Bioregionalism — Living with a Sense of Place at the Appropriate Scale for Self-reliance
An excerpt from ‘Exploring Participation’ (D.C.Wahl, 2002)
“Living-in-place means following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure long-term occupancy of that site. A society which practices living-in-place keeps a balance with its region of support through links between human lives, other living things, and the processes of the planet — seasons, weather, water cycles — as revealed by the place itself. It is the opposite of a society which makes a living through short-term destructive exploitation of land and life.” 159
— Peter Berg & Raymond Dasmann
A sense of belonging to and responsibility for a place, the region in which we live is not only important in helping us to define our individual, community, and cultural identities, it is also at the very heart of sustainability. Intimate knowledge of the natural cycles, flora and fauna, and sensitivity to disturbance of the ecosystems in which we live used to be an important part of education. In many traditional societies myths, legends, rituals and ceremonies have served as a way to transmit this vital knowledge.
We are in danger of losing humanity’s collective inheritance of locally appropriate wisdom, if we continue the current disregard of other ways of knowing but the rational and scientific, which has lead to rationalisation, centralisation and excessive specialisation and thus shaped our current reality.
I should make it explicit at this point that I regard humanity’ s escapade into centralisation and specialization not altogether as a mistake. The last three hundred years have brought us a lot of knowledge, insight, inventions and artistic achievements. Most people on earth are now aware of the fact that they are living on a culturally and environmentally diverse planet.
Unfortunately, the price for this awareness seems to have been that this diversity has decreased drastically since we started our explorations. Let me emphasize again: I am not advocating a return to an idealized past of local cultures, oblivious of the planetary scale and the diversity of other forms of human expression and ways of life. [Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. Be mindful that I wrote this 15 years ago and enjoy!]
Yet it is of crucial importance that we re-evaluate our attitude towards traditional knowledge the world over and while maintaining an awareness of the global to focus our attention more on our lives in the context of our immediate local environment, its myths, legends, folklore and learn how to participate appropriately in the rituals and practices that sustain local diversity and resilience. We have to become sensitive and sensible participants in our local bioregions.
It was through reverence of nature, knowing our place in the natural cycles of the regions we inhabited and through intimate knowledge of the particular challenges and opportunities these regions provided, that humanity sustained its own existence for hundred thousands of years. Our challenge is to find a synthesis of these traditional bodies of knowledge with the understanding we gained through three hundred years of specialized Reductionist science. I will go into more detail on the importance of local knowledge later.
First let us explore the concept of ‘bioregion’ and how it may be of use in moving towards a sustainable human culture, which is at the same time globally aware and responsible, while fascinatingly diverse in the ways local communities have adapted socially and culturally to the particular, local environment which they are part of. The concept of a bioregion originated in the early seventies and “was first propagated by writer Peter Berg and ecologist Raymond Dasman, working trough an organization called Planet Drum and a newspaper called Raising the Stakes.”160
Bioregionalism developed out of a grass-roots interest in how to bring about social change that would lead people to protect and restore the environment on a local level. Any definition of the concept ‘bioregion’ should always remain tentative to allow for flexibility and adaptability to the unique, local characteristics of any given region. To give you a feeling for the concept, here are three attempts of a definition:
“Bioregions are geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watersheds, climate, and native plants and animals that exist within the whole planetary biosphere as unique and intrinsic contributive parts.” 161
— Peter Berg
“The natural region is the bioregion, defined by the qualities Gaea has established there, the givens of nature. It is any part of the earth’s surface whose rough boundaries are determined by natural characteristics rather than human dictates, distinguishable from other areas by particular attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soil, and landforms, and by the human settlements and cultures those attributes have given rise to. The boarders between such areas are usually not rigid — nature works of course with flexibility and fluidity — but the general contours of the regions themselves are not hard to identify by using a little ecological knowledge.”162
— Kirkpatrick Sale
“A bioregion is itself a sort of geopolitical entity, one in which boundaries are not set by arbitrary political factors but with a sensitivity to natural conditions. The boundaries might follow the definition of a watershed, changing flora or fauna, differing soil type, or geological formations. Most likely it will be a combination of these and similar factors.” 163
— Daniel Coleman
The first statement situates the bioregion within the planetary context and emphasizes the uniqueness and intrinsic value of each individual bioregion.
