Teach-In Sandbox #10: History of Bioregionalism w/Steve Welzer

Below is the transcript by a presentation Steve Welzer to the Bioregional Catalyst group and education course. If you’d like to learn more, check out the Earth Regenerator network and website at: https://earth-regenerators.mn.co

The key thing that I want to emphasize is that what we’re talking about in our movement, is the original natural and healthy way of living. Humanity lived in a thriving and sustainable way for 99% of our species history. So we’re going to talk about in the context of talking about bioregionalism, and we’re going to be talking about who are we as human beings, and what happened to us that was highly problematic.

So let’s get some perspective. You may have studied or not that our ancestors, the proto human hominids go back 2 million years. And our specific species, Homo sapiens, that’s us, dates back about 300,000 years, they say. But until the relatively recent rise of modern states and empires, which was just 5000 years ago, all people always lived bioregionally. So it’s not like we’re, you know, proposing something that’s outlandish or impossible. People used to live in bands and tribes.

A tribe is a cultural group dwelling within a particular place. Sounds like bio regionalism to me. Um, tribes inhabited territories, usually based on watersheds, or coastal plains, or highland areas, their territories, this map here that we’re looking at must have been drawn by a modern person, because tribal territories did not have rigid geopolitical borders like our states do. But you get some sense here, this is kind of a mega region, map, what we would call bio regions would be more granular than what we’re looking at here, but you get a sense of it. And at and under those circumstances, people identified with place, their culture arose from the characteristics of their place, which is nothing but the original natural and healthy way of living that we buy a regionalist are trying to recreate in a modern way.

So if you think about it, in the long run, the human story might be told this way.

That during 99% of our species history, prior to the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of status, civilization, humans lived lightly on the earth, bio regionally, oriented to local community attuned to the land. Then people someday people will say, there was a relatively brief from the standpoint of natural history of brief period of six or eight or 10,000,010 millennia, which was an average period during which humanity kind of temporarily lost its grounding.

And then, if your recognition of the problem, problematic direction that things have been, we’re going in, I’m doing In this thing, we’re in the future, they’re looking back, then there was a turn, I transition toward a broad greening of society. So they’ll look back like Earth Day, for example, may seem to us kind of tepid and benign.

But I think in the future, they’ll look back and they’ll see it as emblematic, that in many other things emblematic of a movement, trying to restore our bearings, and help humanity regain social and ecological sanity. A movement of which a modern bio regionalism is a key part. Now, naturally, during the average period of empire, statism, and patriarchy over exploitation, hyper growth, and depletion. That’s us, that’s our period.

There have been intimations all along that something is wrong and many have felt that way throughout what what we call history such that there have been push backs and counter movements and rebellions and critiques, proposed alternatives and many attempts along the way to try to analyze what’s going on.

How do we get there was a 1983 There was a great book by Freddy Perlman, well against history against Leviathan, which was just my first introduction to a great analysis of where we’ve been and how we got to where we are. Many of you probably, probably not many people have seen Freddie’s book, many of you have probably seen Ishmael 1992. And a lot of times we think about the radical paradigm shift in relation to what is called Western civilization. Daniel Quinn if you read Ishmael says look, it has become a globalized, Amano civilization, east and west, in our modern period, the values of which being growth, development and so called progress have been highly problematic. The elites who have benefited from development have of course viewed it as beneficial as advancement even though all along it has endangered, it has engendered exploitation and oppression in addition to ecological irresponsibility, but this is kind of interesting all along.

Naming the problem has itself been a problem or at least a challenge. So what I have here is, this is just over the last 20 or 30 years. Um, you may be familiar with some of these authors on the right hand side who have tried to name and analyze from It’s like that old thing where 10 blind people are trying to describe an elephant you know, and and they feel different parts of the elephant. And here we’ve had all these attempts by all these brilliant green thinkers to describe our modern Leviathan but, um, this this, you might have seen this if you ever had dwellers in the land, this is Kirkpatrick sale showing that showing the the the paradigm shift that we’re talking about.

Now I’m going to go back to at this point, I’m going to go back to really deriving the thinking that has gone into engendering our by regional movement. And it goes back to this idea of what what is the problem.

