of a lake next to the capitol building. By the 1940s, the idea of a reflecting lake had gained the support of the community and in 1951 the dam that created Capitol Lake was completed. Capitol Lake provided a community gathering place and recreational area where visitors could view the capitol building reflected off the lake’s clear surface. However, over 50 years after the initial construction of Capitol Lake, we are left with an algae infested, sediment filled, lake. While there may have been a reasonable rationale for creating Capitol Lake back then, this rationale has become obsolete. Instead of living with the decisions of the human-centered society of the 1940s, it is time to develop an ethical partnership between the human and the non-human residents of Olympia. The first step towards this partnership is to remove the 5th avenue dam (Keck 8)(Deschutes Watershed Guide).

Historically the Deschutes River was well cared for by the Squaxin Island tribe. They were smart about the way they treated the river and built a culture that emphasised respect because they knew that the river was a precious resource. The non native settlers were different; the way they saw water was focused on the needs of humans. They didn’t care about the environmental effects and showed no respect for the river, they only cared about what they deemed the “public good” and to them the river was simply a tool. We can see this homocentric approach in action when we consider the implementation of the 5th Avenue dam. To be homocentric means the ethical decisions of the community are centered in what is best for humanity. There was no ethical consideration for the river or the ecosystem surrounding it; while we took the first solution we had to address some minor problems that could have been solved in other ways, the ecosystem that depended on the estuary was ignored and eventually destroyed. We have to consider the ethical consequences of our actions on the non-human lives that were affected (Einstein 4)(Keck 8).

Environmental ethics are the moral principles we hold in relation to the environment; our ethical principles determine the way we look at and interact with our environment. Every person is going to have a slightly different idea of environmental ethics but it is possible to find some middle ground. Carolyn Merchant is an American ecofeminist philosopher and historian of science and has published research on environmental ethics. In a chapter from her book Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture entitled “Partnership,” Merchant introduces the idea of a “partnership ethic.” She describes this concept as, “a synthesis between an ecological approach based on moral consideration for all living and nonliving things and a human centered (or homocentric) approach based on the social good and the fulfilment of basic human needs. All humans have needs for food, clothing shelter, and energy, but nature also has an equal need to survive” (Merchant 220). This partnership ethic acknowledges that humans have a right to their survival but it also asserts that nature has those same rights. We need to consider the lives of both the human and nonhuman because we share the earth and depend on each other for our survival. Developing a partnership with nature does not mean that human society will be destroyed for the good of the environment; it means that we must work to protect the environment as well as ourselves.

A homocentric ethic has been used historically to promote the construction of vital services such as electricity or flood control. However, the 5th avenue dam does not generate electricity nor any other public good. It was built because the people of Olympia considered the mudflats “ugly.” In Tim Keck’s “History of the Capitol Lake Area” he describes the reason Capitol Lake was originally created. He says, “A lake was needed to make the Capitol buildings and grounds stand out more. It just looked bad when one would look down from the Capitol campus grounds to see mudflats.” We destroyed an entire ecosystem and created a toxic pond because it “looked bad.” Now in the early 1950’s this attitude towards the natural environment may have been acceptable, but not today. We still live in a society in which the needs of the environment are ignored on a daily basis. Our planet is dying due to climate change; it is too late to save the hundreds of species of plants and animals that have gone extinct due to humans and it is too late to fix much of the damage done to the arctic. But it is not too late to save the Deschutes Estuary. It is time to listen to Merchant and build a partnership with nature. The Estuary is the perfect place to start (Keck 7).

We have reached a point in our human history where we are no longer fighting against nature to survive. In fact, we have created a world in which the opposite is true, nature is now fighting against humanity to survive. Our history is selfish and homocentric; we cannot reverse the damage we have done to the environment but we can make small steps towards creating a partnership between humanity and the ecosystems that we are a part of. There are members of the Olympia community already trying to establish this partnership between human and non human, such as the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team. On the D.E.R.T. website their mission is made clear, “ We serve as a center for a creative community-driven effort for the health of the Deschutes watershed by focusing on the most beneficial restoration project for the river: freeing it’s estuary” (DERT). D.E.R.T. is working to change our definition of the common good and prioritize the well-being of the nonhuman environment along the Deschutes River. Even if you don’t go out and remove the dam yourself, there are small things you can do to help direct our society towards a partnership with nature, instead of a war.

Works Cited

“DERT.” Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team RSS, Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team, 2018, www.deschutesestuary.org/dert/.

Einstein, Daniel, et al. Deschutes River Watershed Guide. Deschutes River Watershed Guide, DERT, 2016.

Keck, Tim. “History of Capitol Lake Area.” http://archives.evergreen.edu/1988/1988-01/full_text_projects/permission%20needed/political_ecology/Keck_T-History_Capital_Lake_Area.pdf

Merchant, Carolyn. Reinventing Eden: the Fate of Nature in Western Culture. Routledge, 2013.