A map of the watersheds of North America by Jacob Kuppermann, adapted from the Hydrosheds.org database.

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

How to go from one world to one planet

One evening in the early 01970s, Long Now cofounder Stewart Brand found himself at a meeting where a young environmental activist named Peter Berg was speaking. According to Brand’s biographer John Markoff, Berg made a withering distinction between two similar phrases that the acceleration of technological capitalism and environmental consciousness were bringing to the forefront. 

Peter Berg in San Francisco. By CascadianWikimedian, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

“One world”, to Berg, was a “bullshit transnational fuckup”. He contrasted it with “one planet,” an idea that Berg saw echoed by spiritual belief systems throughout history the world over and evidenced by practical experience. According to Markoff, “the idea would stay with Brand.” Today, faced with a “human” world system and an “ecological” planetary system both mired in unfolding crisis, the distinction that struck Brand seems as vital as ever. 

In the early 01990s, French theorist Edgar Morin first coined the term “polycrisis” in the book Terre-Patrie (Homeland Earth). In that book, subtitled A Manifesto for the New Millenium, Morin and his co-author Anne Brigitte Kern advanced a new understanding of humanity as defined by “a common earthly fate.” Morin and Kern essentially sought to answer the polycrisis-prone meltdown of the new millennium, the product of a newly synthesized “world,” by a new, socially actionable ecological understanding of our place on Earth. “We discovered Earth as a system,” they write, “as Gaia, as biosphere, a cosmic speck — Homeland Earth. Each one of us has a pedigree, a terrestrial identity card. We are from, in, and on the Earth. We belong to the Earth which belongs to us.”

Edgar Morin in 01972. Photo from Brazilian National Archive.

Parallel to the “one world” of capitalist modernity, the widespread growth of ecological consciousness since the early 01970s culminated, in popular understanding, with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. According to Lovelock’s “one planet” vision, all living organisms (and, therefore, places) collectively form a single larger planetary life-supporting system that maintains and regulates itself. Human civilization is merely one component — and at present, a destabilizing one — in that system.

A diverse range of organizations and movements are springing up, determined to find these necessary new ways of relating to the planet. Indigenous land and water defenders put their lives at risk to maintain their spiritual and practical connection to their home-places, in the face of nakedly brutal violence and coercion often tacitly supported by the state. Rewilders, nature restorers and regenerative agriculturalists seek to develop revivifying relationships to productive land that allow all species — not just humans and their monocultural crops — to thrive. Worldwide, networks of “ecovillages,” or local energy and food sovereignty initiatives, seek long-term sustainability via decentralization and self-reliance. 

These various movements are bound by a common principle, namely that “we belong to the Earth” and “the Earth belongs to us” — all of us. Morin and Kern’s formulation captures our universal right to nature’s essentials — food, water, air, a place to live and belong within — at the same time as it acknowledges that our rights are balanced by duties to the long-term viability of Gaia, through understanding ourselves anew as a single, planetary species.

These crises over the integrity of global and planetary systems ultimately boil down to the local. Vast “systems” are the culmination of many, many individual parts. Each of these parts has its own natural integrity, its own delicate, hyperspecific web of ecological relationships. One intuitive and effective way to impact the whole of a system is to act as a part of the place you live. As the old saying goes, then: think global, act local.

Over the past 50 years, one such way of thinking about human societies, economies and governance has begun to synthesize these efforts without subsuming them or eliding the particularity of the local. This way of thinking is called bioregionalism.

A bioregionalist sees a place as defined by both its natural and its human story: its history as told through soils, landforms (mountains, valleys, plain, prairie, forest, desert), watersheds, native plants, and animals, and, finally, the inhabitant human cultures which have become adapted, over time, to life there. 

A bioregional understanding embraces looser boundaries and division between places, and acknowledges upfront the contributions of the human imagination and the gradual processes of time in making these designations. It seeks to understand the character, capacities, and limits of a bioregion by understanding the long-term adaptive behaviors — or culture — developed not just by the humans living there but by our fellow inhabitants: the flora, the fauna, and the fungi.

