Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Mother of All: An Introduction to Bioregionalism

To Gaea, mother of all of life and oldest of
gods, I sing,
You who make and feed and guide all
creatures of the earth,
Your skies, those who swim your seas,
to all these you have given birth;
Mistress, from you come all our harvests,
our children, our night and day,
Yours the power to give us life, yours to
take away.
To you, who contain everything,
To Gaea, mother of all, I sing.
—Homeric Hymn to Earth

In the beginning, as the Greeks saw it, when chaos settled into form, there was a sphere, aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming embrace of the sky and its swirling drifts of white cloud, a great vibrant being of green and blue and brown and gray, binding together in a holy, deep-breasted synchrony the temperatures of the sun, the gases of the air, the chemicals of the sea, the minerals of the soil, and bearing the organized, self-contained, and almost purposeful aspect of a single organism, even a living, breathing body, a heart, a spirit, a soul, a goddess—in the awed words of Plato, “a living creature, one and visible, containing within itself all living creatures.”

To this the Greeks gave a name: Gaea, the earth mother. She was the mother of the heavens, Uranus, and of time, Cronus; she was the mother of the Titans and the Cyclops, of the Meliae, the ash-tree spirits who were the progenitors of all humankind; she was the mother of all, first of the cosmos, creator of the creators. She became the symbol of all that was sacred and the font of all wisdom, and at the fissures and rifts in her surface—at Delphi, especially, and Dodona and Piraeus—she would impart her knowledge to those oracles who knew how to hear it. And ultimately, inevitably, she became embodied in the language of the Greeks as the unit of life or birth or origination, combined into the word “genos” to give us, in English, “genesis,” “genus,” “genitals,” “genetics,” and “generation.”

“Earth is a goddess,” wrote Xenophon in the fourth century before Christ, “and teaches justice to those who can learn.” Justice and compassion and prudence and appropriateness and harmony—all of what were later called the cardinal virtues: “The better she is served,” Xenophon taught, “the more good things she gives in return.”

All that seems obvious enough, at least to those who first inhabited the earth and created her cultures—which is why, in virtually every early preliterate society that we know of, the primary deity, worshiped before all others, was the earth. And even in those societies that eventually came to displace the earth goddess with other deities, most typically the sky god—a male figure, be it noted, and one adopted almost exclusively by those cultures (even the later Greeks) that simultaneously created empire, war, hierarchy, priesthood, and slavery—even in those societies the earth was still considered a living being, sentient and organic, and still retained its character as a deity.

It was not until the development of European science, from about the sixteenth century on, that this animistic conception of the earth finally gave way, to be replaced by one supported by the new insights of physics, chemistry, mechanics, astronomy, and mathematics. The new perception held—in fact it proved—that the earth, the universe, and all within it operated by certain clear and calculable laws and not by the whims of any living, thinking being; that, far from being divine and omnipotent, these laws were capable of scientific prediction and manipulation; and that objects, from the smallest stone to the earth itself and the planets beyond, were not animate with souls and wills and purposes but were nothing more than the combination of certain chemical and mechanical properties. The cosmos was in no sense like a purposeful, pulsatory celestial thing alive but rather, in the Newtonian image, something more like a giant clock, its many parts moving in an ordered, kinetic, mechanical way. Europe’s scientific revolution—in the triumphant words of the seventeenth-century physicist Robert Hooke—enabled humankind “to discover all the secret workings of nature, almost in the same manner as we do those that are the productions of [human] Art and are managed by Wheels, and Engines, and Springs.”

Now, as I am sure you know, the history of ideas is just like the history of technologies: those that suit the powers-that-be are embraced, those that seem to have no utility are forgotten. The ideas of the new science were very quickly heeded and their creators rewarded and pantheonized by a European establishment that at the same time was in the process of creating other complementary attitudes and systems for which scientism provided both intellectual conditioning and practical guidance. For the scientific system was developed, let us not forget, contemporaneously with—and, by no means accidentally, in aid of—the consolidation of the nation state, the growth of mercantile and then corporate capitalism, and the spread of global exploitation and colonialism. Its inherent message—the celebration of the quantifiable, the mechanistic, the physiochemical, and the tangible, as opposed to the organic, the spiritual, the creative, and the intangible—had immense importance, far beyond the laboratories, for the European society that developed out of the sixteenth century. And its ultimate governing principle—that humans should not merely understand but be capable of manipulating nature, and indeed, as Descartes put it for all of European science, be “masters and possessors of Nature”—became ingrained into not only the scientific but also all scholarly and most popular thinking in the Western world and now shapes the perceptions of our senses and the patterns of our psyches.

