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 introductory chapter includes an examination of the origins of bioregional thinking and a brief review of its history as a North American socioecological movement. This provides the background necessary to understand the significance and relevance of bioregional education for our children. The fundamental concepts of reinhabitation, ecological restoration, and living in place are explained. The virtues of wildness, spirituality, and celebration are identified as integral to bioregionalism.
The author outlines the twelve resolutions developed by the North American Bioregional Congress Education Committee. These resolutions reflect basic bioregional values and establish the foundation for education which is bioregional in nature and content.
The impact of bioregional thinking on complementary movements such as Deep Ecology and the political Greens/Green Party is also discussed. Finally, its viability as an instrument of social change and force for ecosystem restoration is considered.
The word “bioregion” has been around since 1973, but the ideas and values of the bioregional movement are among the most ancient in human experience. Because the bioregional movement, as a genuine American social movement, has its roots more in the alternative lifestyle of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1950’s and 60’s than in the academic establishment of mainstream American culture, the word “bioregion” has not been commonly used in the field of environmental education and in the scientific community. But the process of cultural diffusion has slowly spread the term from its rural, alternative culture homebase into wider usage in mainstream media and society. Bioregionalism has been introduced to the general public through the writings of several authors. Each offers a definition of what bioregionalism is, but each also admits that the idea is still evolving. In order to understand the ideas of bioregionalism, a brief review of the history of its intellectual development is valuable.
Definitions of Bioregion
A bioregion is an area without hard boundaries but which can be distinguished by its many natural features including the flora, fauna, soil, climate, geology, and drainage area. A critical component of each bioregion is the human culture which has developed within and is integral to that area. This essential human element is what distinguishes the concept of bioregion from similar ecological entities which traditionally treat humans and their cultures as interlopers rather than as integral components of a natural community. All together these bioregions form a vast patchwork extending over the planet. Political boundaries have little meaning from either a bioregional perspective or in classical ecological thinking. However, any type of partition, including that of bioregion, is somewhat arbitrary and artificial.
“Ecoregion” is a similar term first introduced by J.M. Crowley. The concept was developed for governmental use to catalogue natural resources and assist in their management on a regional level. Early maps relied heavily on soil, climate, and potential natural vegetation parameters for defining distinct ecoregions (Bailey 1980). The delineation process was further refined to more clearly reflect the aquatic component and land use in each region (Omemik 1987).
Ecoregion and bioregion are alike in that the partitioning of both is based on physiographic and biotic features. However, the cultural aspects of bioregionalism set it apart from the more objective purpose of ecoregion definition.
The collaboration of Peter Berg, a central founder of the bioregional movement, and biogeographer Raymond Dasmond in the mid-1970’s resulted in the original formulation of the concept of bioregion. Dasmann had developed a classification scheme which partitioned biomes into biotic provinces based on prevailing climax vegetation. Berg deemed these provinces too large and lacking the elements of human culture.
Determining the “proper” size for a bioregion is still a conundrum for bioregionalist thinkers. In some attempts to solve this riddle the experience of Native Americans is drawn upon since they lived in a close relationship with nature. Berg and Dasmann were developing a concept which included both culture and nature, so they explored the size of area which Native peoples regarded as a home territory. No one right size seems to have emerged that could be easily used by everyone. Instead, the more subtle and subjective idea of a “terrain of consciousness” became another critical element in the definition of bioregion.
In 1976 Berg and Dasmann published an article in The Ecologist in which they defined bioregion as a term which “refers both to geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness—to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place.” (reprinted in Home! A Bioregional Reader, Andruss et al., eds. 1990: 36) They argue that the initial determination of a bioregion can be made by examining the climate, the physical features, the animal and plant geography, natural history and other descriptive natural characteristics. But the final boundaries are determined by the feelings of the people living there “in-place”, that is, who are living there as “natives”, as people consciously living in such a way “that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life-supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it.” (Berg and Dasmann 1990: 35)
A History of the Bioregional Concept
A better idea of bioregionalism can be grasped through a review of its origins. The set of ideas and values which today is called “bioregionalism” has been around for a long time. We find many of them among today’s more traditional, aboriginal people. A great many people who promote ideas and values shared by bioregionalists have never heard the term “bioregion”, and even if they did, might decline to ever be identified as “bioregionalists.” The term is not very popular even among its proponents. Doug Aberley describes it as “a name that does little to attract new adherents” (1993: 3).
