Bioregional Thought and Practice
- Development of the Bioregional Approach
- Bioregionalism in the Pacific Northwest
- Bioregionalism in Italy's Po River Valley
- Bioregionalism in Australia
A bioregion is a geographic terrain as well as a terrain of consciousness. Defined in terms of distinctive overall patterns of natural characteristics found in a specific place, a bioregion is a continuous landscape with a particular climate, similar aspects of seasons, landforms, watersheds, soils, foodsheds, and native plants and animals. Defined in terms outside the natural sciences, a bioregion is also its people—both the ecologically adaptive cultures of early inhabitants, and present-day reinhabitants who attempt to harmonize in a sustainable way with where they live. Bioregionalism acknowledges that we live not only in cities, towns, villages, and countrysides, but in ecosystems that constitute a unique area with natural boundaries and interrelated environs supporting distinct living communities.
Bioregionalism seeks to address matters of pressing environmental concern through a politics derived from a local sense of place, an approach that would effectively complement efforts focused at the national and international levels. A kind of rooted counterculture of art and activism, bioregionalism contrasted with the corporate-style environmentalism that began to take hold during the 1970s. Bioregionalists typically point to similar geographic features when they try to define the local; they also insist on place-based expressions of citizenship, which include poems, essays, stories, and art of all kinds. Bioregionalism brings to mind a valuable contribution to the Venn diagram thinking of ecocriticism where literature, science, and activism can coexist.
Thus bioregionalism is a cultural idea in that anthropological studies, historical accounts, social developments, customs, traditions, and the arts all play a part in bioregion distinction. Bioregionalism utilizes these to accomplish three main goals: (1) restore and maintain local natural systems; (2) practice sustainable ways to satisfy basic human needs such as food, water, energy, housing, and materials; and (3) support the work of reinhabitation through proactive projects, employment, and education, as well as through protests against the destruction of natural elements in a life-place. The essence of bioregionalism has been common sense for native people living close to the land for thousands of years, and remains so for human beings today. Bioregionalists are lifelong students of how to live in balance with eco-communities. They recognize that all humans are part of the web of the life, and that justice, freedom, and peace are grounded in this recognition.
Development of the Bioregional Approach
In the early 1970s the contemporary vision of bioregional-ism arose through collaboration between natural scientists, social and environmental activists, artists and writers, and community leaders. To promote this vision, Peter Berg (1937–2011), an activist and writer, and Gary Snyder (b. 1930), a poet and environmental activist, formed the Planet Drum Foundation in San Francisco in 1973. They wanted to do more than preserve nature, wildness, and the biosphere by applying place-based—in essence, bioregional—ideas to environmental and social practices, cultural expressions, philosophy, and politics. The many publications supported by the foundation set the agenda for this way of thinking and acting. From this work it became apparent that the Page 60 | Top of Articletraditional approach to jurisdictional problem-solving and analysis along political boundary lines was a stumbling block to bioregional ways of thinking.
The concept of the bioregion emerged from this early work by Berg and Snyder and the work of the activist and writer Jane Jacobs (1916–2006), whose 1961 book The Nature of Economies examines the shared characteristics of ecosystems and economies. The bioregion is now seen as a meaningful geographic framework for understanding place and designing long-term sustainable communities. Bioregionalism also derives from the work and ideas of Philip Lewis. Professor Lewis is well-known in landscape architecture and planning professions and is recognized as the father of the environmental corridor. He has promoted environmental thought by challenging the public views of and institutional thought on natural and cultural resources. Lewis has developed and refined these environmental concepts into a regional design process, addressing issues at the regional scale so that environmental and cultural resources can be identified, preserved, and incorporated into urban and rural growth patterns. Lewis viewed any landscape as one that was defined by bioregional patterns, and that these patterns, colors, and textures provide clues to understanding the logical order of the system. Once identified, these ecological patterns and spatial resources are logical form determinants: they suggest the spatial form to guide plans toward sustainability.
In his 1996 work on bioregional models throughout the United States, Lewis studied satellite images of nighttime light patterns and observed some interesting patterns. He discerned that light concentrations around cities resemble regional constellations, as if one were looking at star patterns in the night sky. In his “constellating” observations, he saw what he believed to be twenty-six clusters of lights from the US mainland, each representing one or more cities that were connected by their sprawl of lights. He postulated that these urban clusters were biologically and geographically defined by patterns of “limitations and unique solutions” (31–38).
