Living bioregionally, now

Christine Dann

Given the climate and other environmental stresses being experienced by ecosystems all over the world, a major rethink is taking place regarding alternative forms of governance, more adept at both preventing and mitigating these crises. One compelling idea being put forward is that of bioregional forms of governance, which start from the biophysical realities of ecosystems, which are particular and even unique to places. Such places may be as large as the Himalayan mountain chain (currently occupied and/or contested by several nation-states, including the mega-states of India and China), or as small as an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean such as Easter Island. Ashish Kothari, Juan Manuel Crespo and Shrishtee Bajpai discussed the idea in an article for Open Democracy * earlier this year, stating that “Bioregionalism is based on the understanding that the geographic, climatic, hydrological and ecological attributes of nature support all life, and their flows need to be respected.”

The view from Christine’s study window – a typical Canterbury hill farming landscape with exotic pasture grasses, trees and livestock

Bioregionalism includes all biophysical forms, and the human cultures that evolve out of specific localities. Extremely specific localities, right down (or up) to the local microbes used for fermenting and preserving unique foodstuffs, as described by Dan Saladino in his 2021 book Eating to Extinction. This includes rare and endangered beverages and cheeses made with these microbes. These can only be sampled by visiting their places of origin, where heroic efforts are being made to continue traditions of creating food from the locality. Such foodstuffs and the traditions of producing them have been in existence for thousands of years, but in the past century they have been driven almost to extinction by the globalization of the current industrial, fossil-fuel dependent food production and consumption system.  Also, as Saladino notes in the case of Georgian wine, Syrian pastries, Venezuelan cacao and Sicilian vanilla oranges, by wars, criminal activities and other forms of violence between and within nation-states.

Eating to Extinction is an (inadvertent) account of the poor health of most of the world’s bioregions, where for the longest part of humanity’s existence bio-diverse diets, involving raw, cooked and naturally processed foods, provided the optimum nutrition possible from an area, which could be traversed on foot in less than a day. This ability to connect sustenance and ecology was essential to the evolution of the species Homo sapiens, which developed physically and mentally beyond other hominids precisely as a result of creating such sophisticated place-based food cultures. 

Such cultures were in existence in the Americas when the European colonists began arriving in the sixteenth century, and in Australia they were flourishing before the British invasion and imposition of colonial rule in the eighteenth century. Good records exist of how these systems worked, and the forms of governance associated with them. None of them have survived intact, but how they worked is still retained in the languages, rituals and oral traditions of the descendants of the original peoples, and in written accounts by the descendants and others. Some of these descendants are attempting to revive the old ways of living from a landscape while caring for it at the same time.

(A great source of information about this in the Americas is the e-magazine the Esperanza Project.) Such efforts have to struggle against the ill health of the bioregion, which was and is the traditional homeland, and the ways in which this is connected to the ill health of the people who have survived there, against all the odds.

Three wild foods from Christine’s bio-region:

Cordial made from elderflowers. (Elderberries from the same tree can be used to make a good winter tonic, and also wine)
Blackberries gathered from the roadside
Wild greens (this plant is puha aka sow-thistle) can be used to make nutritious smoothies, or added to cooked dishes

Can there be good local governance in an industrial capitalist world?

A further obstacle to restoring bio-regions as the basic unit of governance is the fact that there is no guarantee that the descendants of peoples who used to live this way until relatively recently will be any more likely to understand why it is preferable to current arrangements, or advocate for it, or wish to return to it, than their fellow citizens of the nation-state. Moreover, how could it even work while nation-states and their laws are still in existence?

This is a question which bothers Tyson Yunkaporta when it comes to re-instating Aboriginal governance forms in Australia. On pp 243-244  of Sand Talk (2019) he yarns with the leaders of the Murrawarri Republic (which spans a bio-region on either side of the borders of Queensland and New South Wales) about what they had in mind when in 2013 they declared the Murrawarri traditional lands to be an independent state.  He questioned them about their proposal to mine rare earths to make solar energy panels, asking where they planned to store the associated radioactive waste. He also asked whether “accepting loans to build infrastructure for these mining projects [means] losing our sovereignty all over again like so many decolonized nations around the world.” They let him know that it was not his place to ask such questions, and he was not invited back. But he still remains troubled “by the potential risk of creating Indigenous civilizations, Anglo economic systems administered by men with black faces but still following the same unsustainable global blueprint of destruction”.

It is important to protect the good soils in every bio-region, and not cover them with suburban sprawl. This example is from Lincoln, Canterbury, NZ, which only twenty years ago was growing good fruit and vegetables just 25 km (15 miles) from the city of Christchurch

I already knew it was not my place to question the leadership of the Murihiku hapu (sub-tribe) of the Ngai Tahu iwi (tribe) about their August 2021 collaboration agreement with the Australian iron ore exporter Fortescue Metals. The parties agreed to assess the potential of developing a ‘green hydrogen’ project fueled by hydropower produced in Southland, or Murihiku, the traditional lands of the hapu.  The collaboration is subject to an initial assessment process and an investment decision by Fortescue and the New Zealand authorities, but in announcing the deal the partners claimed that production could start as early as 2025.

My questions would be seen as inconvenient at best and disrespectful at worst, but that does not make them any less valid. In addition to questioning the business case for hydrogen production as the best use of the hydro-electricity currently powering the Southland aluminum smelter when it ceases to use it in 2024 (if it does – there are now doubts about this), like Yunkaporta I would be asking whether facilitating global business in resource extraction is really just another way to lose mana whenua (sovereignty, power from the land, authority over land or territory) all over again.

The power of water

It is (relatively) easy to generate hydro-electricity in most of the bioregions of the South Island, due to the abundance of water in the rivers which run from the high mountains to the coast, dropping hundreds of meters as they do so. But it does require building huge dams which block the run of the river, which has significant ecological impacts, as does the creation of big artificial lakes behind the dams. Raising or lowering existing lakes is another option – also with huge ecological impact. The power used by the smelter was originally intended to come from raising a natural lake, destroying its beauty and its ecological functions in the process. The public antipathy to this plan, led by the Save Manapouri Campaign, was a factor in changing the government in 1972. A re-design of the power scheme followed. This saved the lake while creating the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand (850 MW), at the enormous cost of boring giant tunnels ten kilometers through the Southern Alps to take water from the lake to the power station turbines on the coast in Doubtful Sound. From there the generated electricity has to travel hundreds of kilometers across mountains, hills and plains to the smelter at Bluff – think huge metal pylons and thousands of kilometres of heavy wires. (For what this looks like – and the damage it does – in another country which generates most of its electricity from its geological attributes, check out the 2018 Icelandic film Woman at War, where the heroine is in no doubt about the damage that so-called ‘green’ power is doing to the Earth – especially when it ends up in an aluminum smelter.)

Prior to British colonization, Port Levy harbor supplied plenty of fish and shellfish. Now most of the shellfish beds have been covered in silt which runs off the hill farms in rain storms, and also they are also polluted with chemical and other water-borne wastes

Hydroelectric power does not emit greenhouse gases, but the creation of the infrastructure to supply it sure does, and the impacts of the diversion of the water from its natural flow and its uses by non-human species are never fully accounted for. So can power produced from it ever truly be called ‘green’? Or could a data centre powered by it? This seems the most likely commercial use for New Zealand’s ‘surplus’ hydro-electricity, with local companies creating server start-ups and Microsoft and Amazon seeking to greenwash their humongous use of energy through New Zealand.

But why go to the trouble and expense of turning the seeming abundance of lovely fresh water into electricity when the Kiwis will let you have it for free, put it into plastic bottles, and ship it off-shore to sell?  Two Chinese-owned water-bottling companies are currently doing this. There may well be attacks on the forces of life in other parts of the world which are as bad or worse than this, but for Aotearoa (Maori for New Zealand) and me, it epitomizes the insane non-sustainability of the global trading system, where the literal liquid of life is treated as a cheap commodity like any other.