So during the 19th century, the truck the problem tended to be named as capitalism. And on that basis, a movement for the alternative called socialism really swept the world, a lot of people now, you know, even Bernie fans, and so on and so forth. A lot of people now, especially younger generations are not aware of how enormously forceful, enormously powerful the socialist movement was from about 1850 to 1950. I mean, by 1950, you have more than half of the people in in the world living under a regime that called itself socialism. But then it turned out that what happened during the latter part of the 20th century, is that there was a sense of socialism actually didn’t represent also much of a paradigm shift Marxism and when I was in college, that was the alternative.

I mean, I was a Marxist when I was in college. Marxism was all about optimism regarding ostensibly progressive things like growth, rationalization of production, centralization, economies of scale, and by under that influence, socialism still tended to view developmentalism as beneficial, and Industrialism as what they call the material basis for a classless future society. And then, by the end by by, certainly the last third of the 20th century, it started to be recognized that socialism, that movement had failed to liberate humankind which had been its goal.

The the true paradigm shift of the latter half of the 20th century starts with a questioning of all of that developmentalism, industry industrialism and instead instead of growth and development, the new paradigm, which will become a bio regionalism values, stability, decentralization appreciation for limits and balances, rejuvenation of local community life, and a renewal of a healthy relationship with the land and with nature. That is not what socialists had ever talked about. But of interest is that the reason for that is that there really was a debate in the 19th century. Some of the early socialists, and especially some of the early anarchists were communitarian, like Robert Owens, here, you know, this was some some somebodies picture of what Robert Oh, and had in mind as socialism, and it was very communitarian. Then there was this debate, where the Marxist developmentalism really one out and it went out because the mindset of industrial modernism was the predominant mindset during the 19th century.

So, even though there had been some resonance for alternatives from writers like Kropotkin, Tolstoy, William Morris and others, communitarianism was marginalized during the 19th century. But it wouldn’t die. During the 20th century, as there was a recognition over time, that socialist theory was was very deficient in some very important ways. there started to be a rethinking among many social change activists and started to lead toward a recovery of some of the earlier ideas about how our civilizational trajectories of growth and development have led to a situation where the modern nation states and governments and institutions and technologies have become insanely hypertrophy. Way beyond human scale, you will never hear that from the socialists, not the Marxist socialist.

And so you get by the 1920s. You know, you had the first communist government come to power in Russia in 1917. And it became pretty evident pretty fast that that paradigm of social change was very like, and, and so now you start to get new threads. And like, for example, during the 1920s Lewis Mumford and others started the Regional Planning Association of America and the garden cities movement. Personally, I consider Lewis Mumford to be the progenitor of the bio regionalist movement. And here’s how the thread plays out this new, really new paradigm thread during the 1930s. So that was the 1920s. It had Mumford and his colleagues being active garden cities, regional planning, during the 1930s. You had Ralph were SoDI and and his colleague, Mildred Loomis, where they called the School of living, they weren’t they were advocating, still at the margins. They were advocating communitarianism. The centralism, regionalism, cultural diversity, organic agriculture, what we would now call permaculture.

So these are the threads, the 1940s were all about the World War Two and austerity soon, there wasn’t much progress toward our movement then and the 50s. As you you might have heard, we’re all about like conformity and affluenza. But of course, it’s during the 60s that a lot of the threads of alternative ideas start to congeal into the beginnings of a deep green social change movement. exemplified certainly, and notably, by the publication of Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, that was 1962. And I think that history will look back and date, a very, very major turning point to the social change ferment that was going on, during what we call the 60. Much of which, China for the first time, was based on on a very deep rethinking of what had formerly been thought of as progress. Unsurprisingly, the ferment during the 60s was at first Barry encoded, it went in all kinds of directions, in the air. During the 1960s, there were all kinds of ideas, about new paradigms, new consciousnesses like, like a really key book and 1970 the greening of America, there is a revolution coming, it will not be like revolutions of the past.

And it was associated with some of the communal experiments that were going on back then.

Everything was new, new political parties, like the Peace and Freedom party and then the Green Party. New movements like the new left the New Age, Neo Marxism, Neo anarchism, second wave feminism, identity, liberation movements, and all kinds of alternative ideas, having a common that just about all of them were disdaining the values, institutions, belief systems, and life waves in general of the establishment society that we kind of have heard, but amongst all this alternative, thinking, bio regionalism emerges.

