Early Bioregionalism: A Story from Many Voices
By Douglas Aberley
Bioregionalism is a philosophy and idea that has been the dominant way that communities have existed around the planet for thousands of years. In western thought, the idea can be traced back from rights based bioethics naturalists like Aldo Leopold, and different strains of spiritualism, romanticism, anarchism, feminism, regional geography dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries.
From counterculture to place-based bioregional culture
In the United States, bioregionalism is linked to the San Francisco counter-culture of the 1960’s, emerging from groups like the Diggers, and their efforts to feed, cloth and support communities, as well through street theatre, distributing broad based newspapers and zines, and an emerging communes popping up throughout the area.
The term bioregionalism was coined by Allen Van Newkirk, who’s first written reference appeared in magazine in 1975, and would later start Nova Scotia’s Institute for Bioregional Research. However, this early definition still didn’t include human cultures, and it wouldn’t be until Peter Berg visited as part of a road trip in 1972, just before heading to the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm that the term was completely flushed out to include people and cultures as a part of it. The UN conference was the first world conference to make the environment a major issue – and for Peter, he was struck not with the countries meeting in the rooms, but rather the common threads that brought people together from around the world into the streets in front of the conferences. He would spend much of his time filming these events, finding inspiration in what he later called the global “planetariat”.
Peter Berg returned from that trip to San Francisco, where he cofounded the Planet Drum foundation with Judy Goldhaft in 1973, an organization that was a seminal voice for bioregional investigation over the next fifty years.
I doubt that many people have an easy feeling about the future… or our ability to protect and maintain the networks of plants and animal life upon which the human future ultimately depends. Nor do I believe it likely that many of us believe that the hope for the future lies in more research, or in some technological fix for the human dilemma. The research already done has produced truths which are generally ignored. We are reaching the end of technological fixes, each of which gives rise to new, and often more severe problems. It is time to get back to looking at the land, water, and life on which our future depends, and the way in which people interact with these elements.
Raymond Dasmann, 1975
The importance of communities and individuals embedding themselves into place and locality is key, as is the concept of ‘reinhabitation’ and has been emphasized by early bioregionalists Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann. Unlike many strains of environmentalism – Berg and Dasmann placed the greening of cities and technology at the centre of a reinhabitation strategy, recognizing that most people will continue live in them. The idea is not how to disconnect and separate wilded natural areas, but instead, how to wild our cities, so that we become a part of our environment, not removed from it.
Bioregionalism gestated in the culturally turbulent decades between 1950 and the early 1970s. This era, generally labeled the “1960s,” is widely perceived as a period when social, religious and political convention was confronted by a post Second World War “Baby Boom” generation swelling through a greatly
expanded post-secondary education system. Starting in the late 1940s with the North American version of the Beat Generation, a long series of interrelated social change movements were vitalized by a student-led counterculture. At the conclusion of this period there were tens of thousands of veteran social change activists in North America with experience in a variety of movements including civil rights, anti-war, peace, feminism, conservation and appropriate technology.
Social historian Theodore Roszak perceptively profiled them:
At their best, these young bohemians are the would-be utopian pioneers of the world that lies beyond intellectual rejection of the Great Society. They seek to invent a cultural base for New Left politics, to discover new types of community, new family patterns, new sexual mores, new kinds of livelihood, new esthetic forms, new personal identities on the far side of power politics, the bourgeois home, and the consumer society.
As the 1960s and the war in Vietnam wound down to their concurrent conclusion, a period of dissolution and self-reflection occurred. In tandem with the post-university diaspora of the “Baby Boom” generation, a parallel social change phenomenon was occurring in the rural regions and marginalized urban neighborhoods of North America. A new awareness evolved among residents of these communities that human and natural resources were being extracted at accelerating rates with no resulting improvement in social and environmental quality of life. As hundreds of local efforts were mounted to protest this impoverishment, often with newly located back-to-the-land, civil liberties and urban pioneer components of the 1960s activist community as a catalyst, a gradual new synthesis of purpose appears to have been created.
A social movement was connected to the politics of home place. It is at this nexus that bioregionalism was first informally conceived, and later emerged as an important evolution in the age old struggle to balance machine-driven economic progress with cultural and ecological sustainability.
The post-1960s call to create newly “indigenous activist-cultures” can be traced to the written expression of two individuals—Peter Berg and Gary Snyder. This relied upon the idea that successful growth of socially-just cultures rooted in the protection and restoration of ecosystem health requires a deep understanding of cultural tradition. The way to the future can be found by adapting genetically familiar ways of life practiced by ancestors and surviving indigenous peoples, not in mutating humans into endlessly replaceable cogs in a machine. The focus here is on a “connection of ecology” instead of the nation-state; localized rituals instead of consumerized Christmas; touch, song and shared experience instead of the
narcosis of content-induced monoculture.