Appalled by this, and wanting to do whatever I can to prevent it happening, in the past year I have donated NZ$1000 towards the court costs of Aotearoa Water Action, a grassroots organization which is challenging the consent given to a water bottling company taking fresh water from wells on the northern edge of the city of Christchurch. I have also given NZ$800 to Sustainable Otakiri, which is challenging the consent given for another company to extend its operations in the Bay of Plenty in the North Island. In both cases the High Court found on behalf of the global water exporters, and the local water protectors faced the additional costs of taking the cases to the Court of Appeal. Eventually, however, the Court of Appeal found in favor of AWA, and the consenting organization, Environment Canterbury is now having to change its water consenting policies.

These donations come from my already modest retirement savings. They represent all I can currently do to try and protect the waters of life in my land. Life for humans, but also for everything else, which lives here, and needs to access clean water directly, not to pay for it in plastic bottles. It is dispiriting, to say the least, to live under the rule of colonial law, which puts commerce before life itself. It is also very depressing when those who come from a tradition of kaitiakitanga (guardianship or stewardship of the land) join the other team, and put big-money business opportunities before looking after place.

The once busy and now neglected railway lines going into central Christchurch (which used to carry fresh produce from the bio-region overnight, for sale in greengrocers’ shops the next morning) seem to be mocked by the billboard announcing ‘KFC now delivers’

Living as though the bioregion matters

So I am not hopeful that any attempt to establish bioregional forms of governance in my part of the world will be successful any time soon. This may be because settler colonies are the worst places in the world to try and do this. Places where indigenous and peasant traditions are still strong may well have a better chance of success, but even there they will keep coming up against the fact that – no matter what nation-state they are in – it runs by the same rules. Profit for the few before care of all people and their places and the other beings who live there.

On the plus side – and it is a small consolation but a real one nevertheless – I reside in a country where I can live by my values of looking after my place and the human and non-human beings in it. I am also free to make common cause with anyone who shares those values, and is working towards realizing them, in whatever ways are possible within the constraints of the laws and governance of the nation-state.

This ‘walking our talk’ way of living, which could perhaps be called ‘living bioregionally now’, is one being adopted in most parts of the world in different forms. These forms are patterned – as far as is possible and desirable – on the sustainable ways of living which used to exist in that region prior to colonization and industrialization. Unfortunately, due to rising temperatures and associated extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity due to the impacts of urbanization and industrial agriculture, it’s not as easy to make a sustainable living as it once was. But for those who are aware that these challenges make it even more urgent that humans must return to living within bioregional limits, it is a further impetus to their choice to live today as others will have to live tomorrow – if they are to live at all.

The flags and mural at a logistics building near Christchurch airport may be seen to symbolize the global trade policies and practices which rob bio-regions to enrich corporations

 How will it be possible to do this? Joe Brewer’s July 2020 article, The Survivors Will Be Bioregional, introduces some of the concepts in his book, The Design Pathway for Regenerating Earth. This includes examples of communities working to regenerate their place in a bioregion now. As Brewer notes in his article, every previous civilization which exceeded ecological limits collapsed and went away, and the current global one will be no exception. It just leaves a much bigger mess for the survivors to contend with. It’s also not much fun for the majority of humans alive today – unless you consider global pandemics, resource wars, toxic air pollution, malnutrition, obesity, rising temperatures, extreme weather events, mass extinctions, and surveillance capitalism to be ‘fun’, and a sign of how much ‘progress’ humans have made in the past century.

As I write, food and energy prices are rising around the world, causing even more pain to those who were falsely told that supermarkets and cars to drive to them in were an advance on local specialty stores (greengrocer, grocer, butcher, baker, fishmonger, deli) you could walk to, or food markets. Already it is starting to make economic as well as social sense to produce more food and other essentials locally, and exchange them outside existing industrial consumption systems. In other words, to live bioregionally now!

* Nation-states are destroying the world. Could ‘bio-regions’ be the answer?

Christine Dann is a writer from Aotearoa, New Zealand who has been active in and writing for and about social and environmental movements since the 1970s. She is on the core team of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives. (https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org).

Pictures – Christine Dann

The lead picture has been taken from an open source on the internet.

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