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Cascadia Bioregion

Interview with Peter Berg on Bioregionalism

Cascadia
Contents
Northwest Writing and Regional Identity: Introductory Essay

interview by Richard Evanoff

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The term "bioregionalism" was first popularized in the 1970s by the ecologist
Raymond Dasmann and activist Peter Berg. Berg was in Japan this past
winter investigating, together with Japanese activist Kimiharu To, the
ecological damage caused by the Nagano Olympics. The Japan Times
("Ecology of Nagano seen coming in last," February 12, 1998) quoted Berg's
reference to the event as the "greatest ecological disaster in Nagano's
bioregional history." To criticized the games for being run in the interests of
multinational corporations, television broadcasters, and developers with no
citizen input, despite the fact that it is citizens "who must pay for a
four-lane highway and airport they don't need." Farmers will also suffer from pollution of
their rice paddies and the native species of Nagano will be damaged.

The Planet Drum Foundation, founded by Berg and others in 1973 to advance
bioregional ideas, publishes the biannual journal Raise the Stakes, sponsors
educational and cultural activities on bioregional themes, and provides
networking services for bioregional activists, including a directory listing 250
bioregional groups around the world. The organization has helped to develop
the Bioregional Association of the Northern Americas and sponsors a
biannual continental gathering of bioregionalists. Its publications include A
Green City Program for the San Francisco Bay Area and Beyond,
Reinhabiting a Separate Country, and Discovering Your Life-Place: A First
Bioregional Workbook. For more information on publications and membership
contact: Planet Drum Foundation, P.O. Box 31251, San Francisco, California
94131, Shasta Bioregion, U.S.A. Email: planetdrum@igc.apc.org

The following interview was conducted in Tokyo and introduces readers to
some of the key ideas of bioregionalism.

Evanoff: What exactly is bioregionalism?

Berg: A bioregion is a geographic area defined by natural characteristics,
including watersheds, landforms, soils, geological qualities, native plants and
animals, climate, and weather. These characteristics are continuous; in other
words, when there are changes in these characteristics you've gone from one
bioregion to another. Obviously these borders are soft and wide, as opposed
to linear and sharp in the present geopolitical sense of "boundary."
Bioregionalism includes human beings as a species in the interplay of these
natural characteristics. It promotes an inhabitory attitude by which humans
adapt themselves to the natural characteristics of a bioregion in an
appropriate way. At this point in history such an attitude exists only among so-
called primitive people or as a matter of historical record. For most people on
the planet today it would be necessary to become a reinhabitant in order to fit
into the natural characteristics of the bioregions they occupy. A bioregion is a
geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness. It is a cultural idea based
on characteristics usually associated with the natural sciences. Put simply, a
bioregion is a "life-place," the natural place around you that's alive and
contains your life as well as the lives of other species.

Evanoff: There seems to be a perception, at least among some, that the
environmental movement is about preserving pristine wilderness areas with
little or no human interference. You seem to be working, however, towards a
harmonization of nature and culture.

Berg: Bioregionalism is proactive. It is carrying the concept of a life-place
into the activities and goals of human society, as opposed to protest.
Environmentalism has been a protest-oriented activity based on attempting to
deal with a destructive industrial society. On the one hand, it tries to
preserve pristine wilderness areas for their own sake and, on the other, to keep water and air clean for the sake of humans. Bioregionalism goes beyond both of
these. In a bioregion there are different zones of human interface with natural
systems: urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness. And each of these has a
different appropriate reinhabitory approach.

Evanoff: What kind of changes in lifestyle will be necessary if people want to
live in harmony with bioregions?

Berg: The bioregional idea at first seems to be a nature or outdoors-oriented
view. In fact, it is a fairly profound philosophical perspective because it
addresses basic civilization questions: who am I, what I am, and what am I
going to do? In the context of the biosphere, a person as a member of the
human species interacting with other species is a fundamental premise of
bioregionalism. So what you do is to reconceptualize your relationship with
the elements of the planetary biosphere, other people, society, and the
exigencies of contemporary life. Carrying out a bioregional lifestyle is to
apply reinhabitory directions to the basic necessities of life. Where does my food
come from? What's my relationship to the water that I use? What's my
relationship to the soil? What's my relationship to native ecosystems? Am I
using materials that are from the bioregion where I live for house construction
and the fabrication of products? Am I learning about the life-systems of the
place where I live and about how my own life ultimately depends on them?
Am I learning how to live in a place in a long-term, sustainable way with
bioregional self-reliance as a guide? There are a lot of ways to apply the
bioregional idea.