Snyder is best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and key participant in the San Francisco Renaissance, a West Coast manifestation of the Beat Generation. What is not as well understood is that he later became a critically important bridge between the San Francisco Renaissance and the political counterculture. Snyder’s adaptation of a proto-bioregionalism first surfaces in his poetry, and in a more integrated fashion later in a widely circulated 1969 essay titled “Four Changes.” In it, Snyder notes that nothing short of total transformation will do much good. This is reinforced in an interview he does with Richard Grossinger in IO magazine, in which he connects politics and ecology as the touchstone considerations necessary to animate a new link between social activism and a sustainable life and livelihood.
[W]e are accustomed to accepting the political boundaries of counties and states, and then national boundaries, as being some sort of regional definition; and although, in some cases, there is some validity to those lines, I think in many cases, and especially in the Far West, the lines are quite often arbitrary and serve only to confuse people’s sense of natural associations and relationships.
So, for the state of California…what was most useful originally for us was to look at the maps in the Handbook of California Indians, which showed the distribution of the original Indian culture groups and tribes (culture areas), and then to correlate that with
other maps, some of which are in Kroeber’s Cultural and, Natural Areas of Native North America… and just correlate the overlap between ranges of certain types of flora, between certain types of biomes, and climatological areas, and cultural areas, and get a sense of that region, and then look at more or less physical maps and study the drainages, and get a clearer sense of what drainage terms are and correlate those also.
All these are exercises toward breaking our minds out of the molds of political boundaries or any kind of habituated or received notions of regional distinctions…. we have to learn a sense of region, and what is possible within a region, rather than indefinitely assuming that a kind of promiscuous distribution of goods and long-range transportation is always going to be possible.
Peter Berg, seven years younger than Gary Snyder, arrived to live permanently
in San Francisco in the early 1960s, and was active in the local experimental
theater scene by 1965. After honing skills as a radical street-theater actor and
playwright in the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe he was a founding
member of the legendary “Diggers,” the anarcho-political conscience of the
Haight-Ashbury hippie community.
He became the prolific author of a series of hundreds of broadsides collectively known as the “Digger Papers,” issued free in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood between Fall 1965 and the end of 1967. From 1967 onward Berg sustained a calculated dual commitment to act against machine-culture and for bioregional alternative. He instigated a metamorphosis of the Diggers into a “Free City” movement, and was instrumental in the creation and distribution of three legendary Planetedge posters that helped to irrevocably
link New Left radical politics and ecological consciousness.
Berg and dancer/actor Judy Goldhaft, who had become partners in late 1967, then moved to the Black Bear commune in the Klamath region of upper northern California, a celebrated outpost of intense social experimentation. In late 1971 the couple embarked on a journey across North America, visiting and video-taping life in a variety of counterculture communities. The final proto-bioregional evolution occurred in 1972 when Berg traveled to
the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in
Stockholm, Sweden. In challenging the mainstream agenda of the conference, and in meeting and acting in concert with place-based activists from across the planet, Berg conceptualized the goals of his life’s work. A common global thread of resistance and decentralized political aspiration was revealed in Stockholm—by peoples of the ethnic regions of Europe, by surviving indigenous cultures scattered across the planet, and by emerging region based cultures in North America.
In 1973, Berg and Goldhaft relocated and resettled in San Francisco, and worked to root the tenets of bioregionalism in the tolerant cultural medium of
Bay Area counterculture society. In 1973 they founded the Planet Drum
Foundation, a clearing-house for a wide variety of bioregional writing and
Between 1973 and 1979 the Planet Drum Foundation stewarded the creation of nine “Bundles” of bioregional lore. Each bundle consisted of a variety of individually printed poems, polemics, posters and essays.
The first two issues of these eclectic collections were not specific to any particular locale. Later, the bundles were crafted to reflect the life and culture of specific bioregions, including the North Pacific Rim, the Rocky Mountains, and the Hudson River watershed. In 1978 the Planet Drum Foundation published an anthology of lore titled Reinhabiting a Separate Country: A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California.
In the same period the Frisco Bay Mussel Group (FBMG), a grass-roots
organization active between 1975 and 1979, became arguably the most critically important incubator for early bioregional thought and practice. The FBMG booklet Living Here (1977) shows how the intellectual perception of place as a focus for sustained social change activism was first related to an actual bioregional territory. Prominently featured in Living Here is a reverence for the ability of prehistoric human communities to adapt culture to place.
This deeply rooted respect for indigenous thinking and peoples is a tenet fundamental to bioregionalism. In this period individuals including Freeman House, David Simpson, Michael Helm, Peter Coyote and a score of others debated, consented, acted and celebrated their way into a deep familiarity with bioregional thought and practice.
