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Knowing Your Place Illustration by Chris Kuzma.

Knowing Your Place

An environmental approach born out of 1970s counter-culture may offer a path forward.

Walking through the marshy green valley around the Yellowstone River in Wyoming, you can see the slopes of the Yellowstone supervolcano in the distance, standing over the plains that herds of bison and grizzly bears amble across. Around 1,250 kilometres to the southwest, at Cape Mendocino on the Californian coast, gaggles of puffins rest on protruding rocks or float in the blue water of the Pacific. Here begins the rise of a thousand-kilometre fault in the bones of the Earth, along which four plates slowly slip position. The fault terminates at Vancouver Island, where the centuries-old Western redcedar trees overlook a matrix of rivers, inlets and straits that meet at the inland Salish Sea, the surface of which may reveal the flash of an orca’s fin. Further north still, on a clear day you might see the ridged peaks of Canada’s Mount Logan, and the vast icefields stretching down to Icy Bay in the west. To the northwest, freezing waterfalls pour into the Gulf of Alaska, where the cool blue ocean meets heavy waters full of sediments from melting glaciers and waterways.

According to an idea held by some people who live in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), the intersecting, biodiverse landscapes and ecosystems that constitute the vast region are all one place: Cascadia. Cascadia’s loose boundaries are defined as stretching from Montana and Wyoming to California and Oregon, then all the way up through British Columbia and the Yukon to Alaska, spanning a mountainous, river-covered heartland, temperate rainforests, desert-like sagebrush, farmland, sprawling suburbia and the urban hubs of Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.

People sometimes joke that the natural beauty of Cascadia inspires a certain way of living—the laid-back, nature-focused lifestyle associated with the PNW sometimes described as “granola.” But for some residents of this area, Cascadia’s environment is the basis of more than just a love of hiking or yoga—it provides guidance for a political way of life. In the 1970s, environmental researchers and ecologists in the area began to identify Cascadia as a bioregion: a concept both environmental and social in nature. Literally meaning “life-place,” a bioregion is a specific geographic area distinguished by the characteristics of its natural and social ecosystems: its soil types, landforms (mountains, deserts, forests, coasts), climate and weather patterns, native plants and animals, watersheds and cycles, as well as the cultures and ways of living of its human inhabitants. Mapping a bioregion’s boundaries means focusing on the environmental features of a region and the cultures across it, looking at the ways in which the land has been used by its residents over the years and working out an alternative form of cartography based on relationships and natural features, rather than arbitrary political boundaries. The relational and cultural aspects of bioregional cartography mean that a bioregion’s borders can be debated, negotiated or changed if people disagree on them—unlike a regular map, a bioregional map is a kind of proposal of an idea, rather than an authoritative statement. In the words of environmentalist Kirkpatrick Sale, an early figure in the bioregionalist movement, a bioregion is an area “governed by nature, not legislature.”

From this definition came bioregionalism, an ecological-philosophical movement and outlook that posits that the best stewards of a bioregion’s culture and environment are the people who live in that area, challenging our contemporary global capitalist framework in which abstract national and international bodies are at the forefront of environmental policy. Bioregionalism suggests that sustainability is best achieved by organizing around the local communities and ecologies of a particular place, and by advocating for a decentralized system in which political decision-making is led by the culture and character of the bioregion. In practice, this might look like arranging local food systems around the crops that thrive in the area, regardless of which state or national boundary they fall within, or restoring water systems so that they can better support the communities around them, such as the drought-ridden Columbia River that flows through Canada and the US and that’s subject to disputes about its proper management from each side of the border. At its heart, bioregionalism is as much a cultural movement as an environmental one: the globalized markets and international supply chains that we have become dependent on have not only inflicted great environmental harm, causing a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, but have also effectively alienated people from their local environments and prevented us from forming meaningful relationships to the places we live. Bioregionalist thinkers advocate for rebuilding a sense of community around our bioregions; they see where we live as a physical base upon which a shared, sustainable culture can emerge.

Part anarchist and part “think locally, act globally,” bioregionalism asks us to adopt a framework of environmental thinking that places the bioregion and the local needs and culture of its inhabitants at the forefront, supposing that this will in turn strengthen the planet as a whole. As a movement, its decentralized and broadly applicable nature, meant to offer bioregionalists all over the world guidance without being prescriptive, is both a strength and a weakness—it has allowed many different bioregionalist projects to adopt its philosophies and thrive, but it has also sometimes left the movement open to distortion. In Cascadia—a hotbed of bioregionalist thought—extensive damming of waterways, destruction of old-growth forests through logging, severe air pollution from wildfires, and droughts and warming waters devastating salmon populations are just some of the growing threats to the bioregion that go beyond the limits of the borders of any particular state or territory. The environmental challenges that we face today clearly demand a new way of thinking about the places where we live: bioregionalism may offer a pathway for a different kind of future.

