Bioregional Quakerism: Bioregionalism—A Primer

December 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

Bioregionalism is—was—a social change movement that flourished in the early to 1970s and 1980s built around the idea that humans should live as though the places they lived in mattered. It put deep ecology at the center of everything. It held that human systems should not just respect the systems of the earth and its organisms, they should model itself on them, they should grow organically out of them, or at least integrate themselves with the ecosystems of their bioregion rather than the other way around.

I was involved with the group in New York City. That group’s leading intellectual voice was Kirkpatrick Sale, who has written what I think is the only book on bioregionalism. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Our spiritual godfather was Thomas Berry. At the time, the Roman Catholic church had prohibited him from publishing, but his graduate students at Fordham, where he taught comparative religion, were publishing his monographs using the bindings used for dissertations, so we were reading the beta versions of the essays that became The Dream of the Earth, watching the New Cosmology be born in our midst. In the group also were a biologist and an architect who were building one of the first green roofs in New York on a building that was part of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine complex. And there were artists, poets, and other folks in an extremely dynamic and creative revolutionary cell.

There were groups in other parts of the country, too. In San Francisco, Peter Drum was publishing Planet Drum, which is still around. A performance artist from that group did a piece on the life cycle of salmon that I saw in New York and was a revelation about how powerful the arts can be as reinhabitationist tools (more about reinhabitation in a moment). And there were several back-to-the-land groups that bought land and became bioregional homesteaders, especially in the Missouri Ozarks.

The bioregion. The organizing principle behind bioregional thinking is the bioregion. “The main features [of a bioregion] are generally found throughout a continuous geographic terrain and include a particular climate, local aspects of seasons, landforms, watersheds, soils, and native plants and animals.” (Peter Berg, Bioregionalism: An Introduction) For practical purposes, this often means either a watershed or a mountain range.

A bioregion “is a geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness.” (Berg) Bioregionalists seek to “1) restore and maintain local natural systems; 2) practice sustainable ways to satisfy basic human needs such as food, water, energy, housing, and materials; and 3) support the work of reinhabitation.” (Berg)

This idea of reinhabitation is what I’m trying to get at with this thread on Bioregional Quakerism. In a bioregional Quakerism, meetings would seek to “reinhabit” their bioregions, transforming the way the meeting as a household lives to conform to the limits and gifts of its local ecosystems.

Other key principles of bioregionalism include the following.

First, carrying capacity—no bioregion should exceed its carrying capacity, its capacity to support its human population sustainably in terms of both resources and waste management, unless it offsets its burden on its ecosystems by importing the resources its needs to keep from drawing down the resource base of its own bioregion—but always seeking to hold the overall net burden across the macro-region to zero. So a system of ecological inventory accounting would always be in place to govern local human system design.

Second, upstream-downstream—everything and everybody is related in the dynamics of an ecosystem, and humans have a responsibility to all the other people and systems and organisms in their bioregion, and to the future inhabitants of your bioregion, and to the other bioregions your actions could affect. The key metaphor for the interdependencies we’re talking about was how important it was for communities that are upstream in a watershed from other communities to be mindful of downstream’s needs when meeting their own.

Bioregional Quakerism. I started unpacking what bioregional Quakerism would look like and it’s going to be at least two, maybe three more posts. So I will end this one here.


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