SOC: Kirkpatrick Sale's "Bioregionalism"

Date: Wed Mar 28 2001 - 06:31:06 MST

[This essay is well worth reading as one of the deeper and more thoughtful
expositions of what might be called "entropianism", and points to the
outlines of what could come to be the political and ethical heart of the
"anti" movement I study and write about so often.]


Could 'bioregionalism' be the way out of our environmental crisis?
Kirkpatrick Sale puts the case for the political philosophy he helped to

IN A few years ago, writing a biography of Christopher Columbus for the
quincentenary of his discoveries, I came across a wonderful Spanish term -
querencia - usually translated as 'love of home'. It is that, to be sure, but
colloquially it means much more than that too, as I came to learn. Querencia
is the deep sense of inner wellbeing that comes from knowing a particular
place on the Earth; its daily and seasonal patterns, its fruits and scents,
its soils and birdsongs. A place where, whenever you return to it, your soul
releases an inner sigh of recognition and realisation.
That is pretty much what bioregionalism is. There's more to it, of course,
and I'll get to that, and why it matters. But it is useful to look at
Columbus for a bit, for he is a part of the problem (as well as carrier of
the problem) for which querencia - and bioregionalism itself - is the

Columbus never knew a home in all his travels, never experienced a love of
place, much less a deep fellowship with any particular part of land or sea.
He was in that sense tragically symbolic of the culture from which he sprang,
the culture he was to implant in the New World. Europe was a society of
restless and rootless people, many repeatedly forced to move to try to escape
the ravages of the Plague, others regularly conscripted for faroff wars, some
in constant motion like the peripatetic court of Spain. Even peasants were
constantly displaced by famine, war, pestilence, crop failure and Lordly
whim. In this maelstrom, in which the migrant soul had no way to learn or
value nature, the only groundings were those of wealth, materialism,
humanism, violence and conquest. It was those that became Europe's gift to
the world.
And nowhere more so than in the Americas, especially the part settled by
successive waves of European immigrants, pushing on from one ocean to the
other for three centuries and creating a United States in which mobility,
upward and outward, has always been its most treasured characteristic. And if
today 20 per cent of its population changes residence every year (as against
8 per cent in the UK, for example), where social cohesion is so thin that its
murder and incarceration rates are the highest in the world, and the barest
minimum of civic participation (ie voting) engages less than half the
population at best, and then but once every four years, that is the
inevitable result of being what historian Samuel Morison has called a
'tenacious but restless race' - never knowing, except in rarest incidences,
the comfort of querencia.
Surely that is why this nation, and the industrialised system it has spawned,
has so little regard for the natural world. We don't live on any one part of
the land long enough to know very much about it, and it enters our
consciousness mostly only when we wish to exploit it. In that sense Americans
today are the true inheritors of the early settlers whom Alexis de
Tocqueville described as 'insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature' and
'unable to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall
beneath the hatchet'. And for all our efforts here in America to establish a
huge park system and protect wilderness areas, our truest character is
revealed in our unabated urbansuburban sprawl, a paving over of three million
acres of US farmland by 1995 and now gobbling up more than twice as much land
as just 15 years ago.

Given the consequences today of living in a system devoted to the rapidest
exploitation of the natural world for the rapidest accumulation of junk,
surely it is not fanciful to feel that some such identification with place as
querencia implies is a necessary antidote; and the sooner the better. Surely
it makes sense to imagine a society divided into territories and communities
where love of place is an inevitable byproduct of a life mindful of natural
systems and patterns experienced daily - however far removed this may seem
just now for the gigantic, destructive society around us.
This is what bioregionalism offers - and why it matters. It is a way of
living and thinking which views the world in terms of the actual contours and
lifeforms of the Earth - measured by the distinct flora and fauna, the
climate and soils, the topology and hydrology, and how all these work
together: regions defined by nature, not by legislature. But it does more: it
pays respect to these natural ecosystems by seeing them as coherent and
empowered social and political entities as well, necessarily living by
ecological principles of sustainability dictated by the limits of the land
In the United States, it is easiest to think of watersheds as the defining
bioregional unit - the Hudson Valley, for example, where I live, or the
Potomoc estuary, or the Kansas River area. But there are myriads of other
discrete territories, such as deserts, mountain ranges, peninsulas, and
islands, that function as bioregions. What gives particular weight and
authenticity to viewing America this way is that it conforms remarkably to
the way that the original people lived here before the European invasion.
A map of Indian settlement areas when treaties were signed with the US
government in the 19th century shows that the lands the tribes claimed
coincide to a great degree with what we now call bioregions - the Kaw along
the Kansas River, for example, the Pawnee in the Platte watershed, the Osage
on the Ozark plateau - indicating that people living in close harmony with
the land naturally patterned themselves in bioregional ways.
Much the same is true of the traditional cultural regions of Europe, too,
which to a large degree are shaped by geography - Brittany, for example, is a
distinct peninsular plateau, Catalonia follows the Ebro watershed, Wales is
the land of the Cambrian Mountains, and so on.
A map of Europe's ancient regional divisions - such as Leopold Kohr produced
for his wonderful Breakdown of Nations (though incomplete) - shows most of
them to have clear geographical foundations, even if a few, like Scotland,
actually comprise several bioregions. It is this patterning that reaffirms
the bioregional idea as the natural, and once obviously successful, principle
for human organisation. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that since this
was the way that humans lived for several million years in their ancient
tribal societies, this way of life has become embedded in our very genetic
makeup and remains always in our souls as the true, desirable configuration
of people even when modern experience tries to deny it. Now for a few basics.

