Basically, bioregionalism is simply a new name for an old practise. It comes from “Bio” – life, “Region” – a physical or geographic boundary, and “ism” – the human part- the practise of how we relate to and live with a particular place. Although you can trace the idea of bioregionalism back as far as you can trace the story of humanity, as a theory, it has it’s recent roots in the popular movements of the 1960’s. Two names in particular have been linked with the word itself, and an equally important second concept- that of ‘reinhabitation’.
Peter Berg and Raymond Dassman are usually credited with coining the words, and they certainly are the ones responsible for popularising them. In many ways their work was based on the simple, yet surprisingly profound understanding that political and administrative boundaries are generally not based on any real (ie, natural) basis. When you start to ask what constitutes natural boundaries, you see vegetation, land form, watersheds. Peter and Raymond used a map of the biomes (dominant vegetation communities) of North America to give an entirely new view of where they were- no longer just northern California, but within a vast and interconnected series of identifiable ecosystems, each of which was the product of natural forces. They then took a great step forward by incorporating a cultural component into how we understand place – namely the fact that humans interact and are affected by the natural systems that they live within. This lead them to the question that becomes apparent is- if we are to see that there are natural regions (bioregions) and if we are going to try to live within the constraints of what the region offers, what would the culture that develops look like?
Bioregionalism seeks to move beyond the current focus of the environment movement, which tends to be issue specific, and by necessity, reactive. Because of this, it often causes polarisation and tends to focus on short term gains or ‘rear guard’ actions. Bioregionalism talks about ecological rather than environmental thinking- seeking solutions that are holistic, diverse and with the largest possible number of outcomes. It is based on ecological/natural laws rather than human ones, and is often seen as being ‘biocentric’ – that is holding a view that humans are only one species amongst millions rather than the overlord or master of the earth. Yet it also brings the human and cultural back into the attempt to build a better world, hence bridging the gap between environmental and social issues. By honouring values that allow us to live with the land it offers potential to find allies in a way that current environmentalism often cannot do – whether those allies are timber producers, farmers, or people who fish, there is the potential for common ground.
Bioregionalism puts ‘place’ back on the stage of human history at a pivotal time in our development. Never before has the earth seen such globalisation and homogenisation of natural systems and human societies.
Bioregionalism raises new concepts as it merges politics, culture, ecology and personal change. It speaks to the human need to belong to a community, and at a time when our societies are increasingly beset by a multitude of problems and fears; isolation and social breakdown, a renewed polarisation of wealth and power; it offers a vision of a rich and vital human society within the extended vision of a global community that takes in the human and non-human world. Because it starts with an increased personal awareness of our home place, it is twice as powerful as a tool for social change; firstly because it starts at the level of personal experience rather than allegiance to a creed or dogma. Secondly because it gives added richness to individual lives through a heightened connection to place, and hence provides a vision that is most likely to feed us in the long term. In particular, unlike many worldviews, it offers greater ‘results’ the harder we ‘work’ (as I learn ever more about my home region, I feel my life become more grounded and fulfilling). In many ways bioregionalism is a perfect expression of the old adage ‘the personal is political’. A further offshoot from this is that bioregionalism is fundamentally positive. This is in a world where we are constantly offered visions of post holocaust worlds and social breakdown via music, film, mainstream media and even fashion.
It is interesting that Bioregionalism is only just appearing in dictionaries. There are many definitions of what constitutes a bioregion, but a good starting one would be “a place defined by it’s life forms or life territory as opposed to human- imposed legislative boundaries”.
Basically, bioregionalism encourages us to realise that we live on a dynamic, vibrant and real world that is composed of thousands of inter related but distinct regions. A practical ramification of this understanding is the need to determine what our home bioregion is and how far it spreads around us. The next logical outcome is to seek to live within the constraints of what that home place offers by striving for regional self sufficiency in basic commodities. This means developing cultures that are responsive to that place, which is the opposite of what we are seeing on a global scale at the present time – homogenisation of human societies and economies to meet the needs of the world market. Raymond Dasmann introduced a useful concept to understand this process- that of biosphere versus ecosphere peoples. Ecosphere people draw their resources from their home region. This means that they can more easily become responsive to how well they are managing that region. He suggests that most people have lived this way for most of human history. In contrast, biosphere people draw their resources from around the earth. There are no in built information loops to give feedback on how well land systems are being managed. Biosphere cultures are the original expansionist empires that now find expression through the forces of capital, which seek to develop a single world market. Bioregionalists are seeking to once again become ecosphere people – that is, draw their resources essentially from their home region. This in many ways, is a development of the earlier notions of individual self sufficiency, which failed because it did not fully acknowledge that people are social, not individual in their makeup. It is also a very legitimate response to the forces of globalisation, which are slowly destroying cultural and biological diversity around the world.
[this was originally published in Inhabit, a bioregional journal, issue #4, Autumn 1996]