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Writing the Intellectual History of Bioregionalism

As bioregionalist ideas spread in France, their history remains partly unwritten. This environmental movement, which originated in the United States, is characterized by a diversity of approaches that are perhaps mutually incompatible.

Among the ecological utopias that emerged in the 1970s, bioregionalism long remained exclusively North American. After two decades of widespread international dissemination, the concept is only just beginning to make its mark in France. The promotion of bioregionalism, which is at the heart of a dynamic publishing movement notably spearheaded by Wildproject, remains first and foremost a militant approach, based on a partial account of the movement’s history. [1] In order to give a more accurate account of the founding principles and theoretical ramifications of bioregionalism, it is possible to create a genuine intellectual history based on the history of ecological ideas and the conceptual contributions of environmental humanities.

The American sources of bioregionalism

Forged in the United States, the notion of "bioregion" seems to benefit from a definition close to that of the "natural region" that interested geographers at the beginning of the 20th century. Both correspond to a portion of the earth’s space essentially shaped by natural processes - hydrological, climatic, geomorphological or biogeographical. This proximity is hardly surprising, since Peter Berg, the leading figure in bioregionalism, coined the concept of "bioregion" with biogeographer Raymond Dasmann, a specialist in "biotic provinces", relatively equivalent to natural regions. In 1977, the two authors proposed to "re-inhabit" bioregions, by redeveloping a lost "bioregional identity". This would correspond to the traditional ways of living of indigenous populations, which pre-existed the colonization of the American territory (Cronon 1983). The "rehabitation" of bioregions would thus consist of a "return to nature": a wild life outside the cities, in harmony with nature after having regained our place in its hierarchy (Sale 2020).

In their seminal 1977 article, however, Berg and Dasmann blur this strictly "natural" definition of bioregions by evoking the "cognitive context" of their identification, based on the human practices of those who inhabit it (Berg and Dasmann 2019). Causality, however, is a one-way street: the natural conditions of the bioregion "influence" human ways of inhabiting it, but not vice versa [2]. This deterministic conception of the relationship between nature and society is at the root of the floating epistemology of "bioregions" that has followed the concept since the 1970s (Frenkel 1994). This orientation is reflected in the successive refinement of bioregionalist principles, where a tension between "science" and "sensibility" persists (Alexander 1990). This tension is still apparent today in debates on how to delimit bioregions, on determining the right "human" scale of political organization, on the importance of landscape or on the fluidity of bioregional boundaries. Informally structured around these recurring discussions of environmental movements, bioregionalism brings together all the characteristics of a genuine green ideology (Semal 2017). This theoretical presentation of the movement should not, however, obscure the militant forms it has taken, right from its inception. Indeed, bioregional experiments accompanied its theorization, following the example of Cascadia, a territory straddling the United States and Canada, considered the "laboratory in vivo of bioregionalist thought" (Celnik 2015).

International circulation

In the early 2010s, the Italian architect and urban planner Alberto Magnaghi published several texts bringing together the main concepts of the "territorialist school" - of which he is the leader (Garçon and Navarro 2012) - in a renewed form of "bioregionalism". This differs from its American namesake: it’s no longer a question of "re-inhabiting" bioregions hidden beneath the arbitrary political boundaries of societies, but of "better inhabiting" all territories by taking greater account of their natural characteristics (Magnaghi 2014). The perspective is constructivist, based on the rejection of the ecologically determined evolution of human societies. While not a faithful heir to the American movement in Italy (Rollot 2018a), this "new" bioregionalism constitutes a significant reformulation of bioregionalist principles, which will have its own resonance in France.

