A BIOREGIONAL CONGRESS:
In 1971 David Haenke moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan to an Ozarks farmstead with family and friends on a quest for an earth-honoring way of life and work. Immersed in whole-systems applied ecology ever since, David cofounded the Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC) -- the first bioregional congress -- (1977), conceptualized and organized the North American Bioregional Congress (1984), was one of the five original convenors of the US Greens-Green Party (1984), and founded the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology (1984). He currently directs the Ecological Society Project of The Tides Foundation, and is the Coordinator of the Bioregional Project of the Ozarks Resource Center. His current focus is the integration of Bioregionalism and ecological economics in the context of "total ecology." "Total ecology" covers all dimensions of interaction between the earth and the human species, including 35 ecological movements and disciplines.
IS A BIOREGION?
Bioregionalism is a comprehensive "new" way of defining and understanding the place where we live, and living in that place sustainably and respectfully. What bioregionalism represents is new only for people who come out of the Western industrial-technological heritage. The essence of bioregionalism has been reality and common sense for native people living close to the land for thousands of years, and remains so for human beings today. At the same time, bioregional concepts are rigorously defensible in terms of science, technology, economics, politics, and other fields of "civilized" human endeavor.
course of helping bioregional, green, and other ecological groups
and movements get started for about 25 years, beginning with the Ozark
Area Community (Bioregional) Congress in 1977, I have some experience
to share. This work has involved local, regional, national, and continental
organizing. The total is probably on the order of 25-30 groups and
organizations. Some are still going. Most are not.
Of course I wish they were all thriving now, but I don’t get particularly concerned when one composts itself. This work is relatively new. I guess in one sense you could call it political ecology. There isn’t much precedent for it (including the U.S. and other Greens around the world, who, though political, are only vestigially ecological), and the desertified soil the planet’s overly-large nations’ mindsheds is not yet particularly fertile ground. We have had to start from relative zero, only these short 25 years ago. Each group that starts is like a pioneer tree in the desert. Its efforts to live create a microclimate that is more conducive to life around it. If it dies, there is more compost to start anew, and start anew we must in every place if/when our first efforts go back still young to Earth, until everywhere and every dimension of life and mind pulses with the colors and energies of a healthy Earth. This writing is to help you in your organizing work.
If you are starting from scratch, point zero, here’s how I would proceed.
First, gather up those of your eco allies that you know will work together best to form an organizing council. Keep the number small to start with, not more than ten. Three to seven is optimal. This is where the first empowerment is. Decide to work consensually.
Decide the area within which you want to and can most effectively organize. This might be as small as an ecosystem or as large as a whole watershed, bioregion, or biogeographical province.
Evaluate what and where your resources are. If there is a decision to be made as to the size of the area to be encompassed, you may decide based on the concentration of potential allies within the area in question.
Working with a smaller area offers the advantage of easier communications, familiarity with what’s there, the possibility of a generally tighter organization, and a smaller-scale task altogether. Working with a large area, such as a whole bioregion, means you can bring together more people, create a greater diversity, and also seed organizing in smaller sub-regions as people working with the larger configuration carry the ideas home and seed the more local efforts.
The Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC), of which I was a founder and primary organizer, though it has always concentrated on the Ozarks, has also sent out invitations to its congresses continentally, starting with OACC I in l980. As of OACC IV in l983, people from 25 U.S. states and a few places outside the U.S. had participated. They carried the ideas home and stimulated a significant amount of organizing in their home regions. Many bioregional congresses were seeded in this way, leading to the first North American Bioregional Congress in 1984. (Which led to the initial organizing meeting of the Green Committees of Correspondence, in St. Paul, August, 1984, which has become the U.S. Greens.)
Build a mailing list. It should have a number of tiers. The first one is the priority list. These are people and organizations which are likely to get most deeply involved, and be willing to come in with energy and resources. This is the core of your list, and here is where the most effort is expended to keep it current. The rest of the list includes every ecologically-oriented (or potentially-so) person or group that you can find. Pull these names from all the sources you can think of. Ask other people to contribute entries.