It emerges during the 1970s You had a very key book called smallest beautiful by EF Schumacher. and of interest is that in the very same year 1973 is the is the establishment of planet drum foundation in California, which was the beginning of of any organized bio regional organizing, and then from from Planet drum, when Peter Berg publishes re inhabiting a separate country in 1978. It’s that was really, for most of us in the 70s. That was the book that introduced us to the idea of bio regionalism and gave us a sense that there’s really a movement going on there.

Of interest. Same year as Peter Berg’s book came out, see here there’s a foreword by by Kirkpatrick sale. Kirk had been a journalist and an author and, and an alternative thinking writer.

First, he wrote about participatory democracy in the 1973 book called STS which was about the new left group. I was in Students for a Democratic Society. He wrote a great history of SDS. Then he wrote about American regionalism in 1975 book, which talks about how population and industry and influence seem to be at the time shifting from the coasts, the regions of the coast to the regions of the South in the south west. And his book was called Power ship 1975. But he might as well cool did paradigm shift, because he was in the middle of reading Mumford or SoDI Schumacher and Peter Berg, himself. And he was in the middle of, of a real transition of of thought now to mockers mentor.

A lot of people don’t know this. But his mentor was like an obscure professor named Leopold Aldus who in 1957, he writes the breakdown of nation. It’s about decentralization and certainly a precursor to our movement. But when when he published it, in 1957, it goes nowhere at all. There’s no interest at all. In 1957, Kirk sale and his interest in decentralization around 76, or 77, he’s reading stuff and he comes across this old book by Leopold, for he was so impressed with it that he got in touch with layerable core, who by now was teaching like in Wales, or something had been relegated to the margins of academia. Kirk says, versus these are great ideas, we have to put out a new edition, which they do and he writes the foreword to the new edition. And then Kirk sail is off on his journey towards bio regionalism in 1980. He puts out a key book called human scale.

And he notices then that there is a movement, the ideas that he was coming to himself, you know, and then he read Peter Burke, and then he realizes there’s really a movement, taking off around 1980, taking off enough to count dozens of local advocacy groups all around the country by 1980. And on that basis, guy named David Hankey, who I knew from the the green politics movement. David and others saw the potential to organize what they called continental bio regional Congress’s first one was held in 1984. It was held near Kansas City I’m sponsoring organizations where the Ozark area community Congress and the Kansas Area Watershed Council and it was co sponsored by these wonderful, there were these wonderful publications and organizations that were very, very marginal at the time. I used to get rain magazine, it was just it was so bad, it was great was just so great. You ever get a chance to look, look up old issues of rain magazine, the EF Schumacher after smallest beautiful there was a society formed EF Schumacher society. And of course planet drum and others sponsored the first by a regional Congress. Kirk sale the next year puts out the first Peter Berg’s book caught on among a lot of us in the movement. But but it didn’t, didn’t go farther than that. Whereas Kirk sails dwellers of the land

in 1985, really became something of a phenomenon. For that time. It was based on an address that he presented to the EF Schumacher society in 1983. So if you don’t have a chance, if you don’t have time to read dwellers in the land, the whole book, go back, you can you can look up online and find PARCC sales 1983 lecture to the EF Schumacher society, because it’s all there. And it’s really, it’s really wonderful. And so, you know, with the Congress’s and these, these books, by by the mid 1980s. Bioregionalism had started to get some real momentum and the congresses were held by annually, right up through 1996.

But then, the energy started to dissipate. So, so what we’re doing this evening came about, because when I got involved with er, and bio regional catalysts, I kind of got the sense that people were thinking, this is kind of a new thing to you know, and didn’t know that there had been a first phase of our movement or where it came from. And when we started to talk about that a little bit in some of our campfires, people said, Well, why why was there a dissipation after the mid 90s.

So that’s the last thing I’m going to address. And I’ll give you a couple of reasons. First of all, that’s how movements tend to be anyway, I mean, the energy of any particular movement does tend to ebb and flow over time. The best example that a lot of people can relate to is like the waves of feminism, you had the initial wave, the suffragette wave of feminism in the 19th century, they won a great victory in 1920 with a vote for women, then there was a dissipation for decades, then there was a second wave during the 70s participation again, and the third wave which started like in the in the late 1990s. So So movements tend to be that way anyway, energy dissipation rejuvenation. In addition to that, a the momentum of all that paradigm shifting activity of the 60s and 70s, lost steam, the whole zeitgeist of the country and in our culture change during the era of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.

