More Than Just Saving What’s Left

by Peter Berg

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.

Anyone who has seen miles of elaborately constructed highway closed by a contamination crew in full protective gear attempting to clean up a chemical spill, or heard of an entire town being evacuated because of a similar calamity—and nearly everyone has by now—can sense that environmental disruptions aren’t just “issues” anymore. They are widespread facts of life that are approaching plague proportions. A deep civilization crisis is underway, one that can cause social suicide. Our greatest threats no longer come from natural disasters but from the means we use to subdue nature.

We need a positive politics that views the Late Industrial crisis as a transition toward a society that is based in rather than on top of life. There needs to be a full pronouncement of values and thorough implementation of social, economic, technological, and cultural practices that affirm the natural basis of the human species in life-sustaining processes of the planetary biosphere.

Classic environmentalism has bred a peculiar negative political malaise among its adherents. Alerted to fresh horrors almost daily, they research the extent of each new life-threatening situation, rush to protest it, and campaign exhaustively to prevent a future occurrence. It’s a valuable service, of course, but imagine a hospital that consists only of an emergency room. No maternity care, no pediatric clinic, no promising therapy: just mangled trauma cases. Many of them are lost or drag on in wilting protraction, and if a few are saved there are always more than can be handled jamming through the door. Rescuing the environment has become like running a battlefield aid station in a war against a killing machine that operates just beyond reach, and that shifts its ground after each seeming defeat. No one can doubt the moral basis of environmentalism, but the essentially defensive terms of its endless struggle mitigate against ever stopping the slaughter. Environmentalists have found themselves in the position of knowing how bad things are but are only capable of making a deal.

Why hasn’t there been a more positive political approach to valuing the earth and reverencing life?

Which leads to the main reason why people haven’t been able to fully express their priorities for the fate of the human species and the planetary biosphere: the fact that political structures have become welded to the industrial direction of society. Everyone knows that clean water is necessary and that industrial processes inevitably pollute it, but there aren’t effective political forums to establish local alternative ways to make a living. Nutritious food is necessary but there is no direct political means to implement organic permaculture policies. Fossil fuel dependency is a losing proposition and nuclear power is a truly dead end, but the established political apparatus rejects strong renewable energy programs as being unrealistic.

It’s time to develop the political means for directing society toward restoring and maintaining the natural systems that ultimately support all life. Bioregions are the natural locales in which everyone lives. Reinhabitation of bioregions, creating adaptive cultures that follow the unique characteristics of climate, watersheds, soils, land forms, and native plants and animals that define these places, is the appropriate direction for a transition from Late Industrial society. Environmentalism, at best, reaches its zenith in a standoff. It’s time to shift from just saving what’s left and begin to assert bioregional programs for reinhabitation.

The first step is to unmask Late Industrial wrappings from issues to show they are actually based on bioregional realities. “Jobs versus environment” is a typical disguise. Who really wants to work in an industry that will cause one’s own death or distribute lethal consequences to others? When workers or managers defend these industries they aren’t defining jobs as employment in something they necessarily want to do, they’re talking about getting an income to pay their bills. All industries depend, however, on some natural characteristics of the places where they are located. It may be direct exploitation as in the case of mining, or indirect dependency as when a favorable climate or rich agricultural base permits a density of population that can be drawn into high technology or service industries. They all must eventually deal with the consequences of their operations on natural systems: minerals become harder to find so strip-mining craters begin to diminish Allegheny Mountains or High Plains farmland; Los Angeles becomes too smog-shrouded for its automobile-bound population to endure; the computer boom almost instantly overcrowds the natural confines of Silicon Valley. A political response to continuously denuding and fouling life-places is to insist on employment that recreates rather than destroys the natural wholeness that invited inhabitation in the first place.

Once issues are read back through to their roots in the characteristics of a bioregion, a reinhabitory political program can begin to take shape. For instance, agricultural and natural resources policies can obviously be linked to restoring and maintaining watersheds, soils, and native plants and animals. Energy sources should be those that are naturally available on a renewable basis in each life-place, and both distribution systems and uses for energy should be scaled in ways that don’t displace natural systems. Community development in all its aspects from economic activities and housing to social services and transportation should be aimed toward bioregional self-reliance. Education and cultural activities should teach and celebrate the interdependence of human beings with other forms of life.

There are four different inhabitory zones within every bioregion and each of these warrants a distinct focus for reinhabitation.

CITIES need to undertake programs that reduce their drain on bioregion-wide resources while welcoming back a more natural presence. Green City platforms can, for example, promote neighborhood self-reliance through assisting block-size co-operatives to undertake a range of new activities: retrofitting houses for renewable energy; tilling community gardens: arranging city/country work and recreation exchanges. They could demand new employment in everything from operating small-scale recycling centers to producing goods for civic and neighborhood use from recycled materials. Most of the street space now occupied by parked cars could be vacated by operating neighborhood-based transportation systems to complement mass transit, and city soil could then be uncovered from asphalt to grow food or support wild corridors of native vegetation.

SUBURBS can adopt Green city proposals and also restore an agricultural presence on the land they occupy by encouraging food production where there are now lawns, and nourishing it with recycled household water and wastes.

RURAL AREAS are the working life-support foundations for most of a bioregion’s population. They urgently require help to remove exploitation threats and to nurture sustainable practices. Country-based information systems that link into urban media should be developed to create greater awareness of an overall bioregional identity. Rural programs can also demand employment of local people as bioregional stewards to undertake restoration and maintenance projects, and as bioregional guides to educate vacationers and oversee their participation in those projects.

WILDERNESS is the enduring source of a bioregion’s spirit and regenerative power. It must be maintained for its own sake and as a reservoir for reaffirming natural systems through reinhabitation. Access to wilderness should become a public right on the same level as learning to read and write with equipment provided freely and instruction carried out by those who can share their respect for wild places.

Constituencies for bioregional programs can be assembled around position statements of short-term and long-term goals that are appropriate to areas of inhabitation. Green City statements would, for example, oppose high-rise condominium apartment construction as a short-term goal and demand decentralized renewable energy housing in the long-term. Suburban groups would block further development of nearby farmland and also insist on water and waste recycling systems for the future. Rural groups would stand against present pesticide and herbicide spraying while proposing support for long-term permaculture and natural resources enhancement projects. Wilderness groups can immediately advocate intensified protection for wild places and future redirection of policies away from tourism and toward education.

Naturally bordered locales provide the best organizational basis for these constituencies; creek watersheds, river valleys, plains, mountain ranges, or estuarial areas. An initial strategy can be to present a statement of positions on issues for endorsement by town councils and candidates for local, county, state, and even federal offices. Eventual recognition of naturally determined districts within larger bioregional political boundaries would continuously be sought as a long-range goal.

Everyone lives within some bioregion so everyone can gain from participation in the formation of a political platform that represents their life-place. What are the planks for your area? Find out and begin recovering autonomy to lead a reinhabitory life.

(First published in Raise the Stakes No.8., Fall 1983.)


Peter Berg (1937-2011) founded the Planet Drum Foundation in San Francisco in 1973. His creative work and activism spanned decades, ranging from script-writing while a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and writing manifestos for The Diggers in the 1960s to presenting at the UN World Environment Day conference on urban sustainability and the Ecocity World Summit in the 2000s. In recognizing the significance of the connection between society and ecology, Berg was a leading early thinker in the development of the bioregional movement. Further biographical information is available on Planet Drum’s site.

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