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What are bioregions? An intro to a natural way of defining our world

Over the past year the Institute for Ecological Civilization began examining urban-rural wellbeing. This project allows us to envision cities and rural communities as part of emerging ecological civilizations, and we do so largely through the framework of bioregions – geographic areas defined by natural boundaries rather than political or governmental boundaries. For instance, the central coast of California is a bioregion with a shared coastal climate, geographic features, watershed, and plant/animal species. 

Bioregional thinking (or bioregionalism) refers to both the thought and practice around reconnecting people sustainably to the particular places where they live. In the United States, bioregional thinking began between the 1960s and 1970s, spurred partly by anti-authoritarian movements such as the backlash to the Vietnam War and increasing corporate power. Early bioregional thinkers sketched out ideas on inhabiting a particular place and planning for harmonious living among human and non-human animals and larger ecosystems within that place. Throughout the late twentieth century, bioregional thinking also became popular in Europe and Latin America. Today there are environmentalists, sociologists, and philosophers around the world who contribute to bioregional thinking and try out bioregional ways of organizing life.

Peter Berg and Raymond Dassman, two of the first bioregional thinkers, identify three major principles of bioregionalism in “Reinhabiting California,” first published in The Ecologist in 1977: 

  • The first is living-in-place—planning for our needs and wants based upon a particular location and in ways that enable us to stay in that place for the long-term. 
  • The second, reinhabitation, means “learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation.” Exploitation comes through overusing resources, introducing invasive species, and destroying natural ecosystems. 
  • Third, they define a bioregion itself as simultaneously a “geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness,” meaning it is both a place with specific natural features as well as a field of ideas about how to live in that place. 

In addition to these three foundational points, others talk about both the uniqueness and autonomy of a bioregion. A bioregion can and should decide for itself and determine its own future through the relations (human to non-human as well as human to human) that constitute that particular bioregion. Thomas Berry comments on this aspect of bioregionalism, writing in his 1988 book The Dream of the Earth, that a bioregion is a geographical area of interacting life-forms that constitute a “self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-governing, self-healing, self-fulfilling community.” This is not to say that bioregions don’t have significant relationships with other neighboring regions or with people from different places around the world. But it does mean that generally, those inhabiting a particular place will make the best decisions about that space.

Doug Aberley, a bioregional expert in British Columbia, further underscores the self-determining factor, reminding us that bioregionalism is an inherently bottom-up endeavor, beginning with the natural features and people living in a particular place. The people of a given bioregion should be largely autonomous in determining policies and making decisions that affect the bioregion. The communities formed from bioregions do not depend on man-made borders or arbitrary gerrymandering. And bioregionalism does not mean ceding decisions to a group of leaders who are disconnected from the bioregion (e.g., government officials far removed from the location determining development policy for particular plots of land, or allowing outside corporate entities to decide what’s best for a place).

This bioregional way of thinking about urban population centers and rural communities within a particular area leads us to see economics, education, arts and culture, agriculture, and food systems in a much more relational way. Cities and rural villages within a particular bioregion are connected and should be considered coequally with the good of the entire bioregion in mind when making decisions about sustainable long-term goals.

We think that a bioregional focus can benefit the work we do on urban-rural wellbeing for these reasons: bioregionalism encourages us to think about the relationship between people and place (what a participant in a recent meeting called “reindigenization”); it requires local autonomy, local processes and local solutions to problems, and local planning toward a long-term vision; and it means an end to exploitation and a new means for flourishing in close connection with the plants, animals, and geographic/geological features of the space we inhabit.

Visit here to learn more about how EcoCiv specifically works with bioregionalism and urban-rural wellbeing.

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