And if at the end of the twentieth century we see the earth as a static and neutral arena that is alterable by our chemicals and controllable by our technologies; if we see ourselves as a superior species, to whom is given the right to kill off as many hundreds of others as we wish and “have dominion over” the rest; if we believe we have the power to reorder earth’s atoms and reassemble its genes, to contrive weapons and machines fueled by our own invented elements and capable of destroying forever most of its organic life; if we create technologies capable of plundering its resources, befouling its systems, poisoning its air perhaps irretrievably, and altering its eons-old processes to suit our wishes; and if those who are most especially devoted to the truest nature of the earth, those we call the ecologists, can choose to dress themselves in the cloaks of scientism to talk of nature’s “entropy” or energy “production” or food “chains” or forest “management” or even displace the image of the biotic community with that of the mechanical eco-“system”—if this is our condition, it is so because, far from calling into question the scientific view of the universe in these past four centuries, we have accepted it virtually in its entirety. It has become the foundation and sustenance not only of our various social systems—of education, agriculture, medicine, religion, energy, communication, transportation—but of our most basic economic and political institutions as well.

To be sure, the scientific worldview is not without its values, its uses, its triumphs even, and I think we may want to call the world a better place for our knowledge of hygiene, say, or radiotelegraphy or immunology or electricity. But its shortcomings, its failures, its calamitous dangers have by now become obvious, and it is surely safe to say that the path of sanity, perhaps survival, is to regain the spirit of the ancient Greeks, to once again comprehend the earth as a living creature. We need to recover the sense, as Schumacher puts it in Good Work, “that man is the servant of this world, or at least a trustee,” a concept that has been “organized out of our thinking,” as he put it, “by the modern world,” and we must listen again to the two great teachers, one “the marvelous system of living nature” and the other “the traditional wisdom of mankind,” teachers we have “rejected and replaced by some extraordinary structure we call objective science.” And we must re-envision humans as participants and not masters in the biotic community, as only one among many species, special perhaps in having certain skills of information-gathering and communication but not for that reason superior to those with other skills—for the human being, as Mark Twain might have said, is different from other animals only in that it is able to blush. Or needs to.

In The Interpreters, a book by the Irish author known as AE, written at the height of the Irish Revolution, there is a passage in which a group of disparate men, all prisoners, sit around discussing what the ideal new world should look like. One of them, the poet Lavelle, argues fervently against the vision put forth by one prisoner, a philosopher, of a global, scientific, cosmopolitan culture. “If all wisdom was acquired without,” he says, “it might be politic 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 the land.”

To become “dwellers in the land,” to regain the spirit of the Greeks, to fully and honestly come to know the earth, the crucial and perhaps only and all-encompassing task is to understand the place, the immediate, specific place, where we live: Schumacher says, “In the question of how we treat the land, our entire way of life is involved.” We must somehow live as close to it as possible, be in touch with its particular soils, its waters, its winds. We must learn its ways, its capacities, its limits. We must make its rhythms our patterns, its laws our guide, its fruits our bounty.

That, in essence, is bioregionalism.

Now, I must acknowledge that “bioregionalism” is not yet quite a household word—you’re writing a book on what? my friends say—and when the Schumacher Society board of trustees decided to use it as the theme of this forum, we knew we ran the risk both of alienating the uninvolved and perplexing the sympathetic. But I believe bioregionalism to be a concept so accessible, so serviceable, so productive—and, after about five years now, so impelling as to have created a momentum of its own—that I feel quite confident in its use. For there is really nothing so mysterious about the components of the word—”bio,” from the Greek for life; “regional,” from the Latin for territory to be ruled; “ism,” from the Greek for doctrine—and nothing, after a moment’s thought, so terribly strange in what they convey. If it initially falls oddly on our ears, that may perhaps only be a measure of how far we have distanced ourselves from its wisdom—and how badly we need it now.

Let me take a little time to excavate this concept of bioregionalism a bit, baring and examining its several layers as one might in looking at the strata of the earth.

All aspects of the bioregional society—and, one might imagine, a bioregional world—take their forms from that of Gaea herself. One of Gaea’s many offspring, the first of all her daughters, was Themis, the goddess of the laws of nature and the mother of the seasons, and it is by a diligent study of her—her laws, her messages, her patterns as they have been established over these many uncounted millennia—that we can guide ourselves in constructing human settlements and systems. This is not, of course, an easy undertaking, for the lessons of nature can sometimes seem confusing, even contradictory, and perhaps I have read them wrong; perhaps only more time and more opportunity to be closer to nature, as close as the preliterate peoples who have twenty words for snow and distinguish thirty kinds of annual seasons, will allow us to learn these lessons properly. But I think I have at least the outlines right, and I am bolstered by the knowledge that they seem to accord well with the findings of many others who have looked in this direction, not the least of whom was Fritz Schumacher himself.

I would offer, then, what it seems to me are the bioregional guidelines bearing upon what I regard as the four basic determinants of any organized civilization: scale, economy, politics, and society.



I will, if I may—I always do—start with scale: the size, the dimensions of the bioregion as set by the characteristics of the earth, by the “givens” of nature. A bioregion is a part of the earth’s surface whose rough boundaries are determined by natural rather than human dictates and is distinguishable from other areas by attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soils, landforms, and the human settlements and cultures those attributes have given rise to. The borders between such areas are usually not rigid—nature works with more flexibility and fluidity than that—but the general contours of the regions themselves are not hard to identify and indeed will probably be felt, understood, sensed, or in some way known to many of the inhabitants, particularly those rooted in the land—farmers, ranchers, hunters and fishers, foresters and botanists, and most especially, across the face of America, tribal Indians, those still in touch with a culture that for centuries knew the earth as sacred and its well-being as imperative.

