Brandon Letsinger

The Basic Litmus Test for a Bioregion

Does it Bioregion?

Picture shared by David McCloskey – Cascadia Institute.

There can be many different determinants, ideas and definitions for what a bioregion is or isn’t – but above all else – below are three simple checkboxes that a bioregion must pass in order for it to be a bioregion.

  1. A bioregion is a land and water territory whose limits are defined by the geographical limits of human communities and ecological systems rather than by political boundaries.

  2. Such an area must be large enough to be able to be self-reliant and be able to maintain the integrity of its biological communities, habitats, and ecosystems.

  3. People Matter. Ultimately it is up to the people and inhabitants of a bioregion to determine what best represents them, their way of life and living. In addition, people can, and do often fundamentally change their natural environments. Often, whether they realize it or not, bioregions provide the basis for inhabitant cultures, identities that stem from the place, that have the ability to help determine or shape these boundaries.

Bioregional scales can be used as a framework to measure success and failure of sustainability and carbon neutrality. How much a bioregion can store, recycle, mitigate, and set natural limits for growth; meet the habitat requirements of keystone and indicator species; including human communities and the development of place appropriate technologies and ways of living.

Waterways as Commons

“Bioregionalism emerges as a response to the formidable power relations of global political economy and the ensuing fragmentation of place. It seeks to integrate ecological and cultural affiliations within the framework of a place-based sensibility, derived from landscape, ecosystem, watershed, indigenous culture, local community knowledge, environmental history, climate and geography. More than an alternative framework for governance or a decentralized approach to political ecology, it represents a profound cultural vision addressing moral, aesthetic and spiritual concerns. In effect, bioregionalism seeks to penetrate, inform and reinhabit the interstices of contemporary political economy, turning states and countries into biomes and watersheds, changing not only the boundaries of governance, but the boundaries of perception as well. Indeed, the reinhabitation of landscape is fundamentally a challenge of perception as well as citizenship.”

– Mitchell Thomashow

This notion of bioregionalism challenges every person to rethink their relationship to place, to land, but also to people, and existing power structures. My favorite quote on the subject, is probably the above quote by Mitchell Thomashow and I love that it goes so far as to challenge even the very notion of citizenship. Bioregions, and bioregional governance offers us a chance to step above our current political boundaries and societies if we are willing to take the step. Natural boundaries exist and are real, but how we choose to live within them, and interact with one another, and within an interbioregional framework, is up to each of us.

While the edges of bioregions are usually hard, jagged edges – fault lines, volcanoes, subduction zones, mountains – where rivers start – within a bioregion lies a quilt of ecosystems and ecoregions, each different and requiring uniquely suited solutions for each area. From these hard edges, they control the shape and flow of energy – wind, water, rain, temperature, elevation, soil – that let a bioregion emerge. From this, watersheds, firesheds, foodsheds, airsheds. Agricultural habits. Certain types of energy generation favored over others. From these variations comes a level of adaptability in the face of change, and bioregional resilience. Ultimately, it is the determination for place appropriate technology and living, and by sharing a landbase and having common concerns, shared values, language and identity will arise.

Despite the internal differences within a bioregion, all of them must have some form of common connection in bioregional governance, because ultimately every community impacted along that waterway must be included in at least some basic level of decision making. These regions are not static. Rather their borders are constantly changing, and these changes give the ability for a bioregion to be able to adapt in the face of massive external or internal variation.

Through the definition of a bioregion by Local Scale, based in San Francisco and the home of modern bioregionalism:

“Within a bioregion lies a mosaic of land or aquatic uses. Each patch provides habitats in which different species survive and flourish, and each has its own particular relationship to the region’s human population. All the elements of the mosaic are interactive; the management of a watershed affects riverine habitats, farms, estuaries, fisheries, and coral reefs. The components are also dynamic; each changes over time as rivers change course, fallow fields regenerate, storms batter coasts, and fires ravage forests. This dynamism gives a well-managed bioregion the resilience and flexibility to adapt to natural evolution and human-induced activity–be it changing climate or changing markets.”

Only together, do these things work together.

What a bioregion is not:

Map by Bioregions 2020.

The maps used in these examples are certainly ecological maps, but are they maps of actual bioregions? Debatable.

Notice in maps like these, that only use biomes, terrestrial regions or ecoregions of specific type as their base that often they miss the unique niches that derive from each place. In the above example, from the Bioregions 2020 project you can see that in areas like Northern Africa large bioregional bands stretch stretch from sea to sea, ignoring important watersheds such as the Nile River, and cultures that stretch back thousands of years.