Obviously the institutions and processes within bioregions would vary as the
lands and human experiences on them vary. But inherent in the bioregional
vision are several fundamental precepts, rooted in an essentially ecological
worldview, that would inform any kind of human settlement.
First, an economy guided by what Edward Goldsmith has called the 'laws of
ecodynamics' - principally conservation as the 'basic goal of behaviour' and
stability as the optimum norm in nature, but including also economic
interactions based on cooperation rather than competition, and enterprises
governed by regardful selfsufficiency rather than imperialism or globalism.
It would have to be careful about drawing down resources, processing, using,
and recycling them, and it would follow the general rule of nature that all
processes are circular. The goals would be potlatch distribution rather than
private accumulation (both within and between communities) and general
apportionment of resources rather than individual ownership.
Second, a governance based on the ecological law of decentralisation,
establishing empowered communities within the empowered bioregion, and
eliminating any form of government interference beyond that. Diversity and
complementarity, two important ecological values, would guide political
forms, encouraging a variety of human settlements and governments that would
play distinct roles, all on an equal footing and none superior to any other.
Given coherent and limited populations, some forms of democracy would be
possible, and even consensus might be a goal, but neither would be necessary
as long as political arrangements were voluntary and placespecific.
Third, a society following such ecological principles as symbiosis and
division, the first directing cooperation among groups and communities within
a bioregion - between countryside and town, for example - and the second
assuring that none became too large or overbearing. The optimum population of
community and region would be easy to determine, knowing that the human
community could not grow so large as to harm or dislodge any other floral or
faunal community or the air and water shared among them, and groups would
need to limit their size or break off and form new settlements if they grew
too big.
That, at any rate, is the bioregional vision. Yes, it may all seem a bit too,
well, capricious; utopian. But what keeps it from being just cloudcuckoo land
is the fact that it is based not only on the eternal laws and systems of
nature, but on the ways of tribal and ancient peoples who knew and followed
those laws and systems. And one thing more: it is a vision, a goal, that
inspires people even now, today, and all over the world.
Not that they are all consciously bioregional - far from it. But on every
continent for the last 50 years there have been - and still are - movements
fighting in one way or another against the nationstate paradigm in the name
of smaller, regional identities, seeking to run their own affairs their own
way. That is very much the bioregional cause, and if most such movements have
not marched under an ecological banner and have no particular sense of
environmental ethics, they usually battle in the name of a territory
recognisably defined by natural systems and a love of them.

In Europe alone, there are movements in more than three dozen regions seeking
to assert their identities (besides the Maastricht Treaty's Committee of the
Regions), from Wales and Cornwall to the Basque country and Catalonia, from
Lapland and Scania to Pandania and Corsica. Some have ancient roots and some
are modern responses to modern problems - as, for example, the Alpine Diamond
in the Pennine Alps - but everywhere, as the diplomatic correspondent John
Newhouse has written, 'regionalism appears to be Europe's current and future
dynamic'. Certainly with what Vaclav Havel has called 'the end of the nation
state,' the prospect of a devolution of power to these regions, whether or
not supranational forms like the European Union continue to exist, is very
It was this dynamic that, more than anything else, led to the breakup of
Yugoslavia, and, though the results at the moment don't seem to present a
very pretty picture, (quite apart from the ugly means of achieving them), the
underlying truth of the matter is that 'Yugoslavia' was a madeup patchwork of
ethnic bioregions (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and
Montenegro were all ancient geographically divided regions) that could not
possibly last. That, too, is what the breakup of the Soviet Union was all
about: the resurgence of a plethora of regional realities that not even the
heavy hammer of Communist conformity could do away with. The three Baltic
states, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and a host of various 'istans'
from the Caspian to Baikal, as well as a hundred other ethnic groups (and
languages) with placebased identities - this is the eternal verity of this
part of the world, for this is what its geography (and human development
within that geography) has fashioned.
The revival of regionalism is to be seen everywhere, usually driven by ethnic
attachments but always with geographical roots: in Turkey and the Middle
East, in the Indian subcontinent, along the Indonesian archipelago and the
Philippine chain, in China, everywhere in Africa, in Central and South
America. It has been estimated, in fact, that there are 75 regional military
forces in existence today, fighting against one nation state or another -
some of them wellknown (as in East Timor, Irian Jiya, Kurdistan, Chiapas,
Kashmir, Somalia, Ethiopia, Colombia and Peru) but most of them out of the
limelight and ignored by the internationalist media. And in the land where
bioregionalism started as a movement some 20 years ago, there are
unmistakable signs of a resurgent regionalism, though none has taken up arms.

