When I’m teaching on Permaculture Design Courses I tend to deliver the sessions on ‘Bioregionalism’ and ‘Futures Thinking’. In both I often make reference to Brian Eno’s essay The Big Here and Long Now.
The Long Now part leads neatly into talking about four-dimensional design and Donella Meadows’s ‘dancing with systems’ move: expand time-horizons.
The Big Here part, meanwhile, opens up questions about our sense of place. A key maxim of ecological activism has long been the words attributed to Patrick Geddes: think globally, act locally, or as Michael Stipe put it Your feet are going to be on the ground/Your head is there to move you around/So, stand in the place where you live*.
But what constitutes the local to us? What are our bios-regios, the places that give us life? If our global big-here extends to the Whole-Earth, how far do our local heres reach? Where do we stand for?
This is very much the realm of bioregional activism, or what my friend Ed Tyler calls bioregioning – the co-evolving acts of the discovery of- and the bringing into being of- our life-places. I am not of the opinion that the bioregions of the world might be found and demarcated on a map as part of a desk research exercise. Although related to them, bioregions are not the same type of beast as biomes and ecoregions. They are not abstractly definable but found and made by our action of reinhabitation.
So, what is the local? What is your locality? It’s a question that has gained new salience in the time of Covid. We have been told to stay home, local mutual-aid groups have arisen, infection statistics have been measured down to the ‘middle layer super output area’ (MSOA).
This week, the local itself has become contested after a journo shopped BoZo for going too far. The media dutifully played with the dead-cat of his cycle-ride around the Olympic Park, debating whether he followed the National Lockdown: Stay at Home guidance, which advises that exercise ‘should be done locally wherever possible’.
If you should exercise locally, what does locally mean? The Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, said that what constitutes the local is ‘both relative and commonsensical’ i.e. everyone shares an understanding of what it means AND there is no objective sense of what it means – it all depends on the perceptions and context of every individual. Policing minister Kit Malthouse also asserted that what is local is simultaneously common sense, broadly understood and ‘open to interpretation’. (As this Alice in Wonderland logic/ hypernormalization is the base code of contemporary politics it doesn’t warrant any further dissection here.)
The police-in-different-voices did better when they offered some heuristics.
Malthouse: the local means places you ‘can get [to] under your own steam’.
Dick: the boundaries of the local are drawn by where you can ‘go for your exercise from your front door and come back to your front door’.
Being in the realm of exercise here allows for a useful reflection on the role of active transportation in defining the local. I was reminded of Bart Anderson’s application of the permaculture zoning model when identifying the geographies of meeting his needs. Which of them could be met within walking distance (the pedosphere), or bicycling distance (the cyclosphere), which required a journey using public transport (the transitsphere), private car (the autosphere), or international shipping/air freight (the aerosphere?).
Part of our route to zero-carbon living and the processes of reinhabitating our landscapes will be meeting most of our needs closer to home. What would our local heres look like if we could meet those needs within our cyclospheres or pedospheres? What would they need to look like for us to thrive there? Visioning that begins to imagine a future worth living in, made in a way that might maintain a liveable planet. As Paul Chatterton has noted, rebuilding society after lockdowns offers us an excellent opportunity to weave ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’ into a beautiful fabric of sustainable habitation.
This will look different in different locations. If it’s to be fair then it will be inclusive, reflect the needs of those currently disabled by our urban fabrics, it will be about building back better for everyone – not gentrification and ghettos.
I’ve noted before that it might be the parish which forms the appropriate bioregional unit for this archipelago, that our derogatory use of the ‘parochial’ has been a disservice alike to our modern use of words like pagan, heathen, villain, or peasant. Common Ground were on to this, as was David Fleming – ‘Here are the parishes which are the decisive neighbourhood-containing community.’ Parishes are always walkable.
This seems a suitable point to reinforce that I see bioregional/local identity as existential not essential – bioregional/local communities are formed from the people that live there now – not from some mythological ur-people of the place. I’ve no track with blood-and-soil fascists – my bioregionalism is defiantly cosmopolitan.
*This has always seemed a bioregional song about local activism to me, but according to the band it’s a nonsense bubble-gum ditty in which Stipe says he used ‘the most inane lyrics that I could possibly write’ and which guitarist Peter Buck says is ‘the stupidest song we’ve ever written.’