CREDIT: <a href="">Steve Dunleavy</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Steve Dunleavy (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: The Practice of Bioregionalism

Aug 9, 2012

Richard Evanoff, professor of environmental ethics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan, recently wrote the book Bioregionalism and Global Ethics: A Transactional Approach to Achieving Ecological Sustainability, Social Justice, and Human Well-being. I corresponded with him on the concepts and applications of bioregionalism, a movement with roots in the ecopolitics of the 1970s, and how it might be useful in turning toward an ecological civilization today. In part one we discussed the political underpinnings of the movement; here we look at some of the practices.

EVAN O'NEIL: Who practices bioregionalism today? Have they had success?

RICHARD EVANOFF: Bioregionalism is a concept that can be used to describe any tendency, whether it calls itself "bioregional" or not, that seeks to empower people to live economically self-sufficient and ecologically sustainable lifestyles based in local communities. As such, bioregionalism attempts to articulate in contemporary terms a way of life that has been practiced by humans throughout most of their history—that is, the idea that societies should be organized on the basis of local communities, which attempt to provide for their basic needs on the basis of resources available at the local level.

Many indigenous peoples continue to organize their societies in this way and their cultures are increasingly threatened by attempts to exploit their resources (the underlying theme of the movie Avatar, incidentally). There is also an attempt to pull local communities that are relatively self-sufficient at present into the global market by seeing them as a source of cheap labor and markets. While some are no doubt attracted by the idea that they may eventually be able to live the same kind of lifestyles as people in developed countries, there is also a great deal of resistance among those who would prefer to maintain their traditional cultures and lifestyles.

Instead of trying to reform existing institutions, bioregionalists seek to actively create viable alternatives.

Movements have also sprung up in developed countries that attempt to prepare for a future in which energy resources are limited and life will, of necessity, be increasingly based on the ability to live within the limits of what is locally available. The "transition towns" movement, which started in Ireland and the United Kingdom around 2005 and has since spread around the world, is a good example of this trend. The transition movement seeks to move away from oil dependency towards local sources of renewable energy, to shift from global to local food supplies, to foster local sustainable forms of housing and transportation, to create local currencies that keep wealth in the local community and provide local sources of finance, and to create local forms of community that empower people to participate directly and democratically in the decision-making process.

In developing countries, there have been movements to preserve local environments and maintain traditional livelihoods. Examples include attempts to prevent deforestation and dam construction in India; to obtain land that can be used to produce food for local consumption rather than export in Brazil (the landless movement); to reclaim abandoned factories and institute worker-management in Argentina (the fábricas recuperadas movement, which has affinities with the cooperative movement worldwide); to institute worker cooperatives and forms of local self-government (communal councils) in Venezuela, and to oppose neoliberalism and reclaim local autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico (the Zapatistas).

These are just a few of the many instances of efforts in the developing world to regain control over local economies and local political decision-making, even if the people involved do not self-identify as "bioregionalists."

Among those who do self-identify as bioregionalists, many have been active in similar initiatives to maintain resilient interactions between local human cultures and ecosystems. The best source of information about such projects is the publication Planet Drum Pulse, published by the Planet Drum Foundation, originally started by Peter Berg, one of the founders of bioregionalism.

Planet Drum Foundation works to develop bioregional practices in Bahia de Caráquez, Ecuador.

The bioregional approach can be seen as "pro-active," rather than as simply a form of protest against existing social, economic, and political arrangements. That is, instead of trying to reform existing institutions, bioregionalists seek to actively create viable alternatives—"building the new society in the shell of the old."

While many bioregionalists eschew electoral politics in favor of building such alternatives, others have been active in both the Greens/Green Party USA and the Green Party of the United States. These parties originated out of a meeting of the First North American Bioregional Congress held in 1984 near Kansas City, Missouri. The Greens base themselves on Ten Key Values, each of which is fully consistent with bioregional principles: (1) grassroots democracy; (2) social justice and equal opportunity; (3) ecological wisdom; (4) non-violence; (5) decentralization; (6) community-based economics and economic justice; (7) feminism and gender equity; (8) respect for diversity; (9) personal and global responsibility; and (10) future focus and sustainability.

EVAN O'NEIL: Does bioregionalism mostly resist globalization or can it find ways to coexist?

