Bioregional Education: Knowing Love and Connectedness

by Cub Kahn

Hudson River Valley Bioregion

This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.

This chapter is an outgrowth of a paper presented at the 1991 meeting of the NAAEE. The author reviews bioregional concepts. He believes that utilizing a bioregional approach in public policy would result in a reduction of bureaucracy and governmental regulation.

Implications of a bioregional approach for environmental education are discussed, and four are identified as far-reaching. Essential components of bioregional education are explained as a three-fold path of learning about oneself intimately, about ones connection to the Earth, and one’s place in the human community or bioregional tribe. He urges timely implementation of bioregional principles to help speed the healing of the Earth and the establishment of a culture cognizant of its deep roots in the Earth community.

More than just a sense of place, bioregionalism is an informed and intimate “love of place.” Bioregionalism is a philosophy and social movement grounded in the concept of ecologically sustainable human communities that exist in harmony with their natural surroundings. A bioregion is literally a “life territory,” a geographic area defined by its unique combination of natural features (including flora, fauna, soils, landforms, climate and hydrology) and by the types of human settlement and culture that have grown up in the area (Dodge, 1981; Berg, 1983).

…cooperation, honesty, humility and love must be guidelines for our behavior toward one another and the earth.

—G. Tyler Miller, Jr. (1991, p. 465)

The term bioregion in this context, has been in use for less than twenty years. In 1974, Canadian biogeographer Allen Van Newkirk first defined bioregions as biogeographically determined culture areas in reference to studying the linkage between biotic and cultural regions (Parsons, 1985, p. 4). In the intervening time a great deal has been written (mainly in small circulation newsletters of grassroots organizations) about the theory of bioregionalism, and thousands of people have investigated the practice of bioregionalism through their own lifestyles, particularly in attempts at self-sufficient rural living.

The bioregional world view is based on biocentrism, decentralization, self-determination, and appropriate technology. This alternative to the dominant Western paradigm offers a model for local and regional environmental public policy. In the bioregional paradigm, communities translate their environmental concerns into action to work toward regional ecological sustainability.

Every decision a person makes in her life is a personal, political and spiritual decision…you live your belief or you demonstrate that you do not have a belief.

—Anne Cameron (1989 p. 58)

The bioregional movement spread widely during the 1980’s. More than 100 bioregional groups are now active in North America, and similar movements exist on other continents.

Bioregionalists often form such informal groups by joining with kindred spirits in identifying the areas in which they live as bioregions, for instance the Hudson Valley, the Ozarks, the Southern Appalachians or the Cascades. A watershed, river valley, mountain range or other dominant geomorphic feature is frequently used to define the areal extent of a bioregion.

Bioregionalists apply the bioregional philosophy to life in their households, communities and regions. Thinking and living bioregionally can include steps as simple as buying local products, recycling, reducing personal use of nonrenewable resources and toxics, and using your bioregion as part of your mailing address. (Would watershed codes make more sense than ZIP codes?) Activities of bioregional groups include monitoring stream quality, restoring the environmental quality of their watersheds, reintroducing native fish species, planting community organic gardens, organizing craft guilds and other cooperative businesses to market locally produced products, studying the natural and human history of the bioregion, and educating the public about local environmental issues.

Owing in large part to its adolescence, bioregionalism—as a nascent social movement and an alternate world view—remains a somewhat amorphous concept, but the writings of Judith Plant, Stephanie Mills, Gary Snyder, Kirkpatrick Sale, Jim Dodge, Peter Berg, David Haenke and Thomas Berry, among others, have begun to define the bioregional paradigm (Andrusset al., 1990). Sale (1985) specified four keys to living bioregionally:

  1. knowing your bioregion;
  2. learning the lore of your bioregion;
  3. developing the potential of the bioregion within ecological limits; and
  4. liberating yourself through development of individual potential.

Dodge (1981) similarly described three main elements of bioregionalism:

  1. importance placed on natural systems and the interdependence of all life;
  2. anarchy—not in the sense of lawless confusion, but in terms of self-determination with major decisions being made at the community level; and
  3. spirit—including a sense of unity between the human mind and the natural world, and a deep regard for all life.