Yet, the word has persisted because it has developed a meaning which other words do not have. The core of the bioregional idea is people living within the limitations and possibilities of a natural place so that the natural integrity and well-being of that place and its inhabitants are preserved. The human element in natural communities is often ignored in traditional environmental thought. The bioregional idea fuses two components: humans and nature. As Elan Shapiro puts it,
What bioregionalism means is that in order to survive on this planet, in order to be whole, we need to realize how important it is that we’re part of the immediate place in which we live. We need to know this place in detail; we need to love it in the detail. (1993: 17)
Aberley sees the task of bioregionalism as bringing together dynamic human populations with distinct physical territories defined by continuities of land and life. He adds, “The promise is that these bioregions will be inhabited in a manner that respects ecological carrying capacity, engenders social justice, uses appropriate technology creatively, and allows for a rich interconnection between regionalized cultures.” (1993: 3).
The Rural-Countercultural Roots of Bioregionalism
Some credit Helen and Scott Nearing as being the spokespersons for those Americans during the 1950’s who abandoned city life for the joys and hardships of returning to the land. They became well-known through their books. During the counterculture movement of the 1960’s and early 70’s thousands of people tried to return to a more simple rural life. In their attempts to “get back to nature” they forged the foundation of the bioregional movement.
Peter Berg recalls formative times during the 1960’s,
A lot of us who were Diggers (in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco) went and lived at Black Bear Ranch for a while…It might have been the most radical commune in the ‘60’s…Thinking about it now, it was an amazing adventure, but thinking about it then, nothing ever panned out. It’s lucky we didn’t starve to death. (Developing a sense of place) started happening at Black Bear…Maybe a quarter of what we ate was wild food…We were a radical wilderness community (Proceedings NABC 111,1989:50-51)
Berg first heard of the term “bioregion” in 1973 from Allen Van Newkirk, a Canadian poet and amateur biogeographer. Van Newkirk discussed bioregional strategy and described bioregional research as the study of culturally- induced changes in the distribution of wild plants and animals, and how the different natural regions of the Earth have been successively inhabited and deformed by various cultures. Van Newkirk introduced Peter Berg to the work of Raymond Dasmann.
In 1973 Peter Berg, Judy Goldhaft, and others created the Planet Drum Foundation which over the years would act as a strong advocate for bioregional ideas and organizing. The group published collections of maps, poems, essays and other materials as “bundles”. The early bundles began “laying out the intellectual territory of bio-regionalism without even using the word.” (Proceedings NABC III, 1989: 52) Others seemed to sense this growing feeling of a “bioregional reality.” In 1975 Ernest Callenbach published Ecotopia , a fictional book about the future secession of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington from a less ecologically-minded United States. By 1976 the term “bioregion” was incorporated in Berg’s writing. Berg recalls, “That’s ‘76 and ‘77, and we knew that northern California was a bioregion…So we (formed) the Frisco Bay Mussel Group….the first self-consciously bioregional group in the country.” (Proceedings NABC III, 1989: 53).
It needs to be noted that even in the early period of bioregional development there was a generalized spiritual undertone. Berg says of this period in San Francisco,
Ecology became the religion of the non-Eastern oriented people. Earth orientation became the spiritual basis for life for people who weren’t involved in the transcendental cosmological stuff. And I’ll confess that about myself: that ecology is a spiritual pursuit for me. (Proceedings NABC III, 1989: 50)
The term “bioregion” seems to have slowly spread among those adopting a countercultural lifestyle because it was a word which expressed what they felt: political boundaries were not as important as natural boundaries, nature is more important than the American government and American business interests. In their words, “Nature bats last.” Bioregional feelings existed in America before the term “bioregion.”
The experience of David Haenke, a central figure in the growth of the bioregional movement, illustrates this very well. Living in the Ozarks in an experimental homestead community Haenke writes, “A lot of us back-to-the-land people with a nose to the wind and an eye on the newspaper saw the Ozarks being trashed and polluted just like everywhere else, only slower.” (Proceedings NABC II, 1987: 38) In 1976, while working on a strategy to oppose ecologically destructive practices, an idea occurred to him. “Ozark Free State popped directly into my mind. Create an unofficial, undeclared, parallel, ecological Ozark nation! Trying to write what that meant overwhelmed me, but that was how it first came through.” (Proceedings NABC II, 1987: 38)
Two years after this revelation, Haenke heard about Berg’s Planet Drum and Callenbach’s Ecotopia. He began speaking to people throughout the Ozarks about bioregionalism. As a result, 150 people attended the first gathering of the Ozark Area Community Congress in 1980. Peter Berg met Haenke at the second meeting of OACC in 1981, where they discussed having a continental bioregional congress. From this discussion emerged the first North American Bioregional Congress in 1984. It was held in Missouri with 217 people in attendance.