Now, one rather interesting thing about all this is that when you start to look closely at how nature is patterned—and I have spent a considerable amount of time doing this for North America in the past few months—you discover that you are dealing with something almost, appropriately enough, organic. For just as bioregions normally merge with one another without hard-edged boundaries, so they overlap and even subsume one another in a complex arrangement of sizes depending upon the detail and specificity of natural characteristics. The whole matter is complex, and I do not wish to go into all its intricacies today, but let me suggest the labels with which I propose to describe (and, I hope, to popularize) the various kinds of bioregional gradations.

The widest region, taking its character from the broadest measures of native vegetation and soil contours, may be called the “ecoregion” and will generally cover several hundred thousands of square miles over several states; it is possible to determine somewhere between forty and fifty such areas across North America. But within these ecoregions it is easy to distinguish other coherent territories that define themselves primarily by their surface features—a watershed or river basin, a valley, a desert, a plateau, a mountain range—and that we may call the “georegion.” And within these georegions, in turn, one can often locate still smaller areas of perhaps several thousand square miles, discrete and identifiable with their own topographies and inhabitants, their own variations and human culture and agriculture, to which we may give the name “vitaregion.”

Using that terminology for our location today, we would say we are in an ecoregion that could be thought of as the Northeastern Hardwood, stretching (in conventional terms) from mid-New Hampshire and mid-Vermont to mid-New Jersey, an area characterized by birch and beech in addition to conifers, largely podzolic and blue podzolic soils, and a July-maximum, January-minimum rainfall. Within this territory are a number of obvious georegions—the Hudson watershed, the Berkshires, the Massachusetts Bay systems—and South Hadley, Massachusetts [site of the 1983 lectures] is solidly within the Connecticut River georegion, a long fertile valley running between the Green and Taconic Mountains on the west and the White Mountains on the east all the way down to Long Island Sound. But there are obvious distinctions to be made within this georegion, too, for the valley here as it broadens out from the Deerfield River on down to the Meshomasic foothills south of Hartford is quite different from the stretch up north to the Ammonoosuc or south in the pinched and hilly course to the Sound; and within this vitaregion clear differences from surrounding areas in both agriculture—tobacco, for example, and potatoes—and homoculture can be seen.

But I do not wish to dwell on such distinctions, to elaborate this cosmography, for I think at this stage of bioregional consciousness it is more important to stand a bit aside and appreciate the broad contours of the concepts than to plunge headlong into the briarbush of elaborate differences and definitions. Whether we speak of ecoregion or georegion or vitaregion, after all, we speak of bioregions, and it is this essential archetype that is most important to comprehend. For once that is done on any significant scale, then the matter of making distinctions among bioregions and creating human institutions to match them can safely be left to the inhabitants, the dwellers in the land, who will always know them best. In the discussions to follow, therefore, we may imagine that bioregionalism will apply in its initial and formative phases to the largest territory, the ecoregion, and thereafter, in an evolving organic process narrowing in scale as the perceptions become sharper and the tools more finely honed, to smaller and smaller territories, to the vitaregion and perhaps beyond, moving closer and closer to the specifics of the soil and those who live upon it.


The economy that comes into being within a bioregion also derives its character from the conditions, the laws, of nature. Our ignorance is immense, but what we can be said to know with some surety after these many centuries of living on the soil has been cogently summarized by Edward Goldsmith, the editor of The Ecologist, as the laws of Ecodynamics—to be distinguished, of course, from the laws of Thermodynamics.

The first law is that conservation—preservation, sustenance—is the central goal of the natural world, hence its ingenerate, fundamental resistance to large-scale structural change; the second law is that, far from being entropic (that’s an image rightly belonging to physics, errantly borrowed by scientific ecologists), nature is inherently stable, working in all times and places toward what ecology calls a “climax,” that is, a balanced, harmonious, integrative state of maturity which, once reached, is maintained for prolonged periods. From this it follows that a bioregional economy would seek to maintain rather than exploit the natural world, accommodate to the environment rather than resist it; it would attempt to create conditions for a climax, a balance, for what some economists have recently taken to calling a “steady state,” rather than for perpetual change and continual growth in service to “progress,” a false and delusory goddess if ever there was one. A bioregional economy would, in practical terms, minimize resource use, emphasize conservation and recycling, avoid pollution and waste. It would adopt its systems to the given bioregional resources: energy based on wind, for example, where nature called for that, or on wood, where that was appropriate, and food based on what the region itself—particularly in its native, pre-agricultural state—could grow.

And thus this kind of economy would be based, above all, on the most elemental and most elegant principle of the natural world, that of self-sufficiency. Just as nature does not depend on trade, does not create elaborate networks of continental dependency, so the bioregion would find all its needed resources—for energy, food, shelter, clothing, craft, manufacture, luxury—within its own environment. And far from being deprived, far from being thereby impoverished, it would gain in every measure of economic health. It would be more stable, free from boom-and-bust cycles and distant political crises; it would be able to plan, to allocate its resources, to develop what it wanted to develop at the safest pace, in the most ecological manner. It would not be at the mercy of distant and uncontrollable national bureaucracies and transnational governments and thus would be more self-regarding, more cohesive, developing a sense of place, of community, of comradeship, and the pride that comes from stability, control, competence, and independence.

