13 01 2008

In the heady days of the 1960’s and 70’s, when it seemed like our time was coming any day, we began to re-imagine the world. It was, and is, easy enough to point out how crazy things are–but what would “better,” radically better, look like?

By “we,” I mean those of us who were hippies not for the sex, drugs, and rock n’roll, (although, to be sure, we appreciated them!) but because we were (and in many cases still are) visionaries who could not sit down, shut up, and work like normal ants–I mean, people. We saw the artificiality of political boundaries, and the reality of natural ones, like watersheds and biological communities. We saw the futility of trying to make ignorant people change their ways through legislation, and found the satisfaction that comes from walking our talk and teaching by example. We founded magazines and movements like Co-evolution Quarterly, The New Alchemy Institute, Esalen Institute, and the Farm, and, for a while, seemed poised to turn the entire state of Vermont into a countercultural domain.

Two visionaries in particular found their tongues and began to frame a movement with a name. The name was “Bioregionalism,” and the visionaries were Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann; and true to the bioregional ideal, they were very different, but very complimentary.

Dasmann was the older of the two by a generation, and perhaps not ever technically a “hippie,” but certainly a visionary. He did study at UC Berkley as an undergraduate, but that was before World War II, which turned him into a soldier and sent him to New Guinea. By 1970, he was travelling the world for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and thus became one of the first scientists to get a global view of the ecological situation. His globetrotting brought him to the first UN environmental conference, in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972, which is where he met Peter Berg, who, while also a Californian, had been treading a very different path.

Peter Berg had been a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the mid-sixties. The Mime Troupe, which still exists, specializes in radical street theater. Berg, in 1966, had the inspiration to take it one step further. That further step has come down to us as “The Diggers,” a group that tried to radically alter human relationships by making everything a free work of art–food, clothing, shelter, medical care. They were in effect the backbone of the seminal Haight-Ashbury counterculture community, and when it was ultimately overwhelmed, Berg found his way to a small commune way, way up in the Sierras. It was from there, as a self-appointed representative of the North American counterculture, that he went to the UN conference in Stockholm.

Berg’s meeting with Dasmann resulted in the creation of Planet Drum Foundation, an organization which to this day promotes a wholistic view of this world we live in. Berg used Planet Drum as a platform from which to convoke a “North American Bioregional Congress,” which he saw as parallel to the convocation of the first Continental Congress. His hopes that it would result in a radical reorganization of North American politics have not yet been realized, but the first North American Bioregional Congress is the point at which this story starts to become locally relevant.

Milo Guthrie, an herbalist and activist from the Nashville area, wanted to go to the bioregional congress–but only delegates from bioregional councils were entitled to attend. So he formed one–the Cumberland and Green River Basin Bioregional Council, named for the two major river systems (besides the vast Tennessee River basin itself) that define our area. The group’s name has conventionally been shortened to “The Cumberland Greens” and confused with the Green Party, which is inaccurate, although there is a relationship–the “Comittees of Correspondence” (another borrowing from the first American Revolution) that were formed out of the NABC did in fact form the nucleus of the Green Party of the United States.

“The Cumberland Greens” are not a political party, but a bioregional council—a group of people from around the bioregion who do our best to fully inhabit the places we live, to eat locally and dream globally. We meet to share our strengths and visions and take what action we can, and yes we know we are carrying a banner that was passed down to us from the hippies of San Francisco. We will be meeting January 19th at Brookmeade Congregational Church here in Nashville, and you and your visions are welcome to come. Contact Eric at for further details.

music: Incredible String Band, “Douglas Traherne Harding”



8 05 2007

As the Bush presidency continues to crumble, it is perhaps ironic that good news for conservatives comes from France, the land they have spent so much time maligning–”freedom fries,” anyone? In an apparently clean election, in which a near-record 85% of the voters participated, the French chose Nicholas Sarkozy as their new president, rejecting Segolene Royal’s bid to become the first female president of France, and the first socialist in twelve years.