The Idea of Reinhabitation
It is important to emphasize that the Berg-Dasmann concept of bioregion has two vital elements: (1) it is a geographic area defined more by natural characteristics than by political boundaries and (2) the existence of a feeling of identity with an area along with the knowledge and desire to live in such a way as to enrich the natural community of that area. This latter element is what Berg calls the “terrain of consciousness”, and it is linked to Berg’s ideas involving “reinhabitation.” It is the moral dimension to living-in-place since it involves living in such a way as not to diminish the ecological well-being of a local natural place, but rather to help enrich it. Berg and Dasmann state, “Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation.” (Berg & Dasmann 1990: 35).
Christopher Plant writes, “Reinhabitation involves becoming native to a place, learning what its unique characteristics and needs might be, and what kinds of human activities it might support if we were to fit ourselves to the land, not require the land to bend to our demands.” (Plant & Plant 1990: 104). Bioregional thinking means far more than identifying one’s bioregion. It means developing a lifestyle, a culture, a politics which opposes the diminution of the natural integrity of that local, natural place and seeks to actually enrich the natural well-being of the region. It means following the ethic of Aldo Leopold as expressed in A Sand County Almanac. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.” (Leopold 1949; 239).
Like the term “bioregion”, the term “reinhabitation” is a construction which describes something that is actually going on—that is actually being done by thousands of people many of whom have no name for what they are doing. It is an awkward technical term to describe the building of an alternative culture and society—alternative to the modem industrial culture which is polluting the Earth, devouring nature and driving species to extinction.
Reinhabitation involves the task of building a just, humane, ecologically sustainable culture and society. Is it any wonder that the people involved in the counterculture movement of the 60’s and 70’s should form the backbone to this movement of reinhabitation? After all, they intentionally rejected the mainstream culture and sought to live outside of it. The modern growth society inhabits the land and destroys it. Bioregionalists want to build a new culture that will reinhabit the land and sustain it.
Human Diversity In the Bioregional Movement
Some bioregional communities strive for complete self-sufficiency, having as little contact with mainstream American culture as possible. For them this means home schooling, a largely barter economy, few or no cars, off-the-grid energy, little or no payment of taxes, and a general divorce from the mainstream industrial culture. Other bioregionalists have one foot in each culture, and some work and live in the mainstream culture with a bioregional vision of something different. Like the natural world, the bioregional movement is diverse. Its evolving set of ideas is attractive to many types of people, especially those feeling alienation toward the dominant culture and those with an affinity for the natural world.
The bioregional movement not only has a ready made constituency of practitioners—those actually trying to live in an ecologically-sound manner—but it also has a constituency of values, both new and traditional. A quick review of basic bioregional values will help illustrate this. However, no attempt is being made here to reach a definitive statement of bioregional values. The words of Stephanie Mills are well-heeded here, “Thanks to its holism and diversity, bioregionalism defeats making any single manifesto.” (1990: viii)
The bioregional movement cherishes diversity, and the people in it seem to come from all walks of life, although its membership does not proportionately reflect the ethnic, racial or class structure of the U.S. population. Yet even with this diversity there seems to be a common core set of values. Some of these values seem “traditional”, that is, rural and old fashioned. This may explain why some quite traditional groups are attracted to the bioregional perspective. As radical as bioregionalism appears to some people, it actually consists of much that is traditional. “Bioregionalism tugs at many of our traditional values: nature, rootedness, cooperation, compassion, self-reliance, participation, sustainability.” (Milbralh 1989: 214).
The Value of Place
The central value of the bioregional movement is having a sense of place. Stephanie Mills states, “What bioregionalists want, and are willing to risk status and apparent security for, is a new way of life: simpler, freer, and more responsible, a life devoted to place.” (1991:40). This involves a sense of closeness with the elements, geological structure, animals, plants, all natural beings in a given local, natural place. It is a feeling of community with people in the context of a larger family which includes all the natural beings of a region.
Nor is the importance of place cherished only by bioregionalists. James Swan, in his work Nature as Teacher and Healer, notes that the psychiatrist Carl Jung found in America a discrepancy between the conscious and unconscious not found in Europe because “the new modern culture had failed to acknowledge the importance of coming into harmony with the place where you live as a fundamental root of peace and health.” (1992: 9). Biologist Neil Evernden writing before the word bioregion was widely used says, “There appears to be a human phenomenon, similar in some ways to the experience of territoriality, that is described as aesthetic and which is, in effect, a ‘sense of place’, a sense of knowing and of being a part of a particular place…It’s just what it feels like to be home…” (1978: 19).
