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BIOREGIONS OR SPATIAL FIELDS?

Over 200 groups in the US, plus others in Europe, are working to increase economic self-reliance within bioregions rather than within social fields. Does this make much difference? How do the areas derived by the two approaches compare?

'Very closely' is the short answer. Kirkpatrick Sale, the author of one of the few books on bioregional thinking, Dwellers in the Land15, defines a bioregion as 'part of the earth's surface whose rough boundaries are determined by natural rather than human dictates, distinguishable from other areas by attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soils and landforms, and the human settlements and cultures those attribute have given rise to'. Thus a bioregion might be the watershed of a river, bounded by hills on one side and the sea on another, physical characteristics which quite obviously influenced the way human settlements and transport links developed over the centuries and hence the shape and size of the inhabitants' social fields. Of course, if a motorway is cut through the hills it will enable some people to widen their social fields without affecting the size of the bioregions it links and the correspondence between bioregions and social fields will be weakened.

In such circumstances, most British bioregionalists would regard human ties as more important than natural barriers and, tacitly at least, work on the basis of the social field. Whether Americans would work on the same basis is open to question. Indeed, it is significant that the bioregional concept was developed in San Francisco in the late 1970s by Peter Berg, a writer, and by Raymond Dasmann, an ecologist, in a country with notoriously weak community ties. Could it have been this which led them to reject social links as a way of delineating the areas within which to aim for greater self-reliance and to choose the features Sale listed? If so, their idea merely enabled them to exchange one problem for another because in many cases, particularly in the United States, individual bioregions cover such large areas that they contain much bigger human populations than is desirable if a true democracy is to be made to work.

Sale, who took Schumacher's idea that 'small is beautiful' and wrote an important 560-page book, Human Scale16, looking at the damage wrought when countries, companies and organisations grew too large, knows this problem better than most. Consequently, in Dwellers in the Land, he suggests that bioregions can be divided into sub-regions and sub-sub-regions 'like Chinese boxes, one within another' depending on their dominant natural characteristics. "Ultimately" he says, "the task of determining the appropriate bioregional boundaries - and how seriously to take them - will always be left up to the inhabitants of the area, the dwellers in the land, who will always know them best."

He goes on to suggest that the size of communities and social institutions should also be left for the locals to decide, provided they have 'undertaken the job of honing their bioregional sensibilities'. However, they are likely to be small:

The human animal throughout its history, regardless of continent, climate, culture or character - seems to have favored clusters of 500 to 1,000 people for the basic village or intimate settlement and 5,000 to 10,000 for the larger tribal association or extended community. Only rarely did agglomerations ever exceed this size, as with the capital cities of various empires, and even then they typically lasted for less than a century before shrinking to smaller sizes....Certainly, there is no question that the city of a million people, or even half a million most probably, has gone beyond the ecological balance point at which it is able to sustain itself on its own resources....By contrast, the small community has historically been the most efficient at using energy, recycling its wastes, reducing drawdown and adjusting to carrying capacity. A kind of unconscious wisdom operates at that level, I would argue, that is not necessarily available at other scales: the sensors of the society are most receptive, the feedback systems and information loops most effective, the decision-making mechanisms most adaptive and competent. This is the level, too, at which people have been shown to solve social problems most harmoniously, to survive randomness and change most easily, to know the maximum number of other people with some intimacy, and to retain a sense of the self-amid-others most salubriously. It is not by accident or divine decree after all that the limited community has lasted all these many millennia.

Bill Mollison, the originator of permaculture, the conscious design of landuse and human settlements on a low-input, sustainable basis which shares many common features with bioregionalism, has also suggested that the population of a region aiming at greater self-reliance should be between 7,000 and 40,000 people. In other words, human scale is more important that landscape features and his unit, like that of Kirkpatrick Sale, would be almost indistinguishable from most social fields as defined by the circulation areas of local newspapers.

