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vegetable gardening
Photo by Greta Hoffman

We humans will either acknowledge that we are a part of the earth, or we will continue to move toward our own extinction.  Consciousness of our participation in the earth’s dynamic life processes cannot emerge so long as our everyday lives continue to be ordered by the rituals of domination.

For five hundred years and more we humans have been moving away from the practices of subsistence; i.e., obtaining our livelihoods directly from our own places and from the natural productive life of the earth,  and toward  . . .  consumerism.  Instead of getting our food and clothing and housing from the land under hand and foot, or from the nearby woods, or from the sea . . . we obtain what we need through the distancing media of advertising, long distance transport, impersonal private syndicates, prison-like factories, and money.  Everything in our economic lives tells us: You don’t really belong here.  You are separate and apart from the earth and the creatures of the earth.  You are part of a World System which is the Lord and Dominator and Decider of the fate of all the earth.    

Our relation to earth is one of mining, extraction, total objectification.  At the present time we are engaged in a great collective project of asset stripping.  Time spent away from everyday rituals — in wilderness — may restore a sense of being here as a part of the earth — but only partially and only temporarily.  Soon we return to our usual routines, which reinforce the identity of an industrial person in an age of nihilism, for whom anything goes; and we ourselves become but products of the Modern World System.

Since we no longer touch and realize the earth as a self-sufficient living system, it is very difficult to sense our own dependence on that system.  As “normal modern people” we almost inevitably and unconsciously transfer our loyalty and feeling of dependence to the Modern World System.  It would seem, in practice, that there is no alternative.  Those who still try to “get in touch with Mother Earth,” are romantic, backward looking.  In today’s usage, “romantic” has become a swear word.

But our loyalty to the World System is a suicide pact, a covenant of death for our species.

There is a way to move against this frightening monster, which has such a terrific life of its own these days.  We can begin to move toward subsistence.  We need not envision moving all the way back to, say, the Middle Ages . . . or even farther back to hunter/gatherer ways.  All that is necessary is to change direction.    Our present way of life is like someone adding each day one more brick to the prison we have all been building unconsciously.  In contrast, we could remove one brick each day.  It is our daily practices which we take for granted and perform automatically that are these bricks.  We can begin, little by little, to change our practices.  To become sustainable we must transform our economy into many local economies.  We must shorten our lines of supply and reduce our dependence on non-renewable fuels, by re-localizing.

Living in place  has its disciplines and tasks, its practices.  On the day that you take a shovel and, with your own hands, dig up a piece of ground to plant a vegetable garden — you are moving toward subsistence; hence moving against the stream of totalizing commerce and technology.  On the day that you begin to build a pantry, taking back from the corporations the task of providing for yourself and your loved ones or buddies — you are moving toward subsistence.  On the day when you begin to think and work deliberately to increase your own and your community’s emergency preparedness, no longer believing that one of Big Brother’s little helpers will take care of you if something happens — you are already moving toward subsistence.

It is time to unplug, time to withdraw our faith from the World System upon which we have been and remain so shamefully dependent.  This system is unstable and unreliable.  Lose your faith in Progress!  Progress is destroying the earth as a fit habitat for humans.  But how can we turn again to the earth in an authentic way?  Spending your vacation in a “natural area” is not enough.  We must change our lives, beginning now.  We must establish dissenting practices, weave them firmly into the very fabric of our everyday lives.  This is the only way for us to move toward a sustainable society.  One by one we withdraw our faith from the present all-encompassing and (only) seemingly irresistible World System, placing our trust instead in the living earth, and expressing this trust in specific and necessarily local ways.  Bioregionalism is a Way and an ensemble of practices which will be essential to the emergence of a sustainable society.  There can be no sustainability without it.

We are interested in native peoples because they take for granted the meaningfulness of being a participant in the community of life on earth in their place.  Each place stimulates and supports the evolution of a distinctive cultural assemblage appropriate to that place.  The place itself teaches bioregional values and practices, if only we pay attention.  Renewal of subsistence practices will be the way in which we humans will ultimately be restored to the status of participants in the great life, and delivered from the hell of separate and meaningless existence.  Archaic societies have in common the belief that the earth is enough.  None see the earth as essentially threadbare and worthless and thus requiring that we build unnatural and/or otherworldly palaces to assuage our hungering hearts.  Earth is alive, generating ever-new forms.  To align with earth is not to move toward stasis and sterile repetition; rather it implies energy to imagine and generate new arrangements.

I cannot enter into a caring and committed relationship with the earth as a whole; rather, I must express my care and commitment in a place.  I must stay put long enough to know my place in detail and to align my own life with the life of my place.  Only thus do I have a chance to reweave the body and soul connection with “all my relations.”  The proper unit of survival is the local community.  The grandeur of empire is a sham.  When push comes to shove, the empire will not be there for us; it will use us for its own purposes.  (Katrina)

We need practices that tie us into the web of life in our place.  Otherwise we will be no more than alienated drifters on this earth.  These practices must also build gradually the local community of re-inhabitants.  “All our relations” must include our relations with each other within a place-based human community, i.e., a community which includes all the people who live here and offers all the chance to participate in the creative process of inventing this new local, sustainable way of life.  (NB: a sustainable local community will continue to trade and interact with other places.  It will not be isolated, but it will produce as much as possible of its own basic necessities.)