Among bioregionalists this sense of place is discussed frequently. In Orion magazine Scott Russell Sanders writes that mobility is the rule in human history and rootedness the exception, yet he argues for the importance of “staying put”: “Every township, every field and creek, every mountain and forest on earth would benefit from the attention of stationary men and women.” (1992:45) In his book on the bioregional vision Kirkpatrick Sale proclaims,
…the crucial and perhaps only all-encompassing task is to understand place, the immediate specific place where we live. The kinds of soils and rocks under feet; the source of the waters we drink…the common insects, birds, mammals, plants, and trees…the carrying capacities of its lands and waters; the places where it must not be stressed…And the cultures of the people, of the populations native to the land and of those who have grown up with it.
That, in essence, is bioregionalism. (1985:42)
People engaged in preservation, conservation or restoration of the natural environment in an area eventually start thinking along bioregional lines. As Freeman House says, “Ecological responsibilities, in individual or social terms, can be most successfully undertaken in the context of specific places.” (1990: 40). A lot of people seem to be finding this out.
The idea of place which bioregionalists have is different from the “place” of mainstream American culture. For bioregionalists the idea of place is more defined by nature than by political boundaries, and it is more—though not entirely—subjective. Therefore it has “soft boundaries” instead of hard ones like the city limits. The bioregional idea of place is also deeper and richer than the mainstream idea because it appreciates the linkages, the connections, the context of place. The bioregional tree or flower is rooted in the planet Earth. The bioregional place is connected to other bioregions on Earth and is, ultimately, part of the Cosmos. Bioregional place is a product of numerous past evolutions: atomic, molecular, chemical, geological, biological and cultural. It is a place nested within places both spatially and temporally. Scott Sanders captures this feeling when he writes,
I think of my home ground as a series of nested rings, with house and family and marriage at the center, surrounded by the wider and wider hoops of neighborhood and community, the bioregion within walking distance of my door, the wooded hills and karst landscape of southern Indiana, the watershed of the Ohio Valley, and so outward—and inward—to the ultimate source (1992:47).
Most bioregionalists would not agree with a “bioregion within walking distance of my door.” There is growing support for the principle that the size of a bioregion needs to be large enough to be relatively self-sustaining. Bioregionalist author Gene Marshall explains that although local bioregions may currently be economically linked to and dependent on distant regions, a fully evolved bioregion should be self-sufficient in nearly every way. Marshall, like Sanders, describes his home place as a series of nested rings. For him, these geographical delineations are important because they chart his circles of responsibility.
The bioregional perspective stresses interconnectedness, and this is reflected in its idea of place which is not a provincial one but one rooted in the Earth system. As one bioregionalist expresses it, “…bioregionalists work to preserve and restore the regions in which they live. They contend that the only way to save the whole planet is to save its parts—and the part they are best able to save is the one nearest home.” (Zuckerman 1987: 63)
Although never using the term bioregion, Wendell Berry embraces this bioregional perspective when he argues, “You can’t do a good act that is global. A good act has to be scaled and designed so that it fits harmoniously into the natural conditions and givens of a particular small place.” (1991:4) Berry disagrees with people who want to save the planet, but ignore their local natural place (or bioregion). “If you want to do good and preserving acts you must think and act locally…This calls for local knowledge, local skills, and local love that virtually none of us now has…” (1991:4). The debate within the environmental community about being locally-centered or planet-centered is a moot question to most bioregionalists who feel as does Scott Sanders, “On the wall beside me as I write there is a poster of the big blue marble encased in its white swirl of clouds. That is one pole of my awareness; but the other pole is what I see through my window. I try to keep both in sight at once.” (1992: 46).
Spirituality as a Bioregional Value
In attempting to create a humane, ecologically-attuned culture the bioregional movement touches on all the major sociological institutions found in human societies: economic, familial, educational, political, recreational, and religious. The spiritual values of the bioregional movement can best be described as representing the “religious institution” of the bioregional movement, for although bioregionalism itself is not a religion, the topic of spirituality is an important one for the movement. There is also controversy and diversity on this issue with some bioregionalists arguing that the topic of spirituality should be kept entirely separate from the bioregional movement. They worry that there may be too much linking in the public’s mind of bioregionalism with a “New Age” subculture label. Because bioregionalism takes such a strong moral stance with respect to the well-being of nature and the Earth, and since it demands commitment and offers people meaning, it takes on—even unwittingly —a spiritual tone. People from many different religions and philosophies consider themselves bioregionalists. The movement has a pervasive sense of the sacred.
Bioregionalism and the Deep Ecology Movement
“Deep Ecology” is a term coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the early 1970’s. He is the leading articulator of this philosophy. Like bioregionalism, it offers an ecocentric perspective which it develops in philosophical detail, and it is an outlook which most bioregionalists share. Likewise, at workshops dealing with deep ecology the subject of bioregionalism frequently comes up where it is described as “applied deep ecology.” The two are closely related; deep ecology is seen as the philosophy and bioregionalism is viewed as the practice.