Constellating focuses on assembling the array of physical forms, infrastructural interconnections, development models, and social agents needed to create new forms of public engagement and interaction. This perspective can help decision-makers set goals that are within the capacities of the natural systems. Harmonizing with the natural systems of each bioregion is a necessary step toward preserving the whole biosphere. Using Lewis's constellating, one can see from the cluster of lights delineated by the cities of Norfolk and Richmond (Virginia), Washington (DC), and Baltimore (Maryland) in the satellite image that this cluster is geographically defined by the Appalachian Mountains and the Chesapeake Bay. It is biologically bound by the Chesapeake Bay and other natural ecosystems and socioeconomically homogeneous in terms of transport and trade, communication networks, inhabitants' perspectives and habits, natural resource reliance, governance, markets for goods and services, and other aspects. Once these ecological patterns and spatial resources are identified, the logical form determinants suggest the spatial form to guide policies toward sustainability for a region. According to Lewis, identifying biocultural regional patterns, often defined by geographical characteristics, provides guidance for where to build and where not to build. Constellating the satellite image also suggests other, similar urban clusters, such as the Chicago region, the Southern California region, the San Francisco Bay area, and the Pacific Northwest.
Challenges to the practice of bioregionalism include the fact that regional planning based on the biology, geography, and human dynamics of a place as yet has few established paradigms or methods. Integrative research faces widely acknowledged theoretical and practical challenges. Although the reductionist approaches that dominate current science have significant analytical power, they tend to break environmental and cultural components apart. Effective understanding of ecosystems within the bioregional context requires assessments of multiple (physical, ecological, and socioeconomic) issues and integration of knowledge from various disciplinary experts.
Theory and practice are beginning to coalesce around the science of bioregional patterns. At the same time, bioregional concepts are becoming more rigorously defensible in terms of science, technology, economics, politics, and other fields. Likewise, a bioregional approach to environmental and socioeconomic problem-solving is beginning to gain support. Multidisciplinary bioregional models, which stress the importance of communication and trust among participants in any given project, can provide a framework for successful integrative research on common research questions and objectives. Bioregionalists believe that a holistic framework for understanding and enhancing the community-environment dynamic of places is crucial to both spiritual and ecological health. Bioregional scientific investigation can support planning, design, and management that will result in place-specific enhancements. Awareness of one's bioregional territory and its patterns is a first step to community-based stewardship, which leads to cultural and ecological sustainability at the community level.
Bioregionalism in the Pacific Northwest
Case studies can examine successes and failures in past and ongoing efforts to guide more effective interaction between
the worlds of science and practice in a bioregional context. In the Pacific Northwest region, salmon migration is biologically, ecologically, and culturally important. Awareness of this importance has become so strong that policies based on preserving good salmon habitat are driving much of the regional decision-making. The native peoples of the area describe this mind-set as “salmon nation.”
In the case of the westernmost states and provinces of North America, the bioregion of “Cascadia has always been more a state of mind than a tangible place on a map. Yet the empire of Cascadia … may not be quite the fantasy it once seemed” (Cernetig 2007). Cascadia exists “in the mindset of the millions of people who live on the continent's western edge” (Cernetig 2007) and who see the potential benefit of understanding themselves as a region rather than as a group of US states and Canadian provinces. According to 2007 calculations by the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, a Canadian entity, combining the states' and provinces' individual gross domestic products (GDPs) and populations would make Cascadia “a significant geographic area and market”: it would be the world's eighth-richest nation, with more than 20 million people and a GDP of about US$848billion (Cernetig 2007).
The organization Ecotrust, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, has long taken an interest in the Pacific Northwest bioregion of Cascadia. Ecotrust's goal is to create economic opportunity, social equity, and environmental well-being throughout the Cascadia bioregion and beyond. Over nearly twenty years of practical work, this organization developed for the Cascadia bioregion the concept of “reliable prosperity,” a visual and conceptual framework that can be used by individuals, businesses, governments, and nonprofits to seed innovation and inspiration. Reliable prosperity, as guided by the adjacent pattern map, is a way of formulating success and a richness of life that serves the interest of individuals, communities, and nature in a bioregional context.
Bioregionalism in Italy's Po River Valley
The Po River valley is a vast bioregion of Italy, encompassing 46,584 square miles (121 sq km). The Po is the longest Italian river and flows into the Adriatic Sea. The valley is the largest and most important economic region in Italy—the center of most Italian industry as well as Italy's agricultural heartland. More than 16 million people—nearly a third of all Italians—live in this fertile basin, in which are located twelve cities with populations surpassing 100,000. The river's course has been constantly modified by human activities. Massive deforestation, decades of uncontrolled industrial development, and urban sprawl slowly caused the river to begin to die (Iovino 2012). According to Serenella Iovino, a dying region is literally at odds with the very idea of bioregion. Once the familiar bond that connected people and their landscape has been worn out, a growing sense of alienation takes over.
