Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and the histories of science, technology, and medicine. Subsequent posts are available here.
On Canada’s west coast an archipelago of islands and straits sits between northern Vancouver Island and the mainland. In the north, the Mackenzie River meets the Beaufort Sea in a delta landscape of channels, wetlands and lakes. Down east, the woods, fields and hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine arc across Toronto’s suburban sprawl. These are very different landscapes, with distinctive historical patterns of environmental use: forestry, fisheries and salmon farming; fur trapping and oil exploration; and urban development. But they all share a history of scientific activity. Like many other places in Canada, they are landscapes of science.
These landscapes remind us that although science is often associated with laboratories, there’s an extensive history of scientific work outside, in a variety of environments, for a multitude of reasons. Scientific activity has proliferated in industrial, resource and urban landscapes, and in places where human activities are less dominant. The questions that scientists ask and the methods they apply in these places have been shaped by their training, disciplinary affiliations and funding, among other factors. Political and managerial imperatives are also important, such as surveying and asserting national territory, justifying and guiding resource exploitation and management, and tracking the impacts of human activities. Science has been central to key episodes in the environmental history of Canada. Over the last decade, as the Broughton Archipelago became a controversial site for salmon farming, it also attracted intensive research activity. The Mackenzie Delta has been amply studied over the last several decades, partly because of interest in and concerns about oil and gas development. And in controversies concerning development of the Oak Ridges Moraine, research, particularly on groundwater, has played a leading role.
Much has been written about the history of science in the Canadian environment. I’m thinking, for example, of Matt Farish’s work on military science in the Arctic, Stéphane Castonguay’s study of agricultural, forest and entomological science (Protection des Cultures, Construction de la Nature), Caroline Desbiens’ analysis of environmental science and the James Bay hydroelectric project (Power from the North), and Richard Rajala’s study of forestry (Clearcutting the Pacific Rain Forest). All of this work combines in different but interesting ways the history of science and environmental history. But much remains unexamined. What topics and themes deserve more attention in the environmental history of Canadian science? Here are five ideas.
1) The political and economic contexts of science. Discussion these days of science and politics in Canada tends to be dominated by criticism (amply justified) of the Harper government’s manipulation and ignorance of science. But debates about science policy should be placed in their historical context. This means following the money: paying attention not just to how government funds science, but the implications of private funding for environmental research, by industry, foundations, and even wealthy individuals. Although it’s likely accelerated in recent years, privatization has in fact been a factor in Canadian environmental science since at least the early 1970s, when the Trudeau government began shifting research activity from its own agencies to the private sector, in an effort to build an environmental consulting industry. The nature and implications of this creeping privatization of environmental knowledge for government, public spaces and civic life remain largely unexamined by historians.
2) Scientists’ practices and material cultures. Study of the environmental history of science includes examining what scientists actually do, and with what – how they interact with the environment, designing surveys, conducting experiments, using models of various kinds to make sense of their data and identify patterns in nature. Scientists’ choices about their methods and how they use these to assert their own credibility helps determine what gets to count as knowledge.
3) The environmental contexts of scientific activity. Scientists work in many environments: both controlled field sites, and unpredictable landscapes, including those transformed beyond recognition, such as the tar sands or hydroelectric dam sites. Developing reliable results in such places can pose real challenges, particularly when these results are controversial. Attention to where science is done can help in understanding how knowledge is affected when the environment being studied is itself transformed – and how constructing scientific practices and facts is inseparable from constructing the identity of a place.
4) The historical geography of science. Scientific activity has ebbed and flowed across the Canadian landscape, responding to government and industrial patronage and scientists’ priorities. This geography raises many interesting questions, such as the relation between the postwar expansion of science in northern Canada and efforts to administer and exploit the region, the influence of global scientific activities (such as climate change studies) on knowledge of our own environment, and the relation between local knowledge and technical expertise imported from elsewhere.
5) Indigenous knowledge and its relation to science. Once dismissed by scientists as anecdote and superstition, Indigenous knowledge has more recently been recognized as a source of guidance, of insight into memory and meaning, and as much of the basis for asserting territorial rights. But there’s also a history of scientists drawing on Indigenous knowledge, often without acknowledging their sources. These and other relations between knowledge systems deserve more study.
So there’s much to pursue in the study of the environmental history of landscapes of science. In the Anthropocene, thinking about environmental knowledge raises essential issues of power, identity, interests, and even human survival. This is fertile ground for environmental historians ready and willing to engage with the biggest questions of our future.