In his paper “Deep Ecology and Lifestyle”, Naess (1984) describes the qualities which would be reflected by a person abiding by deep ecology principles. This individual would strive to live simply in community with nature, protecting local ecosystems and their wild inhabitants. One would focus on satisfying one’s vital needs rather than consumer desires, behave in a non-violent manner, and promote an equitable standard of living for fellow humans without undue cost to other species. These characteristics describe bioregional values.
In its attempts to redefine the relationship between humans and nature, deep ecology has much in common with bioregionalism. Both define the human as a being in fusion with the whole of nature. Both are in strong opposition to consumerism. Yet a person could describe him/herself as a bioregionalist and not as a deep ecologist, and vice versa.. One label does not necessarily demand the other, although the relationship between the two movements is very close. The same seems to be true of the ecofeminist movement and bioregionalism. Although with its emphasis on the human relationship with and within a community of natural beings, the philosophical relationship between bioregionalism and ecofeminism seems closer than between bioregionalism and deep ecology.
Bioregional Education Values
About 217 people attended the First North American Bioregional Congress in 1984, dividing themselves into 16 committees: Agriculture/Permaculture, Bioregional Education, Bioregional Movement, Communications/Media, Communities, Culture and the Arts, Deep Ecology, Eco- Defense, Eco-Feminism, Economics, Forests, Green Movement, Native Peoples, Spiritual, Telecommunications (Caucus), and Water. (Proceedings 1984: 10). Each committee met (usually several times) and developed “resolutions” which were presented to the entire plenary council meeting and, with perhaps some changes, voted on. Approval was based on the consensus system, that is, everyone had to agree. One may “step aside” and not wish to be counted, but if only one person rejects the statement under review then it does not become a “resolution” of the Congress. All of the statements proposed by the education committee were approved as resolutions of the Congress and therefore reflect basic values in the bioregional community. The seven resolutions are:
Bioregional education emphasizes the interdependence and kinship of humans with all that exists, based upon our understanding of local ecosystems and their relationships with the planetary ecosystem.
Bioregional education values self-respect and respect for one another as essential components of respect for other life forms and ecological processes.
Bioregional education recognizes no separation of learning from life. We are all teachers and students. The process of bioregional education is one of active participation and sharing within the human community and the natural environment.
Bioregional education honors the products of intellect while remaining grounded in a joyful and empowering awareness of spirit.
Bioregional education affirms the importance of handing down traditional local knowledge and wisdom.
Bioregional education is guided by the vision of long-term sustainability of the Earth community, and it promotes the transformation from anthropocentric values to geocentric and biocentric values.
We seek to assist bioregional education by publicizing existing and developing clearinghouses for networking information on ecological data, theory, social ecology, local knowledge and methods of innovative learning. (Proceedings NABC I, 1984: 12)
At the Second North American Bioregional Congress in 1986 the Bioregional Education Committee carefully examined its resolutions from NABC I and reaffirmed them. However, at NABC III in 1988, the education committee reaffirmed the previous resolutions and added five more which were approved by a consensus vote of the entire Congress. They are:
Bioregional education proceeds from the premise that Earth is a community of entities that form a living organism of which we are part.
Bioregional education shows us how our daily actions and those of our society affect the health of the Earth community.
Bioregional education validates and nurtures bonding between the individual and the planet through sensory, emotional, spiritual and intellectual channels.
Bioregional education integrates social and ecological justice issues. The domination of people and the domination of nature have a common root.
Bioregional education facilitates discussion, planning and action for a sustainable, humane economy and society. (Proceedings NABC III, 1989: 61)
At the Fourth Bioregional Congress held in 1990 the education committee once again discussed and reaffirmed the preceding resolutions. They did not propose any additional resolutions, but committed themselves to forms of action in the field of bioregional education. There was no formal meeting of an education committee at the Fifth Bioregional Congress in 1992, but there was one at the Sixth Congress in 1994 and they once again reaffirmed the above resolutions.
At the 1994 meeting the education committee spent an afternoon discussing how education needs to more beyond the classroom into a more learning from life situation They emphasized the need for both short and long term apprenticeships and opportunities for many part-time tutors and mentors. They criticized the goals of school education which mass produces dulled and willing workers for the industrial machine, and suggested numerous alternative approaches which would promote education for a sustainable society and a new ecologically-based culture.