The problem of the Po valley became a crisis of its landscape as a life place. Iovino settled in the Po valley in 2000. The state of the valley ecosystem affected her to the degree that she switched her work from philosophy to environmental ethics and ecocriticism, making her especially sensitive to the landscape. Iovino embraced the idea of reinhabitation, which to her meant learning to “live-in-place” in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. She became aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around parts of the Po Valley ecosystem and then, understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, she has begun to restore its life-supporting systems and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable patterns of existence within it. Iovino has begun her quest for Po River valley bioregionalism with the process of “narrative reinhabitation” which will share an ethic of stories and places with the inhabitants of the valley.
On the political side, the Italian parliament created several new bodies to oversee water management throughout the country; the largest of these was created for the Po River basin. This agency has the monumental task of restoring the environmental balance of the Po and its tributaries while maintaining the viability of 269 hydroelectric plants, 11 thermal power plants, farming activity that accounts for 35 percent of Italy's gross domestic product, and nearly 40 percent of Italy's industry.
Bioregionalism in Australia
The entire country of Australia has been investigating the application of bioregionalism theory for an emphasis on local decision-making (Walker 1996). They believe that bioregionalism encourages us to realize that we live in a dynamic, vibrant, and real world composed of thousands of interrelated 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.
Two main strands of this thought have been based around (1) land management and (2) personal appreciation, action, and lifestyles. The Australian Association of Sustainable Communities (AASC) sought to promote the idea of sustainable rural and urban communities throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Parallel to these grassroots initiatives has been a history of government
interest. There have been a number of attempts to map Australia by natural criteria, an early attempt being the national mapping program that identified 233 major drainage divisions. In 1974, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) identified around 300 distinct biophysical regions. In 1981, the Department of Home Affairs identified around 300 regions. This work appears to have included cultural rather than just biological/natural data—a key component of bioregional thinking.
A program called the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation of Australia (IBRA) has identified eighty regions based on biomes; these constitute geomorphic units that include climate, soil, and vegetation. The program originally used a definition of bioregion that included cultural considerations: areas of land and/or water whose limits are defined not by political boundaries but by geographical distribution of biophysical attributes, ecological systems, and human communities.
The move toward regional agreements between stakeholders heralds a remarkable confluence of government jurisdiction and grassroots concern and is going to be the main way forward for most of Australia in providing practical ways of developing bioregional control—that is, local control—during the 2010s and 2020s.
One example of a bioregion in Australia is the southeastern corner of Australia, which in bioregional terms C. Walker (1996) calls the Bogong bioregion. This bioregion stretches from the basalt plains of western Victoria, up to the Murray and along the southern coast, in an arc north of the Snowies and across the Monaro Plains to the coast in southern New South Wales. This site is especially focused on some of the subregions—the basalt plains, particularly where Melbourne is located, the central highlands, and the Victorian alps—as this is the country that speaks to people in the richest and deepest ways.
A sense of region, and what is possible within a region, is essential in light of the growing cost and declining level of energy resources. The availability of goods and transportation that many of the world's people have grown accustomed to may not always be possible. With the continuing claims of climate change, bioregion-al adaptations to the impacts of such change may be much more sustainable than for the entire continental United States. The idea of bioregionalism is likely to grow in importance in future policy making on sustainable development in the United States and elsewhere.
Berg, Peter. 1990. Discovering Your Life-Place: A First Bioregional Workbook. San Francisco: Planet Drum Foundation.
Berg, Peter. 2002. “Bioregionalism.” The Digger Archives. Available from http://www.diggers.org/freecitynews/_disc1/00000017.htm
Cernetig, Miro. 2007. “Cascadia: More than a Dream.” Vancouver Sun, April 16. Available from http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/westcoastnews/story.html?id=61227128-02b5-4cdd-89e8-70b5bbc5ea89&p=1
Ecotrust. Available from http://www.ecotrust.org
Iovino, Serenella. 2012. “Restoring the Imagination of Place: Narrative Reinhabitation and the Po Valley.” In The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place, ed. Tom Lynch, Cheryll Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster, 100–117. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Jacobs, Jane. 2000 (1961). The Nature of Economies. New York: Modern Library.
Lewis, Philip H. 1996. Tomorrow by Design: A Regional Design Process for Sustainability, 31–38. New York: Wiley.
Putah-Cache Bioregion Project: Bibliography—The Bioregional Hypothesis and LifePlace. Compiled by Robert L. Thayer Jr. Available from http://bioregion.ucdavis.edu/who/biblio.html
Reliable Prosperity: A Project of Ecotrust. Available from http://www.reliableprosperity.net .
Salmon Nation. Available from http://www.salmonnation.com/
Walker, C. 1996. “The Bogong Bioregion.” Inhabit, A Bioregion Journal 4. Available from http://mountainsandplains.wordpress.com/bioregionalism-and-place/austalian-bioregionalism/
R. Warren Flint
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