In 2009 the Institute hosted the 10th Continental Bioregional Congress at our home in The Farm ecovillage in Tennessee. At that time, the event marked more than 25 years of our engagement with bioregionalism. Our devotion continues because, frankly, there is no alternative if we are going to successfully continue the human adventure.
As we transition away from climate-destroying fossil economies to renewable, regenerative economies we will necessarily step back from sourcing our materials from easily depleted, ruinously toxic sources to bio-materials in cradle-to-cradle symbiosis. Biomaterials grounded in the bioeconomies of bioregions provide the fastest path to scale with the most compounding benefits and greatest contribution to reversing climate change.
Our friend David Haenke has gone to the effort of explaining what exactly bioregionalism means and how it addresses many key problems confronting us. In 1971, David moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to an Ozarks farmstead with family and friends on a quest for an earth-honoring way of life and work. Immersed in whole-systems applied ecology ever since, David cofounded the Ozark Area Community Congre ss (OACC) — the first bioregional congress — (1977), conceptualized and organized the North American Bioregional Congress (1984), was one of the five original convenors of the U.S. Greens - Green Party (1984), and founded the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology (1984). He currently directs the Ecological Society Project of The Tides Foundation, and is the Coordinator of the Bioregional Project of the Ozarks Resource Center. His focus is the integration of bioregionalism and ecological economics in the context of “total ecology.” “Total ecology” covers all dimensions of interaction between the earth and the human species, including 35 ecological movements and disciplines.
David says that bioregionalism picks up where environmentalism leaves off, challenging everyone to emphasize sustainability and define community to include the nonhuman as well. The North American bioregional movement has held biennial meetings since 1984 and is steadily building awareness of the task ahead. In line with this, David makes the case for a necessary partnership between communitarians and bioregionalists.
Bioregionalism: A History
Bioregion. A life region. A geographical area whose boundaries are roughly determined by nature rather than human beings. One bioregion is distinguished from another by characteristics of flora, fauna, water, climate, rocks, soils, land forms, and the hum an settlements, cultures, and communities these characteristics have spawned.
“Local community is the basic unit of human habitation. It is at this level that we can reach our fullest potential and best effect social change. Local communities need to network to empower our bioregional communities.
Human communities are integral parts of the larger bioregional and planetary life communities. The empowerment of human communities is inseparable from the larger task of reinhabitation — learning to live sustainably and joyfully in place.”
First North American Bioregional Congress: May 1984
Bioregionalism is a comprehensive “new” way of defining and understanding the place where we live, and living in that place sustainably and respectfully. What bioregionalism represents is new only for people who come out of the Western industrial-technological heritage. The essence of bioregionalism has been reality and common sense for native people living close to the land for thousands of years, and remains so for human beings today. At the same time, bioregional concepts are rigorously defensible in t erms of science, technology, economics, politics, and other fields of “civilized” human endeavor.
While the bioregional movement is only 20 years old, the essence of bioregionalism is what we can best remember and piece together of the oldest earth traditions and wisdom, tracing back to the beginnings of humanity,… and before that into the root ecological principles of life itself. It is upon these essences and principles that bioregionalism is ultimately based.
Using ecology as the screen, bioregionalism takes the best and most presently relevant of the old, and synthesizes it with the most appropriate of the new. Bioregionalism is the most thoroughly ecological of twentieth-century movements, after those of native and indigenous peoples.
Beyond the ecology movement, bioregionalism is far more than “environmentalism” as it is generally known. Indeed, we would say that there is no such thing as “the environment.” Webster’s dictionary defines “environment” as “The surrounding conditions, influences, or forces which influence or modify”; or “The aggregate of all external conditions and influences affecting the life and development of an organism.”
Bioregionalists know that each of us is a living ecosystem that is completely immersed in, a part of, and utterly dependent upon the larger fabric of life on Earth. The “environment” is not “out there.” It is in us, and we are in it.
In contrast, the environmental movement today is primarily concerned with “saving what’s left” of “out there,” usually through legal adjustments to business as usual. Yet, despite all the Earth Days and political actions, ecological damage is accelerating . While environmentalism does much good work in consciousness raising, it is only a part of what must be done. Eco-awareness fails to propose comprehensive and systemic change at all levels — based on ecology. Bioregionalism does, reaching for something far deeper and more holistic that must be manifested.