In 1979 the Planet Drum Foundation began publication of the biannual
networking periodical Raise The Stakes (RTS). With a stylish layout and a
stimulating mix of theoretical, practical and directory offerings, RTS remains an indispensable meeting place for a highly decentralized bioregional community of activism. In reviewing the variety and quality of organizing accomplished by Berg, Goldhaft and their many colleagues between 1967 and 1979, one notices their focused and sustained determination to introduce bioregionalism to a wider audience. This extraordinary commitment, which continues to the present, is a factor that has been critical to the success of a diverse bioregional movement.
The spread beyond community of origin
Bioregionalism spread north into the states of Washington and Oregon through the exceptional writing of Freeman House and Jeremiah Gorsline. The importance of this wider adoption of the place-politics-ecology theme cannot be overstated. House, a friend and activist associate of both Berg and Snyder, wrote his “Totem Salmon” essay after having relocated from San Francisco to commercially fish for salmon out of La Conner, Washington:
Salmon is a totem animal of the North Pacific Range. Only salmon, as a species, informs us humans, as a species, of the vastness and unity of the North Pacific Ocean and its rim. The buried memories of our ancient human migrations, the weak abstractions of our geographies, our struggles towards a science of biology do nothing to inform us of the power and benevolence of our place. Totemism is a method of perceiving power, goodness, and mutuality in locale through the recognition of and respect for
the vitality, spirit and interdependence of other species. In the case of the North Pacific Rim, no other species informs us so well as the salmon, whose migrations define the boundaries of the range which supports us all. (House 1974)
The spread of bioregionalism beyond the west coast of North America
was assured when Gary Lawless returned to his home in Maine after spending time in California with Berg and Snyder. Lawless, a gifted poet and bookstore owner, edited an anthology of place-inspired poems, interviews, traditional songs, natural history profiles and photo essays that he self-published under the title The Gulf of Maine: Blackberry Reader One (1977). This work shows that bioregionalism can be transplanted from one regional place to others.
Now firmly anchored on both coasts of the continent, bioregional approaches slowly began spreading inland, being adopted and adapted to meet the needs of those seeking a philosophical umbrella under which their place-centered efforts could be organized.
Coalescence and the inspiration of a vocabulary
The term bioregionalism was first conceived by Allen Van Newkirk, who had
been active in eastern US radical politics, and who had met Berg in San Francisco in 1969 and again in Nova Scotia in 1971. In 1974–5, well-settled as an emigrant in Canada, Van Newkirk founded the Institute for Bioregional Research and issued a series of short papers. As conceived by Van Newkirk, bioregionalism is presented as a technical process of identifying “biogeographically interpreted culture areas…called bioregions” (Van Newkirk 1975). Within these territories, resident human populations would “restore plant and animal diversity,” “aid in the conservation and restoration of wild eco-systems,” and “discover regional models for new and relatively non-arbitrary scales of human activity in relation to the biological realities of the natural landscape” (ibid.). Clear details of how these activities could be carried out were not elucidated by Van Newkirk, who, since 1975, has had virtually no influence on the idea he is responsible for naming.
The concept of bioregionalism was greatly clarified in 1977 when Berg and the renowned ecologist and California cultural historian Raymond Dasmann joined to write “Reinhabiting California,” the first classic bioregional polemic.
The article was originally written and published by Berg under the title “Strategies for Reinhabiting the Northern California Bioregion” (Berg 1977). Shortly thereafter, Berg was encouraged by Dasmann to submit the article for publication in the influential journal The Ecologist . After the piece was returned for redrafting, Berg and Dasmann worked on a major collaborative revision.
By synthesizing the experience of a cutting-edge place-based activist with that of a journeyman ecologist and experienced academic author, the bioregional vision was shown to be more than an obscure subset of the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970s. The influence of Dasmann is obvious.
At the time of his work with Berg, Dasmann was completing a seven-year United Nations-sponsored process of identifying and mapping how biophysical phenomena interact to create interlocking biogeographical territories across the planet. Dasmann was also the author of many inspirational and intellectually rigorous books, the most noteworthy being The Destruction of California (1965) and Environmental Conservation (1984), a textbook that explored issues related to the theory and practice of “sustainability.”
From 1977, in merging their very different sensibilities Berg and Dasmann confidently state the enduring principles of bioregionalism by explaining the meaning of new words that bear simple, yet powerful, intent:
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. Living-in-place is an age old way of existence, disrupted in some parts of the world a few millennia ago by the rise of exploitative civilization, and more generally during the past two centuries by the spread of industrial
civilization. It is not, however, to be thought of as antagonistic to
civilization, in the more humane sense of that word, but may be the only way in which a truly civilized existence can be maintained.
Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming native to a place through becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life-supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it. Simply stated it involves applying
for membership in a biotic community and ceasing to be its exploiter.
Bioregion refers both to a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness —to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. Within a bioregion the conditions that influence life are similar and these in turn have influenced human occupancy.