Build out from the ecological core, keeping the focus ecological. Also, I would avoid loading your potential contact list only with people related to the counterculture, left, liberal, radical, progressive, new age, etc. Don’t make assumptions about who your potential allies are. Remember, bioregionalism is a whole new/ancient dimension of things. The heart of bioregional/ecological organizing has nothing really to do with the left, or the right, or the “center” in the old anthropocentric configurations. When you have your lists together, and your core group has come to some general consensus on beliefs, directions, and organizing strategies, it’s time to start conceptualizing the congress.
THE BIOREGIONAL CONGRESS
I think the bioregional congress is an immensely potent eco-political organizing tool, not yet used by the ecological movements to anywhere near its full potential. A congress can be a specific, one-time meeting or event; or it can evolve into an ongoing organization, which still calls itself a “congress”. OACC, for example, is unique in that it is not a formal organization with any legal status, or even formal volunteer staff, and yet it re-convenes every year since 1980. “
Congress” is a way of holding a working meeting of fully-participating, well-informed, aware equals who see themselves in some sense as representatives—officially or unofficially, formally or informally—of groups, or organizations, or movements, or ideologies, or philosophies or of regions or watersheds, or of natural ecosystems, and plant and animal communities. It is an assembly of peers working consensually in a representational capacity. In this a congress is much different than what we commonly call a “conference”.
(“Conferences” are usually expensive, have “star” speakers --usually paid-- imparting information/entertainment through a tightly pre-set schedule in one direction towards a passive “audience” in a classroom-like setting, hire professionals to make the food and clean up (or leave the attendees to forage on their own), have minimal or no programmatic interaction between attendees except in party settings, etc.)
“Official” representative legislative bodies—congresses, parliaments, national assemblies—believe that they can make laws, resolutions, programs, platforms, and constitutions. Eco-congresses can also empower themselves to do this. A congress may be the best way to start of a democratically self-empowered group, and create an eco-political platform.
You and the organizing committee next need to put all of your mailing lists together and from them identify all the individuals and organizations which are firmly rooted in ecological awareness, or have a strong possibility of it. These are the first wave of your potential congress invitees. This process is the first instance where the congress organizing process begins to differ substantially from that of a “conference”, in that the preferred way of soliciting attendees is direct invitation as opposed to blanket, indiscriminate advertising by various means and media.
Look for those working in the following areas to invite to the congress: bioregionalism, political ecology, conservation and ecoawareness, native/indigenous and land-based people’s rights, peace, bioregional culture and arts, land stewardship/land trusts, appropriate technology, organic agriculture/permaculture, sustainable forestry/agro-silviculture, renewable resources/safe energy, and ecologically-responsible initiatives in economics and business, education, social justice, media, law, and health. A significant number of those who respond to the congress call from these areas of work will probably be self-motivated, earth-dedicated organizers and leaders. Ecological congresses have been forums to “organize the organizers” using the powerful self-organizing principles of ecology, towards a deep reformation of human society based on ecological design principles.
A congress needs some fundamental level of consciousness and knowledge to exist in its participants even before it convenes, since it is a working body made up of fully-participating equals. Besides the obvious fact that a bioregional congress needs an ecological orientation, ecological consciousness brings the same amazing, self-organizing quality to political gatherings and organizations as it does to ecosystems in nature. This is the source of the unique power, spirit, and energy of bioregional congresses.
If you want everyone to come to an event who you can possibly reach through all your mailing lists, TV, radio, and newspaper spots, posters up on the street, with the purpose of educating them through pre-ordained schedules of special speakers and workshops, do a conference instead of a congress. If you have the time, energy, and resources, you may want to do an educative conference first as a fund-raiser and consciousness-raiser before you bring together the working body, the congress.
Next, write up an invitation/pre-registration mailer and send it out. The invitation/pre-registration mailing is a critical element in the success of a congress. It should contain clearly-written information on the proposed nature, philosophy, intent, logistics, and purposes of the congress. Most people will need this information to make up their minds as to whether to come, since most everything about ecological congresses is relatively unprecedented.