Evanoff: A lot of the things we consume these days are not locally produced
but imported via the global market, and it's sometimes difficult to trace out
the connections. What kind of critique does bioregionalism offer of global trade?

Berg: The connections are actually fairly easy to trace out. It's the
combination of them that's hard to keep up with. I know that the coffee I drink could come from several different places on the planet, that it's harvested in a certain way, and I know that ships carry it. What makes it difficult are the eco-energetics of the cups, of the heating source used to make the coffee, of the water that goes into it. All of those eco-energetics become extremely complicated. Right now, these eco-energy inputs cost more than we know because the ecological damage hasn't been assessed. The bioregional worth of things as opposed to the negative ecological footprint simply hasn't been investigated. It hasn't been one of those things that a big R&D project has been designed to find out-- and it should be! What people can do about it in a practical way is to try tofind out what the local products are, what the costs are, and to make decisions about what they consume and what they get involved with based on that. It's possible to do this with joy rather than puritanical morality. In fact, when I walk down the street in the Shasta Bioregion in San Francisco and see a native plant or tree, it's quite exciting. It's thrilling!

Evanoff: How far do you want to go with self-sufficiency? Should communities
become entirely self-sufficient? Would that preclude any possibility of
international trade?

Berg: We're talking about a direction here, not a dictum -- as much self-
reliance as possible and as much of a real cost analysis of exports and
imports as possible. For example, when you export agriculture, you export soil
and water, as well as some species of domestic plant. You transport it using
some energy source and you package it. All of these things have real costs
that aren't reflected in the price.

Evanoff: One aspect of bioregionalism seems to be the transformation of
consciousness on a very personal level.

Berg: We often assume that we're capable of divining models that somehow
will be or should be employed by the general public to initiate some sort of
enormous change based on a critical evaluation of the present situation. And
we often feel that these models can have efficacy in some grand historical
and socially progressive way. But I'm not sure this is true. I believe that most
people are in a trance, a deep trance having to do with the nature and
requirements of industrial society. You get up in the morning in an essentially
disinhabitory environment. You deal with the requirements of getting your
body and mind together in ways that are completely dissociated from their
origins in nature -- you only see water coming out of a tap. You get out on the
street with people you've learned to be wary of and adopt an anonymous
identity. You get on some means of public transportation about which you
know nothing. The subway is rattling through the geology of the city, but it's
not geology you see, it's advertisements. Then you get off, and you're dealing
with these other people on the basis of relationships that are dictated by
power and command. You fulfill your role in the operation, using a lot of
mechanical signals. You get through all that, go back home, watch television,
and go to bed. Now, if you haven't been in a deep trance, where exactly have
you been? We're talking about at least 50% of the population. They take
respite by going to foreign places where they absolutely destroy the
landscapes without even knowing it. To escape from this trance, they go mess
up Hawaii. That's what we're dealing with. This is the famous, average,
normal, reasonable human being that we assume is out there. So why do we
pretend to have models that might be useful to these people and believe that
it's possible to create some sort of social movement based on something like
the Paris Commune? Where do we get this crap? What hope do we have?
How should we go about it? As an activist-thinker in a situation such as
talking to a university class or a group of businessmen or public policy
people, I simply try to create a mental condition that will have the effect of
an explosion in their brain. I could talk paradigm-talk all day, and it would bore
me. I try to set off a large-scale explosion in the mind of the person or
audience I'm dealing with. If I'm lucky and the explosion does occur, I don't
know where the pieces are going to settle. The reason I'm doing this is
because I feel as though I'm an agent provocateur who is pursuing his own
survival in a trance-driven society that wants to deprive me of any of the
little measly human-natural interactive possibilities that I can experience. That
really is where I'm at.

