Bioregion As Community: The Kansas Experience

by Gary Coates and Julie Coates

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

Except for tiny pockets of affluence, every bioregion since the advent of civilization has in some way been a hinterland, an area to be exploited by institutions and forces that have no stake in what happens locally. It is the classic story of empire, whether that empire is driven by renewable or non-renewable resources. It is the dialectic of the center and the periphery, the city and the wilderness. In this sense, the problems of the Great Plains are no different from those of the Pacific coastal forests, which are being mined for export, or the Brazilian Amazon, which is being destroyed forever by mechanized greed.

The central paradox of localism is that local economic and cultural problems are almost always extra-local in origin and, by definition, not amenable to solution at the local level. Eventually they require unified political action, a bioregionally federated social and cultural resistance movement willing to test its resolve in a struggle for survival. Yet while these local problems cannot be solved at the local level, that is the only place they can be solved. Without a local population whose roots are firmly planted in the land and its history, there is no preventing the destruction of the locality for profit by extralocal forces.

Because the lines of conflict between center and periphery are never clear cut, most, if not all, of the local population complies in its own destruction. The rules of the game require each actor to exploit a common resource to survive, so the exploited become the exploiters. The Kansas farmer who is mining groundwater and soil at a rate that will assure that he will not have a farm to pass on to his children is doing so because his only alternative would be to voluntarily suffer economic collapse now rather than later. For agriculture, participation in an international market economy means ruin for the land.

Only when the decisions that affect everyday life are made by those most directly affected does the notion of local control have any meaning. Those who advocate the politics of place must bridge that gap between the world of the hinterland and the world of the self-governing local community. If people have lost the ability to understand and control their own lives and places, then the task and meaning of bioregionalism is political, and is the same everywhere. In this age of industrial empire, we must develop locally specific and bioregionally appropriate ways to increase political, social, economic, and technological independence and self-reliance. We need to increase mutual aid, self-help and self-regulation within the local community and bioregion and develop a renewable energy-based, environmentally appropriate technology capable of being produced, understood, maintained, and controlled at the local and regional levels through democratic means…

…But the problems of this or any other region cannot be addressed without first involving people in the process of personal, cultural, institutional and technical change in the place where they live, in their own backyards, streets and towns. Without that, there can be no bioregional movement for change. It is the central paradox of localism and the central problem of bioregionalism. People must be firmly rooted before they will fight destruction that comes from beyond their boundaries. Community is the beginning and end of bioregionalism. Before the bioregion can become a community, the experience of community must become a familiar and cherished condition of everyday life.

Excerpted from Co-Evolution Quarterly, Winter, 1981.

Gary Coates is an architecture professor at Kansas State University. A leader in the concept of sustainable architecture, he has written many books and articles and led many workshops on the subject. Since 2007, he has been researching and writing about sustainable urbanism in Germany.

Julie Coates is an expert in generational learning and the Vice President of Information Services for the Learning Resources Network. She earned her Master’s in adult education at Kansas State University, and worked to educate Kansas residents about their local folklore and folk history. She has given workshops and lectures on education all over the world.

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