I suppose it is not news to say that there are, as yet, no actual
selfempowered bioregions in the United States, nor are there likely to be in
the near future. Nonetheless, according to Alan Ehrenblat, executive editor
of Governing magazine, the US Congress 'has ceased to be the primary
political instrument for resolving the difficulties of modern American
capitalism', and 'people have discovered that the governmental units created
long ago are too clumsy to serve them very well'. Thus, there are now more
than 30,000 'special district governments' operating at regional and local
levels for such things as transportation, energy, water, land use, and
education, and the Federal government has decentralised itself for daytoday
functioning into 600 regional councils, 488 substate planning districts, and
at last count, some 1,932 regional boards, committees, and offices to plan
and carry out nationallyfunded services.
There are even regional secession movements these days. There is an active
group in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles trying to take that
bioregion out of that city's unwanted reach. There is an organisation in
Maine, including a State legislator, pushing to make the northern mountainous
section of the state, so different from the coastal region, into the 51st
state. Hawaii actually voted for secession and the right to become an
independent nation in a nonbinding referendum in 1996, and Alaska has an
Independence Party seeking to put the question of nationhood status on the
ballot there.
As for the bioregional movement itself, there are now more than 200
selfproclaimed bioregional organisations in the United States, and several in
Central America and Canada as well. The concept of bioregionalism has been
recognised by the Professional Geographers Association and the American
Society of Landscape Architects, and has been used by the Government of
California to shape 11 watershed organisations in order to develop policies
on land use and natural resources. The idea has been quietly coopted too by
the Interior Department of the Federal government, which has created Resource
Advisory councils and Ecosystem Projects - on bioregional grounds - in a
number of Western states, and by the US Forest Service, which has created an
Ecosystem Management Division in Fort Collins, Colorado, complete with a map
of North American 'ecoregion divisions' that is nothing more than a
bioregional blueprint.

What it would take for the bioregional movement to go from theory to
practice, from scattered environmental organisations to shadow (or even
recognised) bioregional governments, is difficult to say. It is not likely to
happen soon, even in those parts of the world where the regional passion has
taken up arms.
Nonetheless, as national governments show themselves increasingly powerless
and irrelevant to most people's real needs and passions, alternative forms
will be developed and gradually empowered as they provide groundlevel
solutions to problems that seem to fly beneath the radar of the nation state.
Inevitably, I would suggest, those forms will be bioregional in setting, and
eventually, given our genetic need for querencia and our historical
experience as landbased people, they will be bioregional in outlook.
In The Interpreters, a book written at the height of the Irish Revolution by
the author known only as AE, there is a passage in which a group of prisoners
sit around discussing what the ideal new world should look like after the
revolution. One of them, a philosopher, advances the vision of a unitary
world order with a global, scientific, cosmopolitan culture; the sort of
justification often put forth nowadays in the name of globalism. Another, the
poet Lavelle, argues fervently against this conception, trying to show that
the more the world develops its technological superstructure for global
commerce and opinion, the farther it gets from its natural roots.
If all wisdom was acquired from without,' Lavelle says, 'it might be politic
for us to make our culture cosmopolitan. But I believe our best wisdom does
not come from without but arises in the soul and is an emanation of the Earth
spirit, a voice speaking directly to us as dwellers in this land.'
That is the voice of bioregionalism, the truest, more eternal voice of
nature. And it directs us to become, as bioregionalists, dwellers in the
land. Nothing more, and nothing less will do. x

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of nine books, including Dwellers in the Land:
The Bioregional Vision, recently reissued, with a new introduction, by the
University of Georgia Press.

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