I was quite excited to find Molly Scott Cato’s book The Bioregional Economy; Land, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, on the relevance of bioregionalism in the U.K. Here, at last, was a discussion that brought together animism, ecology, and political economy. Professor Scott Cato is one of three signatories to a Green Party submission to the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, that identifies the bioregion as a key concept underlying the development of sustainable economies, and defines a bioregion as ‘a natural social unit determined by ecology rather than economics’. This definition might seem problematic -can there be such an entity as a ‘natural social unit’?- until we consider animistic conceptions of a bioregion as a ‘life-place’ that supports ‘unique human and non-human living communities’ (1)
The Bioregional Economy begins in familiar territory, talking about climate change, dependence on oil, and the urgent need to challenge corporate globalisation and the extreme inequality it produces. The author cites Paul Feyerabend, David Abram, and Kirkpatrick Sale on the hegemony of science and abstract reason, and Max Weber on the protestant ethic that divorced people from a spiritual connection with the natural world. She then suggests that in a sustainable economy economists might function as shamans. Some readers might recoil at this ‘thought experiment’ on grounds of respectability, others because the S-word has already been over worked and under paid, but the analogy makes sense once we consider David Abram’s perspective on the shaman as mediator between human and non-human communities.
I am, nevertheless, rather worried by the prospect of giving a priestly figure ‘the authority to impose boundaries to the acquisition of resources’. Shouldn’t religion, even animist religion which is bound to be divisive, and government be kept apart? Can shamanic practice be compatible with participatory democracy? Less controversially perhaps, a shaman-economist would function as guide and mediator, supporting respectful relationship with the non-human world, and facilitating what eco-feminists have identified as embedded and embodied economic activity. Molly Scott-Cato suggests that such a figure would look very different from the young men with expertise in econometrics but ‘little knowledge of life and no interest in human relationships’ who currently populate the profession.
She is alert to the limitations and potential dangers inherent in the bioregional model. I agree with her that some early expositions were naïve in relation to political economy. Kirkpatrick Sale, for example, seemed unconcerned that some bioregions might evolve along aristocratic or theocratic lines. There’s a very real danger that the strong feelings aroused by deep identification with place, especially when accompanied by a sense of ancestral belonging, can become exclusionary, chauvinistic, even racist. The history of the Nazis is offered as a cautionary tale, not least since current economic turbulence might arouse similar longings, as is the early history of the U.K organic movement. The geographer David Harvey has also pointed out that bioregionalism can be democratic, decentralised, and anarchistic, or exclusionary, nationalistic, even violently fascist (2).
Despite setting out to present a utopian vision of bioregional economics in the U.K, where we have a long history of dislocation from our local land as a resource base, the book is arguably stronger on critique than on proposals and political strategy. Following Karl Polanyi’s account of the ‘great transformation’, Molly Scott-Cato argues eloquently for the need to reverse the processes of enclosure, market economics, even urbanisation. Given the urgency of the need to move towards a more sustainable economy she discusses land reform, and flags up the possibility that we may need to requisition and reallocate landed estates. She also emphasises that the imperative to abandon economic growth makes the issue of equity much more pressing. Our common wealth needs to be shared, both locally and globally. Political decolonisation in the twentieth century doesn’t seem to have reached the point where ‘we’ in the U.K are willing to question the legitimacy of importing crops grown in places where people don’t have enough to eat.
So far, so encouraging, but there are, perhaps inevitably, some striking omissions from this ‘self-consciously utopian enterprise’. The bioregions that Molly Scott Cato discusses are rural, and the economic activities she describes and advocates are predominantly craft skills, and permaculture. Cities, in this vision, would be limited by the carrying capacity of their rural hinterland, but the complexities of this scenario are not explored. Scott Cato admits that her bioregional perspective has little to offer (yet?) in terms of the provisioning needs of inhabitants of the mega-cities of the global South.
Perhaps she was right to focus on areas she has an attachment to and refrain from discussing, or attempting to map, bioregions in other parts of Britain, but the geological map presented as ‘suggestive of bioregional boundaries’ is not very helpful to those of us living elsewhere. Where I live, for example, Lower Carboniferous rocks stretch from the South Pennines up to the Lowlands of Scotland. Regional geographers used to divide England into about ten regions, radiating outwards from the metropolitan centre. One of the difficulties with this was that, even by the 1960’s, a process of homogenisation was already eroding presumed regional distinctiveness. Although regions might be porous, fluid, and internally diverse, people ‘repeatedly seek to construct them as closed and bounded as a way of protecting their interests…’. Uneven regional development has long been identified as an intrinsic feature of capitalist space economy.(3) There’s clearly a danger that a retreat into localism and self sufficiency could enshrine inequality. Molly Scott Cato therefore highlights the need for a redistributive framework of governance, both locally and globally.
Not much is said about the history of regional administration in the U.K, or of institutions that have critically engaged with regional political economy and/or political ecology (has the latter term lost currency?), and been closed down for their troubles (the Community Development Projects in the 1970’s, the G.L.C. in the 1980’s, the Centre for Human Ecology closed by Edinburgh University in 1996, but still going as an independent community based organisation). I would like to have seen more on the complex questions of population, and the carrying capacity of the land, on power relations and political realities, and on relations between human communities and other than human beings, but The Bioregional Economy works well as an inspirational source book, and Molly Scott Cato concludes by inviting other contributions to this important debate.
Molly Scott Cato, The Bioregional Economy; Land, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Earthscan/Routledge, 2013.
Some Other Sources:
(1) Thayer, R.L. Life-Place. Bioregional Thought and Practice, University of California Press, 2003.
(2) David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, Blackwell,1996.
(3) Ray Hudson, Geographers and the Regional Problem, in Ron Johnston and Michael Williams, eds, A Century of British Geography’.
Kirkpatrick Sale, Mother of All, An Introduction to Bioregionalism, E.F.Schumacher Society, 1984/1999.
This Post was sparked by the recent Animist Blog Carnival issue on Bioregionalism.