The bioregionalist movement was born in California amid the new ideals and counter-culture of the sixties and seventies. Thanks to rising awareness of fossil fuel and pollution, the plight of endangered species and the dangers of nuclear war and waste, environmentalism was finally at the centre of many people’s minds. Some of the earliest Earth Day organizing took place in 1970 in San Francisco; Greenpeace was founded the following year in Vancouver. In 1972, Peter Berg, a civil rights and community activist from San Francisco, attended the inaugural United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm—the first global conference in which environmental issues were the focus.

At the conference, Berg became fascinated by the gulf between the highly centralized solutions being put forward by the delegates meeting in closed rooms, and the needs of the people they were ostensibly discussing. As global leaders, official bodies and advocacy groups pursued different agendas according to their own separate and highly bureaucratic interests, approximately ten thousand people gathered outside the UN building to draw attention to their specific needs—environmental protesters, Indigenous people fighting for the rights to their land, Japanese people whose health had been endangered by mercury poisoning from pollution and more. For many of these groups, no solutions had been brought forward by delegates that would solve their socioenvironmental problems, leading Berg to wonder whether such a large body was even capable of speaking for people’s actual needs.  He also felt that the mainstream environmentalists had accepted a situation in which the most that could be done was the bare minimum, writing in a later essay that “environmentalists have found themselves in the position of knowing how bad things are but are only capable of making a deal.” Berg wanted a proactive ecological movement: not based on basic planetary survival, but on restoration and sustainable long-term plans for human and ecological flourishing.

Following this vision, Berg worked with Californian ecologist Raymond Dasmann to lay out the idea of the bioregion and the fundamentals of bioregionalist practice. Battling capitalism’s tendency to treat our environment as a reserve for extraction and waste, Berg developed his bioregionalist philosophy by proposing that we ascertain the ecological limits of each place by asking localized, specific questions: Where does my garbage go? Where does my water come from and go? What are my closest native plants, animals, berries and grasses? All this is part of the process which the poet and influential early bioregionalist Gary Snyder referred to as “reinhabitation”—an environmental and spiritual homecoming in which we reassert our connection to our place by coming to know its details and depths, both past and present. In 1973, Berg and his partner Judy Goldhaft founded the first bioregionalist organization, Planet Drum Foundation, in San Francisco. Still active today, Planet Drum provides support for founding new bioregionalist groups, and has acted as a bioregionalist consultant everywhere from Nagano, Japan, whose residents were concerned about the environmental impact of the 1998 Winter Olympics, to the coastal city of Bahía de Caráquez in Ecuador, to help adjust its infrastructure and vegetation to local weather systems and become as sustainable as possible.

Reinhabitation is one of bioregionalism’s three core tenets. The second tenet involves developing genuinely sustainable ways of meeting all basic human needs (food, water, shelter, building and clothing materials) in a way that will not compromise the integrity of the local systems; forestry, agriculture and energy generation and consumption must be localized and adapted to the bioregion’s conditions. On a practical level, this might look like the work of the Okanagan Bioregion Food System Project led by Kwantlen Polytechnic University in BC, in which researchers studied the livestock and agriculture of the Okanagan area to map out the maximum potential arable land, comparing it against the projected population increase. Or it could mean redesigning our food and crop supplies to fit the local ecosystems, as is practiced by the BC Eco Seed Co-op, a bioregionalist collective based in Langley, BC that seeks to build an infrastructure to share and cultivate seeds best designed for the local bioregion. While no bioregion is likely to be able to sustain itself without any outside input whatsoever, optimizing the environment’s natural capacity while reducing unnecessary export and import as much as possible will go far in reducing the environmental impact of food logistics—in Canada, 92 percent of imported produce travels more than 1,500 kilometres to reach its destination, creating considerable emissions.

