Bioregionalism: Place Shapes Identity

If you’re anything like I was when I first heard of the term “bioregionalism,” you’re probably processing the idea in a state of simultaneous fascination and confusion. The term evokes visions of a sustainable and thriving society, yet you’re not exactly sure what it really means. You know it has a prominent place in the Cascadia movement and that it has something to with the environment. But that all sounds good and positive, right? So, huzzah! I guess.

Yes, bioregionalism is inextricably linked with “the environment.” The term refers to large regions of a continent that are environmentally distinguished and differentiated from others, each made up of smaller, interdependent ecosystems and ecoregions. This environmental and eco-centric definition is indeed fascinating. But it’s only half the story, so to speak. There’s an entirely different aspect of bioregionalism that has to do with bioregions’ tangible effects on humanity and human society. And, for me, it’s this anthropocentric application that demonstrates why bioregionalism is vital to Cascadia and the cultural movement supporting it.

So, what exactly is it?

In this sense, bioregionalism can be understood in a few different ways. You can understand it as a philosophy that proposes certain truths about how human societies are shaped or meant to function. You can understand it as a phenomenon in which the environment influences human society in a given area. You can understand it as a system of environmental, cultural, political, and economic components working with and against each other in a bioregional area. However you choose to conceptualize this term, bioregionalism asserts the following as true: place shapes identity.

This is as simple as I can define what bioregionalism is and what it means. It’s straight-forward, self-evident, and incredibly profound: place shapes identity.

Ok…how does it work?

The theory is that a bioregion’s environmental components (geography, climate, plant life, animal life, etc.) directly influence ways for human communities to act and interact with each other which are, in turn, optimal for those communities to thrive in their environment. As such, those ways to thrive in their totality—be they economic, cultural, spiritual, or political—will be distinctive in some capacity as being a product of their bioregional environment. This creates a distinct ethos for the society, or societies, that inhabit a given bioregion. Therefore, there will be some level of fundamental coherence in ethos between communities within a given bioregion and, simultaneously, some level of fundamental differentiation between the essential and natural identities of societies in different bioregional environments.

That’s a fancy way of saying a society in one distinguishable place will be different from a society in another distinguishable place in some elemental fashion, and it will be due to the environmental components of those places themselves. Place shapes identity.

So why is this so important, then?

When I worked this concept out in my head, I had an “aha!” moment. I have lived my entire life in the United States of America and I’ve always known that different regions of the country had different and unique characteristics, which help define the communities of people that live in them. We have the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, and so forth. Those terms are much more than just geographic distinctions: they each carry connotations of their corresponding society’s defining characteristics. There are certain ways to truly thrive in the Northeast that are irreconcilably different than thriving in the South. It’s always been that way, even before European colonists set foot on North American soil.

Have you ever wondered why these fundamental differences exist? I have. For me, bioregionalism provided that explanation. This fundamental differentiation between different regions is based in bioregional environment. The characteristics and manifestations of what we would consider distinct components of a given regional society were able to be solidified as such because their corresponding environment allowed them to thrive. Place shapes identity.

This is the reason there are distinguishable connotations, both tangible and intangible, to an identity such as “Pacific Northwest.” We have a certain way of doing things and experiencing the world around us which is shaped by our bioregional environment, distinctly different from other bioregional environments in some form or another.

Place shapes identity. I get it!

Bioregionalism is why Cascadia matters; there would be no such thing as Cascadia or any characteristic uniquely “Cascadian” if Cascadia, as a whole and singular bioregion, didn’t exist. The Cascadian bioregion shapes the Cascadian ethos and the Cascadian ethos influences our ways of life, our values, our culture, our economy, our politics, all helping define our society. Place shapes identity.

Bioregionalism can have deep and remarkable implications for how we understand society. How should our communities operate? How should we differentiate and define civic belonging? How can we transcend the existing or traditional definitions of nationhood? How do we best exemplify our bioregional ethos? How does this all compare with our political statuses quo? These are all questions that bioregionalism plays into and are all important for understanding Cascadia as more than just an environmentally-distinct region of North America.

I don’t have all the answers to these questions. I do explore them in my book, Towards Cascadia, and encourage anyone interested to read it; this blog post is only the tip of the iceberg. What I do know, however, is that, when it comes to truly understanding Cascadia or being Cascadian, it doesn’t matter where you were born, what color your skin is, what ancestral bloodline you come from, what ethnicity you identify as, what religion you believe in, who you love, or how much money you have. Human beings have the remarkable capability to adapt to their environment and become a true inhabitant of the place and community they call “home.” You, I, or anyone else can be Cascadian in this place and bioregionalism is why this statement is true.

Place shapes identity. How amazing is that!?

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