A bioregion can be determined initially by use of climatology, physiography, animal and plant geography, natural history and other descriptive natural sciences. The final boundaries of a bioregion are best described by the people who have lived within it, through human recognition of the realities of living-in-place. All life on the planet is interconnected in a few obvious ways, and in many more that remain barely explored. But there is a distinct resonance among living things and the factors which influence them that occurs specifically within each separate place on the planet. Discovering and describing that resonance is the best way to describe a bioregion.
In declaring that it will be reinhabitants rather than scientists who define “home place,” bioregionalism was cut forever from the tether of a more sterile biogeography. In perceiving that bioregional governance could only be established from the bottom up the bioregional movement was irrevocably put at odds with bureaucratic central government institutions. No amount of petty reform could appease a bioregional constituency that believed to the core of its collective being that democratically defined and ecologically decentralized governance was its unalienable right.
Berg and Dasmann explain how boundaries of a northern California bioregion
could be defined. Their concluding judgment is that “Alta California” should be identified, both culturally and ecologically, as a separate state, a declaration that bioregionalism has an identity as a devolutionary political movement as well as that of a contemporary land ethic.
Berg has utilized experience gained from intensive on-going bioregional thought and practice to write, or contribute to, important essays including “Amble Toward Continent Congress” (1976), “Devolving Beyond Global Monoculture” (1981), “More Than Saving What’s Left” (1983), “Growing a Life-Place Politics” (1986), and A Green City Program for the San Francisco Bay Area and Beyond (Berg, Magilavy and Zuckerman 1990).
Attraction of a literary, intellectual and artistic vanguard
In always seeking new ways to express dimensions of the intent and experience of bioregionalism, key participants in other related social and cultural movements also deserve a note.
Poets Gary Lawless (1977; 1994) and Jerry Martien (1982; 1984) transformed everyday experience into crystal clear lessons about how to “see” the place where you live. Social ecologist Murray Bookchin (1982) and philosophers Theodore Roszak (1975) and Morris Berman (1981) critiqued the globalist status quo and blazed trails leading to new perceptions of spiritual and cultural integration.
Essayist/autobiographers Stephanie Mills (1989) and Wendell
Berry (1977) used landmark events from their own lives to illustrate the
challenges and opportunities to “life-in-place.” The “Ecotopia” novels by Ernest Callenbach (1975; 1981) vividly portrayed how bioregion based societies could be created and sustained.
Performances by ceremonial dancers Judy Goldhaft, Alison
Lang, Fraser Lang, Jane Lapiner, as well as by actor Bob Carroll, animated the
unifying totemic power of water and salmon cycles in ways that no dry scientific depiction could hope to contain. These individuals, and many others, provided nascent post-1960s social change activists with a number of enticing access routes into bioregional perception and practice. Story-telling, ancient and new ritual, myth-making, theater, dance, poetry and prose all became the languages of bioregional expression.
Articulation as a unified theory informed by practice
In 1981, writer and northern California coast reinhabitant Jim Dodge synthesized a considerable body of bioregional thought, and contributed what is arguably the most compelling explanation of a bioregional vision. In a short article titled “Living By Life: Some Bioregional Theory and Practice,”
Dodge begins by summarizing three central values that animate bioregionalism: the importance placed on natural systems as a reference for human agency, reliance on an anarchic structure of governance based on interdependence of self-reliant and federated communities, and rediscovery of connections between the natural world and the human mind. Dodge crosses into new territory, identifying bioregionalism
as more than a philosophy to live by:
Theories, ideas, notions—they have their generative and reclamative values, and certainly a loveliness, but without the palpable intelligence of practice they remain hovering in the nether regions of nifty entertainment or degrade into flamboyant fads and diversions…. Practice is what puts the heart to work. If theory establishes the game, practice is the gamble.
Dodge then identifies the two broad categories of bioregional practice as being resistance and renewal . Resistance focuses against “the continuing destruction of wild systems” and “the ruthless homogeneity of national culture.” Renewal is “thorough knowledge of how natural systems work, delicate perceptions of specific sites, the development of appropriate techniques, and hard physical work of the kind that puts you to bed at night”
By adding this critical discussion of practice to what otherwise would have been yet another “New Left” or “rural populist” utopian manifesto, Dodge illuminates bioregionalism’s most potent characteristic: It is an ideal that is continuously shaped and extended through experience. It is a broad practice that begets theory, not theory stranded only in intellectual rumination and debate.
The open and egalitarian process of defining bioregionalism, as exemplified by Dodge’s writing in “Living By Life,” was sustained in the pages of the previously mentioned Raise The Stakes, a bi-annual periodical first published by the Planet Drum Foundation in 1979. Peter Berg, Judy Goldhaft, and a revolving cast of artists, poets, writers and correspondents created a regular meeting place for the widely dispersed bioregional community.