Bioregionalism’s third tenet is about restoring and maintaining local natural systems for the long term. As well as the obvious solutions, such as ensuring that waterways are unblocked and free to flow, restoring native prairie grasses and combatting deforestation, bioregionalist approaches emphasize the importance of urban restoration, which may look like growing native plants in urban spaces like public parks or backyards. Urban restoration projects spearheaded by local communities can be found in many urban areas of Cascadia, like Still Creek in Vancouver, one of the city’s few above-ground streams, which is currently in the process of having its salmon population restored; or like efforts to replant native flora in Portland’s Mt. Tabor park. While many ecologically focused philosophies romanticize the rural, bioregionalism teaches that cities are an important part of the project, asking that we reimagine urban life to fit within bioregions rather than drain their resources.

In the past few decades, many bioregionalist principles have been adopted by local and city governments, but the deeper message of decentralization continues to be ignored. Starting in 2008, Vancouver strove to fulfill an ambitious promise made by Vision Vancouver, a progressive party that swept local elections that year, to become “the world’s greenest city.” The results were major expansions in public transit, significant growth in the local food economy and the formulation of guidelines to move all new construction projects toward zero carbon emissions. While there were successes—emissions fell by around 9 percent in a decade—the city still missed its target. Efforts were hampered by lack of support from the Harper government and falling gas prices, which disincentivized businesses from pursuing low-carbon options. The Vision Vancouver party went on to lose the 2018 election.  If we expect the political establishment to absorb the bioregionalist message and transform it into policy, we will inevitably run up against the apathy of larger ruling structures, and efforts will crumble at the whims of election cycles. Only a directly engaged local populace involved with a diverse, interconnected grassroots movement can sustain bioregionalist efforts in the long term.

Part of bioregionalism’s appeal and distinction from other environmental movements is its focus on arts, culture and community as essential parts of living in harmony with our environment. Bioregionalists believe that in order to truly care for the place in which they live, people must form genuine connections with it. Few have been as adamant about this aspect of bioregionalism as David McCloskey, an Oregon-based former academic who was one of the first to formally name and argue for Cascadia as a bioregion in 1978 while teaching classes about the region’s sociology and ecology at Seattle University.  McCloskey was drawn to bioregionalism because of its focus on a relationship with a certain place, believing that a bioregion could provide the basis upon which to build a shared culture. By pursuing new forms of history, artistic and literary movements, map-making and education, McCloskey realized Cascadia could be brought into the public imagination; not merely as a “geographical terrain” (as Berg and Dasmann wrote in the 1977 essay “Reinhabiting California”) but also as “a terrain of consciousness.”

“Once people begin to get that shared feeling,” McCloskey tells me, “then they begin to tell stories, and then the shared story becomes a culture.” Soon after McCloskey started using the term “Cascadia” in his work, activists and local restoration projects began referring to themselves as Cascadian, and regional poets like Robert Sund began publishing books with titles like Ish River—referring to the inland sea around Vancouver Island, now recognized as the Salish Sea to reflect the area’s relationship with Coast Salish First ­Nations—to celebrate a new place-based identity and localized consciousness: “I live in the Ish River country,” Sund’s book begins, “between two mountain ranges where / many rivers / run down to an inland sea.”

Throughout the eighties, bioregionalist thinking transcended its roots in California and bioregionalist groups were started in the Ozarks (spanning Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas), the Midwest’s Kansas River watershed and elsewhere. McCloskey helped organize the first Cascadia Bioregional Congress in Olympia, Washington in 1986, gathering around a hundred people, including Indigenous people, activists, artists and poets, who represented various watersheds, community groups and advocacy projects. They laid out different plans for a bioregionalist future, including advocating for a BC–Washington bullet train, vastly expanding recycling and composting programs, reducing private transport with taxes on gas and moving toward increased self-reliance in energy, to name a few. Culture remained key: poets performed and read, and soon after, McCloskey began his life’s project of creating intricate bioregional maps of Cascadia, intended to display all of the interwoven ecological layers that unify a bioregion into a single place, rejecting colonial and political borders as irrelevant. This project of cartography is a key feature of bioregionalist culture, tracing the multiple levels of geology, hydrology, flora and fauna that make up one common story.

As important as a sense of culture and identity is to bioregionalism, however, it is also perhaps the aspect of the philosophy that has left it most susceptible to corporate appropriation. In the 1990s, “Cascadia” became a way for business elites to capitalize on new free trade agreements  and frame Cascadia as a crucial node in the global economy, consolidating the region into a single, powerful market defined by common economic interests and lucrative ports. Paul Schell, a former real estate developer, became mayor of Seattle in 1998 and began pushing for the idea of “Main Street Cascadia,” an economic corridor running from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver intended to generate growth by slashing barriers hampering transnational transportation and trade. Organizations like the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a right-wing think tank, took these ideas forward, launching the Cascadia Project (now the Cascadia Center for Regional Development) to focus on linking Vancouver, Seattle and Portland in a “dynamic megastate” in which trade flows freely.

