Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism


Bioregionalism is a political, cultural, and ecological system or set of views based on naturally defined areas called bioregions, similar to ecoregions

By Daniel Wahl

“The solution is simple for us as humans to join the earth community as participating members, to foster the progress and prosperity of the bioregional communities to which we belong… Such a bioregion is a self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-healing and self-fulfilling community… . The future of the human lies in acceptance and fulfilment of the human role in all six of these community functions. The change indicated is the change from an exploitative anthropocentrism to a participatory biocentrism.” – Father Thomas Berry (1988, pp.166 & 168–169).

Thomas Berry firmly believed that healthy communities adapted to their local bioregions will provide the context for “re-inhabiting the Earth.” Each individual bioregion consists of many cooperating communities, and there is a reciprocal relationship between these communities and their region, since they are mutually dependent on each other for their healthy co-existence. Berry emphasises that while bioregional organisation should aim to maximise self-reliance, no bioregion will ever be fully self-sufficient, since all bioregions depend on a healthy ecosphere and therefore “all bioregions are interdependent” (Berry, 1988, p.169).

This regional focus of designing with [or better as] nature is also called bioregionalism. We have already explored different aspects of bioregionalism in all the other dimensions of this course, so this is yet another reminder of how central this concept is to the process of re-inhabiting the Earth in a regenerative and sustainable way.

“Bioregionalism projects a spirit of wholeness within community, a place-based foundation, grounded in the ecological nuances of the home territory. It cherishes diversity and pluralism without being overwhelmed by empires of commodity choices; it tolerates different ways of being, multiple formulations of identity without succumbing to a relentless, mindless quest for collective experience. Bioregionalism presents an alternative to fragmentation by suggesting the construction of an ecological identity…, of orbits and connections that integrate mind and landscape, self and ecosystem, psyche and planet, without worrying about the paths not taken, but focusing instead on the task at hand — cultivating mindfulness about human/nature relationships in the service of both self-realization and community health.” — Mitchell Thomashow (1999, p.124).

Mitchell Thomashow speaks of “bioregional sensibility” and calls for a “cosmopolitan bioregionalism.” He writes: “Developing the observational skills to patiently observe bioregional history, the conceptual skills to juxtapose scales, the imaginative faculties to play with multiple landscapes, and the compassion to empathize with local and global neighbours — these qualities are the foundations of a bioregional sensibility” (Thomashow, 1999, p.130). Thomashow offers a series of guidelines to cultivate such sensibility.

Guidelines for Developing Bioregional Sensibility and a Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism (Reproduced and adapted from Thomashow, 1999, pp.130–132)

  • Study the language of the birds: Integrate language and landscape. Make the study of flora, fauna, landscape and weather a daily practice. Know what species coinhabit a community. Know who is just passing through and where they are going. Learn from the ecosystem. Tell stories about wildlife and landscape as a means of revitalizing the spirit and psyche, of honouring the diversity of species, of expanding the notion of community. Restore natural history to the collective memory so that it is no longer endangered knowledge.
  • Navigate the foggy, fractal coastline: Understand that different scales may yield contrasting observations and that different people will have various interpretations. Avoid the illusion of contrived stability. Local knowledge requires practitioner-based science and place-based wisdom, cadres of bioregional investigators who catalogue the dynamics of local environmental change in their home communities, who compare notes with their colleagues, who chart a steady course in the midst of complex, turbulent change.
  • Move within and without: Trace the ecological/economic pathways of everyday commodities to fully understand the impact of globalisation — its benefits and threats. Consider the full matrix of citizenship, all the ways that speech, intentions, motivations and actions contribute to the formation of bioregional sensibility.
  • Cultivate a garden of metaphors: Pay attention to sensory impressions and their broader symbolic meaning. Find the metaphors of anxiety that illustrate the relationship between the psyche and the planet. Find the metaphors of wholeness that pervade good nature writing — fruitful darkness, turtle island, attentive heart, crossing open ground, the spell of the sensuous, the island within — and contemplate their meaning. Trace the ecology of imagination.
  • Honour diversity: Use different ways of thinking and various cultural perspectives as a conceptual lens. Understand the world through the eyes, ears, and nose of wild creatures. Incorporate multiple learning styles. Attend to difference by exploring what is common and learning from what remains different.
  • Practice the wild: Experience wild nature and wild psyche. Consider the stark reality of food chain. Observe how civilization can never keep the wild completely at bay. Let wild nature inform play, work, love and worship. Practice the wild to balance the civilized. Alleviate global suffering: Have compassion for the chasm of despair. Find the holes in the bioregion, the places of darkness that require healing and attention. Understand how the fruits of affluence often hinge on the exploitation of the weak. See the world as it is, without blinders, transcending denial.
  • Experience planetary exuberance: Life bursts forth everywhere. It is an indomitable, ever-present, mysterious force that permeates every surface of the biosphere, every pore in your skin. Every life-form is a unique expression of the poetic and the sublime. In order to achieve a frame of mind that acknowledges the magnitude of global and personal change necessary, cosmopolitan bioregionalism offers us a way of integrating psyche and nature for the purpose of constructing meaning and interpreting the world in ways that invite us to all to make a positive difference in the places and regions we inhabit.

This is an excerpt from the Worldview dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability, recently revised and re-written by Dr Daniel Wahl on the basis of an earlier version by Jonathan Dawson (now head of economics at Schumacher College). Much of the material used in authoring the curriculum content for this course is based on the years of research he carried out for his recently published book Designing Regenerative Cultures.


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