Authors and correspondents were encouraged to explain their bioregional perspective, and were empowered by the opportunity to layer their perspective and experience into the emerging mix. One of the most noteworthy issues of Raise The Stakes, edited by Dodge, includes
submissions by seventeen contributors who offer self-criticisms relating to a
variety of aspects of bioregionalism. This ability to publicly and constructively
explore successes and weaknesses exemplifies the fact that the concept of bioregionalism is evolving through a process of place and context-driven
Expression of methods of applied practice
The Planet Drum Foundation was instrumental in stewarding the next
contemporary development in bioregional theory and practice. In a series of four short booklets written between September 1981 and January 1982 concepts geared to the practical application of a bioregional vision were articulated.
- Renewable Energy and Bioregions: A New Context for Public Policy (Berg and Tukel 1980) introduces the bioregion as a territorial container within which energy selfreliance can best be stewarded.
- Reinhabiting Cities and Towns: Designing for Sustainability (Todd and Tukel 1981) explores ecological design practice, especially as it applies to retrofitted urban centers with a variety of appropriate
technology-based support systems.
- In Figures of Regulation: Guides for Re-Balancing Society with the Biosphere (1982) Berg proposes a technique whereby “customs” can be evolved that foster evolution of lifestyles that are consciously adapted to fit the limits and opportunities of localized ecosystem processes.
Taken together, these “figures of regulation” will regulate bioregion-based human societies without ideological, legal or religious coercion. The last of the small volumes, titled
- Toward a Bioregional Model: Clearing Ground for Watershed Planning (Tukel 1982), describes planning and design processes that can be used to decipher ecological carrying capacity—the parameters within which “figures of regulation” will guide cultural and economic activity in any bioregion.
The meeting of these two concepts —“figures of regulation” and “bioregional model”—is expressed by Berg as:
Figures of regulation is a workable phrase for the new equivalents to customs that we need to learn. Late Industrial society with its misplaced faith in technological solutions (to problems caused by unlimited applications of technology in the first place) is out of control. Our social organism is like anembryo that is suffering damage but there are no internal checks on our activities to re-establish a balance with the capacities of natural systems. The
point of figures of regulation is that they would incorporate the concept that individual requirements and those of society are tied to the life processes of a bioregion. A bioregional model can identify balance points in our interactions with natural systems, and figures of regulation can operate to direct or limit activities to achieve balance.
Regional and continental congress
A major evolution in the bioregional movement occurred in the mid-1980s, and can be attributed to the organizing skills of homesteader and appropriate technology activist David Haenke. In the late 1970s Haenke and a small group of dedicated colleagues were instrumental in establishing the Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC), the first broadly-based bioregional organization. OACC’s annual congress, held every year since 1980, provided a template for the practical application of a locally-oriented and place-based bioregionalism. As word of the success of OACC spread, similar organizations were established in a growing variety of locales, first in Kansas, and later across the continent. In many cases, representatives from newly organizing bioregions would either visit OACC annual meetings, or Haenke would travel to participate in a distant inaugural gathering.
These new bioregion-based groups spawned exotically titled periodicals Konza (Kansas Area Watershed Council), Katuáh (Bioregional Journal of the Southern Appalachians), Talking Oak Leaves (Seasonal Newsletter of the Ozark Area Community Congress), Mesechabe (Mississippi Delta Greens) and Down Wind (Newsletter of the Wild Onion Alliance). Each of these publications represents grass-roots bioregionalism at its best, offering a mix of local news, place-related essays, poetry, announcement of community events, and carefully thought out consideration of aspects of bioregionalism.
Several memorable issues of Mesechabe, arguably the most eclectic bioregion-based periodical, contained a first translation of a journal made during anarchist-geographer Elisée Reclus’ 1855 journey to New Orleans.
As part of his legendary role as the tireless “Johnny Appleseed” of bioregional
organizers, Haenke published a booklet titled Ecological Politics and Bioregionalism (1984). Where earlier bioregional polemicists had been preoccupied with ecological connection actualized by a renewed anarchic primitivism, Haenke expounds a more pragmatic variant of bioregional purpose. In a tone that epitomizes mid-continent pragmatism he invokes the existence of ecological laws that will guide the positive transformation of bioregion-based societies. By adopting a style of writing that mimics the rhythm of a fundamentalist sermon Haenke describes how bioregionalism involves strict use of regenerative agriculture, appropriate technology, renewable energy sources, cooperative economics, land trusts, ecologically-based health policy, and aggressive “peace offensives.”
Haenke’s bioregional vision is rural, practical and focused—his focus
is on the politicization and institutionalization of bioregionalism.
In 1984, Haenke utilized the bioregional vision that he developed in Ecological
Politics and Bioregionalism as a framework for organizing and convening the first North American Bioregional Congress. Over 200 participants from several
continents were attracted to this landmark event, in which policies in twenty three areas of bioregional concern were developed by committees, debated in plenary sessions, adapted as deemed necessary, and adopted by consensus. These policies are depicted in Table 2.2. The written record of this gathering, North American Bioregional Congress Proceedings (Henderson et al. 1984), as well as the proceedings of four bi-annual Continental Congresses/Gatherings that have followed (Hart et al. 1987; Zuckerman 1989; Dolcini et al. 1991; Payne 1992), are key sources that reveal how the concept of bioregionalism has expanded. A second vital source of bioregional history emanating from the continental congresses are daily newsletters issued under the name Voice of the Turtle . Each issue summarizes reports from the previous day’s events, as well as a variety of poems, personal statements and related important contextual material.