In what was perhaps one of his most prescient perceptions Fritz Schumacher realized that the market economy of twentieth-century capitalism erred fundamentally, because it erred repeatedly, against nature. “It is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world,” he wrote. “The market represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them.” And this is why, as he points out, conventional economics makes no distinctions at all between primary goods, “which man has to win from nature,” and secondary goods manufactured from them or between renewable and nonrenewable resources or the environmental and social costs of developing one against the other.

A bioregional economy, in sharpest contrast, makes—in fact is grounded in—these vital distinctions.


Political principles on a bioregional scale are also grounded in the dictates presented by nature, in which what is forever valued are not the imperatives of giantism, centralization, hierarchy, and monolithicity but rather, in starkest contraposition, those of scale, decentralization, division, and diversity.

Nothing is more striking in the examination of a natural setting than the absence of the forms of authoritarianism, domination, and sovereignty that are taken as inevitable in human governance; even the queen bee is queen only because we designate her so. In a healthy econiche the various sets of animals—whether themselves organized as individuals, families, bands, or communal hives—get along with one another without the need of any system of authority or dominance—indeed, without structure or organization of any kind whatsoever. No one species rules, not one even makes the attempt, and the only assertion of power has to do with territory, with a particular area to be left alone in. Each set, each species, in the system has its own methods of organization, but none attempts to impose them on any other or to set itself up as the central source or power or sovereign. Far from there being contention and discord, the pseudo-Darwinian war of all-against-all, there is for the most part balance and adjustment, cooperation among communities, integration into the environment, variety, complexity, and flexibility.

The lessons are of course obvious and suggest immediately the design for a bioregion as well as for a continent of bioregions. Each unit, of the size that the natural settings promote, may be unified and cohesive—let us imagine, for a start, a neighborhood, a community, a small town—and yet live side by side with others in a settled and mutual pattern, together comprising a vitaregion; and that vitaregion may have its own unification and cohesiveness, its own method of governance, and yet live side by side with other regions, organized as they may see fit; and so on, outward, in self-sufficient collaboration, unit upon unit, for so long as the natural boundaries may permit and the natural affinities be kept intact.

Similar lessons may be derived from the patterns of human nature, and in the matter of political relations it is only fitting to factor those in as well. Throughout all human history, even in the past several hundred years, people have tended to live in separate and independent groups, a “fragmentation of human society” that Harold Isaacs, the veteran MIT professor of international affairs, has described as something that is akin to “a pervasive force in human affairs and always has been.” Even when nations and empires have arisen, he notes, they have no staying power against the innate human drive to fragmentation: “The record shows that there could be all kinds of lags, that declines could take a long time and falls run long overdue, but that these conditions could never be indefinitely maintained. Under external or internal pressures—usually both—authority was eroded, legitimacy challenged, and in wars, collapse, and revolution, the system of power redrawn.”

I feel I must add here a note that may be painful for those whose allegiance to the precepts of fragmentation and diversification tends to crumble halfway through. Bioregional diversity means exactly that. It does not mean that every region of the Northeast or of North America or of the globe will build upon the values of democracy, equality, liberty, freedom, justice, and other suchlike “desiderata.” It means rather that truly autonomous bioregions will likely go their own separate ways and end up with quite disparate political systems—some democracies, no doubt, some direct, some representative, some federative, but undoubtedly all kinds of aristocracies, oligarchies, theocracies, principalities, margravates, duchies, and palatinates as well. And some with values, beliefs, standards, and customs quite antithetical to those that the people in this room, for example, hold dearest.

Schumacher somewhere quotes with favor Gandhi’s remark that it is worthless to go on “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” But that is exactly what I think is necessary: systems so perfect, or at least good enough, that they accommodate people who are not good. There’s no point, it seems to me, in dreaming that people will be good, not merely because that would produce a fairly vapid society, I should think, but because there’s every reason to suppose that it is simply not likely to take place on this planet in this galaxy. We must dream of systems, rather, which allow people to be people in all their variety, to be wrong upon occasion and errant and bad and even evil, to commit the crimes that as near as we know have always been committed—brutality, subjugation, even war—and yet systems in which all social and civil structures will work to minimize such errancies and, what is even more important, hold them within strict bounds should they occur.

Bioregionalism, properly conceived, is such a construct, for it provides a scale at which misconduct is likely to be mitigated because bonds of community are strong, and material and social needs for the most part fulfilled; a scale at which the consequences of individual and regional actions are visible and unconcealable, and violence can be seen to be a transgression against the environment and its people in defiance of basic ecological common sense; a scale at which even error and iniquity, should they happen, will not do irreparable damage beyond the narrow regional limits and will not send their poisons coursing through the veins of entire continents and the world itself. Bioregionalism, properly conceived, not merely tolerates but thrives upon the diversities of human behavior and the varieties of political and social arrangements those give rise to, even if at times they may stem from the baser rather than the more noble motives. In any case, there is no other way to have it.


