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Bioregional Design: Regenerating Local Ecologies and Economies: by Andrew Faust

In 2004 the Center for Bioregional Living in Pocahontas county, West Virginia, in what has been called the Northern Appalachian bioregion, we are learning to live well with the earth. It is essential that intelligent, responsible humans create a culture of healthy ways of living that future generations will enjoy participating in and benefiting from. The industrial petrochemical nuclear mega technology model of growth is contaminating the world at an exponential rate. We need to create a way of living that disconnects us from the mega tech toxic infrastructure that is taking over the earth's surface and consuming biodiversity more rapidly than we can comprehend. Bioregional design and wisdom are more necessary than ever 


What's the problem with petrochemicals and business as usual? First, the EPA estimates that 37% of rivers and streams and 50% of lakes and ponds are unfishable and unswimmable. Look out kids, the fish and water are poisonous! The EPA, FDA and DOE all regulate hazardous petrochemical and radioactive materials on the basis of a model of exposure which assumes the individual is only exposed to one hazardous chemical at a time. Of course, the average citizen is exposed to a synergy of hazardous materials every day, from formaldehyde in their new car, upholstery and clothing, to pesticide residues in their meats, dairy products and breakfast cereal. Each item is allowed to have as much of its toxic elements as a person could intake and not get seriously sick or die from if it were the only one you were exposed to. The EPA estimates that over 50% of fresh water in the U.S. is used in industrial cooling processes; the water you drink may have gone through a nuclear power plant's cooling system prior to being treated by your municipal water plant downstream. But don't worry, it has the acceptable amount of tritium, a low level radioactive element which the EPA actually decided there is no need to limit how much comes out of the nuclear power plants' effluent. They only put in the acceptable amount of chlorine and possibly fluoride in your public water which are also unregulated by the EPA but recognized as hazardous materials. The synergistic interaction of pesticides in your food, dioxin in the air from being near a medical waste or trash incinerator of any kind, and the tritium in your water is not studied for how they amplify one another's destructive effects on the human body. They most certainly interact in unforeseeable and amplifying ways. This is why replacing these industries with natural local and ecologically sound production is so essential 


Biodiverse ecosystems are abundant and resilient and transfer these qualities to the human economies which depend on them through the diversity of food, fuel, and fiber they provide. Their continuity promotes human quality of life through quality of air, water, food and soil. We want health for future generations, so we need to decrease reliance on toxic stuff that reduces biodiversity and create a culture that values and explores healthy ways of living well within earth's abundant ecosystems. When we buy things, we think about the effect of their production and transportation and choose ones that promote health and abundance, not habitat destruction and toxic legacy. When considering energy use, we remember that coal-burning power plants produce smoke that is detrimental to the health of ecosystems upon which it precipitates. We try to encourage wildlife living near our home by noticing their habitat and nurturing it. Diverse ecosystems provide healthy air, water and soil, so encouraging wildlife corridors throughout urbanized landscapes will improve quality of life for the humans who live within them 


At this time, multinational economies are reducing biodiversity and habitat while covering the earth with substances that are hazardous to life. It is more important than ever to contemplate bioregional design in a way that will help us to recognize patterns that can be shifted. It is easy to fall into the trap of buying things you know nothing about and thus inadvertently financing violence in a distant ecosystem. Some people are now disconnecting from the polluting economies they were comfortable with and seeking out healthy local connections, creating a bioregional economy. They are also caring for their local ecologies through conservation, restoration ecology and organic food production. Acting to reinvigorate local ecologies will reinvigorate local economies as well, since the base of natural capital will be restored. The more diverse the ecological system becomes, the more abundant and resilient it will be, providing more harvestable food, fuel and fiber to its participants.


I considered these ideas when choosing materials to build our house. When choosing materials to build our house, we considered the effect of their harvest and transportation on the diversity and health of earth's ecosystems. We cut black locust for the poles from the other side of the stream. We purchased all of our milled wood from a family owned sawmill that selectively harvests local trees. We are insulating with straw and clay. The straw was grown in town and the clay we dug from the north side of the hill that the pit may become a root cellar. For the walls, we dipped each bale in clay slip before stacking them and covering them with an inch of plaster. In order to protect the earth/straw/sand plaster from the wet climate, we built wood siding with an air gap. We are insulating the floor and ceiling with loose straw coated with clay slip. The roof is held up by the wood frame and is standing seam metal which will last for a long time. We have planted many fruit and nut trees and cultivate vegetables with straw mulch and manual tillage with a broad fork. We have one spring for drinking water and another that is gravity piped to the house.


If we understand the quality of life issues which face even the most privileged classes of the world, we will realize that they can be addressed by some simple but fundamental shifts in our ways of thinking and doing things.


  • Think about your decisions and consider whether you are financing destruction or cooperation with ecosystems.


  • Buy things from local families who produce them from natural locally abundant materials rather than hazardous synthetic materials that have been transported a long distance.


  • Eat locally grown organic food; grow it yourself or join a Community Supported Agriculture.


  • Notice that you make decisions involving large amounts of energy, and try to shift it toward healing relationships.


  • Local production increases quality of life by reconnecting local people with local ecosystems.


  • Harvest the abundance your ecosystem provides, and consume what you know will make you and the earth healthier.


  • Spend time getting to know your ecosystems. Learn from their example. Experience them intimately so you know how their organisms interact. Learn to be responsible.


  • Decrease distance of transmission of goods and energy, and minimize use of long distance high impact synthetic sources.


  • Building design should reflect local climate.

These are just a few examples of a bioregional economy and how it takes shape one person, one action, one community at a time. If we shift our focus to local production of food, energy, building materials, fibers, medicine, and leisure within the ecological limits of our bioregion, we will increase quality of life by nurturing the health of the wild ecosystems that intermingle with our economies. Diverse ecosystems provide healthy air, water and soil, and opportunities for humans to connect with and develop relationships with wild ecosystems. We can learn from healthy ecologies how to relate in healthy ways within human economies, and perhaps experience a oneness with the Source of life from which we come.

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