Shifting Power from Federal Government to Bioregions

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Image Courtesy of Hey Paul Studios. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Charlene Spretnak argues that a shift of power is essential for our nation's continued success.

Three of the core principles of the Green Party in West Germany–ecological wisdom, grass-roots democracy, and non violence–were expressly borrowed from the citizens’ movements in the United States. In fact, the Greens’ symbol, the sunflower, is not native to Europe but to North America. Since Green politics was grown from partially American seeds, the possibility of cultivating it on this side of the “pond” is intriguing.

An American movement would begin with many advantages the European Greens did not have. Scores of holistic and visionary thinkers in the United States have been brainstorming in print for the past decade, each contributing to the evolution of a coherent view that could guide an ecologically wise society free of exploitation and war, one with a sustainable economy and decentralized institutions of appropriate scale. In addition to ample quantities of theory, American activists have had years of experience with various sorts of holistic politics. The ecology and peace movements have discovered their common ground; feminists have held ecological conferences and peace actions. The bioregional movement has spawned dozens of organizations exploring the natural carrying capacity of various areas of the country in order to develop an economy in balance with local ecosystems. Some of those groups are also developing the concept of “political ecology,” insisting that our society’s laws must operate as an extension of ecological laws.

Countless networks working for comprehensive, nonviolent social change have emerged. Such positive steps, however, fall far short of creating an effective political force.

If Green politics were to take root in this country, it would require not only a coherent world view, but a political analysis (for example, an analysis of the power relationships among corporations, the military, the government, the unions, and the professions), from which would emerge specific programs and strategies. This would have to be convincingly articulated in public and the response mobilized.

Although the power of Green politics lies at the grass-roots level, a national organization would also be necessary to encourage and sustain the people involved, as well as to benefit from the media attention. There would be vital questions to resolve–for example, should the organization be a national political movement, a caucus operating within both the Democratic and Republican parties, or a party?

For reasons Fritjof Capra and I discuss in our book, we believe that the soundest starting point is a well-organized grass-roots national movement that develops a coherent view and comprehensive programs to present to lawmakers at all levels and to the public. It should respect local and regional autonomy and should have only as much national coordination as is necessary to make it a potent element in American politics.

I have designed a possible five-strata organization for a Green movement: local, bioregional, state, macro-regional and national. Three are familiar, but the concept of regionalism has been quietly emerging–from its long but dormant role in American history–as a major focus in an “eco-decentralist” politics, which seeks to recover political autonomy from mega-scale institutions to the bioregional level. Bioregionalism has a deeper meaning than mere localism; it is more akin to the Native American sense of abiding respect for the natural forces and surrounding life forms, the survival of which we now understand to be essential to our own. Peter Berg, director of the Planet Drum Foundation, defines a bioregion as both a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness, both a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. In Reinhabitating a Separate Country, he wrote:

A bioregion can be determined initially by use of climatology, physiography, animal and plant geography, natural history, and other descriptive natural sciences. The boundaries of a bioregion are best described by people who have lived within it, through human recognition of the realities of living in place. All life on the planet is interconnected in a few obvious ways and in many more that remain barely explored. But there is a distinct resonance among living things and the factors which influence them that occurs specifically within each separate place on the planet. Discovering and describing that resonance is a way to describe a bioregion.

To date, at least twelve bioregional congresses have been formed, such as those of the Great Lakes region, New York State and the Ocooch Mountains in southwestern Wisconsin. Scores of smaller groups are also active throughout North America: for example, in the Slocan Valley in British Columbia, the Rio Grande region, the Sonora Desert in Arizona, the Ohio River Basin, Cape Cod, the High Plains of Wyoming, the Kansas River watershed and the Hudson River Valley. The first continental gathering of bioregionalists, the North American Bioregional Congress, was held near Kansas City, Missouri, in May. It was coordinated by David Haenke, of the Ozark Area Community Congress, along with a council of Green-oriented activists.

Eco-decentralists offer bioregions as the answer to the question, Decentralize to what?

They want people to see where our water, our food, our energy and our products come from and to understand the natural carrying capacity of an area in order to develop an economy in balance with the ecosystems and to minimize dependence on imported food and fuel. (The carrying capacity of an area is the number of people that can be sustained there without destroying the native ecosystems.) Many bioregionalists, most notably those at the Center for Studies in Food Self-Sufficiency in Burlington, Vermont, and the late Peter van Dresser, whose book Development on a Human Scale is a pioneering work, have conducted research on economic self-sufficiency.

The concept of macroregionalism reached a broad audience through Joel Garreau’s book The Nine Nations of North America, and now Madison Avenue designs advertising campaigns stressing regional themes and speech patterns. However, bioregionalists dismiss Garreau’s divisions as being rooted in oldstyle mechanistic thinking and lacking a sense of the lessons that humans can draw from the underlying relatedness of living things. Using the bioregionalists’ concept of soft borders (the areas of interaction, or transitional zones, that separate bioregions), North America could be divided into macroregions such as the northeastern woodlands, the Appalachian highlands and the Piedmont, the southeastern coastal plain, the Florida and Louisiana coastal areas, the Great Lakes region, the prairies, the Ozark highlands, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain range, the Great Basin along the Mexican-American border and the northern Pacific area. These are merely suggestions; a Green movement would generate its own macroregional structure.