Bioregionalism in Cascadia became a brand. The neoliberal dream of the PNW as an economic “megaregion” was appealing to financial elites interested in loosening red tape, or reducing the power of existing environmental regulations to facilitate trade. Many environmentalists argue that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, which was signed by Canada, the US and Mexico in 1992 and became key in further expanding trade across Cascadia, has damaged the environment by strengthening the power of the oil and gas industries, increasing cross-border pollution and allowing companies like ExxonMobil to sue the Canadian government for requiring costly research into their energy projects. Such agreements are antithetical to any bioregionalist notion of regional autonomy or democratic participation. They are, in effect, bioregionalism’s dark twin: a kind of localized globalization in which economic benefits outweigh all else.

Perhaps even more pressing for bioregionalists
than the neoliberal co-option of Cascadia and the movement is the way far-right groups and individuals have latched onto bioregionalism as a means of creating a kind of independent state that rejects perceived outsiders. In the mid-nineties, Portland artist Alexander Baretich created a flag for Cascadia, with blue and green to represent the water, sky and land and a Douglas fir in the middle. His intention was not to imply that Cascadia was a nation-state in itself, specifying at the time that “it is not a flag of blood nor of the glory of a nation, but a love of the bioregion.” However, both the flag and the nationalistic implications that accompany it have been picked up by white nationalist groups associating themselves with the bioregion who believe that Cascadia should secede from the rest of North America.

These projects generally identify very explicitly with Cascadia—the Cascadia Independence Party, for example, is a secessionist group that believes that Cascadia should become its own political region. “The east does not hold the same values we do ... America is diverse but the PNW is much different from the rest of America,” its chairman told the Baffler in 2018. As far-right organizing has snowballed, so has the adoption of Cascadia and the bioregionalist principles of cultural identity by white nationalists. The Wolves of Vinland, a neo-pagan hate group, has a Cascadia chapter, and its leader Jack Donovan has bought up several acres of land in Oregon to “serve as the spiritual and cultural home in the Cascadia region,” while a far-right group in the PNW calling itself Cascadia has claimed that its mission is to “regain our sovereignty and prevent foreign influence on our people.”

It’s true that full secession has sometimes been a goal of bioregionalists, albeit a fringe one—McCloskey dismissed it in a 2013 interview as “a bunch of triviality”—but most who follow the philosophy see building an alternative culture within our current system as a more achievable goal than attempting to politically secede from North America. It is, however, still a presence within bioregionalism as a whole: in the 2017 BC general election, the BC Cascadia Party ran two candidates who advocated for sovereignty for the Cascadia bioregion (they did not win any seats and did not return for the 2020 election). Any concept of secession within bioregionalism should be centered around improving the lives and wellbeing of the residents within the bioregion—not keeping non-white residents out or claiming nature as a white homeland.

While bioregionalism has always stressed the importance of inclusivity and cultural respect, with groups like CascadiaNow! declaring “solidarity with those who have been marginalized and oppressed within our current institutions and system,” it’s clear that eco-fascist, far-right and nationalist groups are identifying with the movement in some sense. Though they may make gestures to environmentalism, what the eco-fascists really want is to reserve all rights to nature for themselves. Even if they are acknowledged as fringe interlopers, they’re a threat that bioregionalists must take seriously.

Outside of overt white nationalism, the legacy of colonialism is one of the biggest impediments and barriers to the groups who are perhaps most effectively practicing bioregionalism—the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (a name for North America used by some Indigenous peoples). Much of the environmental damage that was and is still being done to Cascadia cannot be separated from violence toward First Nations and other Indigenous peoples, whose communities and environments are the most directly threatened by damage done to Cascadian ecosystems.

Indigenous groups across Canada are currently resisting a wide array of infrastructure projects that will harm the environment: in 2015, a tar sand project in Pierre River in northern Alberta was cancelled by Shell after sustained opposition by Dene, Cree and Métis communities, while in 2016, a tar pipeline that would have run from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, BC, was cancelled after protests and opposition from First Nations including the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, the Yinka Dene Alliance and the Heiltsuk Nation. This Indigenous resistance to projects that threaten the environment has prevented damage on a wide scale, with the group Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon estimating that the equivalent of about 12 percent of Canada’s annual pollution has been avoided by Indigenous groups protesting infrastructure projects via the courts and land defence efforts.

