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!?

Interested in learning more about Cascadia? You can buy your copy of Towards Cascadia today:

Why Should I Care About Bioregionalism?

Cascadia Nature Flag

The Cascadian identity is a concept which is growing in both number and force. Many people, including many of you reading this, who live in and love the Pacific Northwest region of our North American continent are looking to such symbols as the Doug Flag and saying to themselves, “That’s me. That’s who I am. I’m Cascadian.”

This identity of unabashed uniqueness and innovation is a uniting force which has the potential to drive an entire region of millions to a new era of self-realization. Our shared values and shared ways of life as Cascadians—fundamentally differentiated from the rest of our two countries to at least a noticeable extent—are bringing people together in a new kind of national community.

Yet, even among those who already identify primarily as Cascadian in this sphere of influence, there’s a sense of confusion surrounding the importance of bioregionalism. This idea is the keystone of our young and vibrant movement, but its vagueness compels many to question its importance. To put it another way, there are many who are already on board with the Cascadia movement (and many more to come), love the idea of regional solidarity, but just aren’t that interested in environmental issues and don’t understand the vital importance of bioregionalism. If you’re reading this, you may be one of those people.

Often, when talking about bioregionalism in the context of the Cascadia movement, it’s put into niche environmental science terms. Bioregionalism becomes a discussion about plant species, ecosystems, and the taxonomy of ecological classification. This is all important to understand, but it’s only one side of bioregionalism as an idea.

There’s an entirely different side to bioregionalism which directly links to the cultural aspect of the Cascadian identity—the aspect which many identify with even if they don’t really get bioregionalism. I’d like to explore that side of bioregionalism and demonstrate its importance. Without it, Cascadia is nothing more than an arbitrary fad built upon a foundation of subjective criteria.

The Origins of Nationhood

To understand this adequately, we need to recognize the underlying assumptions people make regarding the cause of shared values and shared ways of life on a societal level. It is commonplace in human communities around the world to link patterns of outward action in society (shared ways of life) and patterns of cultural ideals (shared values) with patterns in human characteristics, such as skin color, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. This is the underlying premise to the common understanding of nationhood.

To put this plainly, we often link something like a society’s common ethnic makeup directly with its common cultural traits, stereotypically or otherwise. The problem is when we make this connection, either consciously or subconsciously, we’re saying a society’s common cultural traits are due directly with auxiliary human characteristics, as if there’s something genetically inherent in a given ethnic or racial background which forces an individual of that background to behave a certain way. Likewise, we’re saying there’s an inherent connection in action and belief between an individual of a given background living in a country like the United States or Canada and individuals living in the ancestral homeland of that background.

I’d like to claim unequivocally that this commonplace understanding is factually incorrect and wrong. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know many people of many different human-centric backgrounds (ethnicity, race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, economic standing, political ideology, etc.) that fit in seamlessly with the common ways of life and common values of where I live and have lived previously. I’m fairly certain that observation holds true for many of you reading this. That’s not to say everyone thinks the same way or believes the same thing, but that we all find commonplace in our society’s shared cultural traits.

If the understanding of nationhood as I described previously were factually correct, then this reality of a coherent society made up of a diverse array of human characteristics would not be realistically possible. Under that premise, people of given backgrounds behave a certain way, each in a distinct manner, because their labels force them to. The chances for widespread cohesion and commonplace among a diverse group of persons is, consequently, highly improbable.

It is, therefore, I call “BS” on this common misconception. With it, Cascadia as an identity shared by many people of all different types of human-centric backgrounds—as it does in reality—doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, it has no sense of inherency and is completely subjective. This just isn’t the case.

Shared Identity Through Place

The Cascadian identity many of us already subscribe to comes from a sense of shared cultural values and shared ways of life, just as many other national identities do. Yet, these shared traits do not come from any human-centric characteristic or identifier. Where do they come from? The answer is our bioregion itself.

Bioregionalism, in its most basic sense, states that a society’s collective identity and overarching sense of values and character—its ethos—is directly influenced and shaped, at least in part, by the environment that society inhabits. When Peter Berg helped define the term in the 1970’s, he wrote of an inherent “terrain of consciousness” present in any bioregion. He was referring to this phenomenon of the ecological and environmental characteristics of a place influencing the practices and beliefs of human communities.

In other words, our Pacific Northwest values and ways of life shared by most throughout our bioregion regardless of human-centric characteristics (intrinsic and non-intrinsic alike) exist because they’ve been forged through generations of living in this place. They thrive and are right for an environment of mountainous terrain, temperate climate, evergreen forests, gray skies, and the seemingly ever-present precipitation during certain parts of the year. Hence, the Cascadian identity comes from our shared bioregion at its most foundational point.

This is why Cascadia as a shared identity is inherent to the region itself. This region has experienced a couple centuries of relative rapid change in outward demographics and cultural identifiers—specific cultural traits commonly identified as being of the Pacific Northwest—through the course of human events to their present conditions. Despite this, Cascadia’s ethos of (among other things) innovation, unbound curiosity, communal strength, non-conformism, and reverence towards nature has held true for thousands of years. It’s done so because its bioregional makeup has maintained through all this time.


Our shared identity and sense of unity comes from our shared natural resources, rivers, and climate. Our bioregion of Cascadia, sculpted from countless centuries of ecological evolution and geological change, designed and outlined by the force of nature itself, is one whole coherent foundation for human communities to build themselves off of. We may share similar traits and values with others on this continent within our two countries which exist in the present, and we most certainly are not opposite of or unfamiliar with such traits and values. But, if bioregionalism as I have described it is true, as I believe it to be, there exists a fundamental disconnect, or a point(s) of differentiation, between the ethos (plural) of our societies on this continent defined by our bioregions.

This is why the Cascadian identity exists and why it has the potential to thrive throughout the entire region. If you identify as Cascadian, this is why you feel connected with other parts of region even if you haven’t physically been before. This is why you should care about bioregionalism even if environmental issues aren’t your thing. Cascadia as an idea only exists because its unique bioregion exists—the two are inherently intertwined and cannot be separated from one another. And so long as our bioregional makeup is sustained, so will its corresponding ethos which drives the actions and interconnectivity of human communities inhabiting it.

Interested in learning more about Cascadia? You can buy your copy of Towards Cascadia today: