Topography of the Bioregional Movement

by Sheila Rose Purcell

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.

There are many more ways of applying bioregional ideas, and more people and groups doing so, than most of us could have imagined a few years ago. Community groups from the Siskiyou Mountains of California and Oregon to the lower Hudson estuary in New York are spawning new publications and projects involving everyone from professionals to grassroots activists. Renewable energy practitioners, community planners, architects, and educators have begun to share a bioregional vision with forest workers, permaculture farmers, and food co-op activists. We’re involved in a full-blown movement now, and it’s time to see how individual threads weave through the whole tapestry.

Bioregionalism doesn’t mean merely one thing; it isn’t restricted to a single issue or special activity. It has become connective tissue joining the diverse parts of a growing organism. We should be aware of the unique role each of these parts plays and how each reaches beyond its particular function. Bioregionalism defines itself through that diverse and continuously evolving blend.

While talking to some groups, corresponding with others, and reading material from even more as Planet Drum’s networker, I’ve discerned a pattern in the bioregional fabric that I would like to share. It has been useful for directing networking assistance, and it should be useful for understanding the varied aspects of our movement.

First of all, there are Seed Individuals whose appreciation of the places where they live hasn’t been deadened by industrial civilization. They are full participants in the lives of those places. Whether old-timers or new settlers, country or city dwellers, their identity taps directly into the bioregion.

Next come Circles of Friends who share bioregional interests and who may collaborate on local information projects as a study group or undertake common tasks. San Francisco’s Frisco Bay Mussel Group began by inviting speakers to address topics such as watersheds and native species, eventually publishing this information in a successful campaign to defeat a major water- diversion scheme.

United to Resist a Common Threat is a type of bioregional group that is organized around a specific issue. Herbicide spraying, mining, nuclear power plants, and other obstacles to the natural wholeness of local areas have brought together numerous resistance groups. They express regional concern by opposing exploitive disruption, in forms such as herbicide task forces, valley protection groups, or watershed citizens organizations.

Offering a Positive Program is a natural accompaniment to the previous kind of groups. An organization that seeks to increase some life-enhancing quality of a place—whether by sponsoring native crafts, developing permaculture, creating a renewable energy center, or restoring native plants—is directly addressing long-term bioregional continuity.

Some groups are Bioregional Too while carrying out their other programs. The Creosote Collective in Tucson, Arizona, sees food production and distribution from a bioregional Sonoran Desert perspective, Tilth advocates a place-located view for sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest, and both groups are planning bioregional gatherings. RAIN in Oregon and New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod have evolved local activities to complement their wide-ranging interests in alternative technology and energy.

There are Explicitly Bioregional groups springing up in many places: Regional Awareness Project in San Antonio, Reinhabiting New Jersey, and Mogollon Highlands Watershed Association in Colorado, to mention only a few of a rapidly growing number. They have a specifically reinhabitory basis for considering a broad front of programs including locally generated arts and media, employment in restoring and maintaining bioregions, promoting local barter fairs, and bringing bioregional programs into the schools.

A Bioregional Congress so that as many groups as possible which represent life-place considerations can adopt common goals is a further manifestation of the bioregional movement. Ozarks Area Community Congress and Kansas Area Watershed have already established theirs; Great Lakes, Ohio River Basin Information Service, Interior Pacific Northwest, and New York state now are planning their first congresses.

Finally, there are beginnings of larger Inter-bioregional organizations, such as the North American Bioregional Congress and the Fourth World Assembly.

Although there is a progression of formally stated purposes in the categories that have been listed, relationships among them should be seen as mutualistic and non-hierarchical. Each is necessary and contributive, reflecting a healthy diversity that assures further growth. Our ability to eventually create a reinhabitory society will hinge on our ability to integrate all these manifestations of bioregionalism.

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


Sheila Rose Purcell (b. 1959) acted as the Planet Drum Foundation’s first intern, working on the “Listening to the Earth” conference in 1979, and then the foundation’s first networker. Currently she is the Director and Clinical Professor at the Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. The center’s Alternative Dispute Resolution program is the recipient of multiple awards.

Liked it? Take a second to support Quinn Collard on Patreon!