RICHARD EVANOFF: The emphasis of bioregionalism on decentralization and localism has been criticized by some on the grounds that it promotes insularity and parochialism. While, indeed, certain groups (particularly indigenous peoples who wish to preserve their traditional cultures) may wish to avoid contact with the outside world and remain relatively isolated, bioregionalism itself embraces the slogan "act locally, think globally." Bioregionalism is sympathetic with many of the goals of the anti-globalization movement simply because globalization, as it is presently conceived, is undemocratic and tends to favor the interests of global elites more than it does the interests of ordinary citizens.

While bioregionalism indeed "resists" and does not wish to "coexist" with any form of globalization that excludes the participation of citizens and communities in the global decision-making process, it is nonetheless fully able to express international solidarity with social movements around the world seeking to create forms of globalization that are genuinely of, by, and for the people. My book favors a global order based on participatory democracy and calls for "the creation of economically self-sufficient and politically decentralized communities delinked from the global market but confederated at appropriate levels to address problems that transcend cultural borders."

Local communities can confederate into larger units, as necessary, to deal with problems that cross multiple bioregions.

International cooperation is necessary (perhaps a new word, such as "inter-bioregional," should be coined), but to be as democratic as possible, power should be based in the local community, where citizens have the ability to fully participate in the decision-making process. Local communities can confederate into larger units, as necessary, to deal with problems that cross bioregional lines. Each problem could then be dealt with at the appropriate level—local problems by local initiatives and global problems through global cooperation.

If such an idea seems impractical, consider that the United States already has a federal system, comprised of the fifty states, and that the United States participates in multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations. Bioregionalism would simply advocate adding local communities to the federal process, and then assuring that decision-making power flows from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down, as at present. South American countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina have already begun experimenting with various forms of local self-government, including communal councils and neighborhood assemblies.

EVAN O'NEIL: How much of a threat does climate change pose to bioregions? Is stopping climate change a key motivation for bioregionalists?

RICHARD EVANOFF: Climate change is already having an enormous effect on both ecosystems and human well-being, and the situation is only likely to get worse in the future. Given the failure of national governments and international initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol, to effectively address the issue of climate change, a different approach is clearly needed. Organizations such as, started by Bill McKibben in 2008, seek to mobilize grassroots support for reducing CO2 emissions below 350 parts per million (the maximum level of emissions considered to be safe). The movement is in accord with the bioregional principle that change is most effective when it comes from below rather than the top. McKibben is, moreover, a strong supporter of local economies and grassroots political action.

EVAN O'NEIL: Environmentalism seems to have bifurcated along a dark-to-bright green spectrum, with anti-civilizational "ecoterrorists" at one extreme and geoengineering techno-optimists at the other. Where does bioregionalism fall?

RICHARD EVANOFF: I would want to reframe this question on the ground that it seems unfair to label those who try to preserve natural areas in ways that are totally nonviolent to both human and nonhuman life as "terrorists" while failing to apply the same term to corporations and governments that engage in massive acts of ecological destruction while simultaneously ignoring basic human rights. Why are deaths caused by industrial pollution and indiscriminate warfare not classified as acts of "terrorism"?

Probably the extremes can be better represented by making a distinction between techno-optimists, on the one hand, who think that we should continue with our present course and rely on future technological achievements to save us from environmental and social collapse, and neo-primitivists, on the other, who advocate going back to pre-civilizational forms of society with no technology. The neo-primitivist tendency is quite minor, and the attempt on the part of some commentators to paint the entire environmental movement as neo-primitivist is nothing more than willful misrepresentation.

Bioregionalism advocates using appropriate technologies that meet human needs in sustainable ways.

Bioregionalism tries to stake a middle position between these two extremes. Techno-optimism is based on an almost religious-like faith in future technological developments that do not yet even exist, and simply turns a blind eye to the large-scale environmental destruction that is taking place at present. Bioregionalism is not anti-technology per se, but rather suggests that we need to be working now to bring our economic and social systems within natural limits.

First, this involves creating steady-state economies that do not use resources faster than they can be replenished, or create pollution faster than the Earth can naturally absorb it. In other words, in order to sustain our own lives and cultures we need to live within our ecological means. Second, human societies must be maintained in a way that enables other, nonhuman forms of life to flourish also—that is, that protects biodiversity and promotes continued natural evolution. Moreover, these are things we can begin doing now, with existing technology, rather than waiting for the development of purely hypothetical future technologies that may or may not be able to live up to their claims.

Our current forms of technology are, in any event, mainly aimed at increasing economic growth and promoting consumer societies that are patently unsustainable. Bioregionalism advocates using appropriate technologies that meet human needs in sustainable ways and allow for the flourishing of both human and nonhuman life forms.


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