Report coordinated by Patti Ellis, David Cunningham, James Quilligan et al., Biocapacity Research Team of Economic Democracy Advocates, 2018

We recognize that many groups are actively working to develop alternative indicators for sustainability. We embark on this study to see if calibrating biocapacity may offer the kind of impact valuation for agriculture which does not exist in the market economy and its system of metrics.

Essentially, Biocapacity is the dynamic balance point between the number of organisms within a given area and the amount of resources that are needed to support them within this area. Thus, agricultural biocapacity indicates the degree to which the population of a bioregion is greater or lesser than the food that is available from the bioregion to feed it.

By combining scientific reason with place-based knowledge, culture and history, biocapacity provides a baseline for sustainability by showing how different interventions will effect different outcomes. This allows communities to develop evidence-based guidelines for organizing their own resource sufficiency while regenerating the ecology of their life-places.


On Bioregionalism in the Bay Area

Gradually, this eclectic group of naturalists began to call their field “bioregionalism” (bio is the Greek word for life; regere is the Latin word for a place to be managed). So, bioregionalism is essentially the idea of lifeplace — a way of extending the life of a community to the life of the biosphere through the ecological renewal of a particular area. The new bioregionalists wanted to combine local knowledge, beliefs and values with the unique characteristics of the climate and topography, the soils and plants, and the animals and habitats where they lived.

These ideas spread across the United States, but San Francisco was the epicenter for this people’s movement. They called on citizens to stop running away from the problems of industrial economy to better understand the land around them, the limits to its resources, and how this could help meet the needs of the diverse species who live there, including homo sapiens. Their vision was the development of new social and cultural relationships within the context of geographical communities.

Bioregionalism was a unique perspective for addressing major environmental challenges on a human scale. It acknowledged that solving large ecological problems by ‘thinking globally’ is much too disempowering for the average person. Although ‘acting locally’ is clearly the practical first step, it operates on too small a scale to impact environmental governance. The activities of localization simply don’t generate enough political power within small communities to stop centralized governments and markets from exploiting these decentralized life-places for their own ends.

The bioregionalists explained why there are so few decision-making organizations or networks at regional levels, where harmful ecological problems could be most effectively addressed. They showed how history and economics had prompted leaders to draw artificial local, state and national borders that seldom conformed to the ecological zones which overlap with them. Hence, natural boundaries have little correlation with our present political, economic and social boundaries and their institutions. To be sure, many ecological problems — involving personal and collective choices and action, as well as their cumulative effects on human lives — cannot be resolved within existing political jurisdictions. Ultimately, we become inhabitants separated from our own habitats.

How is cooperation over resources even possible if our geographical borders cannot be redrawn to protect and manage the environment? An engaged movement for a more ecological society cannot succeed without some kind of graphic image of the bioregional boundaries which are hidden from view. Such a map would focus on a region’s hydrology, geology and physiography, but also reflect its culture, history, present land-use patterns and climate.

From the Conclusion

Based on our research, most of the region will exceed its biocapacity to produce food for its growing population within two or three decades.

Industrial pollution, climate change, sea level rise, invasive species, water diversions and loss of wetlands are threatening enormous swaths of human habitat. Before 2050, the prodigious agricultural production of the San Francisco Bay Watershed will fail to produce sufficient quantities of agriculture for its population due to uncertain rainfall, flooded coasts and inlets, depletion of aquifers, topsoil loss, an export-led business model and a lack of cooperative dialogue among its political subdivisions.

Our study indicates that locally-produced calories have more monetary and ecological value when consumed in the same life-places where they are produced. Yet as long as the San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward MSA continues to import agriculture from elsewhere, the community will be impacted by rising food prices. Importing food into the dense population of the Bay Area will be possible until its food suppliers — foreign, domestic and regional — face their own supply limits for finite energy and raw materials and the breakdown of their own their fragile infrastructures.

When the Bay Area becomes too severe a strain on the bioregion itself, the reversal will be rapid. The external dependency on food will collapse and the capacity of the entire San Francisco Bay Watershed to sustain itself will be overtaken by extreme costs in food, water, energy and housing.

Why do we exploit our ecosystems instead of restoring them as life-places for habitation? This was the basic question raised in 1968. Now, ironically, San Francisco’s ‘back to the land’ diaspora could turn into a mass evacuation from the region as its resources continue to decline and its self-sufficiency falters. How this existential crisis is addressed in the San Francisco Bay Watershed — and in bioregions everywhere — will determine the ecological future of all life-places and our sustainability as a species. The question then will be, not how sustainable but how inhabitable is my own bioregion?

Still, if there’s any area that can break down the barriers between people and their land-place, integrating the human community with the ecological community, it’s the Bay Area — the spot where modern bioregionalism began and remains a vital part of the cultural memory. Community members are the very organisms that depend on environmental resources for support.

Now we must learn how to restore this dynamic balance. The issue is not if we have the will to do this, but how soon can it be done?

For more information, please contact James Quilligan or Patti Ellis at

Photo by RhyoR

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