It is curious that the concept of a bioregion is so unknown to the mainstream population, when every human culture on the planet was conceived in a bioregion, a geographic area defined by natural ecological boundaries (such as rivers & mountain ranges) as well as the social-cultural boundaries of the human groups within that place. The San Francisco Bay Area has been a bioregion for a very long time. The ancestral Ohlone people of Chochenyo (the Ohlone word for the Bay Area) defined the boundaries of their territories, their homelands, by their relationship to place. Their tribal relations extended to the cultural and linguistic boundaries of their territory, defined by the lands where they built their homes and the earth they planted in and harvested from. Where they also hunted, gathered and found medicine, and where their important rituals and ceremonies were held (which always involved either physical and/or energetic connection with the earth elements in a particular place). Living bioregionally has always been about reflective, responsive relationship to place. For millenia “bioregional governance” was the the scale of collaborative stewardship that emerged from the wisdom and people in the Web of Life here. Within this scale of governance, balance between human communities and thriving ecosystems based on mutually beneficial relationships and participatory governance was possible. This is what we now refer to as Ecological Justice.
In ancestral times people didn’t mop vinyl floors, or clear cobwebs from asbestos ceilings, or sanitize tile counter tops. They swept the dirt to clear the energy from a pathway, smudged rooms and spaces, re-applied Cobb or adobe, and made offerings of water, plants and prayers to protect sacred places. Instead of calling the police or deploying surveillance drones as might be done today, scouts supported bioregional relationships by observing patterns and movement of neighboring tribes, migrating animals and weather systems (alerting of an enemy approaching, a herd stampeding or a storm coming). We do many of the same things today as Native Californians, in this place. Chochenyo’s past reminds us of another way of being: a regenerative way of life based in sacredness and caring toward social & ecological well-being. A regenerative way of life centers reverence for the Lifesources* (“natural resources”) and ancestors, as well as dignity and respect for all beings (animate and inanimate) and their contributions to the web of life, from the largest to the invisible. Not to mention that, organized in this way, Native Californians were not fueling the collapse of the very systems they depended on for their cultural & material survival.
When we speak of the interruption of the harmonious balance between human communities and the earth/ecosystems of Turtle Island (or anywhere), we don’t often see “the disruption of bioregional governance” named as one of the linchpins that led to the collapse of ecological harmony. But, we should. And doing so could make ecological justice achievable in our lifetime.
Bioregions are defined in many ways. We offer this definition:
A bioregion is a land and water territory whose limits are defined not by political boundaries, but by the geographical limits of human communities and ecological systems. Such an area must be large enough to maintain the integrity of the region’s biological communities, habitats, and ecosystems; to support important ecological processes, such as nutrient and waste cycling, migration, and steam flow; to meet the habitat requirements of keystone and indicator species; and to include the human communities involved in the care , honoring, use, and understanding of biological life-sources (natural resources). It must be small enough for local residents to consider it home.
A bioregion is also defined by its people. In pre-colonial times its inhabitants were related tribal or linguistic groups, which gave it a unique cultural identity. In a bioregion local residents have the primary right to determine how use of life-sources, work roles and decision-making happen for their own bioregional community. The livelihoods, claims, and interests of local communities were and should be both the starting point and the criteria for bioregional development and governance.**
With this definition in mind, we can imagine a planet of linked bioregions, where in each one local collective-determination results in social organization that is regenerative socially and ecologically. For example:
- facing one’s own accumulated waste will inevitably lead to a waste management system that looks like Zero Waste;
- when the primary sources of food and products come from one’s own bioregion, food systems that enhance or synergize with local ecological regeneration are supported and ensure an ongoing supply of sufficient and healthy food;
- the local ecological system of checks-and-balances would keep threatening viruses like COVID-19 from becoming a human epidemic; and
- we would aim to heal people whose trauma or personal conditions lead them to cause harm to their bioregional “family”, rather than punish them.
And like all ancestral cultures, trade, communication and travel would exist among bioregions, holding the livelihoods and interests of bioregional residents as the criteria for how each particular bioregion interacts with those around it.
While the term “bioregionalism” may be a new way of representing and identifying with a place and its culture of living within ecological laws, the concept is new only for those of us steeped in the western industrial-technological age. The essence of bioregionalism has been a common notion for Native people for thousands of years, and still remains so for most human beings today.