First Nations and other Indigenous groups demonstrate that the decentralized, community-driven aspect of the bioregionalist philosophy is essential for effective environmental and cultural protection—it is the colonial bodies of provincial, state and national governments, with their singular focus on economics and lack of respect for Indigenous land stewardship, that enact harm on the environment and deplete resources and culture for those that live here. The Sightline Institute, a regional non-profit think tank concerned with Cascadian sustainability, has formulated that the bioregion has the potential to be a “thin green line,” a place providing local and Indigenous-led defence against more climate chaos resulting from further fossil fuel expansion.

Bioregionalism owes much to Indigenous peoples—relating to the land as a site of culture as well as resources, a home in every sense, is a philosophy that is in many ways inspired by and drawn from the stewardship and lifestyles of First Nations and other Indigenous peoples, to the point that they are sometimes described by theorists in the field as the “first bioregionalists.” Settler and Indigenous bioregionalists have worked on many projects together over the years: in 1996, First Nations and environmental leaders joined with researchers to form the BC-based Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research, which supports bioregionalist projects that prioritize First Nations leadership and collaboration. Currently, they are working together on initiatives such as resisting oil and gas projects and holding community conversations on policies to protect Cascadian forests.

Bioregionalist and Indigenous collaboration extends to shared cultural projects as well: bioregional mapping initiatives, such as those undertaken by McCloskey, are underway with a focus on First Nations leadership and input. The US-based Department of Bioregion supports Indigenous nations in creating maps of their bioregions to track information on their lands and waters, a project which helps support community knowledge and wellbeing. As cultural consultant and University of Victoria administrator John Rampanen of the Ahousaht and Keltsmaht First Nations pointed out in Occupied Cascadia, a 2012 film exploring the intersection of Cascadian bioregionalism and colonialism, “from an Indigenous perspective … if there’s a division of land, it’s based upon bioregion, as opposed to political lines that are drawn arbitrarily on a map.”

First Nations and other Indigenous peoples have long provided a blueprint for bioregionalists to incorporate environmentalism, culture and decentralized self-determination into one philosophy. Supporting and collaborating with their efforts, as well as challenging colonial states that threaten our environments, should be a top priority for bioregionalists.

In Cascadia, bioregionalist thought and culture live on. In October, I spoke to Paul E. Nelson, a poet, radio and podcast host and longtime Cascadian resident. His work continues the bioregionalist cultural advocacy that McCloskey and others initiated in the eighties. Nelson has amassed an invaluable archive of wisdom from bioregionalist thinkers, writers and Indigenous activists from over thirty years of interviews. When he spoke to me from his home in Seattle, Nelson was finalizing plans for the seventh Cascadia Poetry Festival, which hosted workshops, readings and discussions to deepen and spread the roots of a way of being based in a still-unfolding bioregionalist history. An anthology called Cascadian Zen: Bioregional Writings on Cascadia Here and Now was launched at the festival, and covers fifty years of Cascadian poetry, art and thought.

Nelson and I discussed what it means to build a Cascadian culture. “The idea that it’s a secessionist movement ought to be squashed right away,” he says. While many bioregionalists agree that the political model of nation-state governance should eventually be superseded, most believe that creating alternative cultures right now is the priority. But what creates a new culture? For Nelson, it’s finding new forms of belonging and celebration like the Cascadia Poetry Festival; it’s also a long, difficult everyday practice of relating to your environment and fighting for change. Nelson tells me about an ongoing multi-year project led by the Duwamish Tribe to restore the Duwamish River which runs through Seattle, after having industrial chemicals dumped into it over the decades by companies like Boeing. “And it’s coming back,” he told me. “The biosphere will be healed one bioregion at a time.” As McCloskey puts it to me: “Anybody, anywhere working for the life of the place and the people is doing, I think, bioregional work. What Gary Snyder called the ‘Real Work.’”

If there is one thing our unfolding climate disaster is telling us, it is that current environmental approaches aren’t working, and that relying on governments or top-down institutions will not be enough. Bioregionalism calls for everyone, wherever they are, to look around at their life-place, find the Real Work that needs to be done and start it themselves. ⁂

Gus Mitchell is a writer from London. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Wired, Compact, Prospect, Literary Hub, Long Now and other publications.