We Oregonians are proud of the beautiful and diverse landscape of our state from the Pacific coast to mountains, rivers, waterfalls, desert, forests and farmland. Oregon also enjoys a “green halo” for our forward-looking outlook about the materials we make and consume to maintain our quality of life. But did you know that you live in the only state that has a 2050 Vision, which was adopted by the Environmental Quality Commission, for how we make and use those materials and how we account for the impacts they generate? Ten years on and Oregon is still the only state with a mechanism for envisioning pathways towards 2050 that protect the beauty and grandeur of Oregon for generations to come.
This is no small thing. Oregon policymakers opened the doors to seeing the big picture of how the goods and services that flow in and out of our economy affect people and places. This big picture is sometimes referred to as life cycle, and it allows us to peer into the systemwide environmental and social impacts starting from resource extraction, production, distribution, use and disposal.
This full life cycle perspective allows us to think differently and deeply about environmental protection and about social responsibility. Some of the category-leading preventive initiatives that originated from the 2050 Vision include strategic plans for reducing food waste, socially and environmentally responsible built spaces, modernizing our recycling system and reducing plastic pollution, enabling an ethos of repairing and reusing, and seeking pathways that enable environmental justice and equity in the full life cycle of the things we consume regardless of where they are made or disposed.
Importantly, the 2050 Vision calls for greater stewardship of the emissions, impacts, and burdens that are enmeshed in the globalized material networks that all Oregonians rely on, whether they order a pair of shoes from a catalog or buy packaged items at the grocery. For example, up to 60% of the food we eat in Oregon comes from outside the state. That means that emissions such as greenhouse gases released during production and distribution of those food items occur elsewhere on our behalf. The same is true about other impacts to land, water, and air that occur while producing, packaging, and transporting those food products – those damages happen in faraway places to maintain the Oregon way of living.
While the mission of DEQ was set up in the 1970s to clean up pollution within the geographic boundary of Oregon, it is the 2050 Vision that provides the needed framework to understand and act on broader ecological and social implications of the materials we routinely consume. This is a foundational shift in how Oregon thinks about environmental protection– the ability to analyze impacts of our way of living. This illustration shows the marriage of mission and vision for environmental and social care heading towards 2050.
So, what are some the ways that Oregon’s 2050 Vision might enable deeper and more equitable environmental protection and societal stewardship? I’ll offer three and perhaps you can think of a few more connections for the 2050 you can imagine.
First, using the systems perspective we can see the connections between many seemingly disparate activities related to materials. For example, plastic pollution is a global phenomenon and locally we are in the process of modernizing our recycling system guided by the 2050 Vision. It includes implementing an extended producer responsibility program which adds shared responsibilities and obligations between the maker and seller of packaged goods and the municipalities that provide trash and recycling services. This system allocates responsibility across multiple actors in the solid waste management systems and provides incentives to reduce environmental impacts, and for stewardship of distant places where recovered materials may end up. It creates opportunities for both industry and the state to improve conditions over time.
But plastics aren’t just a recycling issue, they are persistent and durable in the environment which makes them difficult to manage in different ecosystems – think plastics in waterways and in oceans. Growing evidence shows that plastics are a persistent pollutant as microplastics, particles and fibers smaller than 5 millimeters. Such particles have been identified from pole to pole, in snow, freshwater, oceans, stream sediment, soil, air, in fish, filter feeders, and wildlife, at times leading to the death of the individual by starvation, and even in human placenta.
DEQ’s mission to restore pollution damage, combined with Oregon’s 2050 Vision focus of preventing damage, creates a powerful framework to get ahead of chronic problems.
Second, all of us understand the importance of materials to our personal well-being to meet needs including food, shelter, mobility, education, and entertainment. Yet, many of those needs are satisfied by things made by people far from Oregon. Enhancing well-being is a goal of the 2050 Vision and it offers ways to reflect on what well-being means in terms of the DEQ mission and the responsibility to place and people – for Oregon, Oregonians and beyond. Place is important in many ways, starting with how we envision JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) priorities and outcomes in Oregon. Let’s consider how place might affect each of us. The affinities, fondness, bonds, (and perhaps irritations) that we form that determine our sense of place are varied and include the weather, educational, spiritual, and social community, built environment and services, regional foods (I am anticipating the scent and flavor of Hood strawberries), landmarks (seeing Loowit or Mt. St. Helens and Wy’east or Mt. Hood on my bike ride home), to neighbors and friends, flowers, and wildlife, even a fine local brew.
The 2050 Vision gives Oregon a way to think about JEDI in a broader and truly inclusive manner, to consider equity and justice in the scope of material life cycles. This way of looking at the global material flows is helping us and others think differently and imagine a tomorrow that reflects equitable prosperity with shared visioning and reciprocity.
Third, human beings and all life on the living Earth are faced with incredible challenges of unimaginable scale and complexity. These existential realities are not just limited to ecological damage; they also include immense deterioration of human potential in the global material networks. Among them: climate change, species extinction, land system changes (e.g., deforestation), pollution from industrial agriculture, novel entities (e.g., plastics, chemicals, and engineered materials), and freshwater availability. We may not feel the direct effects of these “shifts” here in Oregon, yet they are bound up to different degrees in the goods and services we rely on. Things like gasoline, electricity, food, clothing, housing, entertainment, communication, education, and many other aspects of daily life.
At the same, environmental existential effects are intricately bound to cascading lived realities for people and places in the supply networks that bring goods and services to our market. The lived realities include aspects such as pollution havens, human rights violations, oppressive labor practices, inequity, violations to indigenous cultures to name a few. Sit with that for a moment and imagine a different version for 2050 for your future self and the future of all who will come after us.
Material consumption drives economic activity so it may feel like we can’t imagine another future, but that is where Oregon’s 2050 Vision is the source of inspiration and perhaps our superpower too. It is the vehicle for imagining entirely different ways of being.
I invite you to add your inspirations to my list using the higher order goals of conserving resources, protecting the environment, and enhancing well-being of people and places. What does your 2050 look like?