The second statement acknowledges that the fluid boundaries of bioregions are primarily defined by the local qualities of Nature’s self-regulatory processes. These in turn define the particular local culture and types of settlements.
The third statement identifies bioregions as geopolitical entities, which emerge naturally if its inhabitants are sensitive to a variety of local environmental conditions.
Local history, archaeology, religious customs and mythology should also be taken into account when determining the boundaries of bioregions. “The most vital bioregions tend to be those that have, for many centuries, been the life support systems of ethnic groups linked to the land by spiritual affinity, culture and tradition.” 164 The Planet Drum Foundation roughly translated the word ‘bioregion’ into the expression ‘life-place’. Peter Berg pointed out that a bioregion is to a certain extent both a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness.165
This explains why it is rather difficult to precisely define bioregional boundaries in terms of biological, geological or topographical features, while most traditional societies could immediately identify their ‘life-place’. In order for a bioregional consciousness to arise, there has to be a certain commitment to a place, which focuses our attention and allows for a more intimate way of knowing that place. As Gary Snyder reminds us:
“Is not the purpose of all this living and studying the achievement of self-knowledge, self-realization? How does knowledge of place help us know the Self? The answer, simply put, is that we are all composite beings, not only physically but intellectually, whose sole individual identifying feature is a particular form or structure changing constantly in time. There is no “self” to be found in that, and yet oddly enough, there is. Part of you is out there waiting to come into you, and another part of you is behind you, and the “just this” of the ever-present moment holds all the transitory little selves in its mirror. The Avatamsaka (“Flower Wreth”) jewelled-net-interpenetration-ecological-systems-emptiness- consciousness tells us, no self-realization, without the Whole Self, and the whole self is the whole thing.”166
— Gary Snyder
We are who we are individually and as communities only through our relationships and interactions with each other and the local environment that contains us. The perceiver and the perceived are one. An intimate knowledge of our environment and its cyclical processes, which sustain us, will ultimately teach us about ourselves, about who we really are. We are the part containing the whole.
Bioregional consciousness, the awareness of the dynamical processes of nature in our local environment can contribute to a dissolving of the self-world split, which still lies at the core of the dominant worldview. Bioregional knowledge connects us to our community and its locale. What keeps people in the industrial growth society from developing that intimate way of knowing a place is a lack of healthy, locally embedded communities. The split between academic and traditional knowledge and increased specialization and mobility have isolated most people from their native community.
This led to a situation in which most people, particular in the industrialized North may be experts in their fields of interest, but know little to nothing about the place and the region they inhabit. To prove, or disprove my point I have reproduced the bioregional quiz, designed by Leonard Charles et al. in the following table (see table 2). It will allow you to quickly establish to what degree you, personally, are familiar with your own local bioregion.
A Bioregional Quiz
Can you answer the following questions about the area you live in? Each right answer adds one point to your final score. The quiz is self-assessed. If you need to cheat, take it as an indication of how well you know your own environment.
- Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.
- How many days till the moon is full? (give or take two days)
- What soil series are you standing on?
- What was the total rainfall in your area during June and July of last year?
- When was the last time a fire burned your area?
- What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in your area before?
- Name five native edible plants in your region and their season(s) of availability?
- From what directions do winter storms generally come from in your area?
- Where does your garbage go?
- How long is the growing season where you live?
- On what day of the year are the shadows the shortest where you live?
- When do the deer rut in your region, and when are the young born?
- Name five grasses in your area. Are any of them native?
- Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.
- What is the land use history where you live?
- What primary ecological event/process influenced the land form where you live?
- What species have become extinct in your area?
- What are the major plant associations in your region?
- From where you are reading this, point north.
- What spring flower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?
0 –3 You have your head in the sand.
4 –7 It’s hard to be two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all.
8–12 A fairly firm grasp of the obvious.
13–16 You are paying attention.
17–19 You know where you’re at.
20 You not only know where you’re at, you know where it’s at.
(based on Where you at? — A Bioregional Quiz, Leonard Charles et al.)167
While most people in the global North and increasingly so in the global south can recognize the logos and trademarks of the world’s trans-national corporations and sing along to their advertisement jingles, less and less have a detailed knowledge of their natural environment. Most people are paralysed by the amount of information and mis-information they are subjected to through the mass media everyday. Only if we have an understanding of the importance of the diverse species and natural cycles in our local ecosystems will we be able to act responsibly when they are coming under threat of over-exploitation, pollution or destruction.
It is the awareness of and knowledge of our immediate environment and the appreciation and sense of identity that comes from having such bioregional knowledge, which makes people assume responsibility for the place in which they live and allows them to develop a sense of place. In turn, a shared sense of belonging to a place strengthens and rebuilds communities, which are vital for the transmission of bioregional knowledge from one generation to the next.
Through living in community with each other and all other forms of life, we will become more aware of our fundamental interconnectedness with the entire universe and begin to self-realize our ecological self, individually and collectively. Fundamental to all this is a very practical consideration, which calls for bioregional awareness as an important step towards achieving ecological sustainability: Bioregions define the appropriate scale for regional self-reliance and responsible environmental action and human participation in the community of life.
“The only way people will apply ‘right behaviour’ and behave in a responsible way is if they have been persuaded to see the problem concretely and to understand their own connections to it directly — and this can be done only at a limited scale. It can be done where the forces of government and society are still recognizable and comprehensible, where relations with other people are still intimate, and where the effects of individual actions are still visible; where abstractions on intangibles give way to the here and now, the seen and felt, the real and known.” 168
— Kirkpatrick Sale
After publishing the benchmark book Human Scale,169 an in depth treatment of the importance of scale in every dimension of human life, Kirkpatrick Sale focused his work on the academic study of bioregionalism and its implications. He believes that “it will take some time before people recognize that the project of understanding place is neither nostalgic nor utopian but rather the realistic sort of occupation anyone can participate in every day that has an immediate and practical chance of curbing our present waste and recklessness.”11
Regional self-reliance could be achieved once bioregional networks of cooperating communities are fully established. These bioregional networks could then co-operate within national networks in maintaining important transport and communication infrastructures. The international cooperation of the world’s national networks would maintain planetary awareness and responsibility through facilitating the free exchange of information and all forms of cultural exchange, as well as through facilitating trade regulations in support of local production and consumption. Following the principle of subsidiarity, decisions should be made at the lowest possible level, by those how are directly affected.
Decentralized power structures and infrastructures empower the people of a bioregion to cooperate in building just and participatory democracies and work towards regional self-reliance. Whereas centralized power structures and infrastructures disempower local people, disrupt community cooperation and create hierarchical and competitive systems, which depend heavily on transport and mobility at high environmental costs. There is ample proof that the bureaucratic apparatus of centralized systems of governance tends to become highly inefficient and naturally leads to homogenisation and uniformity.