How bioregionalism could be applied to government is a favorite topic among its advocates. Some envision a quite radically decentralized future. Like the West German Greens, they consider the nation-state inherently dangerous, aggressive and ineffective. They maintain that the association of security with bigness, which is ingrained in the collective consciousness of our patriarchal cultures, must be discarded, since it has led to big exploitation, big wars and big suffering. A representative of that position is Kirkpatrick Sale, who has been researching bioregionalism for his next book, Centrifugal Force: The Bioregional Future. He believes that many of the crises we face are the result of ignoring bioregional realities. In the Fall 1983 newsletter of the E. F. Schumacher Society of America, Sale expressed a position that closely parallels the philosophy of the West German Greens:

We finally comprehended that if there is to be salvation for this world, it will come through the development of bioregions into fully empowered, politically autonomous, economically self-sufficient social units in which bioregional citizens understand, and control, the decisions that affect their lives.

At all five regional levels the Green movement could organize study groups to gather information, discuss ideas and formulate policies. Applying the holistic world view entails asking fundamental and interrelated questions currently absent from the political dialogue in America–in particular, questions of sustainability and long-term goals. We are recklessly living off future generations, abiding by irresponsible policies because to our Presidents the “future” means the next four or eight years; to our business community it means the next few financial quarters; to our labor unions, the next contract term; and to most people, the next decade or two. A Green perspective encourages finding our place in the ecosystems, realizing that our existence is predicated on the continuity of interdependent living species. If we bankrupt those systems through greed and stupidity, we destroy the life supports for ourselves and our descendants, thereby severing the chain of generations spanning millions of years.

With sustainability as the key to their proposals, a Green movement would have to reach agreement on key principles, such as the extremely complex matter of decentralization. Some Green-oriented thinkers in America are strict, almost absolutist decentralists. They maintain that the general lack of corruption in the Federal government would prevail at local levels if government there was made the focus of our system. Centralists, on the other hand, insist that impartial inspections and investigations, protection of civil rights, control of acid rain, equitable allocation of resources and countless other matters must be handled by a strong Federal government. It is likely that a Green movement would draw on both of those perspectives in adopting a holistic approach: appropriate governance. Green politics in this country would support a great deal of decentralizing in government, economic planning and energy production. At the same time it might” support accountable, responsive Federal power to safeguard the shared values of an ecological, nonexploitative society. For instance, the Federal government would determine air pollution standards beyond which serious diseases result but would leave each state to determine the means of compliance.

The decentralism of the Reagan Administration is a farce because it demands billions of dollars from taxpayers to feed a bloated defense budget and then sends a relatively small amount of tax dollars back to the states, leaving them unable to address their problems adequately. In addition, the Federal government has persistently increased its proportion of tax revenues from sources that overlap with those of cities and states: the gasoline tax is one example. Much tax money allocated for the poor goes instead to intermediary bureaucracies, causing many to wonder whether direct grants to poor families, administered at the state or local level, might not be more efficient. The tensions between the desire for local and regional autonomy and the reality of interdependence are but one conflict a Green movement would have to reconcile creatively. Mark Satin, editor of New Options, suggests that people are decentralists in their hearts but centralists in their heads. Like the West German Greens, who call for a global federation to address issues of ecological balance and peace, he feels, “We’ll always need a referee.”

The central image of Green politics is a vast web of autonomous but cooperating small-scale groups organized according to municipalities, watersheds and bioregions. Ecological politics already has a firm foundation in this country in the bioregional movement, but the range of Green politics extends beyond that.

In Green Politics: The Global Promise, Fritjof Capra and I identify 100 Green-oriented organizations in the United States that might play a central role in forming a Green movement. We also suggest Green responses to several key political issues, such as national security and the conversion of much of the arms industry. However, even if a broad spectrum of groups ready to form a beyond-left-and-right political force were to mobilize, a haunting question remains: Could an American Green movement really do any better than the West German Greens?

Although they have achieved inspiring successes, the Greens are currently struggling through several internal crises that arose largely because they have failed to incorporate their everyday political life. Without developing supportive structures and new modes of behaviour, even new-paradigm groups regress to competitive, distrustful, “power-over” patterns under the stress of political work. Since the new politics must be about the way people treat one another as well as the grand causes, frequent evaluations of political process are essential. What you get is how you do it.

The most important lesson from the West German Greens may be that we do not have to hide our deepest longings and highest ideals to be politically effective. The need for such effectiveness is starkly apparent during an election year as we once again watch the old-paradigm parties attack each other’s performance, appeal with slick media campaigns to our desires for a better society, and sell us hero figures with empty rhetoric and promises of short-term fixes. To create a sound framework based on holistic insights and ecological imperatives, we need a new dimension of politics altogether. •

Excerpted with permission from articles that appeared in New Age Journal (April 1984) and The Nation April 21, 1984).

Image: Map Embroidery by Hey Paul Studios, licensed underCreative Commons.

This article originally appeared in Utne Reader‘s Summer 1984 issue as a sidebar toGreening the Whole Earth: Germany and the Greens. For more similar, see The Surfacing of Postmodernity, Green Politics in the United States, andA Green America.

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