Wildness as a Bioregional Value
The idea of wildness, that is, nature unaffected by human action, receives attention from some environmental groups, is ignored by others, but pervades the bioregional movement. Peter Berg, writing in 1983, states that there are four different inhabitory zones within every bioregion: cities, suburbs, rural areas, and wilderness areas. The latter is “the enduring source of a bioregion’s spirit and regenerative power. It must be maintained for its own sake…”
Wildness exists not only in the wilderness, but in the wildness pervading our daily life: our beating heart, our circulatory system, our outside weather, our destiny to die, our genetic dependence on air, food, water and a healthy quality of habitat and environment. Wildness is the nature all around us which has overwhelming ultimate power over us. Wildness is the original homeland of the human species and will be here long after the human species has disappeared. For Thoreau, “In wildness is the preservation of the world”, on the other hand, for bioregionalists the world is the wildness. Nature includes the humans. Wildness is the awesome other which is both fragile and overwhelming.
Gary Snyder, perhaps the best known bioregional writer, summed up the bioregional movement quite succinctly when he wrote, “We need a civilization that can live fully and creatively together with wildness. We must start growing it right here, in the New World.’’ (1990: 6) The bioregional movement is trying to experiment with creating—with a lot of trial and error—such a culture and society that can live with the wild in a mutually beneficial way. One important contribution of the bioregional movement is the emphasis on the linkages between wildness and our daily actions and behavior. Our eating of hamburger may encourage the destruction of the rain forests to make more cattle ranches. Our disposal of plastic may choke fish in the oceans. And our greatest negative impact is probably in our own bioregion.
To respect wildness, our own culture—the daily ways we do things—must change. The goal of the bioregional movement is to learn how to create a human culture in tune with wildness. One of the ways bioregionalists do this is learning to listen to wildness. Thomas Berry stresses in his talks and writings that people now are “autistic to nature’’; they do not hear, do not see, do not respond to the nature all around them. David Abram stresses how the animals and plants are always listening to us, and how we must learn to listen to them. During the plenary sessions of the Bioregional Congresses, four persons are commissioned to represent “the other species”, listen intently to the goings-on of the meeting and determine if their interests are being threatened. If so, they then speak up and temporarily stop the meeting. This attunement to the beings of the natural world and their needs is central to the spirituality of the bioregional movement which is essentially Earth-centered.
Sometimes people get the impression that the bioregional perspective argues for a return to the way Native Americans once lived on the Earth. Perhaps this idea comes from the way in which bioregionalists draw upon Native American themes, but bioregional literature offers many references to the fact that “we can’t go back.” What is missed by a superficial reading of the bioregional literature is a deep appreciation of “primary peoples”—those whose long traditions arise out of extended living in close dependence on the Earth—together with creative experiments and thinking about how contemporary post-modern people can change their culture to reflect an Earth-centeredness. Much thought and action is also going into creating a modem bioregional spirituality which can be described as ecologically grounded.
Celebration as a Bioregional Value
Theodore Roszak in his recent work, The Voice of the Earth, complains that the environmental movement tends to be too depressing in its efforts to motivate people to save the Earth. He asks, “Are dread and desperation the only motivations we have to play upon? What are we connecting with in people that is generous, joyous, freely given, and perhaps heroic?’’ (1992: 38) The values and practices of bioregionalism emphasize a positive loving relationship with the natural world and seek to joyfully celebrate the natural world. In fact, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry argue that the principal role of the human in the universe is celebration:
If we were to choose a single expression for the universe it might be ‘celebration.’ celebration of existence and life and consciousness…we remain genetically coded toward a mutually enhancing presence to the life community that surrounds us…Our own special role is to enable this entire community to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of conscious self-awareness. (1992: 263-264)
The Impact of the Bioregional Movement
The goal of the bioregional movement is to create a human culture which understands and cooperates with the patterns of nature and therefore does not substantially diminish the natural world but even attempts to enrich it. It is not a widely known popular movement, is more rural-oriented than urban, and is very loosely organized with only token financial resources. It may not even pass some definitions of a “movement”, and if it does it would be termed a small one. In many ways it makes more sense to speak about a bioregional “community” than movement. Some members of this bioregional community have rejected American mainstream consumer culture to create and live a sustainable, bioregional lifestyle and have created their own alternative communities to accomplish this. In this sense they are reminiscent of the monastic communities of past ages whose goal was to act as centers of light in a sea of darkness. Demonstrating to others that it is possible to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives apart from consumerism, high energy use, high pollution generation and other ways which are basically unsustainable and Earth destroying is a valuable service which these bioregional folk offer to the larger, mainstream culture.
