Environment News Service (ENS)

Natural Competitive Advantage of Bioregions


Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

PORTLAND, Oregon, October 1, 2007 (ENS) - In the decades ahead, in the face of global warming, increasing energy prices, and a growing global disparity between rich and poor, bioregions have a natural competitive advantage.

Everything is changing in the face of global warming. The industrial economy is an artifact of cheap oil. There will be a transition from an industrial to an ecological economy. It will either be very chaotic and destructive to human systems, especially the poorest of the poor, or it might be a social evolution to a healthier, more equitable and more reliably prosperous knowledge-based economy.

It is clear that in the years and decades ahead, those communities with a reliable water supply and with access to local, cheap building materials; those that encourage dense development within urban growth boundaries surrounded by open space, healthy forests and productive farms; those that develop diverse, locally distributed sources of energy: those communities are the ones that will flourish.

Why do the wiggly lines of bioregions have competitive advantages over nation-states organized by the straight lines of industry and politics?

  1. Bioregions are governed by nature. Nature is more powerful and long lasting than politics.
  2. Nature does a lot of useful things for free, like maintaining life support systems of air, water, soil, and climate. Replacing nature with technology, on the other hand, can be expensive, time consuming and often self-defeating.
  3. Bioregions are a good scale at which to work. Cities, counties, even most states and watersheds are too small and the world is too big.
  4. The world already is self-organized by bioregions; we don't have to reorganize states and nations and counties around them. We just need to recognize bioregions, working with instead of against them, focusing in each bioregion on its very particular set of environmental and geographic characteristics. Then we must preserve, restore and maintain those qualities while building businesses and organizations based on those distinctive features.
The key is to find ways to release the energy of people in place. The only truly unlimited and untapped resource left in a world of increasing scarcity is the infinite creativity of the human imagination. Imagination, with even the slightest nod of encouragement and a little money, enables the even the least advantaged among us to improve their lives in the places they live.

That imagination is the catalytic, the metabolic process that will underlie a new economy of place. It is already underway in the largest social movement of history, the 'movement with no name' that Paul Hawken writes about in his new book 'Blessed Unrest.'

One more thing we need is a new mythology, or a deeper understanding of old mythologies, to drive things this way. Joseph Campbell's 'The Power of Myth' is timeless. David James Duncan, in his wonderful new book 'God Laughs & Plays,' encourages us to develop a new cosmology. Societies do what societies think. Today, we are an orange society - fragmented into separate pieces. We need to become an apple society again, an integrated whole.

Michael Pollan, the author of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma,' talks about the extraordinary power of the slow food movement. Why not a local fisheries movement? Local forest, community banking, green building and local energy movements? Imagine the power when all these movements begin to connect! Networks of networks of local initiative, jujitsuing the power of the underlying forces of globalization to the advantage of the local, the true democratization of money, technology and information; this is the core of a development model for reliable prosperity.

What are the distinctive environmental conditions in my home, the greater Pacific Northwest? What are the natural flows of energy and most powerful networks of relationships that connect us? This is the place where wild Pacific salmon live. That means this bioregion, if we follow the fish, is the whole north Pacific. It includes parts of China, the Russian far east, Japan, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California: the Pacific north of roughly a 14 degree isotherm to the Arctic.

This is what Terry Glavin called the 'last great sea,' a sea of incredible abundance. This is a place defined by abundant water, by coastlines, estuaries, mountains and forests, by streams, rivers and lakes, by grasslands and high desert, - a rich biodiversity with a 10-15,000 year history of supporting relatively dense populations of hunter gatherers with extraordinary art, culture and mythologies of place. On its eastern shores are found the largest temperate rain forests of the world, from the redwoods of California to the hemlock, spruce, cedar and fir of Southeast Alaska.

We could invent a lot of different, iconic names for this bioregion. But in the words of biologist and author Jim Lichatowich, places are defined as much by events as by geography. The event that has defined this place, for thousands of years, was the return of the salmon: millions and millions of salmon. People and salmon co-evolved here in the streams that followed the last glacial retreat, together with the forests and grasslands that developed in the glacial till.

Salmon connect us. When salmon decline it tells us that our farming, fishing, forestry, road building, transportation, energy systems and cities are eroding ecosystems into rivers and the sea. When 15-30,000 bright big beautiful healthy Fall Chinook salmon die within days of entering the Klamath River, as they did three years ago, we know our governance, our economy, and our politics are failing. Politicians may deny it, but salmon don't lie.

So, why not, for mythology's sake, call this greater North Pacific bioregion Salmon Nation? Why not imagine who will write its declaration of interdependence and organize its constitutional assembly? Where is its flag, its passport? Who are its leaders? What is expected of its citizens? By what rules should we play? What goods and services does it produce better than the next best place and for whom? What institutions and institutional arrangements help its citizens to prosper reliably? What will be its stories, its myths? To what spirits do we pray? What do the people who prospered here for such a long time tell us about how to live well and honorably in this place?

Salmon Nation. It's just an idea

This bioregion has a culture of extraordinary entrepreneurial creativity; think Silicon Valley in California, Silicon Forest in Redmond, Washington. Think Intel, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, Electronic Arts, Ebay and Google; they all spawn in salmon watersheds. A networked, knowledge economy is much more like an ecosystem than the command and control, straight lines of the industrial model.

Salmon Nation even has some oil and gas, but we could slow its development. Remember what the Russian Governor of Kamchatka said in the 'New York Times' last year; oil comes and goes, but the salmon, if you take care of them will just keep coming. There are few places in the world with more water falling further downhill, with more productive farmlands and forests, with the quality of life of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC, nor more strategic geographic relations and potential trade partners with existing and emerging economies of Japan, China, Russia, Canada and the U.S.

I am often reminded of what Dave Foreman, the Founder of Earth First, said to a college student who asked what the single most important thing she could do for the environment; 'STAY HOME!' said Foreman. That is what native people do. What is home then? What are its critical characteristics? What are the concentric circles of social, environmental and economic relationships that sustain us, and how do we leave home a little better than we found it?

At the launch of a big international conservation strategy conference many years ago in Australia, an aboriginal woman said, 'if you have come here to save me, you can go home now. But if you see my struggle as part of your own survival, maybe, maybe, we can work together.' This is the critical issue in the years ahead.

My struggle is to put flesh on the bones of a bioregional narrative, to a story we call Salmon Nation. We need help to figure out how to better support and be supported by those people, organizations, businesses and governments, especially First Nations, who see their self-interest as part of a larger bioregional movement to improve social, environmental and economic conditions at home.

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