Even this beautiful map by Robert Szucs of the watersheds of the world, is not quite a true bioregional map. Instead, it’s a layer, it’s only when many layers of place, including animal and plant communities are brought together that we see a true bioregional map. When these layers are brought together, it can better represent the geographic, cultural, historic and ecological realities of a place, and guide us towards more place appropriate ways of living and technology that can fit within a truly net carbon, non-extractive and sustainable framework.

Ultimately we need a shift in how we map – how we create our maps, how we view ourselves within maps, and how we interact with them. Bioregional mapping is as much of a process that starts with the watersheds, the communities living there, working its way up, rather than just being able to loosely be made by some small group of folks and labelled and claimed. Every map is political and has a purpose behind it. Bioregional mapping is an opportunity for each of us, and our communities, to map the things we find important, capture the things we want to share, and change our relationship with how we perceive and operate within the world. Every map that inspires the imagination away from a map created in a nation state border, is a map that can change the future.

While these maps are fantastic frameworks for shifting action, and letting people plug in locally, they examples of ecological maps. And while it is a great tool in helping ground and center learners in a map outside of an international context or framework, it can become damaging if used as a basis for development and investment while disconnected from these other elements.

Why is having an accepted definition of Bioregion important?

The issue of arguing a “you are wrong and I am right” mindset when discussing the emerging idea of bioregional boundaries has sabotaged the advance of a bioregional approach since the 1970’s.

However, struggling to answer even answer basic questions about bioregions – what are the bioregions of the planet? what bioregion am I in? What are the bioregions of North America? In one sentence, what is a bioregion, how do you define bioregion? – often is what leads to misunderstanding and confusion over what a bioregional approach is. Every different group or organization right now must create it’s own definition, it’s own framework, each completely different based on their varying degrees of the idea, the history, and access they’ve had to resources or materials on the subject. On the same flip – the diversity and dialogue of these ideas however, is what has made the bioregional movement so special.

Through the Dept of Bioregion and Cascadia work, I regularly talk with hundreds of people, many of them brand new to the concept of Cascadia or bioregionalism. I love this talk, and watching how excited people get as we challenge notions of language, colonialism and participatory governance – but this conversation always struggle when people ask about other bioregions or bioregional movements. Especially the number of people who contact me from outside of Cascadia wanting to plug into their bioregion or bioregional movement near them.

For the most part, this is a difficult conversation, because many industrialized areas have spent the last several hundred years erasing these connections to place and bioregional cultures. New bioregional identities and movements have not yet or are just starting to re-emerge. Everything we are doing, has to be created, reconnected and renewed. Right now, from a practical standpoint, beyond “go into the world and do it yourself” – we don’t have a lot of tools to say – here is what it is, how you can connect with it, and how we grow this idea beyond abstract ideas, scattered examples of success, that can inspire or change systems. We desperately need these pathways, networks and frameworks that anyone can hook into, no matter where they live, their background and the time they have available. Lastly, we must be able to build these systems, and propagate these ideas faster than our corporate and capitalist counterparts who have the power to undo our work with the swipe of a pen.

This ambiguity keeps the door open to co-option by large corporate or government agencies that use these regimes to reinforce capital, rather than to fundamentally rethink, dismantle and alter it. As an educational tool, or entry point this is fine, but where this becomes a problem is that when governments or business, who have little connection or care about the fundamental philosophy of bioregionalism – use these frameworks disconnected the idea. At it’s worse if people are excluded from these planning or development – it can lead to forms of ecological fascism or exclusion of specifically adapted indigenous cultures and ways of living within a place.

Out of many different definitions globally, ultimately down the road a few will end up making the most sense and being incorporated, adapted, used and built upon. In a world in which money can often speak the loudest, and influence the most people, bioregionalists must do the work to dig deep, find our definitions, and then hold to them.

Dig Deeper: What is a Bioregion?

– Berg, P. et Dasmann, R. 1977. « Reinhabiting California », The Ecologist, vol. 7, n° 10, p. 399-401.
– Sale, K. 1985. Dwellers in the Land. The Bioregional Vision, San Francisco : Sierra Book Club.
– Sale, K. 1991. Le regioni della natura. La proposta bioregionalista, Milan : Elèuthera.
– Sale, K. 2019. L?Hypothèse biorégionale. Une habitation terrestre, Marseille : Parenthèses.
– Lawrence F. London, Jr., What is a Bioregion?, 10 May 2000
– Thayer, R. 2003. LifePlace. Bioregional Thought and Practice, Berkeley :University of California Press.


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