A content analysis of bioregional literature (Kahn, 1988) identified the following tenets of the bioregional world view: biocentrism, cooperative economics, self-determination, a sustainable society, ecological awareness, decentralization, appropriate technology and diversity. Bioregionalism thus contrasts sharply with the dominant Western paradigm, which values economic growth, materialism, domination of nature, competition, dependence on experts and specialists, nature as an economic resource, centralization, and confidence in science and technology.

Implications for Public Policy

The bioregional ideal is to work at the local and regional level to recreate human communities that function in tandem with the natural community. Bioregionalism is not anti-technology; rather, it is an appropriate technology, “design with nature’’ approach. Bioregionalism asks us to be coinhabitants of our natural regions, rather than parasitic consumers of every mass-produced, disposable item we can afford.

Bioregionalism is not a blind groping into the past for a lost Golden Age. Rather it is a heartfelt response to our current alienation from nature. It is a visceral reaction to the realization that the “high” technological system with which we have shut ourselves off from nature and practically entombed ourselves is, as Thomas Berry put it, a “wasteworld,” rather than the modern “wonderworld” we had conceived. Bioregionalism is potentially a potent antidote for the pathology of the consumer wasteworld.

If I had influence with the good fairy…I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life…it is not half so important to know as to feel.

—Rachel Carson (1987, pp. 42-43)

In terms of public policy, bioregionalism stresses individual and community action, and decision-making at the local level. Communities translate their environmental concerns into action to work toward regional ecological sustainability. Decentralization is emphasized along with a minimum of bureaucracy and government control. Many existing public policy processes actually fit the bioregional approach well; for example, the New England tradition of town meetings, and the use of public hearings in municipal planning, the siting of environmentally destructive facilities, and the national forest planning process.

However, these public policy actions may diverge from the bioregional approach in two critical aspects: 1) the question of who actually exercises control or makes decisions affecting the bioregion (the community itself? elected representatives of the community? government bureaucrats?) and 2) the use of geopolitical boundaries that bear no relation to bioregional boundaries. To bioregionalists, it is gratifying to see that river basins, watersheds, and ecological communities (for example, wetlands) are increasingly gaining recognition in land use planning and management processes.

Implications for Environmental Education

The implications of bioregionalism for environmental education are potentially far-reaching:

  1. Use of the bioregional paradigm in its fullest sense as a foundation for environmental education makes explicit the human values that undergird the curriculum. This explicit recognition of an alternative world view would be difficult for educators and educational institutions that strive to educate “objectively” or to teach only the values that are dominant in American culture (for example, anthropocentrism, Christianity, and economic growth as a paramount societal goal). Despite the environmental reawakening of the early 1990’s, bioregionalism is still far from the mainstream of American environmentalism.
  2. Bioregional education embraces the ideal of students (and teachers!) learning about their environment, their culture, their history, their natural heritage, and their roles as inhabitants of the bioregion.
  3. Bioregional education is environmental education. Bioregionalism is the conscious embodiment of thinking globally, acting locally and reflecting personally about ecological sustainability.
  4. The bioregional paradigm provides a framework for comprehensive and lifelong environmental education. The bioregional context can readily serve as a focus for both formal and nonformal education programs.

More work is needed to translate the bioregional paradigm into educational materials and programs. Thomas Berry’s (1988) essay entitled “The American College in the Ecological Age” is one of the best efforts to outline the task that educators face in this regard. According to Berry, “The fruitful interaction between the scientific and religious-humanist vision is our greatest promise for the future as well as the great task of the educator, both in comprehending for oneself and in communicating this vision to future generations of students” (p. 101).