A bioregional mindset combats the modus operandi unthinkingly entrenched within global systems of distribution. Under this unsustainable prerogative, the ecological integrity of some places (often rural, often disproportionately inhabited by the poor and by people of color) become “sacrifice zones” for the benefit of those living in wealthy metropolitan centers. 

Bioregionalism suggests that each place matters, should be cared for by the people who inhabit it, and that living this way counters the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and disconnection that keep "one world" from feeling like "one planet."

An Indigenous History of Bioregionalism

Though the pre-modern world saw some vast, centralized empires, for most of human history life has been organized on a much smaller scale. Before the rise of agricultural civilization, human society was based around small, often familial bands or tribes. Even as more complex social structures developed, scale stayed small: the autonomous city states of Ancient Greece or the hodgepodge of small kingdoms that made up early medieval Britain, for example. Unification and centralization only became the norm in the mid-nineteenth century, when imperatives of modernization, imperialism, and industrial capitalism demanded centralized administration and investment in the name of competition and progress. 

In the early middle ages, modern day England was divided into a set of petty kingdoms known as the "Heptarchy." From John Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine

The imperatives of extraction, land grabbing and bureaucratizing the administration of resources also governed colonial map-making processes. The rapid expansion of colonial empires meant centralizing some disparate groups into single units while arbitrarily dividing other ecosocial wholes into separate territories. In Africa, in the Middle East, and across the Americas, the human and natural costs have been massive.   

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that bioregionalism should be a product of North America. From the first arrival of Columbus in 01492, to that of the English at Virginia in May 01607, to the mass genocide of westward expansion throughout the nineteenth century, the story of American colonialism involves not only an unfathomable destruction of lives and diverse cultures of place, but also the drawing-up of new maps and territories based on political expediency. 

An 01967 map compiled by William C. Sturtevant of the Smithsonian Institution of the Indigenous peoples of the United States around the beginning of European colonization. 

Though trade, movement, and conflict were common enough among many indigenous groups in the pre-Columbian Americas, the boundaries of most indigenous nations were naturally defined by features like watersheds, mountain ranges, and deserts. The cultures that emerged from these places were marked by a profound, prolonged relationship with the physical realities of place. While that relationship wasn’t one of perfect, unchanging ecological harmony, the very word “indigenous,” means “born into” a place — born into an inherent adaptation to a wider web of local ecological relations.

Understood in this way, an indigenous — and by extension, bioregional — way of being means to change oneself and one’s community in response to the constant unfolding of this wider web. This relationship to place involves an awareness of the complex balance and flux that must be maintained to allow sustainable thriving coexistence. This is antithetical to current global modes of land use and misuse, which so often pursue standardization in the name of short-term profit, replacing irreplaceable local diversities with inherently fragile monoculture.

Peter Berg and the Formulation of Bioregionalism

Peter Berg, the young activist who turned Brand onto the “one planet” concept, was in San Francisco when the city’s hippie dream began to die. Berg had been a leader of the Diggers, an activist group operating out of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood from 01966 to 01968. That group took their name after the proto-anarcho-socialist agrarian radicals of the English Civil War, and it was with this same anti-monetary vision that Berg trained his focus on the environmental movement in the early 01970s. 

Peter Berg speaking in 02009 about his time with the San Francisco Diggers. Via the Internet Archive.

Berg and his partner Judy Goldhaft traveled around the country visiting many communes and “back-to-the-land” experiments, which attempted to return to more local and self-sustaining ways of living: organic farming, permaculture, and communal self-governance. They also experimented with social, familial, and sexual structures. A few became cults. Berg and Goldhaft shot copious documentary footage of these communes, work which formed the foundation for Berg’s vision for an “ecological” (a new word at the time) future. 

He observed the proceedings of the inaugural United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 01972, attending as a self-appointed representative of these emerging communes. The naked elitism on display in Stockholm — NGOs and governments making deals behind closed doors while protestors and victims of ecological mismanagement held protests outside — led Berg to wonder where the voice of everyday people had gone in the mission to protect “the environment.”