For several years now, bioregionalism has been the subject of a consistent editorial and political dynamic in France. Despite the number, variety and depth of American writings, it’s the "new" Italian bioregionalism that is taking center stage. Several works by representatives of the territorialist school are published by Eterotopia. In 2018, a first Francophone "manifesto" attempts to redress this imbalance, spotlighting some of the movement’s American figures (Rollot 2018b). The book is followed by translations of seminal texts, from poetry to political theory. Bioregionalism is presented as "open" thinking that can integrate a multitude of ecological approaches, some of which pre-existed it (Schaffner et al. 2021). At first glance, the reverse order of arrival of the two bioregionalisms in France may seem surprising. However, one of the first French-language mentions of the American movement sheds light on the context of its reception: in 2001, an interview with Peter Berg was published in the magazine Éléments, the mainstream showcase of the "New Right". Work on the relationship between this far-right movement and ecology indicates that its main theorists have long been interested in deep ecology (François 2016). The latter could also shed some light on the conceptual background of the ecologist left’s distant relationship to bioregionalism.

Bioregionalism, political ecology and environmental humanities

According to many observers, American deep ecology is the true theoretical matrix of an under-theorized bioregionalism (Davidson 2007). Like environmental ethics, deep ecology is characterized by a distancing from anthropocentrism, rejecting human exceptionalism. These ecological currents thus represent the "non-anthropocentric" pole of the American debate on the nature of ecological thought. However, bioregionalism and deep ecology go even further, calling for an ontological revolution in our relationship with nature: on both an individual and collective scale, human beings should develop their spiritual bond with the places they inhabit. This proximity sheds light on Murray Bookchin’s late rejection of bioregionalism, [3] leading theorist of social ecology and fervent critic of the essentialist "misanthropy" of deep ecology. In the American context, Bookchin’s constructivist thinking thus represents the "anthropocentric" pole of green thinking, where the human remains the fundamental variable.

French political ecology is not at all structured around this debate on the "center" of ecology (Whiteside 2002). On the contrary, in a variety of ways, it focuses on the political tension between the material relationships between human societies and their natural environments, noting their permanent hybridization. For French-speaking ecologists, these relations are above all determined by a capitalist economic structure and a particular technical organization of society. Indeed, ecologist critique follows in the footsteps of the socialist movement, sometimes explicitly abandoning the idea of human disconnection from nature as the source of the environmental crisis. The theoretical corpus of French-speaking political ecology thus appears conceptually much closer to social ecology than to deep ecology. Identifying this specificity of French ecological thought is essential to explain certain initial hostile reactions to bioregionalism [4] and to understand the context of the low interest in it until the 2010s.

In addition to the first translations of Italian territorialist works, the real flowering of bioregionalism in France resulted from the collapsological dynamic. Collapse theories, notably popularized by Yves Cochet and then Pablo Servigne, provided the overall theoretical framework for the French-speaking promotion of bioregional proposals. [5] The two American and Italian branches of bioregionalism are thus mobilized - the former for its catastrophist dimension, the latter for its finer principles of territorial organization and planning - in an original forward-looking approach, based on the scenario of a collapse of thermo-industrial civilization. By disrupting the usual provision of services essential to human life, this would lead us towards a bioregional organization of the territory, essentially determined by our collective inability to overcome the "laws of nature" and their geography. This model of transition to bioregionalism appears "deterministic", as it establishes a "strict causality" between a society’s environment and its cultural forms (Raffestin 1971). The "bastard" French-speaking form of bioregionalism thus naively revives a century-old debate in the discipline of geography, in which there is no shortage of theoretical proposals.

The historical debate between determinism and possibilism in geography joins the more recent one structuring environmental humanities around the relationship between nature and society (Quenet 2017). This growing field thus offers powerful tools for clarifying bioregionalist proposals: the diversity of situated relationships to nature, the ambivalent role of the scientific body vis-à-vis the ecological crisis, the study of indigenous ways of inhabiting wild spaces, epistemological insights into the social construction of the "right" human and ecological scale of political organization (Brown and Purcell 2005). Because they complete the specific theoretical project of the French-speaking ecologist corpus, environmental humanities could contribute to clarifying certain bioregional intuitions by grounding them scientifically, so that they can take their place within contemporary theories of political ecology.


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Antoine Dubiau & translated by Oliver Waine, “Writing the Intellectual History of Bioregionalism”, Metropolitics, 22 December 2023. URL :

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