Review: An Environmental History of Canada

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Reviewed by: Nancy LangstoMacDowell_Cover spreadn, Professor of Environmental History, Michigan Technological University

Laurel Sefton MacDowell. An Environmental History of Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012. 352 pp. Illustrations, maps, figures, tables, notes, bibliography, and index. Paper $49.95. ISBN: 9780774821025.

As readers of The Otter well know, Canadian environmental history is flourishing. No longer a northern extension of US environmental history, the field is rich with detailed case studies and innovative theoretical approaches. The 2013 Toronto gathering of the American Society of Environmental History showcased much of this work, and a recent forum on environmental history in the Canadian Historical Review (Dec. 2014) demonstrates that not only Canadian environmental historians are curious about the field. In recent years, we’ve witnessed the surest sign of an established discipline: multiple textbooks, including Graeme Wynn’s Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History (ABC-CLIO, 2007), Neil Forkey’s Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century (U. of Toronto Press, 2012), and the subject of this review, Laurel Sefton MacDowell’s, An Environmental History of Canada (UBC Press, 2012).

Unlike Wynn and Forkey’s books, An Environmental History of Canada appears to be aimed at a lower-level undergraduate survey in environmental history. It’s too long and expensive to be a supplemental text for a general Canadian history survey, and it’s too basic to be assigned in an upper-division or graduate course. Survey textbooks must typically cover a very long time period and a very large geographic area. Unfortunately, this means that most surveys lack a compelling argument, theoretical sophistication, or the rich, contradictory detail that helps an author weave a powerful narrative. Surveys, in other words, are usually boring–for instructors as well as for students.

MacDowell does her best to avoid such pitfalls by adopting two strategies: first, an innovative hybrid structure and second, an engaging writing style with a clear set of arguments. An Environmental History of Canada combines a traditional chronological organization in the first two sections with a thematic structure in the latter two sections. Part 1, Aboriginal Peoples and Settlers, uses 61 pages to cover tens of thousands of years: from the Ice Ages and deeper earth history, and then on to Aboriginal peoples before European contact. Next come the colonists, first extracting furs and then settling the prairies. A few pages later, students meet geologists, botanists, loggers, timber barons, and a few people protesting pollution from sawmills. Not surprisingly, the treatment of each group is cursory. What’s most original about this short section is that Europeans receive as little attention as Aboriginal peoples.

Part 2 is equally ambitious, covering “Industrialism, Reform, and Infrastructure.” The most useful part of this section is the initial chapter, “Early Cities and Urban Reform”, with its emphasis on urban environmental history, public health, and water and waste-disposal infrastructure. Too many students taking their first environmental history class still believe that the field is about the history of environmentalism and parks, so this chapter offers a useful corrective. The other strong chapter in Part 2 is “Mining Resources”, which succinctly examines the history of the Canadian mining industry. The uranium, arsenic, and asbestos cases are particularly fascinating in their interweaving of environmental and worker health concerns. The other two chapters in Part 2, (one on parks and one on suburbs), work reasonably well as self-contained chapters, but their position in the textbook may bewilder many undergraduates, who are unlikely to understand why the chapters are jumping from the 19th to the 20th century, then back again to the 19th century. Clearer signposting of chronology and thematic structure would make Part 2 more helpful for students.

Parts 3 and 4 are organized around a collection of themes, including energy, water, agriculture, fisheries, parks, and climate change in the north. These sections often contain interesting narratives, including strong material on energy, water development, the Mackenzie river delta, and fisheries. But as in Part 2, the intellectual reasons motivating the author’s organization won’t be clear to many students, who are likely to wonder why they’re reading about the same material, such as parks history, that was already introduced in earlier sections. A good instructor, however, can do much to clarify the organizational choices of a textbook, so these are not fatal flaws, particularly if the arguments in the book are clear.

MacDowell develops several interconnected arguments. First, Canadian environmental history is distinct from US environmental history. Canada has different geological, climate, and political contexts, which have led to different human-environment relationships. This is a useful argument, and the sections where MacDowell compares Canadian cases to US cases are often rich (for example, pollution control).

The second core argument MacDowell makes is much more problematic, at least for this reader. In her telling, Canadian environmental history is unrelentingly declensionist. MacDowell argues that Canadians, even more than other industrialized nations, have made economic growth their highest priority. Because Canadians assumed that their nation contained vast and abundant resources, they were much slower than Americans to regulate industry. When environmental problems resulted, rather than adopting changes that might limit growth, governmental scientists and policymakers turned to the quick fixes of engineering and technology.

Declensionist narratives have their place, but they’re not the only important narratives in environmental history. Yes, rivers have caught on fire and workers have been devastated by pollution in factories, fields, and mines. But plenty of other interesting things have happened in the long negotiations between human cultures and nature across North America. What’s most rich and provocative about environmental history is its insistence on the mutually constitutive relation between nature and culture. An Environmental History of Canada contains plenty of episodes where Canadians transform nature. But what about the times where nature transforms Canadians? This text rarely places nature into history as an active agent of change. Nature and Aboriginal peoples alike come across as victims with minimal agency. Even more rarely does the text engage with enviro-technical change, the history of science, gender, or the nuances of Aboriginal history and power.

Textbooks don’t have to wallow in theory, but by ignoring theory, MacDowell flattens the richness of environmental history into a sad, simple story: nature is ruined by people. Fisheries get depleted, rivers get dammed, forests get cut, Aboriginal people get devastated. Of course, all those things did indeed happen in particular places and particular times. But by removing much of the complexity of environmental and cultural change, these sad stories begin to seem inevitable, and thus—paradoxically for a history textbook–outside of history.

Citation: Nancy Langston. “Review of An Environmental History of Canada. By Laurel Sefton MacDowell (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012).” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (October 2015).

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Nancy Langston is an environmental historian who explores the connections between toxics, environmental health, and industrial changes in Lake Superior and other boreal watersheds.

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