And then there was a particular issue regarding the relationship of bio regionalism to the broader social change movement. And I’ll give you an example. During the 80s Kirk sail was a leading figure of by regionalism, and he was what he’s advocated at at the time in the mid 80s. Is that the newly forming green political parties should embrace bio regionalism ideologically. So he was all involved with with the early Green Party like he founded the Green Party of New York City. Chapter of the greens in like 1986. What he wasn’t prepared for is that political movements tend to be contentious.

And some leftists associated with Murray book Chin’s Institute for Social Ecology kind of aggressively came into the Green Party’s and the bio regionalist movement. And they contravene the influence of people like Kirk sail who were espousing deep ecology and pro pro while there was a silly war between the advocates of Social Ecology and DP

Kirk, Kirk being on the side of deep ecology, and this this intention was very disconcerting to some people especially like when the book Shin acolytes tried to make bio regionalism into a red left this kind of a movement. And the green oriented left this pushback against that. But for many people, including Kirk sale, for sure, got discouraged and dropped out. And then if you think about it, just like in human terms, if you think about what we’re trying to do, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that after some initial hopeful, but but kind of naive ideas about what could be accomplished. In the near term, many bio regional activists started to get a sense of just how alternative the bio regional vision really is.

And how enormous is the project of civilizational transformation, which is what we’re about. It’s no easy task. And there is there was great stuff coming out in the 80s and the 90s. But then there was kind of a people were taken aback about how big our project really is. It’s based on a very major paradigm shift. It shows the pathway back to sanity. But at this point in history, it’s very new and very alternative. So after the initial energy surge, after the sixth or seventh, biannual bio regional Continental Congress somewhat chastened and somewhat intimidated and somewhat discouraged, many activists by the late 90s, and after that for quite a while, stepped back from the bio regionalist movement. And after that, there had to be some rethinking and a gaining of perspective about what we’re doing an A regrouping. And then a reinvigoration of, of our movement following these phases, and we have to realize that there are bound to be phases of, of energy and dissipation, and then rejuvenation. But what’s great and I’ve been so encouraged to see is that it’s looking like rejuvenation is where we stand now.

We are all friends. And like I said, I didn’t see the nameplate here. I’m so glad to see you. We’ve been colleagues for a long time. There’s a magazine green horizon magazine that we both work on. And we both been active in the green politics movement. And we’re very and within the green politics movement. Linda and I are people who Lindy I don’t know if you heard my whole presentation, but I did talk about how the, with the Green Party, originally, there was an idea that that the ideology could be by a regionalist. And then they left this came in and they kind of swamped that you know, and Linda and I have been on, on the path of trying to re establish by originalism as as a as something that Green Party people can relate to. So, go it’s great to see you. Your brother, you brought up something that that I have for you know, I just come into er and bio regional catalysts in the last like six or eight weeks or something like that. And there are many, many, many many discussions that are of interest by Linda brought up one that I think is is, you know, would be worth a whole campfire or discussion, whatever, which is that Kirk sale, what I think you’re referring to. And what I, I do point out to people all the time is that in that 1983 lecture of his the Schumacher society, there’s like two paragraphs, where he goes into exactly what Linda’s said. And I think it’s very, very important for us to think about, because what he’s what he’s saying, as, as Linda was introducing, is that if we’re going to talk about really believing it really allowing cultural diversity. He says, you know, if we’re going to go back to living, having culture arise from from the land, and the flora and fauna, you’re going to get very different cultural expressions, and are, and to what extent are we willing? or to what extent are we willing to consider that with with an with a world of cultural diversity, you’re gonna get roots, you’re going to get communities, or bio regional Commonwealth’s, whatever that may be, you’re going to have values that are quite different from especially our modern progressive values, you know, when but anybody’s values can we tolerate? Should we tolerate? How do we relate to cultural diversity when it manifests in ways that maybe we find, you know, like, she said, there could be bio regions that organically they wind up living in a funeral? Way? That’s what Linda said. And Kirk said that too. So is is that okay, how do we feel about? See? I think it’s a whole issue unto itself. But it’s so good to see you.

Yeah, yeah, that does seem like a, like a really central conversation when we’re talking about. So if you don’t mind, I see both Stan and Metis. Hands, I just want to respond to this really quickly, because I just listened to a podcast. And I mentioned this to Jonathan, and Victoria, and maybe Steven, an email recently, podcast by Dave Snowden. And he is a complexity thinker. And he was describing how when you are trying to, I don’t know, grasping for the right terminology, but I’ll just say manage a complex system, a large territorial scale system. That would include multiple bio regions, the the, the way to do so most effectively is to distribute decision making while somehow centralizing coordination. So you’re bringing together the ability to like make sense. So you’re basically making that as collective as possible. But you’re not making decisions for individual locations. So if you have like, say, feudalism comes up, then it’s going to be basically interrogated by that centralized coordination and other ideas might be propagated out. I think that the reality of us having the internet now, and I think that if this thing is going to emerge, it’s going to emerge, it’s going to emerge, largely in unison in some way. Right. Like as we it’s going to come about all over the place. I mean, right, right. I see you shaking your head, Steve. I agree. That’s not that’s an oversimplification. But I do think that having a planetary network will help us to collectively make sense of how to move forward and how to, to evolve in our respective by region. So I just wanted to throw that out there. I think we might be in a little bit different time then Kirkpatrick sale, wrote that. I don’t know when he wrote that. Exactly. But

83 Yeah,

that’s just my two cents. Stan, your hand is next.

Oh, thank you. Well, I I can pick up on that. I really like what Joe the way Joe talks about this as sort of cultural evolution. And, you know, he did a lot of work with store Coulon and pattern language. And I think a lot of what Claire was saying, is this a sort of a way of talking about it and identifying what’s happening. Bio regionalism is coming. of the way we’re monitoring our health in some ways, whether it’s, you know, in a movement that we’re, we’re realizing if we want to have salmon, we got to think beyond our city and beyond our country. You know, it’s, it’s a global condition. And I think it’s a cultural evolution. And I was gonna ask Steve about, you know, besides sort of the circular economy, part of the Green Party and in Europe, the whole regenerative stuff, a lot of my reintroduction to this came from Daniel Christian wall, you know, and his, he’s a Schumacher alumni. And then he has his history of regenerative design. But I do think sort of cultural evolution is kind of like handling, you know, it goes up, it goes down, you’re focused on nature, and then you’re focused on something else, then you’re back focused on nature. I think they’re the I really liked the word regenerative. And I was wondering how you think of that with respect to green or bio regional, I sort of got interested in bio regionalism from the fractal, you know, decomposition of a problem into something, oh, this is a, this is a natural pattern. This is something that has occurred in nature. And this is how evolution has evolved it. And I should really get back in touch with that generative pattern. You know, it’s not just randomly happening. It’s breeding. And it’s a natural breeding, it’s a, it’s a selection. And it turns out, that’s the way our language evolves. That’s really important to have a extensible markup language. And it’s really important to keep changing the meaning of cool and hot and nice and good. So I was wondering how you thought about regenerating the pattern, and regenerative as a description of biology and regionalism?

Are you asking me, Stan? Stan, now you’re muted? Yes,

I think you have the historic back background. And I was kind of thinking, you know, language is also very regional. You know, in England, in particular, you can tell a person’s place within 25 miles from the way they talk. In the US, it’s still a little bit doable. That person says correct, instead of creek or stream, you can kind of tell their bio region. So that’s, you know, I think the cultural evolution and regeneration of biology and also regionalism in biology is a reoccurring language pattern. cultural pattern. Yeah, I totally agree. Maybe

you want to take it from here? You’re, you have a question or comment?

