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Varieties of Nova Scotian Environmentalism

Like many others who do 20th century history, I came to my subject out of a desire to know why things turned out the way they did in my own lifetime. And like everyone who writes history, I bring to it my own way of looking at the world. What those two things mean for me, in the midst of researching the history of environmentalism in Nova Scotia, is that I began with an observation of difference and I have carried out my research ever more as an inquiry into differences among environmentalists.

Difference was such an inspiring starting place only because there was supposed to have been so little of it among the first generation of Nova Scotian environmentalists. In the early 2000s, battles over wind farms and other technological cures for pressing problems visibly divided a provincial movement that claimed to have enjoyed a strong sense of unity through the industrial forestry campaigns of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Activists could point for example to the herbicide trial of 1983, which prompted fund-raising efforts from Yarmouth to Sydney and collected plaintiffs with names like Francis, MacGillivray, Doucette, Googoo, Calvert, and Schneider, and mournfully wonder what had happened to their sense of common purpose. It seemed like the movement had found in climate change that “moral equivalent of war” for which it had searched so long, only to fall apart over the sense of urgency it demanded. I wanted to know why.

As it turns out, however, today’s divisions are there in the archives as well; the unity cry of the greens is a rhetorically useful but factually dubious bit of theatre. Looked at from a perspective that doesn’t extend a false recollection of unity into the past, the longest campaign ever fought by environmentalists is the one they have ceaselessly fought amongst themselves to define their own activities. The key question with research like mine then becomes simple: what was and is “environmentalism”? For years the movement has uncomfortably worn the mantle of middle-class reaction. Usually that means reaction to the modernist project. (Sometimes, it includes reaction to the work of nature itself, at least when environmental history remembers itself.) But it has become clearer with the piling up of work by Ramachandra Guha, Robert Gottlieb, Juan Martinez-Alier, and others over the last two decades that environmentalism is marked by diversity in its roots and branches both. My project therefore deals with the urban/rural divide, aboriginal environmental justice, the influence of scientific thinking, and political/economic power, among other themes, and how they all come together to fill the empty word, “environment,” with meaning.

Nova Scotia, aside from being the inspiration for my project, offers the perfect site for an investigation of environmental activism, one that can tell the story of life in Canada’s late 20th century environmental movement better than a national story can. It is big enough to support a diverse movement (a Canadian Environment Week newsletter published in 1981 lists 27 different environmental activist groups in the province), and small enough to study without omitting too many of the local actors. Since the 1970s, Nova Scotian environmentalists have also had close connections with Canadian, American, and European activists, as well as with the provincial and federal governments.

At the moment I am tracing the story of two periods of activist group formation, one in the early 1970s, partly in response to the provincial government’s attempt to build a 12,000 MW nuclear power station on a small south shore island in the middle of the richest lobster fishing area in the province, and another in the early 1980s, in response to increased use of pesticides in forestry and to an application by a French company to begin uranium mining. I hope in the end to be able to show how the negotiation of meaning in environmentalism by the “first wave” influenced the second, as well as how inevitable and valuable different definitions of environmentalism have been in the past, regardless of their being concealed and denied.

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Mark Leeming

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