What frequently passes for bioregional education today is a curriculum—or, more likely, just an occasional educational “unit”—that emphasizes local natural history or less commonly, indigenous cultures. But ultimately bioregional education must address three forms of bioregional knowing:

  1. knowing oneself deeply; that is, connecting with one’s true self; without this self-knowing, all other connections are arguably superficial;
  2. knowing one’s connection to the living Earth, both ecologically and spiritually—the ecological knowledge informs the spiritual understanding and vice versa; and
  3. knowing one’s connection to the human community; in other words, becoming a part of what Gene Marshall (1991) has called one’s bioregional tribe. Such a tribe is defined not at all in a racial sense but in terms of a community of people voluntarily joining hands and hearts to aid in creation of “a wholesome destiny for their regional homes” (p. 4).

And eventually we must come to realize that if we value what we can take from nature, but not nature itself, we will end up with nothing.

—Dayton Saltsman, Jr. (1990, p. 4)

Together these forms of knowing comprise a three-fold path of connectedness to one’s bioregion—a bioregional Zen. Both formal and nonformal educational programs that can facilitate journeys along this path sorely need to be developed. Does anyone know of environmental education curricula that explicitly address all three of these forms of knowing within a bioregional framework?

How will bioregional education ever be implemented? The American education system is now widely regarded as a sadly irrelevant anachronism that breeds mediocrity. Today we have enormous educational infrastructures centered around geopolitical school districts, state boards of education and state university systems. For bioregional education to succeed, we do not need multimillion dollar educational studies or blue-ribbon government commissions, and we do not need more tax dollars for education or shiny, new school buildings and laboratories. What we need are individual teachers who are bioregionalists at heart and who are committed to making bioregionalism the context of their own lives, their educational ventures and their students’ lives. Bioregionalists must build bioregional education from the ground up and from the Earth outward and inward.

Timetable for Bioregional Education

Admittedly, the bioregional movement is not a quick-fix approach to our environmental problems; by its nature, bioregionalism requires a profound shift in human values. The greatest impact of bioregionalism will be felt on a time scale of decades-to-centuries. Unfortunately, the crises we face do not allow the luxury of a leisurely approach to bioregional education; bioregional education is needed now—this year, this decade, this generation. The dismantling of the biosphere must be slowed now; our disregard for our life-support system is unconscionable. Now is the time to find a bioregional home and make a stand!

The current trends and rates of topsoil erosion, tropical forest destruction, species extinction, ozone depletion, greenhouse gas production, old-growth forest loss and Third World population growth are absolutely unsustainable. If we continue the present assault on the biosphere for one more generation, our children will inherit a far worse—and, in some ways, irreparable—ecological mess than we have today. For instance, the Earth is losing an average of at least 50 species per day or more than 18,000 species per year to extinction. In contrast, “the natural, or background, rate of extinction before humans arrived was roughly one species per year,” according to Norman Myers (1990, p.34). Furthermore, as Myers added, “The amount of genetic information in the DNA of a mammal such as a mouse would, if transcribed into equivalent terms, fill all 15 editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica published since 1771” (p. 60). So not only is the exuberance of life on Earth dimmed a bit each time a species becomes extinct, but a wealth of genetic information and potential is forever lost.

The respected Worldwatch Institute asserted that if humankind is to reach “sustainability,” it must do so within 40 years. “If we have not succeeded (by the year 2030), environmental deterioration and economic decline will be feeding on each other, pulling us down toward social decay and political upheaval” (Brown et al., 1990, p. 13). Today, Worldwatch’s plea for change has become more urgent. Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch, is now calling for “an environmental revolution” comparable in scope to the agricultural and industrial revolutions. According to Brown, “The issue is not our survival as a species, but rather the survival of civilization as we know it” (Los Angeles Times, 1992, p. 3A).

We cannot change others, but when we change ourselves, we may end up changing the world.

—Melodie Beattie (1990, p. 344)

The inevitable depletion of cheap petroleum supplies alone ensures that great changes will come in the way we live and the way we impact our environment within the next two decades. And the skyrocketing U.S. national debt, which will hit an astonishing $4 trillion in the current fiscal year, also will finally catch up to us. Already, Americans are annually paying more interest per capita on our national debt than the per capita GNP of most of the Earth’s nations. At some point within our lives, our staggering economic and environmental bills will have to be paid. Or else.

