Bioregional Quakerism: What would it look like?

December 20, 2015 § 1 Comment

As a political and social change movement and philosophy, bioregionalism stands on completely different ground than the arena defined by the traditional conflict between left and right. Bioregionalism challenges the very foundations of modern social-political organization. Instead of the United States of America, we would have the United Bioregions of America.

Likewise for economics. Corporations, and indeed, all economic entities, would be treated as households whose consumption and disposal would be accountable to algorithms derived from bioregional carrying capacity. Of course, in today’s globalized economy, this would be impossible, virtually inconceivable, except by the bioregionalist fringe that I inhabit.

I suspect that this is the main reason bioregionalism has faded from public view. Its vision is too radical and implementing that vision is virtually impossible, at least until the eco-apocalypse makes even the most radical new forms of social organization possible. Maybe when Florida is under water . . .

But things are different for religious communities. Quakerism could bioregionalize. The only people who care how we are organized is us. And we are sovereign over our own outward forms. The vision of a bioregional Quakerism is no less radical; it would face the same fierce resistance that you would get from capitalism or even democracy. But we could in theory implement a Quaker bioregional vision to a considerable degree, if we thought that’s what G*d wanted from us. Just discussing the possibilities would transform the movement. That’s my goal here—to open a conversation about who we are on some new ground.

So here are some ideas for what a bioregional Quakerism might look like:

Identity your bioregion.

First, meetings at all levels would identify their bioregion. Bioregionalists often turn to the landmark work by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, Ursula K. (Kroeber) Le Guin’s father, for how to define a bioregion. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America was the first work to categorize North America’s indigenous nations according to the way their culture, especially their sustenance patterns, were defined by the place in which they lived. Kroeber’s regions are more like macro-regions—the northeast woodlands, for instance includes a vast region in the northeast.

Redefine our borders and rename our meetings

Once we had mapped the bioregions of North America against the map of North American Quakerism, we would redefine the territories of the yearly meetings and replace their history-defined and often urban-centered names with bioregional ones.

The first place I would go for guidance on new boundaries is Kroeber’s and other anthropologists’ work defining the territories of indigenous nations. For Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, for example, we might consider the territory of the Lenni Lenape. New York Yearly Meeting might divide into two yearly meetings defined by the territories of the Iroquois Confederacy in the Finger Lakes and western New York and the Algonquin-speaking peoples to the east.

Or we could use the standard organizing principles of bioregionalism—watersheds, major bodies of water, and mountain ranges. This would redefine Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PhYM) naturally around the Delaware River basin. (I choose to use “PhYM” because Pacific Yearly Meeting calls itself PYM also, and somehow, it makes more sense to me than PaYM. Of course, bioregional names would probably eliminate the overlap, and Pacific Yearly Meeting is, arguably, already sort of a bioregional name.).

New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) is more complicated. The Hudson River valley is one clear starting point, but the rest takes some thinking. I plan a case study for both yearly meetings that illustrates how this thinking might develop.

This is a radical proposal sure to upset a lot of Friends, a sort of cosmic version of proposing to change the seating in the meeting room, which, as any meeting that has tried to do this knows, usually leads to months, if not years, of bitter dispute, only this would involve all the meetings in North America. So this is an exercise in thinking bioregionally. Personally, I myself think it’s worth taking this project seriously. Just having the conversation over say a decade or two between and within yearly meetings would raise bioregional consciousness among us a lot.


Besides redefining their borders and renaming themselves, meetings in a bioregional Quakerism would also undertake whatever reinhabitationist activities they felt called to. These might include:

  • Ecological inventories. Enlist an environmental engineering consultancy to draft an ecological inventory and assessment of your bioregion—probably meaning a micro-region, the local bioregion around your meeting. If they won’t do it very cheaply or pro bono, do what you can yourself, or find a grad student in a local university who’s looking for a project. Or maybe your region already has one; if so, help to publicize it and its implications for local zoning, etc.
  • Ecological restoration. Initiating and supporting ecological restoration projects—restoring local ecosystems to their natural condition. Reforestation in the country, urban gardens in the city. Could your meetinghouse roof support a roof garden or solar panels? In cities, this might also include cleaning up and restoring streams. New Brunswick, New Jersey, where New Brunswick Meeting (NYYM) is located, is almost completely surrounded by Mile Run Creek, but that creek is almost invisible. Very few residents even know it even exists, let alone that it comprises the city’s boundary. And it’s in terrible shape. It needs restoration.
  • Art and education. Support bioregional themes in local art and in local education. Here in Philadelphia, where I live, which is famous for its public art and especially, its outdoor murals, we could encourage scenes of the city’s bountiful natural places with both money and public presence. The Sourland Conservancy, formerly the Sourland Planning Council, has had great success helping earth science teachers in some of its region’s school systems to develop field trips and learning units around the Sourlands, a large and largely undeveloped forest on volcanic ridges in central New Jersey.
  • Religious education programs for both adults and children in which you teach yourselves about your bioregion—or invite local professors to help. Sponsor a lecture series.

Meeting governance

My first encounter with the distinctive Quaker way of clerking a meeting for business was the governance sessions of the first North American Bioregional Congress in 1984. The Congress had asked a Quaker clerk from some meeting to facilitate their consensus-based decision-making sessions. I don’t remember who the woman was, but she was very good.

Those sessions had a bioregional aspect to them that I would like to see us consider in our own business meetings. Some of the participants were formally appointed to represent various aspects of the natural world. If I remember correctly, someone listened and spoke for the four-leggeds, the wingeds, the standing people (trees), and the waters. You get the idea. Could we not appoint some Friends to be mindful of the bioregion while we do our business?

Local earthcare witness => bioregional witness

Christianity in general, and Quakerism in particular, tend to think in cosmic and universal terms. Jesus came to save mankind (sic). Quaker earth-care witness. Global warming.

But many of the decisions that degrade the quality of our lives, as individuals and as meeting households, take place in local governments. Municipal governments and county governments often have environmental commissions that oversee the environmental impact of the government’s decisions and regulate the behavior of individual and corporate households. And local governments almost always have some kind of planning or zoning board. Big cities often have neighborhood associations (my neighborhood in Philadelphia does) that have a presence if not a say in city policy. Our meetings should be tracking the agendas of these agencies and standing in their midst as earth-keepers.

A persistent, consistent, well-informed, respectful, and morally-oriented presence in these bodies changes the way these bodies work. When they know you are going to show up, they anticipate your message; they even internalize it to some degree. And it helps to keep the rest of the citizenry from going nuts. These meetings tend to attract people with a lot of time on their hands, not to mention axes to grind, with chips on their shoulders, ignorance and prejudice in their minds, and anger and disrespect in their hearts. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? The perfect arena for some Quaker peacemaking.

Next—a case study.

I have started thinking about a case study for bioreginalizing a yearly meeting. I think it will be New York Yearly Meeting, because I know it pretty well. But it’s really complicated and I don’t know my bioregions well enough yet, so I have some studying to do. And it will necessarily mean thinking about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, New England YM, whatever is the FGC yearly meeting in the eastern midwest, and probably Canadian YM, as well. So maybe not for the next post. But soon I hope to have something to offer.



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