When asked recently to name the seven wonders of the world, the renowned biologist Lewis Thomas led off with the extraordinary phenomenon of the oncideres beetle and the mimosa tree. It seems that when she wishes to lay her eggs, the female oncideres beetle unfailingly picks out the mimosa tree from all others in the forest, crawls out on one of its limbs and cuts a long lengthwise slit into which she drops her sacs. Then, because in the larva stage the offspring cannot survive in live wood, she backs down the branch a foot or so and cuts a neat circular slit through the bark all around the limb, which has the effect of killing the branch within a very short time, whereupon it falls to the ground in the next strong wind and becomes the home for the next generation of oncideres beetles. But, interestingly, this process also has the effect of pruning the mimosa tree, a rather valuable ancillary result because, left alone, a mimosa has a lifespan of twenty-five to thirty years, but pruned in just this simple way it can flourish for a century or more.

Dr. Thomas seems to regard this relationship as sufficiently extraordinary to be regarded as a wonder of the world, particularly worthy, he writes, because such things “keep reminding us of how little we know about nature.” Well, perhaps confession on the side of ignorance is wise in these matters, and yet I do think it is permissible to point out that, far from being unusual, this sort of biological interaction is in fact commonplace throughout every phase of nature, and, moreover, it is found with such regularity that it should indicate at least one lesson we know very well. The relationship is called, of course, symbiosis, and its persistence and pervasiveness in the natural world should be allowed to suggest to us, if we will but let it, a fundamental principle. From the very mitochondria that float about in our cells, infinitesimal creatures with their own DNA and RNA who live on us as we live on them, right on to the giant clam, which lives off the photosynthesis created by the plant cells it engulfs and actually incorporates into its body, where the cells live happily in a protected environment that even includes small lenses in the clam’s tissues particularly adapted to increase their needed sunlight—from the smallest to the largest, the recurrence of the phenomenon of symbiosis provides a model for, if it does not strongly suggest the need for, a reordering of human society along similar lines, with families and neighborhoods and communities and cities operating within a bioregion on the basis of collaboration, exchange, cooperation, and mutuality rather than contention, competition, and selfishness.

The prime example of such an interaction on the bioregional scale would be the social symbiosis between the city and the countryside, the urban and the rural—a correlation that has been celebrated by philosophers from Aristotle on and brilliantly analyzed by the woman with whom I share the platform this morning, Jane Jacobs, and the demise of which has been tellingly bemoaned by most of the giants of our century from Mumford to Borsodi to Bookchin. Listen to Fritz Schumacher:

Human life, to be fully human, needs the city; but it also needs food and other raw materials gained from the country. Everybody needs ready access to both countryside and city. It follows that the aim must be a pattern of urbanization so that every rural area has a nearby city, near enough so that people can visit it and be back the same day. No other pattern makes human sense.       Actual developments during the last hundred years or so, however, have been in the exactly opposite direction: the rural areas have been increasingly deprived of access to worthwhile cities. There has been a monstrous and highly pathological polarization of the pattern of settlements.

“Pathological polarization”: the mixedness of the metaphor aside, that is obviously the exact opposite of symbiosis and is equally obviously, as Schumacher saw, the condition of our time. Could we imagine a sadder comment?

In a bioregional society the division between urban and rural, industrial and agricultural, population and resources, would be replaced by an equilibrium, a symbiosis. On the one hand, the city would be necessary as a producer of certain kinds of goods, as a center of artistic culture, as a source of the assembled civic virtues, though the city need not be of immense size—indeed, no larger than fifty thousand or one hundred thousand people—and in fact would ideally replicate rather than grow so that instead of a single metropolis there would be a multiplicity of cities of modest sizes scattered throughout the bioregion. And on the other hand, the country would of course be necessary as the prime source of food and water and the materials of shelter, clothing, artisanship, and trade, and especially as the embodiment of the bioregional spirit of Gaea, whose presence should be felt daily by the inhabitants of every settlement, of whatever size. This equilibrium should not suggest some sort of polarization of its own, for in a bioregional society living with, on, for, and around the earth as a necessitarian matter of course, the countryside would become part of the city, not merely in the sense of parks and woodlands and greenswards and open waterways—as fundamental as they are—and not merely in the sense of backyard and rooftop gardens and floral displays and tree-lined streets and plaza fountains—as desirable as they are—but through the integration into every urban process of a total understanding of ecological principles until the smallest child knows that water does not come from a pipe in the basement and that you can’t throw anything away because there is no “away.”

Now, it would be possible to continue this description of the bioregional civilization as derived from the laws of nature—as it relates to energy, for example, and agriculture and health and defense and much else besides—and of course such a task is ultimately necessary for the bioregional citizenry to undertake, with study, in depth, over time. But in discussing those four primary determinants—scale, economy, politics, and society—I hope I have suggested to you the outlines of such a project and something of what it might evolve into—some of the bones, a little of the meat—so that you can appreciate its validity at least as a philosophical approach.

To my perception, honed through these many years of mid-century turmoil, bioregionalism satisfies the principal conditions of an effective political project, most particularly in these respects: it is rooted in the historical realities of the past, it accords with the visible patterns of the present, and it provides desirable and workable visions of the future. I would like, all too briefly, to touch upon each of these.

