The Bioregional Imagination
--Ragunath Padmanabhan
4 minute read
Nov 7, 2015

As part of the development of the environmental movement during the 1970s, a school of thought emerged calling itself bioregionalism. Located primarily in western North America, especially California and British Columbia, this movement included thinkers such as Peter Berg, Raymond Dasmann, Gary Snyder, and Stephanie Mills. Their motivation was to address matters of pressing environmental concern through a politics derived from a local sense of place, an approach they felt would effectively complement eff orts focused at the national and international levels. Hence bioregionalists began to create a sort of parallel culture and to redefine the locus of their work, moving away from existing but for the most part arbitrary political boundaries (nations, states, counties, cities, etc.) in favor of those that emerged from a biotically determined framework, primarily based on natural communities or watersheds. In a recent study, LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice, Robert L. Thayer Jr. defines a bioregion as follows:

A bioregion is literally and etymologically a “life- place”—a unique region defi nable by natural (rather than political) boundaries with a geographic, climatic, hydrological, and ecological character capable of supporting unique human communities. Bioregions can be variously defined by the geography of watersheds, similar plant and animal ecosystems, and related, identifi able landforms (e.g., particular mountain ranges, prairies, or coastal zones) and by the unique human cultures that grow from natural limits and potentials of the region. Most importantly, the bioregion is emerging as the most logical locus and scale for a sustainable, regenerative community to take root and to take place.

In addition to establishing a particular way of delineating place, bioregional thinking also implies a political and cultural practice that manifests as an environmental ethic in the day- to- day activities of ordinary residents. As Doug Aberley has explained in his succinct history of the movement, “Bioregionalism is a body of thought and related practice that has evolved in response to the challenge of reconnecting socially- just human cultures in a sustainable manner to the region- scale ecosystems in which they are irrevocably imbedded” (“Interpreting” 13). As Aberley goes on to explain, however, “it is a diffi cult task to provide a definitive introduction to bioregionalism” because “its practitioners protect a defiant decentralism” (13). There are, that is, no designated leaders, no fi gure whose theoretical musings are accepted as gospel, though inevitably some people have had more infl uence than others. Still, there is no official bioregional program or ideology; rather, there is an evolving dialogue about a set of ideals and ideas continually tested by practice and, as would seem proper, continually inflected by the particularities of diverse places and cultures. Bioregional thinking may be expressed quite diff erently in San Francisco, California, than in Ferrara, Italy, and such flexibility has given the movement surprising durability.

Bioregionalism emerged as a proactive force in the environmental movement because it saw traditional environmentalism as too reactive, forever rallying around the next disaster or impending crisis. Granted such disasters require a response, but bioregionalists prefer a more positive orientation, one that seeks to head off environmental crises by attempting to both imagine and create human communities that live sustainably in place. Although the label bioregionalism does not have wide currency, the ideas that constellate around that term—community, sustainability, local culture, local food systems, “green” cities, renewable energy, habitat restoration, ecological awareness, grassroots activism—have become widely adopted around the world, in no small part due to the efforts and example of bioregionalists. In recent years, the bioregional movement has continued to inform a variety of other expressions of emergent new localisms, including community supported agriculture, the slow- food movement, antiglobalization efforts, and postcolonial reconceptualizations of place and identity.

By foregrounding natural factors as a way to envision place, bioregionalism proposes that human identity may be constituted by our residence in a larger community of natural beings—our local bioregion—rather than, or at least supplementary to, national, state, ethnic, or other more common bases of identity. Bioregionalists ask questions such as the following: What does it mean to be a resident, not of Vancouver, British Columbia, but of Cascadia? Not just of Nebraska, but also of the tallgrass prairie? Not just of California, but of the Shasta bioregion ? Not simply of Milan, but of the Po River Watershed ? Not of Nevada, but of the Great Basin Desert? The answers to such questions are rich with ecological, political, cultural, and even literary signifi cance, the consequences of which we are only beginning to understand. Such shifts in perspective, bioregionalists propose, can have a major and ecologically positive influence on how we choose to relate to the world around us and, indeed, for who we imagine ourselves to be. And as this book attempts to show, literature is very much part of such a shift, helping people reimagine the places where they live and their relations to those places, as well as reflecting the unique bioregional character of specific communities.

Excerpt from the introduction to the book, The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place by Tom Lynch & Cheryll Glotfelty & Karla Armbruster.

Posted by Ragunath Padmanabhan on Nov 7, 2015