The recent changes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union reveal how huge and rapid upheavals can occur when national economies, social structures, and political institutions break down. The 1990’s are a time of remarkable political, social, economical, technological, and environmental change. Old social paradigms, no longer viable, are dying and being replaced by new worldviews that are more relevant to the final days of the 20th century and the growth of a cultural paradigm that fits the fresh realities of a globe that is spinning in novel and unexpected ways.

Hatching a new social paradigm that will sustain the Earth while sustaining civilization is one of the great challenges of our time. The future well-being of all life forms—spotted owls, earthworms and Homo sapiens—hang in the balance. We are about to find out how sapient we truly are; hopefully, we will learn that the name we gave ourselves was not a misnomer. Like it or not, we cannot go backwards: This planet’s remarkable florescence of life, the evolutionary product of 4.6 billion years of Earth history, is now subject to the whims and thoughtlessness as well as the mindfulness and love of humankind.

Concluding Thoughts

Bioregional thinkers are now calling for the creation of a new cultural mythology to guide us in our deliberations and actions. The God-man-nature trichotomy and hierarchy must be replaced with a new understanding that to be human is to be nature is to be Earth. We must heal our spiritual estrangement from the natural world. Rather than anthropomorphizing the universe—even telling our children to imagine a “man in the moon”—we need to look beneath our feet and inside our souls to find the Earth in the human. Only then, when we finally find ourselves and begin to accept our role as nature-conscious-of-itself (and, possibly, nature-with-a-conscience), will we start to comprehend our true place in the Milky Way.

Bioregional education is a crash program in Earth wellness. The task at hand is to teach people, lots of people, to love and know the Earth. This work begins at home, in backyards and neighborhoods and coves and hollows and little watersheds. It eventually spreads like intersecting ripples on a pond to cover major river basins and mountain ranges and great forests and entire continents. As a species, we must someday soon reach a point where we give ethical consideration to the whole Earth community. We must reach a point where we understand and cherish the intrinsic value of a spider, a stone, a swamp or a star. Nothing less will do.

Literature Cited

Andniss, V., C. Plant, J. Plant, & E. Wright, Ed. 1990. Home! A bioregional reader. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Beattie, M. 1990. The language of letting go. New York: HarperCollins.

Berg, P. 1983. Bioregions. Resurgence, May-June: 19.

Berry, T. 1988. The dream of the Earth.San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Brown, L.R., C. Flavin, & S. Postel. 1990. Earth Day 2030. World watch, March-April: 12-21.

Cameron, A. 1989. First Mother and the Rainbow Children. In J. Plant, cd. Healing the wounds: The promise of ecofeminism. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, pp. 54-66.

Carson, R. 1956 (repr. 1987). The sense of wonder. New York: Harper & Row.

Dodge, J. 1981. Living by life: Some bioregional theory and practice. Coevolution Quarterly. Winter: 6- 12.

Kahn, J.H. 1988. Comparative scenarios for human use of barrier beaches based on bioregional and industrial-scientific scenarios. Ph.D. Dissertation. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University.

Los Angeles Times. 1992. Group urges “Environmental Revolution.” Poughkeepsie Journal, January 12: p. 3A.

Marshall, G. 1991. How do we get there from here? Realistic Living, November: 1-5.

Miller, G.T. Jr. 1991. Environmental science: Sustaining the Earth. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Myers, N. 1990. The Gaia atlas of future worlds. New York: Doubleday.

Parsons, J.J. 1985. On “bioregionalism” and “watershed consciousness”. Professional Geographer 37:1-6.

Sale, K. 1985. Dwellers in the land: The bioregional vision. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Saltzman, D., Jr. 1990. Can our values really change our environment? Earth Ethics Forum 2(1): 1-4.

Cub Kahn is a blended and hybrid learning consultant at Oregon State University, where he helps faculty integrate online and in-person elements of their curricula. Previously, he was a professor of environmental studies and geography. He has also worked as a writer and editor for the National Wildlife Federation and a nature photographer.

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