Historical Realities

There is nothing more fundamentally supportive of the validity of bioregionalism than its being the modern version of a very old perception of the world held not merely by the Greeks but, as I indicated before, by virtually every preliterate society of which we have knowledge. It must mean something that the early human societies which occupied the earth held this perception as a truth so profound that it could be accurately described as almost innate; it must have significance that in most subsequent societies until quite recently the earth and its behavior formed the basis of all folk knowledge, not merely in matters of agriculture and nutrition but in medicine, religion, art, and even government. And as Schumacher says—it is indeed the ultimate sentence of Small Is Beautiful—“The guidance we need for our work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”

But the historical validity of this concept—the provenance I might say, as the art dealers do in describing the history of an artwork to establish its authenticity—can be certified in an even more concrete way, closer to this time and place. Regionalism, whether conceived of as sectionalism, localism, separatism, agrarianism, states rights, or nullificationism, has a fine and venerable tradition in this country and is by any reckoning as American as—depending on your region—apple, peach, Boston cream, Jefferson Davis, sweet cactus, German cherry, or Key lime pie.

Frederick Jackson Turner, the great Wisconsin historian, knew it, and it formed the basis of a lifetime of studies culminating in The Significance of Sections in American History, where he showed that only by a consideration of American sectional, or regional, differences could one understand the patterns of settlement, migration, architecture, literature, and economic and political life: “We in America are in reality,” he concluded, “a federation of sections rather than states.”

Lewis Mumford knew it when he put together the Regional Plan Association in 1923, an ambitious—and for a decade successful—attempt to create regional plans along geographical lines, which would, in his words, mean the “reinvigoration and rehabilitation of whole regions so that the products of culture and civilization, instead of being confined to a prosperous minority in the congested centers, shall be available to everyone at every point” and so that we may “eliminate our enormous economic wastes, give a new life to stable agriculture, and [though I blush to say it] set down fresh communities planned on a human scale.”

Howard Odum knew it when he started a highly honored and remarkably multidisciplinary school of regionalism at the University of North Carolina in the 1930s and over two decades produced a series of scholarly books highlighted by the massive 1938 study American Regionalism, all to the point of showing, as he put it, that “regionalism . . . represents the philosophy and technique of self-help, self-development, and initiative in which each area unit is not only aided in, but is committed to the full development of its own resources and capacities.”

And even the United States government, mirabile dictu, knew it when in 1934 it authorized a National Resource Committee to study the regions of America and discovered that “regional differentiation may turn out to be the true expression of American life and culture [reflecting] American ideals, needs, and viewpoints far more adequately than does State consciousness and loyalty.” It was out of this exhaustive study, more than fifteen reports in all, that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was born, America’s greatest—though in some respects most distorted—experiment with regionalism.

Much there is today that goes against the grain of regionalism, of course, much forcing the nation away from its natural contours toward the artificial unanimity of a monolithic plasticized government. And yet . . . and yet . . . even in an age such as this the historical realities of regionalism, as perceived by those several generations of scholars and planners, cannot be erased. And that is why—just to touch on a small part of this complex subject—there are today more than twenty-five specialized regional governments on the TVA model operating in the United States, more than a thousand metropolitan regional districts, almost five hundred substate planning districts, and more than a hundred multi-county regional associations. That is why regional planning, particularly since the 1970s, has become an established academic and governmental profession and all but ten states have active regional planning departments, some of which are now beginning to be responsive to bioregional imperatives. And that is why there are real and persistent rivalries among national regions for such things as defense contracts, army bases, public works projects, businesses, conventions, sports franchises, and the like, a competition so strong these days that the Wall Street Journal this spring ran a front-page story declaring that “another war between the states is raging.”

Contemporary Trends

Another salient measure of the validity of the bioregional enterprise is that it accords well with the most basic—and complementary—political processes in the world today: first, the pressure from a series of mounting national and global crises that threaten to end with nothing less than the collapse of the established order and, second, the concurrent trend toward the disintegration of imperial, continental, and national arrangements—what is called separatism, decentralism, or, to use a supposedly derogatory term, Balkanization.

I do not need to belabor the evidence of the crises threatening the contemporary industrial system. It is sufficient, I think, merely to say that those who are predicting some sort of near-term calamity and collapse range through all the academic disciplines, from physics to philosophy, and through all the political positions, from anarchist to authoritarian. To be sure, that is not enough to guarantee that such a disintegration will in fact take place, but it is accompanied by plentiful signs of the failure of the established orders to satisfy the most basic human needs of large portions of the population, signs of the apparently unstoppable disintegration of America’s cities, signs of the rising tides of poverty, disease, ignorance, anomie, suicide, violence, and crime, even in this most affluent of nations. And it is interesting that, whatever form the collapse in fact will take, we already possess a wide variety of labels for it: Schumacher’s “the degeneration of the industrial system,” Robert Nisbet’s “twilight of authority,” the Club of Rome’s “oncoming age of scarcity,” Arnold Toynbee’s “the end of the frontier,” and, variously, “the coming dark age,” “the twilight of capitalism,” “the biological time bomb,” “overshoot,” “the end of the American Era.”