The published proceedings of congresses and gatherings held in scores of individual bioregions provide detail regarding ways in which the definition of bioregionalism has been adapted to suit the needs and nuance of different cultural and biophysical settings. Noteworthy publications, among many others, include Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council Resolutions (Kansas Area Watershed Council 1982), The Second Bioregional Congress of Pacific Cascadia: Proceedings, Resources and Directory (Scott and Carpenter 1988) and Proceedings: First Bioregional Congress of the Upper Blackland Prairie (Marshall 1989).
Exploration of a broad intellectual history
In 1985, the Sierra Club published Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, authored by respected cultural historian and bioregionalist Kirkpatrick Sale. In presenting bioregionalism for the first time to a mass literary audience he argues that multiple social and ecological crises exist that threaten the survival of human civilization and that Bioregionalism offers an alternative paradigm based upon principles including:
• Division of the earth into nested scales of “natural regions”
• Development of localized and self-sufficient economies
• Adoption of a decentralized structure of governance that promotes
autonomy, subsidiarity and diversity
• Integration of urban, rural and wild environments
• Bioregionalism is connected to anarchist, utopian socialist and regional
Sale’s treatise is instrumental in introducing bioregionalism to the general public in two fundamental ways. First, Sale greatly expands upon Dodge’s presentation of bioregionalism as a unified theory, or in Sale’s terminology, as a “paradigm.”
Second, Sale shows that the values of bioregionalism existed in the works of
North American and European regionalists. Citing classic sources in regional
planning history, including Carl Sussman’s Planning the Fourth Migration: The
Neglected Vision of the Regional Planning Association of America. (1976) and
Friedmann and Weaver’s Territory and Function: The Evolution of Regional Planning (1979), Sale identifies Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932), Howard Odum (1884–1954) and Lewis Mumford (1895–1990) as progenitors of American regionalism. Sale ties American regionalist thought to the earlier related European expression of Frédéric Le Play (1806–1882), Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845–1918) and Patrick Geddes (1854–1932).
In tying bioregionalism to a 200-year tradition of resistance against machine and metropolitan-dominated culture, Sale creates both challenge and opportunity. A challenge in that these relatively obscure intellectual and activist traditions required exploration so that the lessons of their successes and failures could be understood. An opportunity in that bioregionalism could be viewed as only the latest reincarnation of a centuries long effort to define how socially-just and ecologically sustainable human cultures could be created and sustained. Sale singlehandedly attempts to characterize the intellectual genealogy of bioregionalism.
The Sierra Club’s book distribution network, and Sale’s reputation as a respected cultural historian, ensured that Dwellers gained a much higher profile than any book on bioregionalism published before or since. Dwellers became a lightning-rod for criticism from sources both within and
outside the bioregional movement.
The issue of leadership in the highly decentralized bioregional movement bears further comment. Leadership is critically important to the success of any social change movement that confronts an opponent as insidiously powerful as globalism. Bioregionalists temper this understanding by remembering the fate of 1960s-era leaders who either succumbed to the vainglory of media-created charisma or treated dogmatic allegiance to indulgent rhetoric as more important than empowering a self-actualized citizenry. The compromise that seems to have been accepted is that leaders at the bioregional level will most likely be those who best put to practice of locally-focused resistance and cultural renewal.
A final form of writing in which Dwellers is referenced includes what can be
labeled sustainability manifestos written by popular social theorists, for example Milbrath’s Envisioning a, Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out ( 1989) and Rifkin’s Biosphere Politics: A New Consciousness for a New Century (1991). In several pages within much longer works, bioregionalism is presented primarily as proposing the concept of a useful territorial container, the bioregion. In all the books and articles in which it is mentioned, Dwellers In The Land remains an influential, and controversial, source of bioregional lore.
Bioregionalism is best understood when viewed from the “inside,” not from reading one or several texts. Gatherings should be attended, ephemeral periodicals reviewed, restoration projects participated in, and place-based rituals and ceremonies shared. Examples of critical appraisals which successfully adopt this approach can be found in the pioneering graduate theses of Aberley (1985) and Carr (1990). Aberley details the historic exploitation of a rural bioregion, then explores how a bioregional alternative might be implemented. Carr interprets the social and philosophical evolution of bioregionalism based on a decade of taped interviews and wide participation in bioregional events.