Other bioregionalists are making efforts at bringing bioregional principles into practice in the mainstream culture. In any case, bioregionalism seems persistent and appears to be growing judging by the increased frequency in which one finds the term “bioregion” used. Elan Shapiro writes,
As a conscious movement in post-industrial culture, (bioregionalism) is an underground, grassroots movement in many places around the world. So its extent is much broader than is known through the mainstream media because many of its practitioners are so busy learning how to live the nuts-and-bolts of this back home, to protect their habitats back home, that they’re not really marshaling a lot of resources towards advertising, marketing, and promoting it. It hasn’t become very ‘fashionable’ yet. Although I predict that it will become so in the next five or ten years. But because of its small-scale, grassroots, down-home nature, it isn’t very well known. (1993: 18)
There are at least two major methodological difficulties in attempting to measure the impact of the bioregional movement. First, people are doing things advocated in the bioregional program without being aware of the bioregional label. Second, few people are only “bioregionalists.” They may label themselves Greens, environmentalists, ecologists, Sierra Club or Earth First! activists, social ecologists, ecologically concerned Christians and Jews, conservationists, restorationists, Earth-oriented, reality-oriented, and so forth. As bioregionalists, there are no dues to pay any organization, or regular meeting to attend unless they are members of one of the 300 or so local bioregional groups which report to no larger organization.
There is no quantitative study which has measured the impact of the bioregional movement. The following comments are offered as a subjective, qualitative assessment, and they are limited in scope. There is no question that bioregional ideas are spreading throughout the environmental movement and in the general American society. Whether this can be attributed to the efforts of the bioregional movement has yet to be determined. For example, the Sierra Club is increasingly interested in “eco-regions” and has produced a number of reports on the subject. It has published books dealing with bioregions, and the topic has appeared both in the national magazine and in local chapter newsletters. More Club members are probably familiar with the term than ever before, but the impact of bioregional thinking on the environmental movement remains unknown.
Jeremy Rifkin, in Biosphere Politics, writes,
Bioregional awareness is beginning to grow and is already having an effect on traditional domestic politics as well as geopolitics. Within countries like the United Slates, bioregionalism is becoming an issue and a force to be reckoned with, largely because of resource shortages and the problems of mounting pollution. (1991: 290)
Rifkin maintains that shortages in fresh water are forcing locales and states to think more bioregionally, especially in the West. Air pollution is forcing a similar bioregional response especially in Southern California.
Contacts between the Green and bioregional movements have been very close. The major difference is that Greens are inherently engaged in the political process and the bioregionalists focus on lifestyle and cultural change. In other words, there is a kind of division of labor in the environmental movement with different groups specializing in different areas of activity. At times, friction has arisen when politically active bioregionalists urge other bioregionalists to become more politically involved in government (and in the process bring some attention to the wellbeing of the natural world to politics.)
The “politics” of the bioregional movement is similar to that of the Greens. It is not a human-centered politics, but an Earth-centered politics. In an early bioregional pamphlet Ecological Politics and Bioregionalism, David Haenke writes,
Ecological politics is not finance capitalism, state-capitalism, corporate-socialism, national socialism (right-wing socialism) or Marxism/communism (left-wing socialism); nor is it “centrism”; nor is it anarchism or libertarianism. All these…are utterly anthropocentric…
We are not in control. In the long run, nature is in control….This body of law is made up of the ecological laws of Earth. This is the real law of Earth. (1984: 2-3).
The politics of the bioregional movement offers a long-term vision of what is needed to support a humane, sustainable culture and society. This vision has influenced other individuals and groups. For example, Jeremy Rifkin maintains, “Only when political and ecosystem boundaries are made compatible with one another will it be possible to regulate properly economic activity so as to make it sustainable and congenial with the temporal and spatial limitations of the environment human communities dwell in.” (1991: 289) The American Greens utilize a bioregional framework rather than traditional political boundaries for coordinating regional issues. (The Greens Program, 1991: 28).
At continental and local bioregional gatherings a small proportion of the participants identify themselves as “Greens” and will often meet together. Greens come to bioregional congresses for cultural experiences such as ecoliturgies and ecoceremonies and to maintain contact with a similar environmental group. On the other hand, there is a more serious political side to bioregional gatherings which is not found among even more culturally oriented groups such as the Rainbow Tribe which also sponsors local and continental gatherings in North America and Europe.
If deep ecology forms the philosophical foundation of the Green movement, the translation of its concepts into appropriate human activity unique to each particular place occurs through bioregionalism. The methods and ideas of permaculture as taught by Bill Mollison are also common to bioregionalism and the Green movement.