I remember Fritz Schumacher, during the height of the oil crisis, looking up at the skyscrapers of New York and remarking, “I wonder how many people will want to climb to the fortieth floor when there is not enough electricity to run the elevators,” and going on to suggest that the human limit for climbing is about four or five stories. In his typically gentle way he was encapsulating a truth: that the disintegration of the present system is coming about virtually by itself as the era of industrial capitalism, based on the exploitation of unending frontiers and non-renewable resources or, as William Catton puts it, on its ability to steal from elsewhere and elsewhen, reaches its inevitable end; and when it does, the whole face of industrial society—the height of its buildings, the size of its cities, the extent of its markets, the reach and power of its governments, the nature of its institutions—will be forced to change, and change drastically. There is no escaping this eventual transformation, for its inevitability is programmed into the very genes of this society, part of its capitalistic DNA if you will, and as Schumacher wrote in his final work, “It is no longer possible to believe that any political or economic reform, or scientific advance, or technological progress could solve the life and death problems of industrial society.”

The alternative society that may rise from its ashes—or, if we are terribly lucky, that will evolve before the fires of destruction actually begin and create those ashes—the one that could logically be thought of as befitting the coming age, attuned to the conditions that will prevail after the industrial society runs its course, is the bioregional one. But in a sense we do not necessarily need to wait until then, however near that “then” is, because at least one form of the bioregional society is already taking shape in the nascent separatist movements that have come into being in almost every corner of the globe within the last generation. They too represent an organic, I would argue an inevitable, response to the disintegration of the contemporary order, a growing centrifugal force as industrialism spins more wildly about. As a global phenomenon the current rise of these movements is something quite without precedent in history; it is, according to Eric Hobsbawm, “the characteristic nationalist movement of our time” and “an unquestionably active, growing and powerful socio-political force.” An exhaustive elaboration would be exhausting; it should be enough to note only the most active movements just within Europe, the continent where it might have been presumed that nations were the oldest, strongest, and most cohesive: there are the Bretons, Corsicans, Occitanians, and Alsatians in France; the Catalonians, Andalusians, and Basques in Spain; the Welsh, Scots, and Cornish in Britain; the Sicilians and Tyrolians in Italy; the Waloons and Flemish in Belgium; the Latts, Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Georgians, and a variety of Asians in the Soviet Union; the Turks and Greeks in Cyprus; the Croatians, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins in Yugoslavia—and that, I remind you, is the bare surface.

It is truly remarkable. The undeniable trend of these past forty years has not been toward larger and more consolidated arrangements but, everywhere in the world, toward smaller and more decentralized ones. In the words of Harold Isaacs: “What we are experiencing is not the shaping of new coherences but the world breaking into its bits and pieces. . . . We are refragmenting and retribalizing ourselves.”

What is so interesting in this amazing process is the clear expression of the bioregional idea. For though it has long been acknowledged that the cultural aspects of these separatist movements are grounded in their special regional histories, from which they take their obvious and cherished differences of language and dress and music, the fact is that their political and social characters are every bit as rooted in the long, intimate, and knowledgeable association with their particular bioregion and its history. And the truths these movements embody, the apparently unquenchable truths, are in every case the product of the land they hold sacred.

Desirable Visions

In treading upon the insubstantial ground of the future we take certain risks, and we must face the fact that the word “utopian” has become an epithet, a chastisement, for those who would dream of things that never were and imagine that they still might be. Yet it is a necessary part of any political construct that it offer an image of the future that can be regarded as positive and liberatory and realistic and energizing. This, I submit, bioregionalism succeeds in doing.

For what the bioregional vision suggests is a way of living that not merely can take us away from the calamities of the present and the diseases of our quotidian lives but can provide its own indwelling enrichments and satisfactions, a widening of human possibilities. Imagine, if you will, the joy of knowing, as we can imagine from the scholarly record, what the American Indians knew: the meaning of the changes of the wind on a summer afternoon; the ameliorative properties of everyday plants; the comfort of tribal, clannic, and community ties throughout life; the satisfaction of being rooted in history, in lore, in place; the excitement of a culture understandable because immanent in the simple realities of the surroundings. Imagine a life primarily of contemplation and leisure, where work takes up only a few hours a day—an average of fewer than four, according to the studies of nonliterate societies—where conversation and play and lovemaking become the common rituals of the afternoon, and there is no scramble for the necessities of life because they are provided regularly, equally, joyfully, and without charge. Imagine a life—and here I am paraphrasing an anthropologist’s description of a California Indian tribe—where people do not feel themselves to be independent, autonomous individuals but rather deeply bound together with other people and with the surrounding nonhuman forms of life in a complex interconnected web of being, a true community in which all creatures and all things can be felt almost as brothers and sisters and where the principle of nonexploitation, of respect and reverence for all creatures, all living things, is as much a part of life as breathing.

Yet I think, however enchanting that image might be, the bioregional vision is even more important in that it actually has an air of the practical, the doable, the achievable: it has the smell of reality about it.

