The bioregional vision:
an interview with Kirkpatrick Sale

 

In 1985, Kirkpatrick Sale's Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision (Sierra Club Books) put forward the philosophy and rationale for bioregionalism. In it he wrote: "I have been led to this consideration of the shape of the bioregional vision, inevitably as it were, by the trajectory of my previous work: on American radicalism, on American regionalism, on the abject failure of American giantism. It expresses for me not merely the newest and most comprehensive form of the ideals of decentralism, participation, liberation, mutualism and community that I have expounded in all that work--but, as it stems from the most elemental perception of the crises of the planet, the ideals of ecological sanity, regional consciousness, speciate humility and global survival. It is for me, therefore, not merely a new way of envisioning and enacting a very old American ideal, but also a crucial, and perhaps virtually the only possible, means of arresting the impending ecological apocalypse."

Sale is a contributing editor of The Nation and the author of many books, including Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution (Addison-Wesley, 1995).


Julie A. Wortman: Have you seen any indication that the bioregional vision has been taking root since Dwellers in the Land was first published in 1985?

Kirkpatrick Sale: In some respects the movement has remained fairly static. The main means of communication is Planet Drum, which continues to send out a publication three or four times a year from California, and there are still biannual congresses that are held. But I don't detect any real momentum there. It tends to be a lot of the same people over and over again. However, at the same time, the idea of bioregion has taken hold in lots of places. People are talking about it and mapping their own bioregions. The latest thing I got was a map from somebody in the U.S. Forest Service who had done a highly scientific designation of North America by bioregions. And I've noticed that for the academic geographer bioregions have become a familiar concept. So it's had that kind of official recognition and I keep hearing about people who have organized themselves into bioregional groups or who have had college projects of mapping out their bioregion. And New Society Publishers has also been putting out a series of books on bioregionalism--they published Dwellers in the Land in 1987 after Sierra Club dropped it. In that series there's a useful book by Douglas Aberley called Boundaries of Home (1993) on mapping your bioregion [see TW 10/95].

J.W.: The ideals that you talk about in Dwellers in the Land--decentralism, participation, liberation, mutualism and community--seem to be ideals that are much more possible to realize by focusing in on the local. But so many people in the progressive community tend to focus on global politics. Do you encounter progressives who are changing their focus?

K.S.: Well, I don't know. I happen to be involved with a group of people who are concerning themselves with anti-globalism, so I know that that's an active sentiment. The trouble is that there are not enough people in that grouping who are talking about localism as the opposite of globalism, as the alternate way to organize the world, since globalism is going to be so destructive.
              The basic understandings of ecology have not generally been part of progressive politics. Environmentalism is seen as a matter for the Sierra Club. But I'm finding progressive politics rather vacant these days--progressives think largely in terms of electoral politics and government as solutions. But once you start thinking in terms of the local, then you are pointing in the direction of thinking bioregionally.

J.W.: Would the Community Food Security movement qualify as bioregionalist?

K.S.: Well, there's quite a number of groups doing food work and community-supported agriculture. These are local ways of operating that don't necessarily call themselves bioregional, but which in fact are acting out the principles of bioregionalism. Another connection is through the simple living movement, which obviously overlaps with the community agriculture and local food-growing movements as well. And, again, that represents the direction towards self-sufficiency to which bioregionalism points.
              I should note that I am part of the group that has finally established an independent organization to keep the ideas of back-to-the-land movement pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing alive [TW 9/92. We've taken their home, Forest Farm, in Harborside, Maine, and established the Good Life Center [named after their best-known book, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World (Schocken Books)]. We are raising funds and publishing their material and material about them. Many of the people involved with the Good Life Center think in terms of bioregions and use that rubric to describe what they're doing.

J.W.: You say in Dwellers in the Land that there are plenty of people who are focusing in on very specific topics--like water quality--but who know they have to be part of a larger effort. Is the Green Party trying to work that sort of coalition?

K.S.: It would be hard for me to say. The last I looked at the Green Party in New York City--I live only 60 miles from Manhattan, in Cold Spring, N.Y.--there was no understanding of ecology, much less bioregionalism. And the people who ran for office here in this county were running on essentially an anti-development platform. I would bet they would mostly know the word bioregional, but I don't think that that formed a big part of their approach. The Green Party--with which I was involved for the first six or seven years--has been a disappointment in that regard because it has tried to be a kind of a left-liberal catchall. And so, in spite of the name of the party, the environmental part of that has never been a big component.

J.W.: What do you think it's important for the average person who's at least superficially attracted to bioregionalism to understand about it? What's the piece of work they need to do in order to "get" what bioregionalism is?

K.S.: Well, where does your water come from? That's the first understanding to get--to understand that it comes from someplace and goes someplace and that you are a part of it and that anything you do to harm it will be harming you and others. That gets you thinking about sewage and garbage and agricultural run-off. And next you begin to understand what a healthy ecosystem is at a bioregional level.
             
I mean, the way to "get" bioregionalism is to think about water. Water is going to be an increasingly serious issue as the water systems increasingly get fouled. On the Hudson, where I am, the river is a good deal cleaner than it used to be and the worst of the superfund sites have been--or at least claim to have been--cleaned up. And there are sewage treatment plants everywhere up and down the river now which there weren't 20 years ago. So something has been done, but it's been done because people began to understand that they were killing the river. But even so there are PCBs in the river that are never going to be removed.

J.W.: The way corporations operate seems so contradictory to a bioregional perspective--do you have a perspective on standing up to them?

K.S.: You're quite right that corporations are antithetical and hostile to the idea of bioregionalism, not only because they don't like to operate at that scale, but also because it emphasizes local self-sufficiency. And of course self-sufficiency is anathema to capitalism, which has to have increasingly wider and open markets to survive. But as corporations gain more power, they represent a greater and greater threat to any successful operations on a bioregional level--which only goes to suggest that the various groups that are working to limit corporate power make the most sense. Such groups are consciously trying to get state legislatures--which incorporate corporations--to exercise their powers to limit and control corporations. But this whole voluntary simplicity movement is also inherently anti-corporate, as is the community-supported agriculture movement.

J.W.: And I suppose the focus on water that you suggest would be a good way to begin trying get at corporate practices?

K.S.: Well, yes. Corporate agribusiness, for example, is a major polluter of water and a major user of water. But corporations being what they are, and the economic system being what it is, I don't see that trying to get them to change is probably a very fruitful way to go. Better the idea of withdrawing from corporate influence--that is to say, living simply and locally.

J.W.: Are you aware of any international coalition building around bioregionalism?

K.S.: Yes. Peter Berg and the people at Planet Drum have taken that on as a kind of mission and there are bioregional groups in Japan. In fact the opposition to what the Olympics did there to destroy the ecosystem of that particular valley where the winter games were held was led by people who were explicitly bioregional.

J.W.: Dwellers in the Land seems to very clearly state the case for bioregionalism, but I'm wondering if you've changed or adjusted any of the views that are contained in it over the past 15 years?

K.S.: I don't think so. I used it recently in teaching a course in England and it stood up pretty well. If anything, I think it's going to be more and more relevant. I think it will be especially relevant when this global system collapses.

J.W.: Are you seeing that coming soon?

K.S.: Well, I have predicted that it will occur by 2020, by which time we will need books like that one and others by people who have been in the bioregional movement as guidelines for how to remake our life when it is no longer dominated by corporations and massive governments.

J.W.: Will those governments and corporations collapse because of having just used up resources?

K.S.: Partly that, but also the ecological disasters that will go along with that--from global warming to new diseases, to ozone layers vanishing and water drying up and forests being cut. The combination of those continuing crises will produce connected and multiple disasters.

J.W.: I guess Y2K is becoming a kind of warning bell for some people?

K.S.: Well, yeah, it is an expression of people's doubts and fears about this technology around us. But it's also being used opportunistically by people who want to raise issues of community and self-help and the like.

J.W.: Is that contrary to a bioregional perspective?

K.S.: Not at all, it's quite consistent. I'm just a little cynical about taking Y2K as the reason for doing this kind of organizing, since I don't believe that in fact all that much is going to happen when January comes around. J.W.: But the ecological disaster is coming?

K.S.: Yes, that is going to come and I don't see any means of halting it, at least as long as corporations remain as powerful as they are. They will sow their own destruction, it seems quite clear to me.

J.W.: You say that bioregionalism taps a deeper wisdom that comes from the earth. And there are a lot of people yearning for a more grounded spiritual life. Do you think people will begin to shift to a bioregional perspective out of a simple desire to become more spiritually grounded?

K.S.: Well, I would say that maybe what I underplayed in Dwellers in the Land was the necessity for a spiritual basis for one's identity with the earth. In fact, I think if there's going to be any successful lives for us or even successful resistance to the corporate onslaught, it will come from people who have a spiritual identity with the earth. That, of course, inevitably leads to a bioregional understanding. But I'm not sure how many people who are searching for spiritual answers are going in the direction of nature and the earth, as they ought to.

J.W.: I was really taken by your observation about how indigenous people sort themselves out tribally in a kind of bioregional way. So you can look at the tribes and where they are located and it pretty much follows bioregions. It seems to me that that would suggest that there is a real good reason for a person with a bioregional perspective to make alliances with native people.

K.S.: That has always been an important part of the bioregional movement. A good percentage of native people still retain perceptions out of their tribal experience that are identical with bioregionalism, though of course they use other words to describe it. What I would say to progressives is that what you've left out of your politics all along is a spiritual understanding. And the spiritual understanding we ought to have is connected to that of the native populations, for whom the earth was a sacred goddess.

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Julie A. Wortman is co-editor/publisher of The Witness <julie@thewitness.org>.
Illustration: Windy Clouds, by Eric Hopkins, 1995

Planet Drum can be reached at Box 31251, San Francisco, CA 94131

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