Molly Scott Cato embarked on a mammoth task when she aimed to explain in depth the concept of a bioregional economy. Her book ‘The Bioregional Economy’ is subtitled ‘Land, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Somehow I expected a book about an economy that is entirely locked into a geographical region and its geology and landscape. I suppose I had in mind the country divided into watershed defined regions/economies. But that is not the whole story! While there is something about geography in the definition of bioregionalism as developed in this book, as is also explained in it, there cannot really be hard and fast boundaries in bioregionalism. Cato covers the full breadth of issues that determine the bioregional economy and consequently, this is not an easy read! It is however a highly scholarly piece with many quotations and references from diverse sources and standpoints, including for instance William Morris and David Abram, who might be regarded as living in different intellectual universes!
The central theme of the book is an economy based on low impact living and technology. The aim is to explore the integration of human life, industry, commerce and society with nature in a way that is mutually compatible and sustaining.
As I got into the book, I wondered why it seemed a bit “slippery”, sometimes appearing to talk around issues rather than homing in on them directly, but then I began to realise that this is because Catto is addressing subjects for which a fully rounded descriptive language still needs to be developed. Inevitably, she has to break new ground using the lens of current and sometimes past concepts of lifestyle and the workings of the economy.
Central issues looked at include the obviously untenable idea of unending economic growth and the ideology of globalism. In a sense, the bioregional economy is both the antithesis of and antidote to the neoliberal capitalist global economy that has become so damaging to nature, Earth systems and the environment. There are similarities here to Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economy’ and of course bioregionalism is rooted in, if not entirely redolent of, deep ecology. With a philosophical book such as this there is often the tendency to interpret human desires or activities over simplistically and in terms of purely rational objectives, rather than bringing into play the full range of complexities of human desire. Thus she rounds on status as the impetus for luxury shopping and promotes the idea of provisioning in ways that stand outside of the current market-based mechanisms. These things are discussed at length and lead to some interesting conclusions. However some of the ideas of craft, as a basis for manufacture, and the small town or village, as the best form of settlement, do not adequately address the demands of twenty-first century culture and the dependence on high technology and specialist expertise that we have come to rely on for communications and, for instance also, healthcare.
Having said all of the above, this is a very thought-provoking book which offers tenable alternatives to our current profligate way of living. To that extent it is also positive in what it offers. Cato is the first to admit that many of the ideas discussed need further work to bring them forward as fully tenable alternatives to the current system. In a sense, the book is a ‘primer’.
What is most worrying, sadly, is that it is hard to see the vested interests of, for instance the petrochemical industry, giving way to more sustainable sources of products and energy. The large Corporates that sustain the wealth of the very rich through their (currently mainstream) amoral focus on productivity and profitability hold huge power over the current political landscape and, without seriously revolutionary demands/ambitions, are unlikely to change course sufficiently rapidly to stave off the impending climate and biological catastrophe. To do this, the theories of Catto need to be embodied in a radical tangible political agenda, which is certainly not on the radar of the major current political parties at this time.