People interested in the work of restoration of natural ecosystems seem particularly influenced by bioregional thinking. In terms of actual environmental work this may be the area where bioregionalism has had its greatest influence. In describing the bioregional movement to members of the Sierra Club, Seth Zuckerman focuses on the restoration work bioregionalists do,
The restoration of the Mattolc Valley is just one example of a growing ecological movement call bioregionalism. Using picks and hoes as well as word processors, bioregionalists work to preserve and restore the regions in which they live. They contend that the only way to save the whole planet is to save its parts—and the part they are best able to save is the one nearest home. (1987: 63)
Freeman House, one of the early founders of the bioregional movement, is a pivotal figure in the restoration efforts in Northern California’s Mattole Valley. His article, “To Learn the Things We Need to Know: Engaging the Particulars of the Planet’s Recovery”(1990), illustrates bioregional concern for moving beyond “vision” to the “particulars” in saving the Earth. These details refer not only to saving the natural species and processes in a particular place, but to discovering how human technologies can be refined to reduce energy consumption, pollution, and other damaging effects. A concern for details shows a growing sophistication in a movement often labeled as visionary.
Another important area of bioregional impact has been among churches. One church-goer described to the author how at a conference all the participants from across the nation distributed themselves in a large hall according to the bioregions from which they came. They were there to represent their bioregions in the healing of the Earth. At the first and second local bioregional congresses of the Central Ohio River Region, the list of financial supporters included more religious organizations than secular ones.
One Catholic priest has had enormous impact in spreading the ideas of bioregionalism and in contributing to the development of bioregional thought. Thomas Berry, the author of two books and numerous articles, has given many talks across the U.S. centering on the Earth and endorsing the ideas of bioregionalism. He attended the First Congress in 1984 and has been instrumental in introducing bioregional ideas to many religious communities in America.
As the Earth’s ecological crisis deepens and more and more people come to realize that the Earth’s ecological health necessarily concerns them, the environmental movement will grow in diversity as well as in size. The bioregional movement is a small social movement, and it is subject to the sociological laws governing social movements. Like third parties in the United States, once some of the basic ideas of the third parties are adopted by the two major parties the third party often disappears. Or, like other movements, the bioregional movement could be victimized by its own success, losing focus as its adherents increase in number and diversity of views. These sundry and sometimes discordant voices are, however, representative of the inclusive nature of bioregional philosophy.
The bioregional community will continue to attract a core group of dedicated people, and the bioregional perspective will likely spread to a wider audience. The basic reason is that it just makes sense. There will always be local organization in human society, and if the society is to incorporate ecological considerations in its organization— which every society must do in order to survive over the long haul—then the trend in human societal organization should be bioregional in nature. The major accomplishment of the movement has been to take the increased scientific knowledge of nature and marry it to human poetry and wisdom, thus nurturing a loving, personal and social relationship with nature. This is the raison d’ etre of the bioregional movement.
Because it is fairly new and because it threatens a consumer culture and its values, the bioregional movement may be attacked by the status quo as it becomes better known. This is unavoidable, but it is unlikely to dim the attraction the movement has for people coming to experience nature on a deeper, more personal level. The bioregional community enriches this experience because it adds the social dimension. It brings people together in restoration projects, festivals, and gatherings, strengthening their bonds to planet Earth. It brings people together to celebrate, at the community level, the wonders of existence. The bioregional experience has the potential for wide appeal in this age because it directs us to find new meaning and commitment in this universe.
Because bioregionalism emphasizes the value of the regional certain ideas in bioregional thinking have been used and will probably continue to be used by groups and movements which cause much pain to other groups of people. Hatred for other groups of people, is not part of the fabric of the bioregional community. It contradicts its basic ethos. The goal is not only the building of an ecologically sustainable culture, but a humane one as well.
The unity of nature and the unity of the human species permeates bioregional thinking, but the movement is focused on diversity of the local natural place and on the importance of human cultural diversity as people adapt their culture to the limitations and promise of the natural conditions in their bioregions. Because of this it forms part of the trend toward decentralization which finds opposition in the social forces promoting centralization.
There is tension here and it is inevitable. The pace of the centralization of human society shows few signs of slowing. Some elements in this process of centralization seem compatible with bioregional thinking. The voice of bioregionalism is needed to identify aspects of centralization which diminish the well-being of the natural world and which reduce the enriching qualities of a diverse human community. The struggle toward diversity is the message bioregionalism sees in nature.
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“Farmer” Frank Traina (1943-2014) was an educator and writer. After earning his PhD in sociology from Cornell, he moved to Kentucky to teach at Northern Kentucky University, but ended up devoting himself instead to the farm he purchased in Wilder, KY in 1978. Sunrock Farm hosted educational programs that “raised consciousness,” serving mostly Cincinnati-area children. About 25,000 people visited annually for decades. Farmer Frank also published Pollen, a journal of the North American Bioregional Congress Bioregional Education Committee.
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