The 01972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm was led by chairman Maurice Strong (center), a Canadian oil and gas businessman.

For Berg, the Conference revealed mainstream environmentalism’s “peculiar negative political malaise.” It was in pursuit of a positive, grassroots vision of long-term planetary sustainability that the idea of the bioregion crystallized. Back in San Francisco, Berg worked with Raymond F. Dasmann, a celebrated conservation ecologist, to formulate his concepts with scientific credibility. They began to produce a corpus of ideas with other aligned thinkers on the West Coast. 

In 01973, Berg and Goldhaft founded the Planet Drum Foundation, the first bioregionalist organization. A kind of mothership of education, learning, and training, Planet Drum still actively supports new and future bioregional efforts across the U.S and the world.

From early on, Berg emphasized that there were three central bioregional aims

  1. Restore and maintain local natural systems
  2. Practice sustainable ways to satisfy basic human needs such as food, water, shelter, and materials
  3. Support the work of reinhabitation

Berg saw the last aim as the most important one. Reinhabitation is the process of becoming aware of the intricate relational web of a bioregion’s ecological qualities and inhabitants, the “biotic community,” as Berg puts it. One can begin by learning the local watershed — the area defined by the common point where all local water flows eventually end.

A map of the watersheds of North America by Jacob Kuppermann, adapted from the Hydrosheds.org database.

From there, ask simple questions that connect you tangibly both to your locality and to wider systems. Questions like: what are my closest native plants, animals, berries, and grasses? What is the average rainfall for this time of year? Where does my garbage go? Where does my water come from? Where does my power come from? 

Ecologies are nested: ascending in scale from local ecosystem, to watershed, to bioregion, and onwards to continent and planet. One powerful way to understand this is to think about your own bioregional address. “I say that I live in the Islais Creek Watershed, of the San Francisco Bay Estuary, of the Shasta Bioregion, of the North Pacific Rim, of the Pacific Basin, in the planetary biosphere of the universe,” said Berg. Gary Snyder, an early bioregionalist and poet, reports his location as being “on the western slope of the northern Sierra Nevada, in the Yuba River watershed, north of the south fork at the three-thousand-foot elevation, in a community of Black Oak, Incense Cedar, Madrone, Douglas Fir, and Ponderosa Pine.” A bioregional address is about grounded physical, observable reality rather than national or ideological abstractions.

The San Francisco Bay Estuary from space, as captured by the Sentinel-2 Satellite. CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO DEED

Many bioregionalists refer to their bioregion as their “life-place”. Uncovering the history of one's life-place is another part of a bioregional reorientation, both the natural evolution and the human habitation, including the exploitation that led to its current state. This brings with it an understanding of how the native flora and fauna depend on each other and how they are affected by the seasons, invasive species, and climate change. With this awareness of place, a bioregional polity would naturally start to shape human activities around the enclosing environment, rather than crudely carving a human shape into it. 

As these two examples suggest, a bioregional address is about grounded physical, observable reality rather than national or ideological abstractions.

But redefining our location is only one part of a personal bioregional reorientation: there is also uncovering the history of the place, both of natural evolution and human habitation, including the exploitation that led to its current state; the ability to identify its native life (as well as invasive species) and in which seasons and conditions they appear. With this awareness of place, a bioregional polity could re-design the ways in which human activities can fit into the shape of a place rather than stamping crudely on top of it.

Berg wrote that a bioregion is both “a geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness.” Rather than identifying ourselves as purely inhabitants of a city or citizens of nation-states, we know and feel defined by our rights and responsibilities as inhabitants of our individual “life-place.” A bioregional homecoming begins by learning neighborly trees and herbs, but leads to the kind of responsible, vigilant, long-term oriented community that collectively invests in a local energy or food cooperative and turns up in great numbers to attend a hearing on a dam project or protest a pipeline.  

That investment pays off in a profound sense of belonging. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, "Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond."

