If you look around the world today, you will see degraded landscapes everywhere. The Earth is a checkerboard of industrial farming practices that have cut down forests, replaced them with monoculture crops, and are now sources for chemical toxins in the runoff of herbicides and pesticides.
All of this is done to feed huge, densely populated areas around the cities where most humans live. We have built up a planetary civilization around the commercial flows of material goods that link one urban market with another — a tapestry of consumption that selects for the gentrification of cities and the degradation of landscapes by treating the productive yields of landscapes as commodities for globalized supply chains.
Run this trajectory into the future and you see the ecological crisis play out in its full grandeur. Climate change due to burning of fossil fuels, land use practices, and advertising-augmented rampant consumption. Collapse of global biodiversity accelerates. Chemical pollutants build up in rivers and oceans. And eventually, there is a rapid decline in human population.
This situation presents a unique challenge to the study of living systems. How is it that a biological species — Homo Sapiens — has achieved apex domination of the planet by doing so much that threatens itself with possible extinction? Might we learn how to organize our societies at the landscape scale in ways that enable us to restore dynamic balance to our relationships with the ecosystems of which we are a part? Specifically, I have come to the realization over the years that our economies need to be grounded in the physical flows of material and energy at regional scales.
In a word, the future of humanity (if there is one) will need to be bioregional.
Much has been written about the topic of cultural evolution as it relates to sustainability in the last forty years. E.O. Wilson’s classic book Sociobiology laid out a clear framework for how to study the social behavior of animals. B.F. Skinner wrote a poignant essay in 1982 titled Why We Are Not Acting to Save the World that explains how difficult it will be to guide our own behaviors toward sustainability. I was especially impressed by Lonnie Aarson’s What Are We? The Evolutionary Roots of Our Future that makes a sobering case for how difficult human sustainability will be to achieve from an evolutionary perspective. Many others could also be named… simply look at the writings of Paul Shepard, David Abrams, Pascal Boyer, Fritjof Capra, Joanna Macy, and a hundred others.
I want to frame this problem in clear evolutionary terms:
Why is it that evolutionary selection processes have brought humanity to the brink of self-caused annihilation? And what are the selection processes that might enable us to avoid this terrible outcome?
To begin answering this question it may be helpful to remind ourselves that the power of Darwinian approaches to the study of evolution is that the mechanisms of cause-effect are explored in the relationship between selection and fitness for any organism as it relates to its environment. Said another way, something can only be said to have evolved if there is a way to know how specific biological traits came to be widespread in a population while other traits did not.
Described in this way we have a more scientifically rigorous way to frame our inquiry:
What are the selection mechanisms that gave rise to societies based on globally commodified supply chains and why did this kind of social organization come to dominate previously regional economic models of exchange?
Humanity urgently needs to create developmental pathways for the emergence of regional-scale economic systems that work in harmonious ways with the ecosystems within them. We need supply chains that “close the loops” in ecological terms by avoiding the creation of waste beyond the ability for it to be reincorporated by nature while also maintaining adequate regenerative capacities for the raw materials that must be grown to keep them circulating.
To create bioregional economies we need to design for the selection mechanisms that stabilize social systems around functional landscapes like watersheds and mountain ranges, coastal estuaries and islands. This means the financial signals and social interactions among people will need to have meaningful boundaries at these ecological scales.
The globalized economy grew over a 500 year timespan because a set of selection mechanisms came into widespread use that helped it along the way. The invention of the joint-stock company made it possible for a group of investors to pool their resources around highly risky ocean explorations for global trade. Double-entry accounting helped these companies manage their profits and losses in a coherent way regardless of the size of their ledgers. Political systems of colonization and resource extraction allowed for wealth to accumulate in some parts of the world by pulling it away from people and places located elsewhere.
Eventually, in the 1970’s, a set of financial management tools were created for “financializing” all arenas of social life such that people could go into personal debt and have accounting systems in place to track their exchanges of goods and services on the world stage.
All of this was structured around a global system at planetary scales — what I have come to call the Global Architecture of Wealth Extraction — and it actively selected against the stability and health of regional economies or ecosystems from which the extraction was drawn.
We are now living in a system of economic exchange that actively destroys regional ecosystems in service to wealth hoarding at planetary scales. What is needed is to create financial instruments and models of social organization that create robust circulation in local ecosystems while stabilizing at the level of trade for regional economies. They needn’t be fully isolated from each other and can set up their own systems of region-to-region trade, but this is a very different model from the nation state that legally manifests corporate forms that can operate at planetary scales without self-regulating their behaviors to avoid systemic collapse of regional ecosystems.
My colleagues and I are working to create these models right now. We are part of the Regenerative Communities Network that has been set up for peer-to-peer learning within and among bioregional development efforts around the world.
We are trying to learn how to evolve the conditions for bioregional resilience. Each region on its own will fail to remain secure in a global world of climate change, conflict and violence, and resource extraction. The only way to restore planetary health will be to cultivate a network of bioregional economies that each is helping move the Earth back within planetary boundaries.
Recognizing that this is an evolutionary process is essential to our success. We will need to discover (or create) the selection mechanisms for financial investment, business model development, governing and decision-making activities, and territorial planning. At the core of all of this is the need to grow our capacities for cooperation — which means learning how to set shared agendas, create scenarios of the future together, and monitor our collective progress toward achieving shared goals.
For my part, I am currently helping design a training program in bioregional regeneration that will make the tools and approaches widely available for doing exactly this. There simply isn’t time to waste and we need be very systematic about the learning processes involved in the transformation of societies around the world that currently are tethered to extractive infrastructure.
It isn’t going to be easy. But it must be done. Will we succeed before it’s too late? That’s a question only time will be able to answer. What we do know is that all other options are inadequate to the challenges we face now. So we have to give it our very best.
Onward, fellow humans.