I’m certainly a comment and possibly a question. Who knows? First of all, thank you, Steve. It’s been a it’s been an education for me, because I’ve never heard a story from the American perspective. And I’ve been so interested to reflect on as I listened to you, how would I How would I tell the story of what I know from the British and European perspective? One of the differences I think, one of the really strong differences is that Silent Spring, I don’t think had very much impact in Europe. I think the impact it had was for people to say, oh, will lapse that something that would happen in America, it wouldn’t happen here. And in spite of the kind of the wisdom of the Schumacher influence on places like the alternative Technology Center in Macomb XLIFF in Wales I think it really took environmental disasters for your to begin to wake up seriously. You know, the Torrey Canyon terrible oil spill that affected Britain and France. It took I can’t remember the name of the of the plant, but the the horrendous chemical plant explosion, initially. And then, of course, it took Chernobyl, I think to really give the impetus to something happening in Europe. And then I think it began to happen, really from the ground up. You know, in Eastern Europe, I think the attitude was, well, this is all being created by capitalism. So introduce Marxism, and everything will resolve itself. So there wasn’t kind of the the, the impetus to get one’s hands dirty. It was, it was a political, very much of, I think, a political scene for least. But I’m, I’m so fascinated by the fact that I, I didn’t know the history of what has gone on in America.


I haven’t really contemplated the story over time, in the the continent I grew up in. Except that, now I come to, I come to bio regionalism in a kind of virgin territory sort of way. And, and yet, in coming to it in that way. I really do feel the differences in geography in culture, really, really deeply. I’m recognizing, perhaps for the first time really, why certain things have been jarring with me in the way that was the what to do is presented. You know, there’s, there’s, I think there’s a really deep difference sculpturally between the kind of behavior realism that I see, as, as very much an American Hallmark, getting things done. Focusing on behaviors, you you see it in so many, many fields, you see it in psychology as much as you see it in environmental stuff.

Yeah, I’m,

I’m really grateful to be in here tonight, because I feel on the one hand, the curtains have been drawn back for me on a whole piece of story that I didn’t know before. And on the other, the pieces have all been thrown up in the air, as a result of me being let in on that story. But most of all, I think what it reinforces in me, is the thing that Linda is speaking to, because it’s a it’s a little bit like democracy. You know, if you give people the vote, then they have the right to use that vote, the way that they think it should be used. And and so this whole question about how much diversity is humanity willing to tolerate? And where and how did the different? You know, I think there’s whole questions of what where do issues at what scale? Do issues have to be addressed? What what is unique place? And where are the commonalities that extend and I do agree with Benji, I do think we’re existing in in a really different context now with the planetary network for however long it lasts. And I think we have to take really full advantage of that. I just feel that’s really important. And there’s a I’m actually really excited having these pieces all blown thrown up in the air because it kind of unhooked some of my assumptions and has me perceiving differently. I think I’m going to stop at this point. But thank you very much, Steve, and everybody else who’s spoken

that was a compelling riff meaty, thank you. We’ve just got a few more minutes here. I don’t know if anybody else has something they’d like to throw In or any closing thoughts? Steve, including you, I don’t know if there’s anything that you want to, or I see Jonathan tanned, he’s going to take us home tonight.

Well, I think where I want to take this is to think about the bio regional as a set of guiding principles for humanity to rethink its place. Because, you know, it’s the, what we’re talking about is ultimately biological, and not so much cultural we, you know, our culture has allowed us to kind of digress from nature. And imagine that we are not nature, and that we have some kind of separate existence. But we really don’t. And so, you know, if you, if you look at, you know, the course of, of evolution in the course of human history, you know, there are some key points along the way where we’ve kind of lost our kinship with with the rest of life. And we’ve imagined ourselves to be separate. And we’ve imagined ourselves to be individuals. And this whole concept of human rights, just seems to me to be part of the kind of mistaken belief that we are somehow separate and that we have some rights that trees don’t have, or that, you know, it’s so, you know, I guess, where I see us ultimately going, and I, you know, maybe it’s purely fantasy, but the, the collective imagination in the collective consciousness and the, the global brain kind of ideas. What, you know, I think if if humanity survives this period, and that’s a big if it’s more like, what the, you know, the, the consciousness will reflect is that their diverse physical elements to the different parts of the planet, that are, in a way essential for the survival of the whole. And so, so really, that’s where I think the the bio regional comes in is that we have to have poles that are frozen, we have to have, you know, tropical forests. And we have to have people who are comfortable living in each of those areas and nurturing them and taking care of them in order to have a healthy whole planet. So, so that’s, you know, what I’m where I’m kind of trying to, to think how by regionalism can allow us to come to a planetary consciousness. So that’s, that’s my thought.

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