Following are some content suggestions for the invitation:
The essence of bioregionalism is what we can best remember and piece together of the oldest earth traditions and wisdom, tracing back to the beginnings of humanity,... and before that into the root ecological principles of life itself. It is upon these essences and principles that bioregionalism is ultimately based. Using ecology as the screen, bioregionalism takes the best and most presently relevant of the old, and synthesizes it with the most appropriate of the new. Bioregionalism is the most thoroughly ecological of twentieth-century movements, after those of native and indigenous peoples. Beyond the ecology movement, bioregionalism is far more than "environmentalism" as it is generally known. Indeed, we would say that there is no such thing as "the environment." Webster's dictionary defines "environment" as "The surrounding conditions, inf luences, or forces which influence or modify"; or "The aggregate of all external conditions and influences affecting the life and development of an organism." Bioregionalists know that each of us is a living ecosystem that is completely immersed in, a part of, and utterly dependent upon the larger fabric of life on Earth. The "environment" is not "out there." It is in us, and we are in it. In contrast, the environmental movement today is primarily concerned with "saving what's left" of "out there," usually through legal adjustments to business as usual. Yet, despite all the Earth Days and political actions, ecological damage is accelerating . While environmentalism does much good work in consciousness raising, it is only a part of what must be done. Environmentalism fails to propose comprehensive and systemic change at all levels -- based on ecology. Bioregionalism does, reaching for something far deeper and more holistic that must be manifested.
Bioregionalism is an all-inclusive way of life, embracing the whole range of human thought and endeavor. It advocates a full restructuring of systems within a given bioregion, orienting toward regeneration and sustainability of the whole life community. T his inclusion of the nonhuman in the definition of community is vital. Indeed, one of the basic tenets of bioregionalism is the notion of "bio-centrism," or "eco-centrism," where reality is viewed from a life-centered or ecologically centered perspective, rather than from a human-centered focus (anthropocentrism).
Bioregionalism speaks to the heart of community. If we are to continue to live on Earth, the definition of community has to include all the living things in our ecosystem. Without the flowers, mammals, insects, trees, birds, grasses, and the living soil and waters in community with each other, we would not be here at all. Humans need other life forms in order to survive. Without a respectful, cooperative relationship with others, we are both physically and spiritually impoverished. Without their ecologica l teachings we are ignorant and cannot know how to live. One oak tree can teach us more about sustainable economics than all the economists of the world put together. Altogether, nature has volumes to teach us about how to create sustainable community life.
The ecosystem, the watershed, the bioregion: these are the context, the boundary, the basic foundations of community. Lest our communities be parasitic and unsustainable, rights equal to our own human rights must be secured for all the living things of th e ecosystem community in which our human communities are embedded. There is nothing new about any of this -- except in the sense that contemporary society has forgotten what indigenous peoples around the earth have always remembered. It is for us to remember, to relearn, and to put into practice.
In order to be sustainable, our ways of making a living must be ecological. Ecological economics means bioregional self-reliance, deriving as much as possible of our livelihood from within, and close to, our community, only moving farther afield when we m ust. To be sustainable, we must better see our reliance on and interdependence with the nonhuman members of our community. We must rely on each other for health, sustenance, and wisdom.
CONVENE THE CONGRESS
For a first congress, go for a three to four day event which starts on a Friday or Saturday and ends on a Sunday or Monday afternoon (maybe you can find a good time when the Monday is a holiday). This tends to minimize the time people have to take off work. A two-day Saturday/Sunday weekend event is not enough time. Ideally a congress would last at least seven full days (or more), but more than likely you could not convince people to take this much time the first time through.
A congress is a “generic” form of holding a working meeting. (It can also be an empowered, on-going organization which gets born at your first congress.) Congresses—as events—have two major components: plenary, or full-group meetings; and committee, or small group meetings (which can also be called “working groups”, “caucuses”, or whatever name you like).
Plenary sessions are for making important announcements, chances for people to make presentations to the full group (I feel this time should be strictly limited, perhaps to no more than l5 minutes per presentation). Most important, the plenary is the time for the group to make decisions and consense upon, modify, or reject proposals or resolutions brought before it by individuals or committees. It is in plenary that the congress empowers itself, decides its future, and adopts its founding principles, programs and platform, and mission statements for the reordering and reformation of the region. In the first plenary session of a congress is a good time to suggest that people choose a committee to work in which corresponds to their greatest interest.