Bioregionalism: An All-Inclusive Way of Life
Bioregionalism is an all-inclusive way of life, embracing the whole range of human thought and endeavor. It advocates a full restructuring of systems within a given bioregion, orienting toward regeneration and sustainability of the whole life community. T his inclusion of the nonhuman in the definition of community is vital. Indeed, one of the basic tenets of bioregionalism is the notion of “bio-centrism,” or “eco-centrism,” where reality is viewed from a life-centered or ecologically centered perspective, rather than from a human-centered focus (anthropocentrism).
Bioregionalism speaks to the heart of community. If we are to continue to live on Earth, the definition of community has to include all the living things in our ecosystem. Without the flowers, mammals, insects, trees, birds, grasses, and the living soil and waters in community with each other, we would not be here at all. Humans need other life forms in order to survive. Without a respectful, cooperative relationship with others, we are both physically and spiritually impoverished. Without their ecological teachings we are ignorant and cannot know how to live. One oak tree can teach us more about sustainable economics than all the economists of the world put together. Altogether, nature has volumes to teach us about how to create sustainable community life.
The ecosystem, the watershed, the bioregion: these are the context, the boundary, the basic foundations of community. Lest our communities be parasitic and unsustainable, rights equal to our own human rights must be secured for all the living things of th e ecosystem community in which our human communities are embedded. There is nothing new about any of this — except in the sense that contemporary society has forgotten what indigenous peoples around the earth have always remembered. It is for us to remember, to relearn, and to put into practice.
In order to be sustainable, our ways of making a living must be ecological. Ecological economics means bioregional self-reliance, deriving as much as possible of our livelihood from within, and close to, our community, only moving farther afield when we m ust. To be sustainable, we must better see our reliance on and interdependence with the nonhuman members of our community. We must rely on each other for health, sustenance, and wisdom.
The periodic bioregional gatherings are presently evolving a theory of integrated systems: ecologically based economics, agriculture, forestry, technology, law, governance, politics, education, health care, energy, and everything necessary for the human dimension of a given bioregion to function sustainably. The Bioregional Gatherings are working out the principles of ecological decentralism. If humanity is to survive, our systems of production and distribution of vital physical goods must be decentralized. The bioregion is the natural context for the practice of ecological economics and sustainable communities.
Starting with the Ozark Area Community Congress in 1980, there have been dozens of these congresses in bioregions around North America. Beginning in 1984, the North American Bioregional Congress has met every two years. Now called the Turtle Island Bioregional Gathering (from an indigenous term for the continent), this meeting serves as the continental and international gathering of the bioregional movement.
All five continental Gatherings have offered some focus on small communities and intentional communities. The Gatherings themselves have been examples of a vibrant community — albeit only for a week — where the group as a whole takes care of food preparation, child care, education, celebration, recycling, cleanup, shelter building, creating a newsletter, cultural presentations, and many more of the functions of a community. Altogether, Bioregional Gatherings have always concerned themselves with advancing the ideas of ecologically responsible communities.
Come Home to Earth
The bioregional movement offers hope for saving the human species and bringing “thrival” (not just survival) and sanity back into the human family, while preserving the integrity of the rest of life on Earth.
What bioregionalism is uncovering and remembering is a way for everyone, of any culture or background, to come home to Earth. We can draw upon the deep and perennial sources of knowledge to create a sustainable life in the present, no matter where we live, even in the largest cities.
Bioregionalism shows us that these sources of knowledge have no cultural or political copyright. They are available to us wherever there is a tree or a few square feet of uncontrolled life zone. There are points of contact and cooperation for all people who immerse themselves in the loving, honoring, and healing of the earth. We must heed our instinctive understanding of the ancient, current, and future ecological principles of the earth and the processes of life.
"If we engage in creating circular regionally focused biomaterials economies — carefully adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place — we can begin to regenerate the damage we have done all over the world, while generating new jobs in vibrant regional economies. These economies and the transformative innovation that drives them will be supported by national and international networks of collaboration and P2P knowledge and technology exchange." — Daniel Christian Wahl
Bioregionalism is the making of active alliance with the earth in virtually every dimension of our individual and collective existence. Such an alliance is a basis for creating sustainable communities, and why drawdown, bioregionalism and the ecovillage movement are inextricably linked.