Problems over the boundaries and sizes of bioregional units have not prevented a considerable amount of useful thought and research from being carried out under the bioregional banner. For example, one of bioregionalism's important characteristics is the emphasis it places on the individual's relationship with the place in which he or she lives. Angus Soutar, who has been active in developing local currency systems in Britain, most recently in Manchester, expressed this very well in a lengthy article he contributed to Benign Design, the newsletter published by the British Green Party's policy group on permaculture. "The aim of bioregionalism is simply to know home" he wrote. "We aim to re-establish a sense of place, a sense of rootedness, as a counterweight to the damaging tendency of rootlessness and drift which tends to characterise our current society."17

In order to come to 'know home' he suggests that people should study some aspect of their area which interests them: "Perhaps you study local plants, may be traditional building materials and methods, or perhaps old watermill sites. Through these observations you begin to understand that a sustainable way of life is possible and that many of our ancestors achieved it or were close to it." This knowledge, in turn, leads to an understanding of the interconnectedness of people and the environment. As a result, members of the community begin to feel that their lives are part of the continuing history of their region, the ideal perspective for them to have when they help to plan the region's future:

One of [bioregionalism's] fundamental assumptions is that local control of the environment is the easiest way of regulating the use of resources. By local control, we mean control at the neighbourhood or village level. The most intimate understanding of the natural environment can only be obtained by people who are living in the midst of it, constantly observing as they go about their daily activities. That understanding can then inform their decisions and actions - whether it be to harvest, build, quarry, chop down trees and so on. In short, local people have a vested interest in resource use and the carrying capacity of their region and can ensure that they do not run down their natural resource base. An outsider will find it more difficult to recognise the subtle patterns of interactions between people and the land. And an outsider's decisions may be swayed by ideas of exploiting resources in the short-term at the expense of sustainability.

Further information on bioregions (last updated January 2003):

Peter Berg can be reached at the Planet Drum Foundation, P.O. Box 31251, San Francisco, CA 94131, Shasta Bioregion, USA., tel 415 285 6556, fax 415 285 6563, e-mail planetdrum@igc.org. Membership of the Foundation is $30 a year outside the US and includes its interactive magazine,Planet Drum Pulse . Apart from his own books, which include Reinhabiting a Separate Country; A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California, and A Green City Program for the San Francisco Bay Area and Beyond, Berg refers enquirers to the series of bioregional books published by New Catalyst, P.O. Box 189, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, V0R 1XO, Canada., and particularly to Home, a Bioregional Reader, one of the series.

In Britain, the Bioregional Development Group, BedZED Centre, Helios Road, Wallington, Surrey SM6 7BZ, tel +44 (0)20 8404 4880, fax (+)44 (0)20 8404 4893, e-mail info@bioregional.com, are the people to contact. The group aims to revive traditional, sustainable land-based industries through the introduction of new, efficient, appropriate scale technologies. "Though traditional land-use is of great interest to us, traditional backbreaking work is less appealing" they note in their brochure. They have produced a number of publications, (including Bioregional Fibres, by S. Riddlestone, 1994, 140 pages, 30) on the potential for a sustainable regional paper and textile industry based on flax and hemp, and a report looking at the prospects for reviving charcoal and coppice production in the Weald. Their 40-page report on this costs 20. They have also produced a 20,000 mobile kiln, the Viper, which makes four tonnes of charcoal worth up to 2,800 a week.(See New Scientist, 14/5/1994, for more details.) Another programme of theirs, called "Local Paper for London", enables businesses to recycle their waste office paper to the local mills and then buy it back as high quality paper or card.

The Devolve! steering group provided this information for us:

After seventy five years of campaigning, partial devolution has been won by Alba (Scotland) and Cymru (Wales). There are also 'grass roots' devolution movements in Kernow (Cornwall) and across much of England. More recently 'official' devolution conventions have arisen to match proposed government regions. Genuine political independence is impossible without economic independence but,apart from the Scottish and Welsh movements, until recently few seem to have thought much about this although the Campaign for the North published a paper calling for a regional banking system some years ago. Devolve!(10, Bartholomew Street, Leicester LE2 1FA , e-mail ) a pan-English devolution movement is now thinking seriously about this issue. It wants to encourage sustainable, decentralised regional economies. It also argues for and supports moves towards a more participatory democracy and towards cultural empowerment within England. It has now added economic devolution to its tenets. The Devolve! Web Site, www.devolve.org, contains links to most regional and other movements.

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