So why aren’t we organized in bioregions anymore? The success of the global colonization project very much depended on the separation of land-based peoples from the places they were in relationship to for centuries. This relationship is also where indigenous people drew their strength and resilience from, since indigenous spirituality and ritual are based in the immediate ecosystem. Intentionally separating indigenous people from their ancestral ecosystems was necessary in order to exploit forests, rivers and mineral deposits — fodder for the development of the US capitalist economy. Colonizers knew that an intimate relationship to place, a bioregional relationship, not only incited people to protect against the exploitation of their beloved territory, but a bioregional relationship to place also meant having cultural allies, as well as an extensive knowledge of terrain, food sources and any threats to safety embedded in the local ecosystem, giving indigenous people an advantage for hiding and fighting colonizers off.
In a bioregional context, people know their watershed, food shed, plant and animal sheds, and pathogen-shed. With this hyper-localized knowledge of place, and knowledge of how these systems are mutually impacted by the people there, communities are able to protect their place for generations to come. You cannot protect what you don’t understand. This evolved knowledge of place is a key component of ecological health and restoration. A key component of ecological justice.
So how do we get back to bioregionalism — to this way of relating to place and people? While it may be hard to imagine a full scale conversion of society towards a set of interrelated and interdependent bioregions, many communities already have a notion of neighborhood-scale relationships that resemble bioregionalism and place-based governance. We don’t have to know how the whole country or continent would reorganize itself towards bioregionalism in order to begin re-orienting ourselves to the bioregion as a scale of relationship, culture, belonging and governance. Here are some thoughts on how we can begin or continue this re-orientation process through communities and places we are already in relationship with:
- Reflect with yourself, your household and your neighbors (especially long-time residents) about what the “natural” boundaries of your geographic community are? Look for indicators such as: the stores, restaurants, parks and essential services like gas stations and laundry mats that are the “go-tos”. Which ones are considered “too far out? How far would a group of families go to trick-or-treat in your neighborhood? What freeways and other major streets do you consider boundaries or symbols of the edges of your neighborhood community? You may consider the district that your neighborhood is officially considered to be a part your City — do any of those borders reflect an actual social-cultural or ecological boundary of what you and your neighbors consider “your hood”?
- Organize life-sources collectively! Consider which life-sources are essential for your family, household, and neighbors that may also become scarce or difficult to access in a systemic emergency or crisis. These are likely to also be things that we want to protect for long-term ecological regeneration, such as water and plant-based foods, as well as essentials for daily life like alternative fuel sources (wood and other combustables for warmth and cooking, etc.). As a way to be ecologically regenerative and practice self-governance at the same time, which of these things can you and your household and neighbors begin collecting and protecting together as a way of practicing self-governance of local lifesources within your urban bioregion? You can also take stock of important tools and equipment that would be important in a systemic emergency, such as power generators, building materials and tools, and other emergency supplies.
- Get to know your local foraging grounds! Take extensive neighborhood strolls to identify edible plants and flowers for culinary, medicinal purposes as well as for beautification. Are there cultural or ethnic groups in your urban bioregion, or neighborhood, that have a relationship to certain plants near you? Are there culturally specific herbs and foods that neighbors have been cultivating that constitute an important part of their diet or contribute to cultural practices, such as plants used for spiritual offerings or cleansing? Take time to share with your neighbors and organize a plant swap among neighboring houses or hoods.
- Most importantly, experiment with small-scale collective governance. Talk about what is important to you as a set of neighbors in relationship to a shared place and important shared lifesources. Discuss and agree on shared baseline values that should guide the sharing and distribution of lifesources and important materials. For example, shared values can include equity and centering the voices of people made marginal by systemic conditions and are the most in need. It is important to acknowledge that we have not been taught as a society to share in this way. We aren’t taught that something we can grow a lot of in our back yard should actually go to your neighbor who lost their job and has 3 kids, rather than get added to your already hardy stock of preserved foods. This takes time to acknowledge, and even more importantly, requires emotional work for us to re-orient ourselves around sharing rather than attaching and “hoarding,” as government and corporations have taught us to do.
These not-so-small but inspiring steps can help all of us remember what collective governance within a shared ecological-cultural “territory” feels like. What it really means when we say that the health of the collective depends on the health of each individual and group within a bigger population. What you feed grows. By practicing neighborhood scale bioregionalism, we heal and evolve our attachment to rigid political borders and the individualization that we are told we need to “get by” and “get ahead.” With this energetic and material practice in re-orienting to bioregions, we can prepare to support and develop bioregional governance at the larger scale and support a shift to the regenerative future we need!
* “Lifesources” is a term we use to represent what is typically referred to as “resources” or “natural resources” such as water, minerals, wood , plants & animal based foods, fertile soil, etc. Calling these “Lifesources” allow us acknowledge that these Earthen materials are what makes all life on Earth possible, and thus is an expression of reverence for them.
** Adapted from Lawrence F. London, Jr., What is a Bioregion?, 10 May 2000