Extension to include social/spiritual definition
Another major development in the theory of bioregionalism is Thomas Berry’s
The Dream of the Earth (1988), a collection of essays joined by a bioregional theme. A theologian active in the Hudsonia bioregion in New York State, Berry is concerned with constructing a bioregional world-view firmly linking spirituality with a form of social organization. Berry describes a set of six “functions” which are necessary for bioregional living:
The first function, self propagation, requires that we recognize the rights of
each species to its habitat, to its migratory routes, to its place in the
community. The bioregion is the domestic setting of the community just as
the home is the domestic setting of the family…
The second bioregional function, self-nourishment, requires that the
members of the community sustain one another in the established patterns
of the natural world for the well-being of the entire community and each
of its members. Within this pattern the expansion of each species is limited
by opposed lifeforms or conditions so that no one lifeform or group of lifeforms should overwhelm the others…
The third function of a bioregion is its self-education through physical,
chemical, biological, and cultural patterning. Each of these requires the
others for its existence and fulfillment. The entire evolutionary process can
be considered as a most remarkable feat of self-education on the part of the
planet Earth and of its distinctive bioregional units…
The fourth function of a bioregion is self-governance. An integral
functional order exists within every regional life community. This order is
not an extrinsic imposition, but an interior bonding of the community that enables each of its members to participate in the governance and to achieve
that fullness of life expression that is proper to reach…
The fifth function of the bioregional community is self-healing. The
community carries within itself not only the nourishing energies that are
needed by each member of the community; it also contains within itself the
special powers of regeneration. This takes place, for example, when forests
are damaged by the great storms or when periods of drought wither the
fields or when locusts swarm over a region and leave it desolate. In all these
instances the life community adjusts itself, reaches deeper into its
recuperative powers, and brings about a healing…
The sixth function of the bioregional community is found in its selffulfilling activities. The community is fulfilled in each of its components: in
the flowering fields, in the great oak trees, in the flight of the sparrow, in the
surfacing of the whale, and in any of the other expressions of the natural
world…. In conscious celebration of the numinous mystery of the universe
expressed in the unique qualities of each regional community, the human
fulfills its own special role. This is expressed in religious liturgies, in market
festivals, in the solemnities of political assembly, in all manner of play, in
music and dance, in all the visual and performing arts. From these come the
cultural identity of the bioregion.
By availing easy access to the intellectual underpinnings of their exposition, both Sale and Berry reinforce the fact that bioregionalism is connected to a larger and much deeper philosophical tradition than its most recent counterculture incarnation might indicate.
The characterization of the spiritual importance of bioregionalism has occurred in two other important areas. In Texas, Joyce and Gene Marshall grafted a radical Christian tradition with bioregionalism to create a dynamic grass-roots activist spiritual movement whose work is expressed in the pages of a periodical titled Realistic Living, first published in 1985. On a parallel path, deep ecology’s earth spirituality has been adopted by bioregionalists who experiment with meditation, vision questing, celebration of seasonal cycles, and a host of other rituals.
Inspirational books in this genre include Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a
Council of All Beings (Seed et al. 1988), Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep (LaChapelle 1988) and Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery (Starhawk 1987).
Connection/integration with other social change movements
Since the late 1980s, the development of contemporary bioregionalism has not evolved so much in broad strokes as it has from an organic and incremental process driven by the experience of a spreading network of activists and organizations. The process of bioregional dissemination and experimentation, although difficult to trace, represents the real current strength of the diverse bioregional movement.
In hundreds of towns, cities and rural enclaves, a parallel movement that supports bioregional governance is quietly and persistently taking root. Bioregionalists need to explore their intellectual and practical relationships to a host of other vital social and ecological movements. No single movement can succeed in inspiring transformation of the “consumer-producer society” on its own. Nor can a single movement overcome the politics of displacement and isolationism endemic to globalization.
The bioregional movement remains open and inclusive. Bioregionalism embraces the values expressed in ecofeminism (Muller 1984; Plant 1986), earth spirituality (LaChapelle 1988), permaculture (Crofoot 1987), ecological restoration (House 1974; 1990), among others. This integration is reflected in an essay by Michelle Summer Fike and Sarah Kerr, who write:
Bioregionalism and ecofeminism are two streams of the contemporary environmental movement that provide related yet distinct frameworks for analyzing environmental and social justice issues, as well as offering visions of more sustainable ways of living with the earth. Seeing the linkages between feminism, environmentalism, decolonization, First Nation sovereignty, anti-racism, gay liberation, peace and justice work, and all of the other struggles for freedom and democracy is critical to our work as community activists and organizers. We feel that a greater understanding of these interconnections is one of the most important lessons offered by a joint examination of ecofeminism and bioregionalism.
Evidence of this process of constant connection and integration can also be found in the previously introduced published proceedings of six North American Bioregional Congresses/Turtle Island Bioregional Gatherings held since 1984, in the pages of twenty-five bi-annual issues of the Planet Drum Foundation’s networking and bioregional theory periodical Raise The Stakes, and in a growing variety of journals which carry articles with bioregional themes.
