Small Island – Big Idea: How The Whole Vashon Project Began the “Climate Conversation” on Main Street
You’ll find our magical island in the southernmost part of Puget Sound, Washington. There is no bridge to our rural location, yet three major cities—Seattle, Tacoma, and Bremerton are only a short ferry ride from the east, south and west. It’s a beautiful 10 – 20 minute trip, with glorious views of the Olympic range and Mt Rainier when skies are clear. If you get lucky, your ferry will slow down so that passengers can watch Orca whales breaching when the salmon are running as they head to spawn in rivers and creeks that spill into the Sound, including from Vashon.
In 2018, there was one particular characteristic that Vashon Island shared with towns and neighborhoods all across America: there was little evidence of a whole community united and openly working together on the climate crisis. During both World Wars, this was not the case – everyone was constantly rallied to play a part. Main Street windows were full of posters advocating thrift and self-reliance. Newspapers, movies and radio shows kept the focus on the fight for liberty and peace. But today, even as the threat to the planet is more dire than any war or catastrophe in history, Main Streets look like business-as-usual, except perhaps for recycling bins. Meanwhile, most of us sit in misery in front of our computers.
As some of us began to take a look at this energy vacuum, it was inspiring to discover that small island communities all over the world are becoming leaders in the climate crisis fight, both by necessity, and also as pilot projects for bigger efforts. The Scottish Shetland Islands, for example, aim to become first in the UK to eradicate single-use plastics. One of the best-known examples is Samsø in Denmark, with a population of 4,000 and where 100% of its energy needs now come from solar and wind.
Vashon is a small island with a progressive population of around 11,000. It has a good number of nonprofit organizations focused on issues like recycling, fossil fuel activism, habitat sustainability for birds and bees, water quality, land conservation, and ecosystem protection. It’s a place where in 2018, electric cars and solar panels were beginning to appear. Yet all of these significant indicators of environmental consciousness were highly individual. Our local paper—the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber—printed articles from different nonprofits from time to time, but no specific approach had been found to guide and unite us.
We needed something to pull all of us together, to acknowledge the good work already underway. With this kind of support, we felt that we would collectively find ways to do even more. We decided that we needed to see real evidence of a town engaged in “going green.” Above all, we wanted show our children that we were responding to their frustrations, confusion, and concerns about their future.
The Whole Vashon Project was inaugurated in early 2019. Our mission: create a wealth of visible energy and commitment on our “Main Street,” promote the work of our environmental organizations, find ways for us to work collectively, and through education, inspiration and the arts, to move towards meeting big goals for a healthy and sustainable island home.
How to get the energy moving? We created a website to sell the idea, began publishing ads in the Beachcomber, and started a Facebook group, determined to stay away from doom and gloom stories, and instead focus on success stories from around the world (Happy Eco News being a favorite!). Today, we have nearly 560 members in the group and many more that read our posts without joining.
Our Really Big Idea was to publish a “Whole Vashon Catalog.” A number of us recalled the iconic “Whole Earth Catalog” of the 1970s, with its bounty of information and resources about sustainability and living lightly on the earth. Our version was to focus on asking our island businesses and nonprofits if they would share their “green goals” for 2020. The response was generous and deeply heartening. Take a look here!
By 2020, 66 island businesses and 51 nonprofits had declared their goals. Fourteen artists and 19 writers and editors created and organized content, and the Catalog went to press with the results, which also included helpful articles, colorful paintings of birds by the 4th graders in our local public school, inspiring quotes, and some educational quizzes. Almost $20,000 was raised to print 5,000 copies, as well as to finance a campaign of illustrated articles and promotion in the Beachcomber.
Meanwhile many businesses on Main Street also put commitment decals in their windows that said “Ask us about our 2020 Green Goals.”
The pandemic hit while we were completing the manuscript. It was quite a blow–Main Street and our schools closed up and Zoom took over our social interactions. We persevered, however, even while having to let go of our plans for a launch party, and even while energy slowed down significantly in the confusion and overwhelm.
By June, the Catalog arrived. Three thousand copies were delivered to subscribers of the Beachcomber, as well as to our local grocery stores. The rest went fast, left in stacks in our local post office. About 200 were saved to go to local schools, when they opened again.
The reviews were stellar—we received requests for copies from non-residents who wished to do something similar in their communities. We bemoaned the fact that we could not jump immediately into Plan B, which was to begin a campaign for more visibility in the town center. However, like communities all over the world, much of life was on hold. Nevertheless, we maintained our presence with educational pages in the newspaper on topics such as soil, regenerative agriculture, educational reading lists for time in quarantine, whales, and the 55-million-year-old relationship between ruminants and grasslands around the world.
In early 2021, we began building connections among our environmental organizations with a survey asking them to offer their assessment of Vashon’s ecological health. We then asked for a vision for the island in three years. We published the results in the Beachcomber, sharing a collective vision for the future.
One consistent response had to do with the declining health of Puget Sound and the problems with controlling polluted runoff from numerous sources on Vashon, especially during the rainy season. We therefore decided to focus on educating about plankton. These vital microscopic organisms are at the top of the food chain for all marine life, and the basis for much of the oxygen we breathe. Spreading the word, we felt, would lead to more action on projects to address water pollution. We commissioned an educational poster from Hodari Nundu, a Mexican naturalist and Paleoartist, who had joined our team from his home near Guadalajara.
From June to the end of the year, we scheduled numerous educational experiences about plankton: an all-day plankton festival, an article in the Beachcomber, two different art shows—one showing highly magnified photographs of locally collected plankton, and another featuring the work of Rebecca Welti, a Port Townshend “ocean sculptor” who is dedicated to inspiring people “to love and protect the organisms that make life on earth possible.” We also created a YouTube channel and added two plankton-themed videos, one narrated by Vashon resident Tag Gornall, “The Whale Doctor,” who had a 35-year career as a marine mammal veterinarian and who has been a driving force behind the plankton education effort.
In July of 2021, we were given a bi-weekly column in The Beachcomber called “Green Briefs,” and have written 15 articles thus far, covering topics like protecting birds, bioenergy, plastics, recycling, regenerative agriculture, and sustainable living.
Another blog post would be needed to acknowledge the wonderful work of the 25 environmental organizations listed in the Whole Vashon Catalog. Suffice to say, that we do not intend take credit for their achievements—which are many. We continue to see ourselves focused on education, and also promotion of the creativity and energy that exists here in this community. For example, we partnered with one island organization to host a talk about the impact of mining for batteries for electric cars in faraway Sulawesi, and another about making sustainable choices when shopping for the holidays.
As we move deeper into 2022 and life is slowly getting back to normal, we have an exciting list of new ventures, including publishing an environmental “Vashon Island User’s Manual,” a four-part series of educational “symposia,” (sort of like TED talks), more “sustainable shopping” talks, partnering with our other nonprofits to create a “Climate Action Plan”, creating programs with the local schools, and revisiting Main Street businesses and their green goals. This last project, with the help of Vashon’s Rotary organization, will begin to fulfill the part of our mission that got us inspired in the first place: to create a wealth of visible energy and commitment on our Main Street.
It’s too early to describe what we’re up to with this last mention. But if you join our Facebook group or keep visiting our website (which is currently being reworked), you’ll know when we’re getting close!
When we dream alone, it is only a dream, but when many dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality. – Friedensreich Hundertwasser