Suggestions for the titles of committees can start with the categories of ecological work which were used as the basis for sending out invitations to the congress. Participants can suggest others if the ones you suggest don’t fit their needs. As people actually get into committees, the committees will merge, split into new ones, or evaporate according to the energy and interest present for the subject. Committees set their own agendas, and decide how to use their own time. They may spend their time networking, sharing information, making resolutions or policy statements for presentation to the plenary, telling jokes. Time in a particular committee may be inspiring or exhilarating— or a complete bore—depending on the people in it and the energy in the air.
It’s helpful for each committee to get volunteers to cover the following functions:
Some of these functions can be doubled up with one person, but hopefully they will be be covered in some way. It is very important for future networking and committee and congress continuity (if you decide to keep working together after the congress event) that the secretary compile a list of the names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses of each person on the committee, and make a copy of that list available to each member, as well one to the congress coordinating group.
Committees should be given ample prime time, during which nothing else is scheduled. (Nor should there be any other scheduled events during the plenaries.)
A typical day at a bioregional congress begins with a facilitated agenda committee meeting, open to the input of anyone who can get up that early, which puts together a tentative agenda for the day for presenting to the morning plenary.
After breakfast and breakfast cleanup, the call goes out to assemble for the day’s first plenary session, which begins with important announcements, such as calls for volunteers for various work tasks. Then the agenda committee presents the day’s agenda for modification or approval by the plenary. Hopefully no one fights too much over the agenda, and the plenary can move forward into such activities as committee reports, other plenary presentations, or whatever else is on the agenda. It is a good practice to begin each plenary—at least the morning’s—with a couple of minutes of silence, and a group song.
After the first plenary, the group can break up into committees, or some other smaller group activities. It’s important to alternate full group and small group gatherings—an “accordion effect” if you like. This always brings the group back together after small group functions to re-establish its cohesion and continuity.
At around noon, when the committees are done meeting, lunch is served. If time is in short supply, workshops can happen during lunch, with people eating and listening, but it’s better to not schedule anything else for lunch time but eating and relaxing.
The early afternoon time just after lunch is a good time for the day’s second plenary session. Towards the end of the congress, an afternoon plenary devoted to congress resolution approval and decision-making is often scheduled to take up all of the afternoon and even possibly part of the evening.
The afternoon plenary may be followed by another round of committee or other small group meetings, or a time slot devoted to workshops. In the interest of maintaining the focus on the congressional nature of the gathering, it’s best not to schedule workshops-or any other activities—during plenary or committee sessions, which should be given uncompromised times.
Afternoon sessions are often followed by dinner and free time for entertainment, cultural events, music, roaming around, and general celebration, unless time constraints require working meetings of the committees and plenary into the night—which sometimes happens.
Usually the major decision-making plenary is held on the next-to-the-last day, so that unfinished business can be taken care of on the final day. It’s important on the last day to spend at least an hour for the plenary to evaluate the congress, going over what was good, bad, and what needed changing.
After lunch and an early-afternoon group good-bye ceremony, the congress adjourns. Ideally everyone who can will stay and help clean up the site.
RITUAL AND CEREMONY
I believe all content, activities, decision-making of the congress that the whole group participates in, and that of formal small groups like committees, should be agreed-upon consensually by the congress itself or the groups themselves. Further, I believe that this work is, in the context of service to the Earth, sacred, spiritual ritual and ceremony in itself.
In the same way, I believe all rituals and ceremonies that involve the whole congress (and/or small groups or committees) should be fully explained before they take place to all assembled, with clear information about what is going to happen, how long it will take, and what is expected of those who participate. At that point there should be an opportunity -- just as in any plenary proposal – for each person who wants to, in a facilitated process, to comment, voice concerns, or ask changes or alterations in what is proposed. In short, a consensus should be reached, with opportunity for those who don’t want to participate to stand aside, and for those who don’t want the ritual or ceremony to happen at all, to block.
