Bioregions is the precursor to Berg’s 2002 revision, Bioregionalism: An Introduction. This article, which originally appeared in the British periodical Resurgence #98 (May/June 1983), provides context for the evolution of bioregional thinking. It serves as both an introduction and a reference for bioregional thinking, with clear and concise definitions of bioregion and reinhabitation, as well as a simple analysis of why bioregions are important.
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Where do any of us actually live? Since the advent of Industrial Age consciousness only about two centuries ago (and for only the last few decades in most of the world) the answer to this literally basic question has been framed in progressively more urban, statist and technological terms, rather than in those of the processes of life itself. Ask the next person you meet and expect at least part of this reply, “In a numbered house on such a street, in some section of a city, in a particular state or province or department of nation-state, in a First, Second or Third World power bloc. That is, when I’m not at another place where I commute to work by car, bus, train, or airplane.”
We all live within the web-of-life, of course. Our bodies and senses are those of mammals in the biosphere. All of our food, water and materials comes from processes of the biosphere. But during the Industrial Age, reaching a climax in the Late Industrial period dating from World War II, the fact of our interdependence with all life became a vague abstraction. We have suffered from the delusion of believing that our lives were safely in the care of machines. The separation between conscious human identity and locatedness, and the planetary life-web of which our species is part, is now critical enough to threaten the survival of both. We are in the absurd and tragic position of someone who sets fire to the house to keep warm in a freezing blizzard, destroying ever-widening ranges of life without consciousness of our ultimate bond with them.
How do we rediscover where we actually live?
Bioregions are geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watersheds, climate, and native plants and animals that exist within the whole planetary biosphere as unique and intrinsic contributive parts. Consider them as possessing the diverse and necessary distinction of leaves from roots, or arms from legs. The Amazon jungle, for instance, provides so much oxygen that it can be counted as a lung of the biosphere. The Nile delta is a kidney for the Mediterranean Sea. Underneath and around the industrial grids of row-houses and factories, streets and sewers, highways and railways, oil and gas pipelines, legal jurisdictions and political boundaries, this natural geography of life continues to endure.
Everyone lives in some bioregion or other. Prior to industrialism the reality of inhabitation in a unique life-place was reflected in adaptive cultures that reciprocated with cycles and conditions of that place. Some strong examples still remain such as the Hopi’s deeply sacred involvement with arid cultivation of corn, rain, mesas, and respectful grace in the American Southwest. Some vestiges continue to haunt the designs of nation-states such as the heroic persistence (after eight centuries’ domination) of Welsh language and culture on the western side of England’s principal topographical divide. Thoroughly adaptive cultures are native human mammal interactions, as natural as any other aspect of the life of a bioregion.
For most people, however, inhabitation of a unique bioregion has lost pre-eminence as a fact of survival. While this condition prevails no bioregion is secure from the threat of being crippled in its ability to nurture life. “Cut down the Amazon jungle for newspaper pulp, we need to read about fluctuations in oil prices.” “Level the Hopi’s Black Mesa, we need coal to produce electricity so Los Angeles’ lights can burn all night.” There is no way to ensure the survival of the biosphere without saving each bioregion, and it is especially important for anyone living within industrial society to begin cultivating bioregional consciousness.
Reinhabitation is a term for undertaking the practice of living-in-place, becoming part of a bioregion again. A first step is to become familiar with the specific natural characteristics of the place where one lives. Wet and green northern California, for example, isn’t continuous with the dry desert portion of the state. Northern California is a separate natural country, ‘Shasta’. The Ozark Mountains are a distinct raised limestone formation with a unique natural identity of watersheds and vegetation straddling the border of Arkansas and Missouri, the bioregion of ‘Ozarkia’. Ocean-influenced areas of northern Maine in the United States and New Brunswick in Canada share the same bioregion, ‘The Gulf of Maine’.
Any place is within a bioregion. Every metropolis exists in a natural locale: Manhattan in the lower Hudson River valley; London in that of the Thames. Suburbs, towns, villages, rural farming areas, forests and national parks are all within specific bioregions.
Once the extent and character of a life-place is determined, reinhabitory approaches can be taken to an impressively large number of activities and problem areas. Education and awareness have a special priority at present, and bioregional study groups have already emerged in over fifty areas of the United States and Canada. They produce newsletters and information ‘bundles’ on their bioregions, and often choose particularly immediate political issues for emphasis. In Shasta, for example, the ‘Frisco Bay Mussel Group’ evolved into an adamant voice for opposing interbasin transfers of northern California water to the south and Los Angeles, and in the 1982 election was active in defeating what up until now was a common practice (over 90% of Shasta voters opposed the latest diversion scheme; the largest single-side vote in California history).
For decentralists in general the concept of a bioregion answers the question, ‘Decentralize to where?’ Anti-nuclear activists are becoming pro-bioregionalist. Local food co-operatives and local natural resources defense groups are finding that organizing along watershed and bioregional lines makes them more effective.
Bioregionalism is a significant step beyond either conservationist or environmentalist thinking. It is directly addressed to the fate of the earth, not as merely an ‘ecological’ issue, but as the central issue that human civilization must address.
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—Bioregions first appeared in Resurgence #98, May/June 1983 (c) Peter Berg