When Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex said before he left the UK that the UK is his home and a place that he loves, it got me thinking again about place. What is a place? A place we call home?
The UK is made of many regions that are busy and diverse, our culture is reflected in the ethnic diversity of our population groups, by the wide range of population and communities absorbed from our former colonial history. Some time ago Natural England carried out a study to create national character areas, and came up with 159 small pockets of landscape which seems too many and too small to really capture what the UK is today.
Although many parts of the UK – like Scotland – have carved out a unique sense of cultural identity, Sussex itself seems as if it has no real identity behind which we, the people of Sussex can align. We are West, Mid and East Sussex. We are coastal, downland, and busy international airport. We are rural and urban. We are market towns, cathedral city, cool digital seaside towns. We are agricultural, horticultural, viticultural, multicultural. We are where the oldest human skeleton was found in Britain, the place where Harold copped an eyeful, once home to Saxon hordes, Roman villas and Roman roads. We are cretaceous in geology with a dash of tertiary rock.
We are an economy, according to Coast To Capital, the Local Economic Partnership that straddles most of our territory, that is ‘stalling’. We’re considered part of the wealthy South East and yet food banks abound. We live in the shadow of one of the world’s greatest international cities, but if you wander through the woody villages of the South Downs and meander the paths of our national park and private estates, there is still more than just an echo of the era of Downton.
So what are we really? In an international and globalised era where many of us identify with many different nationalities, homes and qualities, does it matter that we’re a muddled and somewhat indistinct identity?
Well, it might.
As the UK government and local councils commit to a zero carbon economy by 2050 (latest), it is becoming more evident that a green, open and inclusive economy, will be a local economy – or more specifically – a glocal economy. Moreover, it will be a system of self-reliant local economies that seek to meet most of their needs from within their boundaries. If we are to escape the potential impact of being reliant on a global economy where transport is vulnerable to disruption caused by the impact of climate change, we need to find pathways to transition to a different and more resilient economic model that mitigates for future potential disruption.
At least to some extent, this means we need to re-regionalise, re-vitalise and renew our idea of what local economies can do, whilst still recognising that much of our resilience is now tied to a global economy. It’s about a different approach which seeks to ensure we fulfill the human needs of our population within the constraints of the ecology that we live in. We achieve this by designing an economy that puts the thrivability of all life in our bioregions at the heart of economic design. It’s an internal economy first, an international economy second.
What could bioregional identity add to the future of Sussex?
If we are to strengthen our local economy in a changing global economy (to fully decarbonise, it will have to change in terms of transportation of goods) deepening our understanding of our bioregional identity might be useful.
Although bioregionalism as a concept has not really taken off in UK political circles, I predict it is about to undergo something of a renaissance. Why? Because it offers something more than just economic strategy. It offers a way of thinking about sustainable living – a way of living a ‘rooted life’ – which could offer benefits to our social, spiritual, psychological, political and environmental life. It can include ideas such as qualities that are meaningful to humans; wellness, what it means to work, how fulfilled or happy we are, how our provisioning systems affect who we are and how we live.
What are the benefits of a regenerative bioregional-led identity?
1. Resilient pathways in the face of uncertainty: the man in the White House might call environmentalists Prophets of Doom. I prefer to think of us a Prophets of the Precautionary Principle.
As the practice of sustainability began to develop away from its technical, tactical origins in environmental management systems, a vast array of different approaches emerged to help us adapt our systems to a different approach. They have mainly proliferated as marketing sectors: organic, natural, holistic, sustainably sourced, Fair Trade. But methodologies also emerged; biomimicry, biophilic design, bioregionalism, circular economy, regenerative agriculture, The Natural Step, permaculture, living buildings, Transition Towns, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Doughnut.
All of these are continuing to emerge slightly off-centre of traditional economic debate. They have not yet cohered into a respected and resilient framework. They are experimental pathways which are slowly proving their worth. We need transition models to move a global economy from the fossil fuel, constant growth model we have known. We are not good at leaping into the unknown, we need a bridge. The pathway of regenerative development in bioregions offers a framework, a narrative – which – if we began to tell it well, offers a resilient pathway in the face of an uncertain future around which the businesses and citizens of Sussex could cohese – if we can come together and co-creatively design it.
2. An antidote to the negative impacts of consumerism. If we agree that the reduction of consumption patterns is a key necessity to drive a reduction in energy use – specifically fossil fuel use – then we need to consider the part that consumption plays in identity. For almost 100 years now we have used – and been encouraged to use – our patterns of consumption as part of our identities. Whether we identify as hippies, students, environmentalists, upwardly-mobile, Millennial or Boomer, we have shaped those identities by acquisition of material things which bolster our sense of place in the world and help to establish who we are. Consumer-based identities require the constant purchase of products which help to establish hierarchy, superiority, achievement, and status. Own a house. A bigger house. A bigger car. Tread the journey from fake goods to the real mccoy and you’ve ‘made it’.