Evanoff: How exactly do you go about shocking people?

Berg: One way to shock people is to say that they aren't going to do anything
to save the earth if they aren't doing something around them right now. The
earth isn't just the rainforest or the Amazon jungle or the whales or the hole
in the ozone layer alone. The earth is also where you are. To so-called primitive
people the world is local-cosmological, not planetary. The direction of our
present civilization is to turn the earth into a garbage dump and then abandon
it, to turn it into an uninhabitable smoggy sewer and then leave it. To a large
extent what we're doing is committing suicide as a species. Another shocking
thing is for people to realize how impoverished they are in spite of the
illusion of material success, that their relationships with others are often bad and that they can't depend on very many people. In the U.S., the majority of the
population is just two paychecks away from homelessness. That should send
a shiver of fear through anyone! Everyone is extremely close to that edge,
which includes insanity, neurosis, unhappiness, and bad health. I think most
people are aware that they're committing a sort of soft-shoe planet-murder
simply through their lives.

Evanoff: Some people criticize the environmental movement for emphasizing
changes in lifestyles rather than changes in political structure.

Berg: That's a false opposition. You can't change the political structures
without changing the description of the person and what their anticipations
and intentions are. During the French Revolution, most people had no idea
what freedom was. What they were saying was that freedom was the direction
they wanted to go in. They simply wanted the situation to be something other
than what it was then, but they had no idea what it was going to be. In the
same way a life of identifying with the human species, of an eco-centered
basis of decision-making and public policy, of identifying with wild nature in a
planetary context is something we have no idea of. A person now in late
industrial society can say there is a possible world to go to, not utopia, but
relieving the oppression and suffering of the present. It's a process, and it
involves different relationships and activities, as well as disavowing certain
political and economic structures and putting faith in others, or at least
saying that I'll put my faith in trying to make this alternative work rather than put
my faith in hoping that this present dominant structure continues.

Evanoff: Is there in fact a utopian element in bioregionalism?

Berg: I think there's a utopian element in human consciousness. I think there
was a utopian element in the Stone Age. People have always dreamt together
of a resolution of problems and difficulties. Medicine is utopian -- that a cure
is possible for disease. Magic is utopian -- that a miraculous outcome can occur.
Art is utopian, that you can produce something that others will be inspired by
aesthetically.

Evanoff: How do you assess the current state of the environmental
movement?

Berg: The environmental movement is over. I actually believe it ended on
Earth Day in 1972, and in fact historians will probably say that.
Environmentalism had always been the handmaiden of late industrial society.
It was a way to preserve the material benefits of industrial products and
processes while mitigating the effect of developing those products and
carrying out those processes. Clean water and clean air were the epitome of
the environmental movement. We had rivers that caught fire and air that was
causing cancer. Even ordinary environments were visibly affected by
industrial processes. It's not surprising to me that a lot of old-line
environmentalists have felt assailed by the deep-ecology, bioregional, whole-
systems perspective because single-issue environmentalism was a way to
get through the day. It was a way to deal with that soft-shoe planet-murder.
You could take a bath in your environmentalism and feel good.
Environmentalism simply won't be a twenty-first century consideration.

 

Evanoff: So where's it going?

Berg: There are two major activities that will replace environmentalism. One is
restoration ecology -- not in the academic sense, but as practiced by
residents: urban people, suburban people, and rural people. Ecological
restoration projects are much more comprehensive human activities than first
imagined. When people first hear of ecological restoration, they think, oh,
some nature project that I do on weekends. But in fact, restoring an urban
creek is a major undertaking and is an essential activity for a reinhabitory
perspective in a city, and has multiple implications. The other direction is
urban sustainability. We have become an urban species. More than half of us
live in cities. So we have to become renaturalized as urban residents. In other
words, we have to regain our species perspective and expand it, even while
living in dense multistoried areas. Urban sustainability is not just a
watchword. At present most municipal governments put urban sustainability
below the top ten issues that they're involved with. But within a very short
time it will rise to the top three or so, and I believe eventually become the central
issue for decision-making and policy directions regarding employment,
health, education, welfare, transportation, energy, and so on. The central
component of all these concerns is sustainability.