One future goal of bioregionalism is to successfully integrate with other social
change movements (e.g. the environmental justice movement) to ensure that a more potent ability to affect social, political and ecological transformation can be achieved. Perhaps the greatest hope for bioregional activity lies in this integration with other movements. Bioregionalism supports place-based cultural transformation. The bioregion could become the political arena within which resistance against ecological and social exploitation could be produced.
Mainstream “discovery” and (mal)adaptation
In the early 1990s, bioregionalism was “discovered” by politicians, natural resource managers and environmental policy-makers who primarily serve government institutions and corporate interests. In a range of national settings, the language of bioregionalism has been appropriated to assist in conceptualizing experiments in institutional and organizational reform.
However, these government-sponsored developments have occurred with little reference to or contact with the grass-roots bioregional movement. Explicit uses of bioregional terminology include the September 1991 Memorandum of Understanding signed between heads of federal and state resource management agencies active within California state borders (California State Resources Agency 1991). In Ontario a joint Provincial Federal task force identified a “Greater Toronto Bioregion” as best enabling management of a large metropolitan area (Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront 1992). Each of these initiatives have defined bioregion borders from the top down, and have not adequately explained the role communities should play in these alternative territorial regimes.
Implicit adoption of bioregional tenets include the restructuring of regional governance units in New Zealand to match major watershed boundaries (Furuseth and Cocklin 1995; Wright 1990). In Nunavut, a new Indigenous bioregion is to be proclaimed in the eastern Canadian Arctic in 1999; a man and a woman will be chosen to represent each new electoral area (Devine 1992). Similarly, the Navajo Nation is evolving a “dependent sovereignty” relationship within its host jurisdiction, the United States of America (Commission on Navajo Government Development 1991). In Europe, a Committee of the Regions has since 1994 provided nearly 100 traditional bioregions with a recognized policy proposing forum (European Communities 1994). In the Great Lakes, Gulf of Maine and Cascadia, scientific and planning panels have adopted bioregions as the territorial unit within which a variety of diverse planning activities will be focused.
Ideas central to the bioregional vision have been adopted by mainstream
institutions. This appropriation of bioregional values can be considered a
compliment to the relative strength of the movement. At the same time,
however, these initiatives are generally devoid of a crucial bioregional value the grassroots redistribution of decision-making power to semi-autonomous territories who can adopt ecological sustainable and socially-just policies.
Bioregionalists fear that the general public will identify bioregionalism with these rhetorical and pragmatic government-sponsored initiatives rather than associate bioregionalism with its grass-roots and organic origin.
Broadening into a body of teaching
In 1990 New Society Publishers, centered on Gabriola Island in British Columbia, reacted to this need by initiating two important publishing projects. The first involved assembling a definitive anthology of the best representative sample of available writing on bioregional theory and practice.
As conceptualized by an immensely literate team of editors including bioregional movement veterans Van Andruss, Eleanor Wright, and New Society principals Judith and Christopher Plant, Home! A Bioregional Reader (1990) deftly layers bioregionalism’s many themes into a seamless whole. Home! remains the single most convenient and comprehensive way to read oneself into familiarity with the bioregional vision.
New Society Publishers’ second pioneering effort involved founding of the New Catalyst Bioregional Series. In a format that allows a knowledgeable editor to weave together summaries of bioregional thought and practice emanating from a variety of geographical and gender perspectives, the Bioregional Series has become an indispensable source of cutting-edge bioregional lore. In eight editions the Bioregional Series has explored individual themes including interviews with key bioregional thinkers (Plant and Plant 1990), green economics (Plant and Plant 1991), community empowerment (Plant and Plant 1992), human community ecosystem interaction (Meyer and Moosang 1992), community-based alternatives
to alienation (Forsey 1993), bioregional mapping (Aberley 1993), ecological
planning (Aberley 1994), and exploration of the ecological footprint method of measuring a community’s appropriation of ecological capital (Wakernagel and Rees 1996). Recent books by other publishers, including Giving the Land a Voice: Mapping Our Home Places (Harrington 1995) and Discovering Your Life-Place: A First Bioregional Workbook (Berg 1995), have added to the growing range of “how to”material available to practicing bioregionalists.
The challenges of twenty years of continuous extension of purpose has stretched the ability of a highly decentralized movement not only to guide its own growth process, but also to communicate its principles in a timely, purposeful, and clear manner.
Consequently, the tenets of bioregionalism, and the rich history of the
bioregional movement, are not as widely known by the general public as are
those of other contemporary social change movements. It is possible that this
relative obscurity is about to change.
Ironically, bioregionalism’s greatest strength stems from the fact that it has
remained relatively obscure. The goal of the bioregional theorist has been to
reflect on the needs and values of living-in-place, not to craft a seamless
theoretical construction or utopian diatribe. As a loosely bundled collection of
ideals which emanate from the reflective experience of place, bioregionalism
“speaks” to social change activists tired of convoluted ideological dogma.