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Dwellers in the Land : THE BIOREGIONAL VISION by Kirkpatrick Sale (Sierra Club: $14.95; 228 pp.)

October 20, 1985|Robert W. Glasgow | A veteran journalist, Glasgow has a special interest in environmental literature. and

This book is an audacious proposal to transform radically the way mankind uses and lives on the Earth. To call it radical is an understatement, since parts of the proposal are all over the ideological spectrum. To implement the author's proposal would require, among many other things, redrawing international boundaries, dissolution of traditional sovereignties, eliminating most political and economic institutions--and a dependence upon universal human qualities only rarely demonstrated by history.

Author Kirkpatrick Sale is a familiar figure to many conservationists as an articulate writer and zealous polemicist active in various environmental frays of the last decade. His proposal here would come under the broad rubric of the Green political movement that thus far has flourished principally in Europe. But environmentalists are hardly a homogenous programmatic group, and this book is as likely to provoke argument among them as among political traditionalists. Clearly, that is one of Sale's purposes.

Sale's proposal for saving the Earth from what he presently regards as an inevitable fate of chaos is designated the "bioregional" vision. Because of the encompassing proportions of this vision, it is difficult to summarize it without making it sound bizarre--which I don't think it is. To make summary intelligible, it might be best to start with Sale's beginning.

Sale asserts that the grave threat to the environment began about 400 years ago, with the origination of science and the prompt development of a "world scientific view." This view regarded the natural world as some lifeless abstract to be controlled and used for solely human ends, with humans acting in Descartes' phrase as "masters and possessors of nature."

This solipsist perspective replaced a world view hitherto shared by the early Greeks and many preliterate cultures in which the Earth was a central deity and mankind sought to live in propitiative harmony with sacred nature. (The bioregional vision, as I interpret it, would re-sacralize the Earth or Mother Nature.)

Sale argues that the new scientific world view provided the intellectual substructure and the practical mechanism for the rise of the nation-state, for the European choice of mercantilism and industrial capitalism and the enterprise of global colonialism and exploitation. One contemporary consequence of such a world view has been critical depletion of natural resources worldwide and terrifying political instability--all to the point where the world is headed for near-apocalyptic chaos.

Now, while some environmental extremists believe this destructive process has already reached a point of no return, Sale is not among them. Professing to be an optimist, he sees the way out as worldwide adoption of the bioregional vision.

Even among traditional environmentalists, bioregionalism is hardly a household word and presently is embraced by a splinter group to which Sale belongs. And as he presents bioregionalism, it appears to be an eclectic amalgam of numerous ecological perspectives, steady-state economic theories and communitarian utopianism.

Bioregionalism starts with the premise that the face of the Earth is organized not into artificial man-made states but by natural regions of tremendously varying sizes. Determined by natural characteristics rather than human dictates, bioregions are distinguished by particular attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soils, landforms and human settlements and cultures that these natural attributes have given rise to.

It is within these natural regions and their smaller units--such as, say, the Ozark Plateau and within it the White River watershed--that the general social community would be organized, rather than within the man-made boundaries that have evolved through political mandate and military conquest. Within these natural regions people, employing scientific technology that is environmentally efficient and by treating the environment with reverent respect and use, could live efficiently and be self-sufficient. Of course, the standard of living would be different. The economic emphasis would be shifted from growth and consumerism to sustaining economic stability.

Since modern governments, whether capitalist or socialist, have been remarkably insensitive to ecological problems, the bioregion would require a new kind of policy. The bioregional policy would seek diffusion of power and decentralization of institutions, with all authority flowing upward incrementally from the smallest political unit to the largest. Basic political and economic decisions would be made at village or small-town levels. (Cities are not a part of the bioregional vision and presumably would wither away as a result of their inefficient use of natural resources.)

The forgoing description is the barest of bones of the bioregional vision. And while Sale acknowledges the insuperable task of implementing such a vision, he professes to believe that it can be done. To support his optimism, he cites various trends toward regionalism and decentralization. As for human acceptance of such mind-boggling changes, he relies on behavioral analysis of contemporary and preliterate cultures to suggest it is not impossible.

With bioregionalism presently such an obscure and complex proposal, Sale and his adherents hardly constitute a movement. But the aim of this book clearly is to provoke public dialogue, and that is how political movements most often begin.

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