Actually Existing Bioregionalism

By the early 01980s, North American bioregional groups had formed across the continent, with concerned inhabitants — scientists, academics, artists, activists and organizers, alternative farmers — convening to formulate and collectively address urgent questions about the long-term viability of their life-places. Their goals were as various as their regions. In the Midwest, the Kansas Area Watershed Bioregion wanted to restore its native prairie grasses. In Cascadia, the Mattole River Council had just begun a decades-long effort of watershed and salmon restoration that would not be completed until 02022. In 01984, the first North American Bioregional Congress met in the Ozarks to bring together representatives of these groups, distribute knowledge and approaches, and begin to develop a cross-regional vision for the continent, linking up groups and building larger networks and initiatives.

Cover image from the first Cascadia Bioregional Congress proceedings, July 25-28 01986 held at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Today there are over 100 bioregional groups in North America, and many more in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, India, Latin America and elsewhere around the world. While the movement (like much environmental organizing) was dominated by white activists, a strong effort was made early on to include representatives from Native American nations. Gender and racial equality as a principle was placed at the center of proceedings. The inaugural Congress included representatives of the Hopi and the Navajo, and the very first of its ratified resolutions was to work towards honoring Native American treaty rights. 

In line with bioregional tenets, the need for regional and local autonomy was centered over the national, with a focus on a new kind of social contract with place firmly at the center. Quality of life would be the guiding principle of a self-reliant, self-regulating, and regenerative local economy, with bioregional health the audit for every unit of economic activity. 

Bioregionalism was never a solely “rural” concern. From the very beginning, Peter Berg and others were centrally occupied with developing a model for a new kind of truly sustainable city — in opposition to the “ecological disaster areas” that Berg saw in modern cities. Planet Drum worked for years developing and often implementing new plans for “Green Cities” that were years ahead of their time. In the 01990s, Berg served as a consultant to Bahia de Caraquez in Ecuador, a small coastal city that was ruined by a mudslide and passed a by-law to rebuild itself as an “Ecological City.” 

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

Today, though the phase of self-styled American bioregionalists is over and Conferences are less frequent, the movement’s wider influence and spirit is being felt around the world. Bolivia, a self-defined “Plurinational Nation State,” is one such example. Under a historic new legal framework instituted in 02009, the country’s 33 Indigenous nations have the right to their autonomy and sovereignty over their traditional territory including Free, Prior, and Informed Consent over development. The Monkoxɨ, an indigenous nation from Lomerío, Bolivia, are a fascinating case study in the ongoing progress of this effort. In 02006 they won territorial self-determination and began developing frameworks to restore and sustain their region according to a plan that acknowledges economic, democratic, cultural, and ecological imperatives — one-third of the territory is set aside for community forestry, which has helped control illegal logging and earned the region the first Forest Stewardship Council rating in Bolivia. 

A video produced in partnership with the indigenous people of Lomerio, Bolivia.

In these localized struggles, Indigenous people are confronting the most dangerous challenge to bioregionalism. The ongoing battle for the precarious future of the Amazon rainforest, where illegal industries terrorize and threaten nominally Indigenous territories (and murder journalists who report on them) is an evocative example. The Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative (ASHI), founded in 02019, is a confederation of Indigenous peoples from Ecuador and Peru, who came together collectively to defend against oil, mining, and agro-industrial expansion across the Amazon Sacred Headwaters region, which spans over 86 million hectares across both countries inhabited by 600,000 indigenous people who make up over 30 nations. The ASHI Bioregional Plan proposes expanding Indigenous self-determination across the entire region, and includes proposals for reformed land use, energy and food sovereignty, restoration of over 20 million hectares of forest, a diverse economy with new-traditional agricultural methods, and the increased participation of women.

Ongoing international efforts to enshrine the rights of nature are vital to any bioregional future. In 02017, the New Zealand Parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act, giving the Whanganui River in North Island its own legal personhood, thereby recognizing its right to “health and wellbeing” as an intrinsic entity. If individual rivers or forests have rights, then what does that imply about our responsibilities to entire bioregions?

