Posted on March 21, 2021
As the effects of COVID-19 laid bare a few of the structural inadequacies of our current system, many people have started looking towards more resilient ways to arrange humanity. Localism and bioregionalism are two that I’ve encountered on an increasingly frequent basis. There are a growing number of online communities devoted to these different types of localism, and many of them are experiencing an influx of activity. I joined a new discord community named “Homesteaders and Localists” a couple of months ago, and it already has 450+ members. That number continues to grow every day.
In this article, I’ll be defining the two main flavors of localism, then discussing how they can be used in conjunction to build a better society. While different political ideologies are sometimes perceived to align differently with the various types of localism, I believe the (re)emergence of these movements provides us with a new chance to work together in a way that benefits both humanity and the Earth, regardless of belief structure.
The Two Main Types of Localism
Sometimes referred to as “trads” (on twitter), traditional localists emphasize small-scale governance, localized decision-making, and property ownership. They believe that this combination facilitates the implementation of the most efficient and effective solutions to the various societal problems that governance is designed to deal with. Rather than having a centralized government control all societal systems from afar, some traditional localists prefer that a smaller centralized government set minimums for performance in specific areas (such as schooling and healthcare), which gives local governments the ability to tailor the policies further in accordance with their local needs. Other “trads” would prefer that no centralized government exist at all, ceding full control to local governments. In either case, traditional localists believe that decisions are best made by those who they affect directly, including local government participants and empowered citizens.
Traditional localism isn’t all about governance – lifestyle plays a large part in the social foundation of localist communities. A good example of the aspirational localist lifestyle belongs to the Kentucky novelist, poet, and environmentalist Wendell Berry. According to this article I read, he lives without any modern technology except for a landline (with no answering machine, of course). Berry advocates for an unplugged life, rooted in nature. His views are exemplified by my three favorite quotes of his:
- “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.”
- “The origin of climate change is human laziness.”
- “Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”
A true poet. A true localist.
Bioregionalists have a more holistic take on the organization of humanity, complete with a systems-oriented spin. Bioregionalists recognize that humans live in unique ecological regions that are made up of soils, watersheds, flora, and fauna (among other things). Current consumerism has a tendency to externalize environmental and social costs, approaching bioregions with an extractionist mindset (ex: we can take things from this region, use them in our region, then send the waste to that region). Bioregionalists prefer a cyclical synergy – raw materials are sourced locally, manufacturing/creation is done locally, and waste is recycled locally.
Of course, this type of system isn’t easy to establish; it stands in the face of our existing global supply chain structure, which incentivizes sending raw materials around the world on container ships just to save money on manufacturing labor. Bioregionalism requires local governments and individuals to reevaluate how they consume and what they consume, and a complete restructuring of our economic and personal priorities. All things considered, bioregionalism requires a high level of cooperation and the dismantling of the profit motive (say hello to the tragedy of the commons).
Bioregionalism is not inherently technology-based. Native Americans, First Nations peoples, and many other native cultures have been living in natural harmony with their bioregions for generations. However, bioregionalism has the potential to be greatly benefitted by the use of modern technology. To determine what natural resources exist in an area and how the associated material flows can be monitored, used, and recycled within the bioregion, ubiquitous monitoring and data-sharing is essential. Bioregions can stretch for hundreds, even thousands of miles – a holistically cooperative bioregionalist effort would struggle to exist without precise materials tracking and digital communications.
The re-emergence of these movements provides us with a unique chance to foster a new culture of cross-ideological cooperation. Each type of localism appeals to a different demographic. No individual localist ideology can be dominant, just like no single political affiliation is going to appeal to everyone. Having a full understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each type of localism can help us foster a collective dialogue between the movements, which will only benefit us as they become more popular. Fostering a new social culture that downplays political divisiveness instead of promoting it is a crucial step towards a better future.
Can they work together?
As I alluded to above, a legitimate bioregionalist effort is difficult to start and maintain due to the collectivity required and the concept of the tragedy of the commons. If all the actors in one bioregion somehow actually decided to abandon the economic advantages of the global economy and establish a self-sustaining bioregional economy, at least some other actors in other bioregions would likely continue as normal. In the long run, the well-intended bioregion(s) could be economically overrun or literally purchased by the wealthier “others” who continue to profit at the expense of the planet.
Localism, on the other hand, occurs at a smaller scale than bioregionalism by definition. Thus, this traditional localism is vastly more achievable than converting an entire bioregion to your cause; all it takes is a handful of families in one specific area to bring a sustainable localist movement to life. However, traditional localism leaves some factors unaddressed that may hamper its complete widespread adoption – namely, the rejection of some modern technologies (some of which are vastly beneficial to the well-being of humanity) and isolationism. Bioregionalists take action to work within their far-reaching regions, while traditional localists intend to stick to their locale and not worry about state of their more distant relatives. Additionally, bioregionalist efforts can share data from region to region, detailing what worked for them and what didn’t.
Argument: technological bioregionalism is a worthy end goal that can be most easily achieved through the foundation of localist movements. Thus, intended bioregionalists should become localists first.
Premise 1: A requisite for bioregionalism is having deep knowledge of the region itself; you can’t expect to optimize material flows in an area without knowing the area, and there’s no way to implement monitoring systems to get the data necessary to create a technological bioregionalist system without becoming (or consulting with) a localist first.
Premise 2: Technological development will continue, whether we like it or not, as long as our current economic system exists. If the system collapses from some irreversible disaster, then this argument isn’t an issue – everyone will be a localist then, and a bioregionalist movement could build out of that (if there’s enough surviving momentum). This apocalyptic tangent aside, my end goal is technological bioregionalism over localism because, as current momentum indicates, advanced technology is here to stay. It will cause less friction to convert the “general population” to a somewhat technologically-symbiotic lifestyle in a bioregionalist system rather than a localist system where a reduction in modern technology is a social expectation. Because of this, it makes the most sense to build the “easier” localist communities to start creating momentum in a collective environmentalist direction, then, as soon as “sufficient” social momentum has been created and large-scale bioregional systems begin to be viable, leveraging the technologies created by the advancement of current society to create robust bioregional systems rooted in the now-present widespread localist experience.
As this argument stands, many localists may argue that this preservation of technology is unhealthy and unnecessary – after all, anxiety and suicide rates are skyrocketing (likely due to technological acceleration and social media usage), and an abolition, or great reduction, of technology would mend this. I would respond that a populational transition to bioregionalism through localist efforts would cause a cultural reevaluation of technology usage. Being more connected to the Earth would ground people in reality, which would induce positive social change.
Technology isn’t inherently bad, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves with the misgivings of technocrats who believe that it will solve literally every societal problem. Responsible technology usage is the key to a successful modern bioregionalist movement, and I believe that building this movement through traditional localism is both viable and reasonable.
The type of societal organization I describe is similar to cosmopolitan localism – a sort of mash between localism and bioregionalism, encouraging place-based living but with openness to the global flow of “ideas, information, people, things, and money”. I am proposing that the most effective method of getting to this system, or the similar technological bioregionalism, is through the founding of numerous localist movements. Cosmopolitan localism and bioregionalism are currently a “worthy vision” to reach towards, but attempts to create them without the small-scale rejection of the current system may end up the same way as the current ecological movement has – lots of talk and no system-wide modifications.
And system-wide modifications are what we need to return the course of nature to nature.