Evanoff: What is the Green City Project?

Berg: We're trying to raise consciousness and help people get involved. We
connect volunteers with 450 groups in the Bay Area. We publish a calendar of
events that has activities for every day of the year. The idea is that school
children, the elderly, working people, people of all classes and ethnicities,
can become involved in some aspect of urban sustainability, such as tree
planting, neighborhood empowerment, appropriate transportation,
celebrations, and culture. Culture is particularly important: art and murals
depicting native species, libraries, public sculptures, and events connected
with watching natural phenomena, such as the rising of the sun at the equinox
or solstice. I tell people that the future mayor of San Francisco will one day
walk onto the Golden Gate Bridge, with all the traffic stopped, to lead the
Salmon Welcoming Celebration on the day in fall when salmon return to
spawn from the North Pacific into San Francisco Bay and up the Sacramento
River, with thousands of people dancing and making music, wearing salmon
costumes, eating smoked salmon, and saying "Welcome back brothers and
sisters!"

Evanoff: Those kinds of cultural activities seem so rich compared to most of
the pastimes that dominate modern life.

Berg: The appreciation of culture inherent in the bioregional perspective
involves the very values that are mostprized by art and antique collectors.
They are unique, diverse, participatory, personal. They are the most highly
valued things, yet people are unaware of the potential of ordinary everyday
experience, and think of it as somehow going back to wearing a loincloth.

Evanoff: How do you see public participation in terms of the political decision-
making process? On the one hand, bioregionalism advocates local
participation, but on the other, so many decisions about what's going on in the
world are made by multinational corporations and international organizations
such as the World Trade Organization. The local and the global are often in
conflict with each other. Decisions might be made by a multinational to close
down a factory in a particular community, for example, and the community can
be devastated by that. Do you see the two coexisting side by side?

Berg: There are many possibilities for effecting change. The variety that I'm
most fond of and I think is the most authentic is when people undertake
through their mutual decision-making to create a situation which they feel is
desirable or beneficial and fits in with their idea of bioregional
reinhabitation. When they do this, all kinds of interaction will occur with the dominant society. To give an example, when residents of the Shasta Bioregion tried to carry out a salmon restoration project on their own, using their own backyards as the site for water tanks for eggs to hatch so that salmon could be put back into the creeks where they had become extinct, they were prevented from getting
eggs from female salmon by the California Department of Fish and Game,
who had no way to see that activity except as poaching! Isn't that a wonderful
contradiction? It really exposes the conflict.

Evanoff: What about globalization?

Berg: Protest is necessary because as globalization increases there are
inroads into things like personal privacy and community cohesion that are
extremely destructive. So protesting, regulating, and defending against
globalization is extremely important.

Evanoff: Do you see bioregionalism as something that's going to disrupt the
dominant society?

Berg: The dominant globalist society believes that it has ultimate dominion
over anything that it chooses to have dominion over. That's the situation at
present. If you put together the heads of major multinational corporations and
gave them a list of possibilities for getting involved with communities, or
individual and social behavior, they would be able to go through the list and
think of ways in which they could dominate any of those situations. Public
relations and advertising people already do that. They ask themselves, is
there a way that we can get into the bedroom of every married couple so that
they all use a particular product, do a particular thing, stop doing something
else. That's their present perspective. And the reason that they've had such
extraordinary success is because they've just blasted communities, blasted
human taste, befuddled people, cast illusions so dense that people just don't
know what's going on -- their mouths are open. Bioregional activities run
against this, and they're not the only ones that run against this. Native
economies and cooperative endeavors do as well. I've been to globalization
forums where there have been literally hundreds of representatives with a
tremendous range of reaction to globalist imposition. As bioregionalist
solutions are counterposed to industrial solutions, they by necessity run
against globalist imposition.

Evanoff: Can the bioregional sentiment prevail against it?