The Whanganui River in 02008. Photo by Felix Engelhardt, CC BY 2.0 DEED

Bioregionalism has potential to be a positive geopolitical force in the face of darker currents of nativism and prejudice. In South Asia, for example, efforts at conservation or restoration are hampered by borders. The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest is divided between India and Bangladesh; the Himalayas are divided between India and Pakistan; the Indian Ocean is divided between the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India. A bioregional redistribution of power could counter rising human tensions between these countries brought on by rising temperatures and environmental destruction caused by climate change. 

It would be foolish, however, to disregard the potential for bioregional ideas to be co-opted in support of nativism and prejudice.. To remain a viable long-term vision, bioregionalists must develop praxis that sees the local inextricably embedded in the planetary, acknowledges the inherent permeability of bioregional boundaries, and responds to the growing needs of diasporic communities whose homelands have been lost. A bioregional identity is a practice and love of place-making, not a birthright, and it is critical that bioregionalists everywhere actively counter what environmental theorist Mitchell Thomashow refers to as “extreme regional identification” — the appropriation of bioregionalism in support of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, or fascism.

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

While its basic goals can be defined and are shared, bioregionalism tends to oppose centralization and dogma. It is the centering of diversity of place and practice that is its main strength. Varied practice outpaces solidified theory. From its first steps, bioregionalism has been a lightning-rod — a unifying referent which can serve to draw a community of various interests together over their (literal) common ground. If the bioregional movement can incorporate a true diversity in its communities and approaches, it has the chance to develop a long-term, global sustainable pluralism. If we are in search of a common, unifying positive vision to work towards amidst our onslaught of crises, this might be it. 

Fundamentally, bioregionalism is about building a different culture, a different “terrain of consciousness” and all that implies. Such a transformation is inescapably a spiritual one: it will require us, individually and collectively, to rediscover, reimagine, and reinhabit our identities. Morin (still with us at 102 years old) recently wrote in an article for Le Monde that, faced by our compounding crises, “the first and fundamental resistance is that of the spirit.” 

We must begin to replant the seeds for a felt sense of belonging, as part of a web of life that is bigger than any of us — the community of Earth. Beginning in the place where we find ourselves, and then moving upwards through the vast intricacy of nested ecologies that make up the miraculous wholeness of the living world, Gaia, or whatever you want to call it, will also involve a reinvention of what it means to be human. But this reinvention will really be a species of rediscovery. As Gary Snyder writes in his essay “The Place, the Region and the Commons” (perhaps the best single introduction to a bioregional ethic): “It is not enough just to ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.” 

This truth is what Indigenous peoples the world over have known and practiced for thousands of years, and still seek to protect today in the heart of their threatened cultures and lands: it is only in relationship and reciprocity with the world that we can fully thrive as whole human beings. Bioregionalism provides non-indigenous people a path to begin a journey of reinhabitation away from the tired, individualist economic myths of the past and towards recognizing that our humanity is dependent on our living communities, human and non-human, in our life-place. Our lives are co-constitutive, from the cultures of bacteria in our gut to the microorganisms in the soil that grows our food, to the friends we rely on, relationship is the ineluctable core of our selves.

Relationality and reciprocity are key to this understanding. Once we know that we are composed of this human and more-than-human web of relationships and that there is no future for us without that web, then the ethic by which we must live becomes guided by this recognition. Making a long-term commitment to one’s “life-place” seems not just sensible, but vital.

We have built a global economy that prioritizes very different things. Bioregionalists believe that the loneliness, powerlessness, anxiety, and grief that so many feel now is partly because we are cut off from the source of our humanity. They suggest that today’s technologically induced alienation from the planet has led us to forget the fact that we are Earth. One meaning of “Human” is literally “earthling” — from the Latin “humus,” meaning “soil, earth.” We arose out of this place, as Alan Watts once memorably put it, in the same way that apples arise from an apple tree. 

Bioregionalism is no ideology — it is an organizing, gathering principle. Anyone working on behalf of the place or the people where they live is a bioregional ally. For those who want to help create a more bioregional world, it is easy to start. Slow down, log off. Don’t theorize too much. Get to know where you are — what it was before and what it is now. Look around, at your life-place and the other living things within it. See what they need from you, and discover all that they have to give you back. Start.

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