As the Zen practitioner rises every day, sips some tea, and then sits in meditation for half an hour; we bioregionalists must needs walk.  Without this practice we wouldn’t know who we are.  Apart from walking, how could we know where we are?  This body passing through this landscape as it is, scarred by human abuse, covered by infrastructure, yet still alive.  Bioregionalism begins with a soul connection to the land itself, to the actual earth of value in a particular place.

Together we walk the watersheds of our lifeplace.  With our feet we establish contact with the larger system of earthly life which predates the industrial age and which will remain after that age lies in ruins.  With our hands we reach out and establish contact with each other, connecting into the human community as but a part of the larger community of life.  Walking together is a vital practice of those who are moving toward sustainability.  It is through our horizontal links with others — the animal people, the human people, and the tree people --- that we recover a knowledge of who we are and can be: dwellers in the earth.

Eating together is another such practice.  Sharing the fellowship of earthly life, eating the fruits of our local earth and also gifts of food from nearby woods, lakes, streams, and sea; we recognize that we are part of complex food chains.  Across the table we look into each others’ eyes and say, “Partaking in this food we acknowledge that we too are participants in the earth.  Together we are walking toward a greater and richer awareness of all our relations.  There is no separation.”

Growing food is also a key component of re-localizing our lives.  To obtain a yield from the actual ground where we live is an obligation of the Bioregional Way.  Even for apartment dwellers, there are ways to do this: community gardens, a friend’s yard, or a container on the balcony.  It is also possible to obtain a yield from our local region through foraging, fishing or hunting.

When I connect to the Earth System by eating local food and food I have helped to grow myself, whether in a home garden or in a communally cultivated garden, or wild food I have collected; I also disconnect from the arrogant system of earth domination of which the supermarket is but one expression.  When I consciously taste and drink the water of my own watershed, I bring the industrial water suppliers down a notch.  They are only distributing what earth and the great weather freely gave; and all water is ultimately wild water.  None of it was made in a factory.

Every practice which tends to remove the layers of mediating systems and institutions and structures between me and the Earth System, is a practice of life instead of death for our species.  Each practice has both a material and a spiritual or mental pole.  The food I grow in my garden is real food, which really and truly sustains my body.  That food also serves as a symbolic expression of my relation with Earth.  Truly for the bioregionalist every meal is a sacramental meal, and every potluck deepens our soul connection to both place and community.

Many other practices we can embrace today, as we transition toward a low energy future,  fall under the heading of local production for local use.  We can initiate small scale local manufacturing, preparing for the time when China will no longer supply our stuff.  We can recycle materials from deconstructed buildings.  We can share skills --- subsistence practices --- with those who want to learn.  We can engage in barter, and in complex systems of barter.  We can make clothing or recycle clothing.  We can work to establish reasonable practices of emergency preparedness.  We can keep warm or cool mostly by adapting and improving our present housing stock.  We can increase the usability of housing by living together with more people in each house.  We can work out new ways of developing group coherence and living at peace in closer quarters and more intense ways of mutual dependence.  We can foster groups as natural units of survival, against the stream of consumerist individualism.  Finally, we can work together collectively to change the rules of the social-political-economic game to make them more supportive of our values; but this can only happen after enough people have actually begun to change their own lives, and when specific openings appear.

If, as many of us sense, we are living at a time of crisis, leading up to a big change --- “the end of the world as we know it,” in Immanuel Wallerstein’s phrase —  the slow crumbling or fast collapse of the World System; then the most vital question for us today must be:  What can we do now that will continue to sustain us on the other side of history?  We can establish practices of subsistence which will continue to function as part of daily habits under changed conditions.  Growing food, storing food, walking together, eating together (all with awareness) will go with us as we pass, as it were, through the sound barrier in reverse, and into a new era.  We have no blueprint of that era.  The whole pattern cannot be known except through on-going processes of creative change as things unfold.  Humans at home on earth will imagine new blossomings again and again.  But we can take up practices that already, in the present, express our changed relation with the earthly sources of our lives, and provide continuity as we come into a time when such practices will necessarily become widespread.  We can take up practices that 1) express our disaffection from the present set-up, 2) re-connect us to the earth life now, and 3) reward us already in this present time with satisfactions that will feed our souls and give us heart and courage to continue in the face of vast carnage.  Without this soul connection we will not have the fortitude to carry on, nor will it be possible to enter fully into a new knowledge of ourselves as dwellers and participants in the earth.

Turning Margaret Thatcher’s famous words against her, I say: There is no alternative.

Have you lost your faith in Progress?  Are you practicing at the present time the rites of participation in the community of life in your place?  Are you moving toward subsistence, taking small steps on that path through specific subsistence practices?  Are you obtaining a yield?  Have you changed your life?


Fred Cervin
December 6, 2010

Originally published in Planet Drum Pulse, Spring 2011  Posted with permission of the author


Founding member of TLA's Board of Directors, founder of New Haven Bioregional Group, and friend, guide, coFred Cervinempatriot, Fred was committed to the Earth and all life.  His first collection of essays, The Earth Is Enough, is available through Maria Tupper.  Earth Loyalty and Bioregional Practice may be found HERE.  An Audio Archive of selections from The Earth is Enough may be found HERE at the New Haven Bioregional Group site.


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