Berg: Here we're dealing with values. If we can establish activities that have
values associated with them that people don't want to lose, or that they feel
they've contributed in establishing, then we can establish some ground. I
believe there is an essential, dichotomous conflict between eco-localism in
general, of which bioregionalism is a form, and the globalist multinational
corporate push. In the twenty-first century we'll see that conflict. I hate to
use the word "war" but we're already seeing it. The Zapatista rebellion in the
Chiapas region of Mexico is completely formulated around resistance to
globalist imposition on the part of eco-local social groups. But I've also seen
it
in what could be called suburban situations in Mexico, for example in the
town of Tepoztlan in an event that's called the "Golf War," where citizens
resisted the building of a resort and golf course that would use communal
water. The plan had been approved illegally by the state and national
governments and rights were given to multinational corporations which the
governments did not have the authority to give. I was there a year ago and
there were still roadblocks to prevent the army trucks from coming into town.
Local people resisted the project to the point that they ousted their bribed
city councilmen. They now call themselves the Free, Autonomous and Democratic
Municipality of Tepoztlan. You can also see the trend towards localization in
the falling apart of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and the realignment of
social groups in Africa and Asia.

 

Evanoff: It seems that the people who advocate globalization get a lot of
political mileage out of the rhetoric that we're "bringing the world together"
and creating a global society based on peace and harmony. At the same time
criticisms are sometimes made against eco-localism on the grounds that it's
going to promote insularity, ethnic exclusiveness, religious fundamentalism,
and the creation of cultural enclaves in which people are going to be isolated
from each other. In the media and so forth all of this makes globalism seem
appealing while making something like bioregionalism look insular.

Berg: The dominant oppressive group can always do extraordinary things to
divide, conquer, and corrupt authentic, viable local structures. There probably
isn't anything that globalism offers that shouldn't be questioned or negotiated
from a bioregional point of view. Some areas of global cooperation may be
more acceptable than others. The hole in the ozone layer, for example, is the
kind of problem that has to be solved by people occupying various places on
the planet. There are potential benefits from global cooperation in areas such
as these. It's extremely hypocritical, though, for multinational corporations to
pretend to be bringing the world together.

 

Richard: How about the charge that bioregionalism encourages people to go
off into their own little communities and not become cosmopolitan?

Berg: The richness and authenticity that is the reward of bioregionalism
requires exactly that kind of going into the place where you live. I can walk
down a country lane and be thinking about the world tennis matches or I can
be looking at the particular native trees that are right in front of me. It
doesn't
matter where the world tennis matches are being held but the trees being
there does matter. They can't be anywhere else. They have to be there. This
is where they evolved. So there's information selection that is in fact insular
or
that isolates you from other information. Now, does that necessarily breed
parochialism? I've heard people say that parochialism and xenophobia may
not be that bad, but I personally think that they are. I believe that they are
restrictive. So I look for a meta-level of bioregional identification: the
bioregion
is my window on the planetary biosphere and the means for participating in it.
So, yes, this stream that comes through the area that I'm standing in is unique
to this place, but that water is joining up with the water of the whole
biosphere
by mingling with other watersheds, by going to the ocean, through
evaporating as clouds and coming back as rain. Just the idea that every
molecule of water on the planet has been used and reused again and again
is a marvelous cosmos-establishing experience. So, the "joys" of chauvinism
are easily replaced by the magic of larger biospheric and cosmological
participation.

 

Evanoff: So we're connected both geographically with people and life in other
bioregions and historically with the past and future.

Berg: Exactly.

 

Evanoff: Despite what seems to me to be a lot of unnecessary ideological
conflict between the various schools of environmental philosophy -- deep
ecology, social ecology, ecofeminism, and the like -- people in each of these
groups seem to be attracted to at least some aspects of bioregionalism. Deep
ecology, for example, is big on promoting a change in cultural attitudes and
personal consciousness, while social ecology emphasizes decentralized
municipal decision- making. Do you see bioregionalism as being a mediating
force that might be able to unify or bring together some of these disparate
theoretical perspectives?