In attempting to cope with the natural, social and cultural diversity of the many localities such systems encompass, there is a tendency to standardize procedures and policies, not taking the diversity of individual places into account. Bioregional development and government on the other hand “not merely tolerates but thrives on the diversity of human behaviour, and the varieties of political and social arrangements they give rise to. This diversity is the way to foster creativity and innovation, the dynamics of synergy, out of which come the enhancements and advancements of life.”170
Bioregional cooperation between communities takes place at an appropriate scale that allows for the highest level of synergies to arise. At the regional scale it becomes possible to create a dynamic and more or less self- reliant local economy, which provides a firm basis for sustainability. Kirkpatrick Sale writes:
“Please understand: I do not underestimate the complications. Yet I am certain that in the bioregional paradigm we have a goal, a philosophy, and a process by which to create a world which is not only necessary for the continuation of our species, but is also desirable and possible.”171
— Kirkpatrick Sale
In his book Ecopolitics — Building a Green Society, Daniel Coleman comes to the conclusion that “the sustainability sought by bioregionalists requires a rootedness that persists over generations, during which time the politics of place can become well established…. Well-rooted people will work to ensure the viability of their communities. …Since each region has unique geographical and biological feature, its inhabitants will develop a unique way of life to ensure an ecologically sustainable community. These natural features will determine how the basic human needs — food, clothing, shelter, energy — are met, which will in turn lead to a unique culture and economy.”172
Bioregionalism clearly is a long-term vision that suggests appropriate participation scale-linked to the whole. It suggest more or less self-reliant communities co-operate on a scale that is matched to the energy and material flows of the bioregional ecosystems, this co-operation will build the necessary synergies for the bioregion itself to be almost entirely self-reliant, providing for human needs within the natural limits of the landscape. Robert Hart believes:
“The bioregional principle has important worldwide connotations. It is in line with the vision of Gandhi and Schumacher, who saw a new world order based on small, organic groupings, geared to satisfy all the needs of whole human beings, respecting each others’ identities, exchanging surpluses and cooperating rather than competing with each other.”173
— Robert Hart
In the most recent briefing of the Schumacher Society entitled Bioregional Solutions — For Living on One Planet, Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone, co-founders of the highly successful BioRegional Development Group, suggest that bioregional development has multiple benefits. They argue that “creating stable regional economies can help create a sense of community and security that can alleviate the stresses inherent in a globally competitive world” and that “creating a more balance, self-regulating, diverse, stable economy will create greater richness in opportunities for people to chose a wider range of careers and vocations. The connection between quality of life and economic diversity will become increasingly evident.” Furthermore, “regional scale development encourages people to become engaged, creating an environment in which the political ideal of subsidiarity can be expressed.”
Desai and Riddlestone also point out that “bioregional development reduces risk,” since, as they put it “economic risk increases with specialisation, when we put all our eggs in one basket.” They argue that a bioregional economy is more stable and enjoys the advantages that any injection of money into it, “is multiplied as the money is spent and re- spent locally. The level of this positive effect, known to economists as the local multiplier, is dependent on the number of times money is re-spent before it leaves the community. The multiplier is therefore larger in a diverse local economy that offers a range of products and services.”174
One of the most important points that Desai and Riddlestone list in favour for bioregional development is about true-cost accounting. We have to become more aware that current prices in our global economy do not reflect the true costs of the environmental impacts of the practices that allow us to buy things at the prices we currently do.
“Our society is built on an economic ideology based on exploiting economies of scale, international competition and comparative advantage, these have led us to create a global market which has its benefits and its drawbacks. However, the prices of many of the products and services we buy do not take into account the damage they cause to the environment, to people and communities.