If and when there is consensus and the ritual or ceremony goes forward, it should, as a protocol, be made clear that if at any time any person becomes uncomfortable and feels like they want to stop participating in any way or silently walk away, that they can do so without any kind of disapproval, censure or judgment by the group. If they do get disapproval for this by any part of the group or any individual it should be a prior understanding that this kind of negative response is outside the spirit, nature, and ethic of the congresses.
Come Home to Earth
The bioregional movement offers hope for saving the human species and bringing "thrival" (not just survival) and sanity back into the human family, while preserving the integrity of the rest of life on Earth.
What bioregionalism is uncovering and remembering is a way for everyone, of any culture or background, to come home to Earth. We can draw upon the deep and perennial sources of knowledge to create a sustainable life in the present, no matter where we live , even in the largest cities.
Bioregionalism shows us that these sources of knowledge have no cultural or political copyright. They are available to us wherever there is a tree or a few square feet of uncontrolled life zone. There are points of contact and cooperation for all people w ho immerse themselves in the loving, honoring, and healing of the earth. We must heed our instinctive understanding of the ancient, current, and future ecological principles of the earth and the processes of life.
Bioregionalism is the making of active alliance with the earth in virtually every dimension of our individual and collective existence. Such an alliance is a basis for creating sustainable communities, and why bioregionalism and the communities movement a re inextricably linked.
[Copyright the Fellowship for Intentional Community 1996]
THE CONGRESS AS AN ONGOING BODY
Hopefully the congress a will be strong and inspiring event, and during its first few days some foundational policy statements from the committees will have been consensed-upon by the plenary. Having come to some basic agreements, the congress needs to decide whether it will meet again in two years, a year, six months, or whenever interval. (Continental Congresses average a 2 year interval; congresses for a single bioregion often meet at least yearly.) It also can decide whether the work that has been begun will be carried on in some way in the interim between the next full convening of the body.
If the answer is yes, you might consider the way this was done (between 1981 and ‘83) by the Ozark Area Community Congress (OACC). During the congress, each committee selected a coordinator. The coordinator agrees to be the committee’s networker, contact person, and general focalizer. This person also agreed to come to three meetings during the year of the coordinating council, a group made up of all the coordinators of each committee. The council was empowered by OACC to carry on its work and make interim decisions for it in the time between yearly congresses. OACC’s yearly meeting maintained the full authority to redirect or countermand the coordinating council’s decisions.
I have always tried to make as strong a plea as possible that the congress and its committees not try to do too much too soon; that they see the work of bioregional reformation under ecological law as something that requires the vision of lifetimes. (It has taken lifetimes for us to get into our presently awful and insupportable relationship with the natural world.) The work requires steady and sustained energy over a long period of time. A good analogy is the growing of an organic garden.
One of the most important things to do after a first congress (besides not getting into a burnout mode) is to publish and send to everyone who attended, as soon as possible, a complete list of the names, addresses, phone numbers, postal codes, and a few words about the organizational affiliations and interests and expertise of each participant. If possible it’s also good to compile and send out copies of all the foundational statements and resolutions consensed-upon by the congress. Doing these things is helpful in maintaining continuity and establishing the congress network.
I believe the congress, both as a convening that first brings together eco-political energies, and then as an ongoing body, is potentially one of the most powerful organizing and transformative vehicles in existence. The original congress form goes back to the Six Nations Iroquois-Mohawk Confederation—the Haudenausaunee Nation. To my knowledge this is the oldest participatory democracy on Earth, and one based on natural laws at that. The congresses have the potential to bring the human species back home to Earth into the ecological age. May ecological congresses bloom and thrive all over the Earth.
Go forth and organize a bioregional congress! It’s good deep Earth work, and fun too! And if you’d like some help, I’ll help you. -David Haenke
For more information about Bioregionalism:
(1)Planet Drum Foundation, Box 31251, San Francisco, CA 94131, (415) 285-6556, Fax (415) 285-6563, http://www.planetdrum.org Email:
(3)Continental Bioregional Congress
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