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This is a fantastic start to this series, Stephen. I’m particularly intrigued by your third point, the environmental contexts of science. I think this is an important area of study with many new possibilities for historical research. I know that John Sandlos’s work on wildlife conservation in the Northwest Territories and Liza Piper’s work on the industrialization of the Subarctic have touched on this, but there are many more areas to consider.
Thanks, Sean. Yes, there’s much to examine on the historical environmental contexts of science, and John Sandlos, Liza Piper and others have done much to map this terrain. And among other aspects I might have mentioned in that third point is that of how knowledge, once formed in one environment, can then be considered to be relevant to understanding other places; in other words, how knowledge is mobilized — something that’s wrapped up in scientists’ methods, the classification of places, the construction of their own expert authority, and much else.
That is a very good point. It reminds me of Tina Loo and Meg Stanley’s arguments in the CHR about engineers and dam construction. They worked within specific environmental contexts from project to project, but their acquired knowledge and experience travelled with them around the world as governments and corporations built dams elsewhere.
Yes, Tina and Meg’s discussion was a great example of this broader phenomenon of certain forms of expertise (like engineering, in their case) being seen as easily mobilized, because they are considered credible & relevant wherever they are applied. And other kinds of expertise are considered, by definition, as immobile, because tied to specific places (like Indigenous knowledge). And looking at these issues in a Canadian context provides lots of opportunities to connect with international scholarship, such as science in imperial contexts (Grove’s Green Imperialism is a classic), or in disciplinary contexts (like Rajan’s Modernizing Nature, for forestry).
I too enjoyed this essay. It recalls the need for more scholarship on Canadian biological field stations and laboratories, a subject you’ve treated in your work (e.g. Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory) and Jennifer Hubbard has in respect of the federal fisheries research board. My interest is of course in the fisheries labs, and one place that comes to mind is the freshwater biological station at Go-Home Bay, where science and recreation were mixed. Kohler deals with the sporting dimension of expeditions, but it would be worthwhile to ask how these contexts and motives also shaped the questions scientists asked at these labs cum holiday resorts.
Thanks, Will. Yes, there’s much to examine in the history of biological field stations – even with your valuable work and others, we’ve barely touched the topic. One aspect of this, and linking with the science/recreation connection, would be the professionalization of Canadian science (including when Canadian professors started to get paid in the summer – I think that started in the 1940s or so?); another aspect would be transboundary connections, with Woods Hole and other science labs serving in some ways as models (at least I think they did – an hypothesis that needs to be tested!)
I want to add to the excitement and timeliness of this post and series. My research (which overlaps somewhat with Will’s new professional concerns) on federal experimental agriculture is already showing the ways the government seemed to train scientists who were then poached by private sector concerns and universities in the interwar years as the government was no longer able to compete on wages and benefits due to budgetary restrictions and civil service reforms–as well as very gendered concerns over who could do “agricultural science” and who could do “food research.”
I look forward to future posts!
That’s interesting, Pete; particularly about the gender dimensions – I’m guessing that the agricultural/food research distinction mirrored idealized divisions of labour on farms themselves, with the men out in the fields, and women managing the kitchen? And there must be interesting stories across numerous fields of these kinds of relations between federal science, the private sector, and universities. I suspect (but haven’t looked closely enough to be sure) that there was a pattern like this in the early 1970s in environmental research, when the federal government massively expanded its environmental competence, but then cut back, with the private consulting industry picking up many new hires.
Great insight into an ever growing body of research! There is so much to discover through these five points, perhaps six with Mr. Anderson’s (Hi Pete!) addition of gender. Matt Farish’s work in particular resonates with my research which covers the Canadian Rangers and their inclusion within Arctic science and the role of traditional knowledge within. Can’t wait for future posts!
Excellent post, Stephen. I think point #2 is particularly useful. I often see historians focus so much on the motives and the context of environmental science that they overlook the methods and the materials. And by “they” I mean we! I find it takes so much space to describe the historical context, events, and actors of science in resource economies that the actual scientific practice and experiments get short shrift. In many ways we are still, as you say, scratching the surface.
Thanks for these comments! Mitchell, I’m eager to hear more about your work on the Canadian Rangers and their relation to Arctic science and traditional knowledge. And thanks, Josh, for picking up on the importance of examining the “stuff” of science – what scientists actually do in the field and lab. For me, this point goes back to my dissertation work on the history of the relation between ecological science and environmentalism (Ecologists and Environmental Politics, 1997), where I found how scientists’ political commitments reach deep into their methods, and vice-versa. It does also mean that historians have to acquire a certain comfort level with scientific literature: taking apart the “methods” sections of journal articles, and so on.