The problem with endless consumption is becoming all too obvious to us. Mountains of waste. Plastic oceans. Deforestation. Biodiversity collapse. Species extinction. But also an increasing epidemic of social disparity across all communities – from the global north to the global south, the explosive growth of wealth polarity in the past decade even in developed nations, and the human misery it has brought with it. The extractive economy which drives consumption may have brought us an enormously increased quality of life, but it is also putting us on the brink of ecological collapse and social breakdown.
If we have to reduce consumption to reduce the embodied carbon within the cycle of production, we take away consumption as a pillar of social identity. We could replace it with a bioregional identity rooted in place.
3. Re-Identification with our natural life support systems: A bioregional identity is derived from the landscape, the watersheds, the ecosystem, the indigenous culture, its environmental history, cultural experience and geography. After centuries of human occupation, our Sussex landscapes are radically altered from what they once were. Where there were forests, there is now open rolling downland grazed by sheep for example. We can’t turn the clock back. But perhaps through learning, deepening our appreciation of the nature around us from which our wealth and security springs, we can discover something new and exciting that once more links us to the nature that supports us to guide our future identity. In connecting ourselves back to the nature that supports us, we might once more awaken the sensibility of interdependency with our natural environment instead of the relationship of domination, exploitation, management and control that has got us where we are today.
4. A Resilient Nested Place-Based Economy: historically bioregional identity or ‘sense of place’ is something that developed in opposition to the valued of globalisation and the gradual loss of place-based identity. As a young person growing up I was wildly excited when I first travelled to Venice and discovered the delights of different architecture, language, culture, customs – and of course products. I was particularly fascinated at that time in my life by craft; by interior design, glassware but also the luxurious fabrics and the kind of sumptuous leatherwork a girl from 1970s Brixton might have to go to Sloane Square to find! This is one of the chiefest joys of travel to me; learning about different cultures. Alas, the homogeneity of global markets has meant the loss of most of those kinds of experiences. As we have lost connection through the identity that local, indigenous craft and design gives to a culture through global commodification, so we have lost something of the unique experience of one human culture engaging with another. A regenerative bioregional approach gives us a platform on which to develop a nested series of economies inside Sussex that support a local economy in a global world. From the modern craft for which we could be known – viticulture, horticulture, aquaponics, hydroponics or the future of sustainable avionics or digital design to the regenerative home-building and community building that could be characteristic of our future.
5. A More Than Just Marketing Tool: What I found from my exploration with our food, farming and agricultural communities in West Sussex during 2019 is that there is a call for a stronger identity for the area in a pure marketing sense. There was a sense that a stronger identity – not unlike the identity Scotland has forged for itself – could enhance the rural food-based businesses which might in turn give new story, coherence and vitality to our tourism message.
If we take into account that the wellspring of food businesses – from Caroline’s Dairy to Tangmere Peppers, from Bluebell Vineyards in Sheffield Green to Tinwood in Eartham, from Edgcumbe’s Coffee to Hepworth & Co brewers – that owe their existence to some particular qualities of the bioregions they inhabit – there’s probably something worth exploring just for the rural food community.
If you extend that thinking towards coastline, what is the relationship between our pebbly beaches, our inlets and harbours, our cliffs and sandiness that has spawned both digital and engineering creativity, an international harbour and a thriving leisure sector? It’s hard to say until you start exploring. Are we creative coastals, doughty downlanders, bridge-building blenders mixing the best of craft, tradition, tech and innovation? Are we light and porous, absorbent and adaptive like the greensand that runs through the north and the chalk lands of the downs and coast. Do our rivers make us who we are or do they flow through like unnoticed and unvalued? Does the sheer number of light hours that makes our horticulture industry so vibrant give us a more mediterranean optimistic outlook?
An Invitation to Regenerative Bioregional Development as Economic Strategy
When you use the word regenerative in economic circles, people tend to think immediately of brownfield sites and down-at-heel council estates. Regenerative Development – with bioregionalism woven into it – is much more than that. It’s a way of thinking and an approach that is about enhancing the ability of living beings to co-evolve, so that our planet and its species continue to express its potential for diversity, complexity, and creativity. It is a design process that is capable of assessing and responding to the world’s living complexity that is flexible, adaptable and able to evolve with whatever is emerging. That’s a radically different way of thinking to the one we have been taught; one which is linear, control, predictable, with defined paths and outcomes for which we have a strategic plan.
That doesn’t mean it is without a goal. A regenerative bioregional approach to life seeks first and foremost to reconnect humanity to the natural world of which we are part; to heal the relationship between us as a species and all other life forms. It’s goal in achieving that, it to create a resilient future space for humanity to heal the divisions it has designed between its own species through nation states, county lines, borders, race, religion, gender, age, and any other ‘ism’ you can think of.