If we were to take these external costs into account, we would see the balance shifting towards smaller scale, more diverse local and regional development, or bioregional development. We can then reap the benefits of bioregional advantage. It will not take much to tip the balance and make bioregional development a much bigger part of the mainstream economy.”175
— Desai & Riddlestone
David Orr speaks of the geography of power and calls for a “reinvention of politics at the ecosystem level.” He argues that this will require “a substantial disengagement from the global economy and the passivity and dependence it fosters.” Orr believes that “the ecological potential of the region must be integrated with its economy, culture, education, and governance.” He explains that “at on one level bioregionalism celebrates the regional ecology and attempts to create a corresponding culture. At another level, it is an attempt to create economies, technologies, material flows, and educational systems appropriate to the bioregion.”176
The eco-theologian father Thomas Berry believes that bioregions will provide the context for “re-inhabiting the Earth”, he writes:
“The solution is simply for us as humans to join the earth community as participating members, to foster the progress and prosperity of the bioregional communities to which we belong…. Such a bioregion is a self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-governing, self-healing and self- fulfilling community…. The future of the human lies in acceptance and fulfilment of the human role in all six of these community functions. The change indicated is the change from an exploitive anthropocentrism to a participative biocentrism.”177
— Thomas Berry
In Berry’s vision bioregions directly reflect the patterns of organisation as well as the processes of life, which is what ecological design is all about. He sees each individual bioregion to consist of many co-operating regional communities. Berry points out that there is a reciprocal relationship between these communities and their region, since they are mutually dependent on each other for their existence.
While the communities aim to be self- reliant to the extend that they aim to “fulfil their most essential functions”, they will co-operate to meet other needs, so that the bioregion is “relatively self-sustaining.” Berry emphasizes that none is fully self-sufficient, since all bioregions depend on a healthy ecosphere and therefore “all bioregions are interdependent.”178
Together with the cosmologist Brian Swimme, father Thomas Berry has inspired people from many walks of life to come together in an effort to write a ‘universe story’ which more appropriately guides participation. The core of this new story is the realisation that the whole process of the universe represents a unity in which we participate. Berry writes:
“From the first imaginable moment of cosmic emergence through all its subsequent forms of expression until the present. The unbreakable bond of relatedness that makes of the whole a universe becomes increasingly apparent to scientific observation, although this bond subsequently escapes scientific formulation or understanding. In virtue of this relatedness, everything is intimately present to everything else in the universe. Nothing is completely itself without everything else. This relationship is both spatial and temporal. However distant in space and time, the bond of unity is functionally there. The universe is a communion and a community. We ourselves are that communion becoming conscious of itself.”179
— Thomas Berry
Whether it is the poet Gary Snyder or father Thomas Berry many people who understand themselves as participants in the dynamical whole, as discussed earlier seem to agree that the appropriate organisation for a sustainable human society is from the bottom up, starting with families, communities and then bioregions. At that level enough synergies result from the co-operation between communities to achieve a high level of self-reliance and meet human needs in ways that are integrated into the natural processes of the particular locality.
People from a huge variety of academic disciplines and practitioners from all sectors of society are beginning to converge on the understanding that the bioregional paradigm will be more appropriate in guiding the process of sustainability than the current globalized system. In a recently published compendium of ecological design solutions Janis Birkeland and Cam Walker conclude that:
“Bioregionalism is land-use planning that integrates industry, agriculture, economics and governance together with the ecology of the region. It begins from the premise that humans evolved in response to their environments; and are subject to natural laws and limits; therefore, communities should be designed to fit their bioregion. …Bioregional planning could also be designed to assist the transition to a bio-based economy.”180
— Birkeland & Walker
Birkeland and Walker point out that bioregional planning turns conventional planning on its head. “Conventional planning systems are processes for ‘choosing between’ development proposals or land uses according to the highest economic use of land.” They tend to “accommodate growth or ‘progress’ in a sense of transforming nature.” Bioregional planning on the other hand recognizes that “humans are biological entities and therefore need systems for living that are designed to meet their cultural, economic, and physical needs, but in ways that foster symbiotic relationships with the complex ecological systems of the bioregion.”181 The figure below is reproduced from an article by Birkeland and Walker entitled Bioregional Planning, it compares the conventional and the bioregional approach to planning (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Conventional and bioregional planning
In an article entitled Bioregional Boundaries, published in the same volume, Birkeland suggests that “ecological sustainability and biodiversity protection require that agricultural, manufacturing and construction industries be transformed to function within the limits of the carrying capacity of the bioregion.” Earlier attempts to promote the bioregional approach have often lost their momentum in lengthy discussions about the exact boundaries of these proposed bioregions.
Birkeland argues that “the concept of boundaries itself does not match the realities and characteristics of ecosystems.“ She emphasizes that “there are fundamental differences between fluid natural systems and rigid human-constructed boundaries” and that “natural systems are adaptive self-organising entities, whose boundaries are constantly shifting (eg rivers move, climates change, species adapt).” Birkeland believes that “for purposes of research, policy making and systems design, a new environmental management framework is needed at the regional level.” She suggests “a better starting point might be to map critical issues (eg water, energy), or whatever are determined to be the most fundamental limiting systems in the region.”
Birkeland points out that “using advances in computer modelling capability, it is now possible to map these crucial systems separately and examine the overlays, conflicts and potential synergies.”183 Birkeland and Walker emphasize:
“Human cultures have co-evolved with nature, a relationship which has been integral to both human survival and biological evolution. Thus, humans are dependent on the integrity of the food chain (e.g. without the bacteria in our stomachs, we might be unable to live). Therefore, lifestyles, cultures, industry and even systems of governance are rooted in, and should conform with, the natural conditions of the region.”184
— Birkeland and Walker
Bioregions provide the appropriate scale on which to achieve regional self-reliance and therefore play and important role in reducing the enormous environmental impact of unnecessary transport of goods. To give you a quick example, a recent conversation in the local planning department made me aware that Brazilian slate is being imported to Britain to be worked in Cornwall and end up of on Welsh roofs. Surely, this kind of behaviour cannot be called appropriate.
Bioregional planning requires an ecologically literate citizenry as an essential element. “Bioregional planners seek ways to transform society and its institutions through public education and participatory democracy, informed by knowledge of the local ecology.”185 This form of bottom up decision-making fundamentally requires active community participation in planning.
A bioregional approach to planning encourages self- help projects and through recycling and regeneration programmes builds “community while solving local problems.” It ensures that the “region’s economic activity and means of production are tailored to local materials and resources.”186 Birkeland and Walker ultimately come to the conclusion that:
“Bioregional planning is a model which addresses the roots and results of ecological ignorance, globalisation and urban development on the natural and social environment:
• By stressing local self-reliance, participatory democracy and community building activities, it offers resistance to these centralising forces.
• By applying basic indicators of social justice, like ecological footprints and environmental space, it provides a more equitable basis for resource allocation.
By involving the community in developing shared and positive visions for the future, it stimulates activities that restore local ecosystems and renew traditions which give communities social and ecological value.”187
— Birkland & Walker
Janis Birkeland argues “reducing pollution effectively, economically and without red tape means changing our industrial and construction processes, urban forms and regional land use to conform to ecological principles.”188 She emphasizes that investment into this kind of scale-linked design would have far reaching implications. Since September 11th, the issue of security has become a top priority, particularly in those countries who are consuming the world’s resources drastically above the rate that could be regarded as an equal share and certainly well above what may be regarded as sustainable resource use. Birkeland argues that through “smart investment in eco-technologies” a country could increase its national security by “reducing reliance on external sources of water, oil and minerals that are presently secured by aggressive corporate or military strategies. Eco-investment could also increase personal security in poorer nations, and reduce the pressure on the world’s poor to have more children as a form of old age insurance.”189
Global security is crucially linked to global equity, global health and global sustainability. All of these rely on empowered responsibly participating citizens engaged in co-operation with local business and government toward the collective creation of locally adapted, self-reliant bioregional cultures and their diverse communities.
[Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. It addresses some of the root causes of our current crises of unsustainability. If you are interested in the references you can find them here. The research I did for my masters thesis directly informed my 2006 PhD thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (2006), and after 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert-generalist in whole systems design and transformative innovation, I published Designing Regenerative Cultures with Triarchy Press in May 2016.]