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Bioregionalism : A New Concept That Overtakes Environmentalism

September 03, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Radical environmental politics has a certain cachet in the city. If you work in a skyscraper, far removed from the earth, what could be cooler than to flaunt the Earth First! monkey wrench decal on your word processor, or to discuss over lunch the Gaia theory--which maintains the planet is a living organism.

So for those who are looking to pump up their portfolios with The Next Big Thing in Green politics, it's here: bioregionalism, the movement that preaches " 'tis nobler to stay home than to land a better job in another city."

The movement isn't well known in Los Angeles yet, according to Peter Berg, who operates a bioregional clearinghouse in San Francisco. But bioregionalists are flourishing in the northernmost reaches of California, the high plains of Wyoming, the Missouri Ozarks, Arizona's Sonoran desert and other areas where pavement hasn't erased the landscape.

Kirkpatrick Sale, a leading bioregional theorist, describes a bioregion (it means life region ) as an area "governed by nature, not legislature." By getting to know their immediate bioregions, Sale said, bioregionalists come to understand environmental problems on a personal scale.

He asserts that people who stay close to home ultimately protect the environment because it behooves them to do so.

There are more than 100 bioregional groups and publications around the country, according to Berg. Several bioregional thinkers continue to churn out thousands of words defining bioregionalism and bioregionalists. (One possible criteria for the latter: Can you give directions to your home without using human-made landmarks?)

The philosophy has even matured enough to have spawned detractors. "A bioregionalist is someone who travels around the world telling people to stay home," is one bit of criticism in circulation.

Twentynine Palms bioregionalist Jane Grunt interprets bioregionalism as "being in love with your space."

Grunt, who has lived in the California desert since she was a child, calls herself a bioregionalist because she has no desire to be anyplace else but home. (Her husband, Ron, however, confesses to missing the sea on occasion.)

People's loss of identification with a specific place concerns bio-regionalists, Berg said. "We're a move-on civilization."

To Berg's way of thinking, moving on usually means neglect for the place that is left behind. Berg explained that people like Grunt, who sink roots, are likely to have the attitude: "I intend to remain here and I don't want someone to destroy the place for some silly, shortsighted gain."

So if most of the population adopts bioregionalism--as some people predict it will--the environmental crisis will be solved, and a movement with what Sale admits is a clumsy name will have saved the planet.

Saving the Earth may sound like old-fashioned environmentalism to some, but Berg said bioregionalism encompasses far more than environmentalism. In fact, the new movement is discomfiting to old-school environmentalists who think their role is to keep people from throwing litter on the sidewalk, he said.

Sale, who lives for part of the year in New York City, agrees: "What we're talking about here is not environmentalists tinkering with this or that to save a species; we're talking about a fundamental reorganization of American society so that the values of nature become paramount. For bioregionalism to be established, the political and economic institutions of the country would have to be entirely altered."

Concept Takes Hold

The first bioregional theorists began speaking out about 1977. The concept has since taken hold mostly in rural and semi-rural areas; but bioregionalists believe there's room for the concept in the city too.

In San Francisco, Berg has been busy tearing out the sidewalk outside his office and sowing plants, "so the seeds can blow down the street and crack open all the sidewalks with native plants."

He's trying, where possible, to restore the habitat that once existed where his office is today. For instance, under his building is an old creek bed that comes to life in the rainy season, filling the basement with water. Instead of stopping the leak, Berg is considering opening up the basement floor so the creek can reclaim its rightful bed.

So popular is bioregionalism in Northern California that Berg predicts that some Northern California sectors will eventually "go bioregional," dividing the area and electing officials according to bioregions, not counties.

In Berg's vision, someday departments of bioregions will replace state governments. Existing borders will be disregarded because they interfere with natural bioregions. The Great Lakes Bioregional Conference already ignores the U.S.-Canada border, Berg said.

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