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."
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,
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?
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
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].
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?
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
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.
Would the Community Food Security movement qualify as bioregionalist?
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
The way corporations operate seems so contradictory to a bioregional
perspective--do you have a perspective on standing up to them?
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.
And I suppose the focus on water that you suggest would
be a good way to begin trying get at corporate practices?
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.
Are you aware of any international coalition building around
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
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?
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.
Are you seeing that coming soon?
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.
Will those governments and corporations collapse because of
having just used up resources?
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.
I guess Y2K is becoming a kind of warning bell for some
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.
Is that contrary to a bioregional perspective?
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
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
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?
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.
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
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