For one thing, the idea of the bioregion is accessible to people, all kinds of people, for as Kevin Lynch notes in his Managing the Sense of a Region, “Our senses are local, while our experience is regional.” Lee Swenson, an early bioregionalist, has reported that when he took his bioregional slide show across the country, it didn’t take long for his audiences to come up with some rough consensus about the territories they lived in that pretty well matched any ecological definition of their bioregions. If true, this suggests that the process of organizing around this issue, especially among those outside of the usual constituencies for social change, is made much easier.

Then, too, bioregionalism joins—or at least has the potential to join—right and left (or, perhaps more precisely, it ignores right and left), thus uniting the communard and the NRA hunter, the homesteader and the conservationist, the antinuclear activist and the antipowerline farmer. The concern for place, for the preservation of nature, the return to such traditional American values as self-reliance, local control, town-meeting democracy—these things can ally many different kinds of political people; in fact, they have a way of blunting and diminishing other and less important political differences.

Bioregionalism also has the virtue of gradualism, for it suggests that the process of change—or organizing, educating, energizing a following, and reshaping, refashioning, recreating a continent—is, like the overarching processes of Gaea herself, not revolutionary and cataclysmic but, like the drift of the continents on their tectonic plates, steady, slow, continuous, regular, and inevitable. One does not imagine a bioregional civilization coming about by revolutionary decree—no matter whose revolution—or even, in truth, by legislative or administrative fiat. If one had to dictate or legislate the bioregional future, it would never happen, because it would be resisted and sabotaged as crazy and utopian and impractical and un-American; it is only by the long and steady tenor of evolution that people will ease themselves into such a society as the alternative futures gradually come to seem senseless and the bioregional prospect becomes the only sane choice.

And finally, the bioregional vision does not demand elaborate wrenching of either physical or human realities. It does not posit, on the one hand, the violent interference with nature that so many of the scientific technofix visions of the future do—those, for example, that ask for icebergs to be floated into deserts or the Great Plains to be given over to concentrated nuclear power plants (it does not, for that matter, have anything to do with nuclear fission, the single most unnatural project humankind has ever devised) or rockets full of people to be fired millions of miles away into space colonies around the sun. And it does not imagine, on the other hand, the creation of some kind of unlikely and never-before-encountered superbeings as do so many of the reformist and radical visions of the future—those, for example, that promise “a new socialist man” without motives of greed or self-interest or that plan by education or religion or therapy to create a populace living in aquarian harmony without human vices. On the contrary, bioregionalism insists on taking the world “as it is” and people, as I have indicated before, as they are.

I hope I do not suggest with all of this that the bioregional project is blind to the chances of failure—or what is worse, half-failure—or is unmindful of the pains that might attend the accomplishment of its ends. Just because I am suggesting hope and desirability, I am not suggesting sanguinity or quiescence or detachment or passivity. I mean merely to underscore that element of the project which speaks to the Biblical admonition, “Where there is no vision the people perish.”

Lewis Thomas concludes his fascinating Lives of a Cell with this observation:

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses. . . . It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled at handling the sun.

And just one year later, in 1975, the British atmospheric chemist James Lovelock described in the magazine New Scientist a perception of the world that had come to him and his colleagues one day:

It appeared to us that the Earth’s biosphere is able to control at least the temperature of the Earth’s surface and the composition of the atmosphere. Prima facie, the atmosphere looked like a contrivance put together cooperatively by the totality of living systems to carry out certain necessary control functions. This led to the formulation of the proposition that living matter, the air, the oceans, the land surface, were parts of a giant system which was able to control temperature, the composition of the air and sea, the pH of the soil and so on as to be optimal for survival of the biosphere. The system seemed to exhibit the behaviour of a single organism, even a living creature.

Out of this new perception Lovelock and his colleagues created a whole new scientific hypothesis on the nature of the biosphere. Or should I say a very old hypothesis? For when they went in search of a name for this hypothesis, they sought out William Golding, the novelist who just recently was honored with the Nobel Prize. And what did he suggest immediately? As Lovelock writes, “He suggested Gaia—the name given by the ancient Greeks to their Earth goddess.”

So after all, there seems to be no doubt about it. The earth, the biosphere, is alive, a living creature, one and visible, containing within itself all living creatures. Like any living entity it can be stressed or injured or diseased, as it surely is now. But it will live—of that we can be sure—one way or another, and it will resettle itself, restore itself, with humankind or without. It behooves us, as nothing in the long history of humankind, I believe, has so far behooved us, to come to this literally most vital understanding and, before it is too late, give up those demonic practices that threaten our fundamental forms of existence and ultimately our existence itself. We must make the goddess Gaea part of—no, I want to say the whole of—our lives, even though that may be, as John Todd has suggested, a change of consciousness as profound and as wrenching as that which accompanied the origination of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. But then, what other choice, really, do we have?


Publication By

Kirkpatrick Sale

Kirkpatrick Sale is a widely recognized formulator and early proponent of the notion of “bioregionalism.” His development of this concept in his books, lectures, and regular radio broadcasts fueled the ever-growing interest in a local approach to the solving of growing political, economic, and environmental problems. A scholar and author, his many books have explored radical … Continued

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