Berg: One reason why these new ecological, philosophical formulations have
been attracted to and have subsequently incorporated a bioregional
perspective is because bioregionalism offers an authenticating foundation for
the whole ecological premise. People these days are putting the word "eco" in
front of everything precisely because they don't want to be identified with the
old power and resource manipulating ethos. Reinhabitation as a practical
activity does have a fluidity that is unifying. A person can have an ecological
perspective but for that person to be able to do something with others and
have a social relationship based on an ecological perspective, there must be
a social understanding (not an academic or technical understanding) about
what our mutual territory is, where we are, and what we relate to each other
about. The bioregion comes in as a common vista -- this is what we can talk
about! Let's talk about the restoration of the natural systems that we live in
as
a long-term goal, with all of these various perspectives -- the social
perspective, the gender perspective, the diet perspective, the cosmological
perspective -- having something to contribute. Words such as "bioregion" and
"reinhabitation" shouldn't be seen as the property of some narrow theoretical
perspective but as public language.

 

Evanoff: What's your interest in Japan?

Berg: The Sacramento River goes into San Francisco Bay and into the
California Current and the North Pacific. Salmon which swim in our rivers also
swim past Hokkaido Island. We're on the same latitudinal lines as Japan. So
it's no longer possible for me to have a "United Statesian" identity. I have to
have both a Shasta Bioregion identity and a North Pacific Rim identity in
planetary terms. On the one hand, I can say that I'm a citizen of the city of
San
Francisco, in the county of San Francisco, in the state of California, in the
United States of America, in the so-called "free world." Or I can say that I
live
in the Islais Creek Watershed, of the San Francisco Bay Estuary, of the Shasta
Bioregion, of the North Pacific Rim, of the Pacific Basin, in the planetary
biosphere of the universe. In this latter way of thinking, which I much prefer,
Japan and America are transpacific relatives.

 

Evanoff: How would bioregionalism apply to Japan?

Berg: Well, historically Japan has this great nature philosophy that I can be
inspired by. But since the war Japan has had a productivist, modern,
competitive system that functions only at the cost of personal freedom,
ecological damage, and a really nasty attitude outside the boundaries of the
country towards other people's resources and bioregions. There are many
segments of Japanese society, however, that are aware of this on numerous
levels -- of the need for greater personal freedom, greater ecological
responsibility, and a harmonious interaction with other people on the planet.
Attitudes about peace, nonviolence, and spirituality among the Japanese
people are extremely strong. I gave a bioregional tour of Hakuba Valley to
local residents and we stood up on a cliff about a thousand feet high looking
down on the whole watershed. We had just seen the springs and were
observing native plants vs. exotic, water coming into the rice fields, the
damage of the Olympics construction, and the power of the watershed. It's a
very steep valley, you know. You could tell what the forces are by looking at
the flood plain of the river. It's ten times the width of the river on both
sides and it's pure rock and gravel. That means that when the snow melts, the water is just roaring through there because of the gravitational pull. That's one of
the reasons why Hakuba Valley is so delicate--all the water ends up in the river.
There's no place for it to go, no seepage. So here is the natural template of
this watershed that was given by natural forces and that people adapted to,
and now we're looking at a phenomenon -- the Nagano Olympics-- that will
rewrite the ecological history of this area. This is the historic episode, the
modern history-making event of that area. After the Olympics leaves, people
will count the future in terms of this event. We can either live harmoniously
with this natural area or we can allow it to be degraded and destroyed. It
really is a spiritual question. After the tour a woman came up to me and said
that she was a teacher but had lost her purpose in teaching. Now, however,
she had something to believe in and something to teach the children. "In
everything I do I'm going to make this a part of their life," she said. Japanese
people have this spiritual dimension which I find absolutely astonishing.

 

Evanoff: What exactly do you hope to achieve with respect to the Olympics?

Berg: We're going to try to assess the damage using socio- cultural rather
than natural-scientific tools. What I'm hoping personally is that some basis for
reparations can be established. The upshot is that this kind of large-scale
sporting spectacle promotes a "society of the spectacle" that lasts for a very
short time but has a devastating effect on the long-term prospects of natural
landscapes. This can't go on. This is an important instance of globalism vs.
bioregional sustainability and it has to be opposed.

[Japan Environment Monitor, Issue #97 (4), June 1998]
 
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