Now, Sarkozy is not your typical American conservative—he’s in favor of legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples, ending homelessness by building more low-income housing, and wants to integrate the country’s large Muslim minority (Islam is now the second-largest religion in France) by instituting an affirmative action program. And he has already chided the the Bush junta for its refusal to take global warming seriously. But that’s about where the good news ends.

Like American conservatives, “Sarko l’Americain,” as he is called in some quarters, looks back to the pivotal years of the late sixties and wants to roll back the changes that happened then. In case you’ve forgotten, that happened here in America in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected. And, in case you’ve forgotten, the countercultural movement in France in 1968 was far more widespread and focused than its American equivalent. We had a Love-In in San Francisco; they went to Paris , put up barricades, and invited the working class to join them—and, unlike American “hard hats,” two-thirds of the French working class joined the general strike and nearly threw out President DeGaulle, who ultimately resigned a year later when Constitutional changes he advocated were rejected in a nationwide referendum. But, I digress…and it wasn’t even to be funny.

Although the May ’68 uprising fizzled out in the short term, in the long term it changed the dynamics of social discourse in France and, ultimately, the rest of Europe, leading to a common assumption that it is the job of government to take good care of its citizens. This is why European countries have national health care systems, (and high-quality social welfare systems in general), good public transportation, shorter workweeks with higher productivity than the US, government-mandated long vacations and family leave time, and a standard of living similar to America’s, that only uses about half the energy.

Sarkozy is not going to be able to change all that, any more than Bush could privatize Social Security, but it is his stated belief that French workers need to cut back on their standard of living in order to remain competitive, and now he has the initiative. This is not good, especially since it isn’t true, any more than wage/benefit cutbacks and social service safety net erosion have been necessary for American workers to “remain competitive”–it’s not about “remaining competitive,” it’s about putting more money in the pockets of the already wealthy, and yes, Sarko wants to cut estate and inheritance taxes.

So, how does a guy who wants to make life worse for the majority of his countrymen manage to get himself elected? Besides cheating, like the Bush junta did? The answer is the same combination of four-letter words Karl Rove has taken extreme advantage of: PLAY THE FEAR CARD. Sarkozy rose to fame and notoriety when his derogatory remarks about unemployed Muslim youth and his strong-arm police tactics helped trigger the Paris riots of 2005. Nothin’ like fear of brown-skinned furriners to galvanize the electorate!

Unfortunately, this is not just posturing on Sarkozy’s part. In an interview with philosopher Michel Onfray, Sarkozy revealed that he believes that criminal/deviant tendencies (such as pedophilia, suicide, and drug use) are genetic, not culturally learned, a belief that flies in the face of mainstream psychology but marches in goose step with Nazism and France’s perennial far-right bogey man, Jean Marie LePen, whose thunder Sarkozy effectively stole. What this means, in practical terms, is that there can be no correction, only punishment—and this seems to be a widely-applied view of Sarkozy’s. He does not take criticism well, and has reputedly used his connections with France’s conservative media barons to derail the careers of journalists who have disagreed with him. He has also been criticized for using police power to violate the civil rights of political protesters. He wants to test three-year-olds for “behavioral disorders,” and, presumably, medicate them if “necessary.” His election does not bode well for the future of open society in France. Oh, and did I mention he wants to increase France’s reliance on nuclear power? Yeah, you figured as much.

He also benefited from weak opposition. Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, talked about fostering a more nurturing government, but ran to the right, joining Sarkozy in advocating ratification of the European Constitution, which the French public has rejected by popular vote, and in calling for crackdowns on crime and tightening immigration standards, although she did advocate retention of taxes on the rich and a higher minimum wage. Many French voters said they liked her platform more but voted for Sarkozy anyway, because he seemed like a better leader. It doesn’t take much analytical ability to see a certain sexist bias operating here.

There are two responses to change. You can either accept it and open up to it, or close down and reject it. In either case, change will happen, but the open option is the smarter one in the long run. In the face of massive global social, political, ecological , and economic changes, France has chosen by a narrow margin to shut down and fight. There’s still a little time left to change your minds, guys….

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, Material Man

%d bloggers like this: