Will it Play in Peoria, Alberta?

The Fehr family, Edmonton 1934. Source: Used with permission of Glenbow Archives, ND-3-6742

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This is the fourth post in a series on “Canada’s Anthropocene,” with posts and a roundtable by Pamela BantingAshlee CunsoloAlan MacEachern, and Joshua MacFadyen. To read the entire series, click here.

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The concept of the Anthropocene is useful, in both its metaphorical and geological senses, for defining our coordinates and setting our priorities. However, I would argue that like many of the meta-narratives of policy, sustainability, and environmental humanities in recent years, we need to ask, “Will it play in Peoria?”

The Fehr family, Edmonton 1934. Source: Used with permission of Glenbow Archives, ND-3-6742

This expression dates back to vaudeville days when producers decided that Peoria, Illinois, was the testing ground for whether new shows – and later products of many kinds – would appeal to consumers in every region and demographic in the US. As environmental humanists, we would do well to ask the same question of our work, and as Canadian historians, we might also consider a much smaller and less central Peoria, the tiny crossroads community in the Peace River District of Northern Alberta. The impoverished Fehr family were retreating from a failed homesteading attempt there in 1934 when the photo shown above was taken, the moment helping illustrate the roles of telecoupled land use and everyday optimism in the emerging Anthropocene.

The promise of free, unplowed farmland beckoned this family into one of the final chapters in the Holocene’s dominant food history — agricultural extensification onto new land. But there’s a reason why the Canadian Shield and northern valleys have been called “places of last resort.”[1] The Peace Country is hard, and combined with drought and Depression-era prices, many families were driven back to consider other options. Increasingly, those options included employment in cities or in the Anthropocene’s dominant food system — intensive agriculture on settled land.[2] The overall amount of global domesticated land use began to stabilize in the late twentieth century, and a “Green Revolution” in intensive agriculture allowed a relatively small number of people to produce more food on less land. However, there is one crop type that continues to occupy more land in the Anthropocene, oil crops. Although many newcomers like the Fehrs were forced out in the 1930s, a postwar boom in oilseed production eventually helped farmers to plow up Peoria and the Peace District. By applying environmental history and theories about telecoupled systems, we are beginning to understand how this occurs and what it means for other places of last resort in the Anthropocene.

In some ways, the Anthropocene as a concept was never intended to play in either Peoria. Not many people spend their days thinking about epochs and whether we’ve entered a new one. We are perhaps more likely to think about whether our current age is unique and how that affects us and future generations. Other ecological metaphors and metrics such as “footprints” and planetary boundaries are more helpful in this way than is Anthropocene. To J. R. McNeill’s and his co-authors’ credit, ideas like the “Great Acceleration” and “something new under the sun” are much more accessible.[3] Other scholars have proposed different metaphors. For instance, Ruth DeFries explains the process of human development, overshot, and adjustment as series of historical ratchets, hatchets, and pivots, and to her the Great Acceleration is simply “The Big Ratchet.”[4] This description is accessible and optimistic, but the question remains: who will write the sequel, “The Big Hatchet?”

Optimist Prime

Other writers downplay the severity or even the probability of such a sequel. Time magazine published its first guest-edited issue in decades this January, its tone departing from that of almost every other journal in the past year. Its theme was “The Optimists,” and its guest editor was the bard of binary himself, Bill Gates. Gates is a true optimist, and he, along with Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, expects that extreme poverty and malnutrition will disappear from the globe at some point in the 21st century. World population will stabilize and scientific development, including genetically modified C4 rice and other Gates Foundation initiatives, has the potential to feed billions and even produce another Green Revolution. The Gates Foundation’s view of the Anthropocene is fundamentally optimistic.

Environmental humanists have recently wrestled with striking a balance between hope and caution, particularly when it comes to our interpretations of the Anthropocene. For starters, when someone claims they can spark a new Green Revolution, humanists typically pivot from the problem of “can they” to the question of “should they?” Similarly, in the field of energy, we often read that nuclear power is the only feasible clean alternative to the fossil fuel energy system. When detractors raise the issue of nuclear’s inevitable disasters, people like Gates have argued computational models are now so robust that they can account for all possible scenarios. (Every time an optimist says that, God kills a kitten or at least tosses a spent nuclear fuel cell into the sea.)

Humanists again face the question of whether to remain hopeful. I’ve often struggled to determine whether I’m a pessimist or an optimist. It didn’t help when my Shakespeare professor explained As You Like It by noting that the play’s optimist (Duke Senior) and pessimist (Jacques) draw the same conclusions: that this is the best of all possible worlds!

My ambivalence deepened when I developed the kind of split personality it takes to work in both a School of Sustainability and a School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies. Half of my students are driven by a desire to model the future, and half are mourning the past. I believe the Anthropocene needs both the mourners and the modelers, and preferably people who understand how to do both at once.

Humanists are well suited to train, and to be, those people. As Anna Rosling Rönnlund, the cofounder of Gapminder, argued in Gates’ January edition of Time, “To understand the world, we have to focus on the unsexy, everyday life in the middle.”[5] I would only add that we need to understand place – places like Peoria and the Fehrs’ ill-fated attempt to homestead there. One of the critical aspects of understanding the Anthropocene is in understanding the food system that makes life possible for so many people. The part of the Fehr story that interests me is not why they wandered through Edmonton as barefoot beggars in 1934, but what brought them and so many others to the Peace District to begin with and how so many farmers ultimately succeeded there.

 

A Telecoupled Anthropocene

Figure 1: Telecoupling diagram, Source: Liu et al 2013.

Peoria and the Peace District illustrate one historically consistent aspect of the Anthropocene: the coupled human and natural systems that drive land use change across long distances. Ruth DeFries and other sustainability scholars have called this phenomenon “telecoupling,” and it helps explain a serious threat to ecosystems in the Global South.[6] Because of the rapidly increasing demand for agricultural commodities, fats and oils, and meat worldwide, southern farmers are putting new pressure on farmland including forests and on other previously unplowed land. They respond to global food prices, but they also respond to changes in other southern agro-ecosystems. The combination of global demand and shifting regional agro-ecosystems produces the telecoupling effect. The result is a bit like trying to follow the complex breezes of a butterfly effect, but knowing that the entire system is being influenced by a wind tunnel.

Oil crops are the single fastest growing land use type in global agriculture, and include well known crops such as palm oil and soybean.[7] The Canadian Prairies have also been one of the world’s leading sources of oilseeds, in the form of flax (linseed) and Canola (formerly rapeseed). When Abram Fehr took out an Alberta homestead in Peace River in the early 1930s, he was following the last large agricultural migration in Canadian history. The Peace District was a rolling river valley with minimal tree vegetation, and despite the harsh conditions of this northern land with moderate soils and a short growing season, farmers knew they could grow cash crops like barley and wheat. The Fehrs’ attempt failed after an early frost killed their first crop and a flood drenched the next.[8]

Many Prairie farmers of the day considered flax a “pioneer crop,” because it matured faster than most cereal crops, and when markets were good the oilseed could prove quite lucrative.[9] We don’t know whether Fehrs brought flax with them, but many Peace Country settlers did. The Peace River District went from growing 6 percent of Alberta’s flax in 1941 to 26 percent in 1956. Production was concentrated along the river and near the town of Grand Prairie, and unlike the ubiquitous cereals the flax crop was grown primarily by a handful of risk-tolerant farmers who watched Eastern markets carefully and tried to get into flax in an optimal year. The linseed oil market dropped after 1960, but it was replaced by the newly developed oilseed: Canola. The Peace River District’s oilseed empire began with flax, and after markets shifted, its farmers quickly substituted it with Canola in the crop rotation.

A farmer near the Peace River, 1954. Photo by Rosemary Gilliat Eaton. Source: Library and Archives Canada

Telecoupling is becoming one of the major models of Anthropocene land use change, particularly in terms of the palm and soy crops of the Global South. By examining similar oilseed commodities in a Canadian context we can see many of the same components at work in North America. Settler farmers benefited from liberal access to land and markets. They encountered environmental limits, and even disasters, such as depression-era droughts. They selected from a variety of subsistence, comestible, and industrial commodities, but ultimately changes in other systems determined the results. The Fehr photo helps illustrate how extensification ended with the Holocene. However, by examining the larger land use trends in Peoria and the Peace District, we see how telecoupled systems like oilseeds allowed new families to flood in, bringing along high-risk seeds like flax.

I hope that scholars of Canada’s Anthropocene will continue to think about how the epoch and the concept shape rural worlds. As we ask “will it play in Peoria,” we should be mindful of readers in middle (North) America, and we should think about how those places helped to create integrated food and agricultural ecosystems over time. I think it’s a good time for cautious optimism, for hope, and above all empathy. It is said that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight. As environmental humanists we have the ability to broaden sightlines, to places local and global and to lifetimes beyond our own.

 

[1] J. David Wood, Places of Last Resort: The Expansion of the Farm Frontier Into the Boreal Forest in Canada, C. 1910-1940 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2014).

[2] Helmut Haberl, Marina Fischer‐Kowalski, Fridolin Krausmann, Joan Martinez‐Alier, and Verena Winiwarter, “A socio‐metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation,” Sustainable development 19, no. 1 (2011): 1-14; Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Fridolin Krausmann, and Irene Pallua, “A sociometabolic reading of the Anthropocene: Modes of subsistence, population size and human impact on Earth,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (2014): 8-33.

[3] John Robert McNeill, Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth-century world (WW Norton & Company, 2001); John Robert McNeill and Peter Engelke. The great acceleration (Harvard University Press, 2016).

[4] Ruth DeFries, The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis (Basic Books, 2014).

[5] With that said, I’m rather glad that she designed the very sexy data visualization machinery behind Hans Rosling’s TED Talks, the animated time chart called Trendalyzer.

[6] Jianguo Liu, Vanessa Hull, Mateus Batistella, Ruth DeFries, Thomas Dietz, Feng Fu, Thomas Hertel et al. “Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world,” Ecology and Society 18, no. 2 (2013).

[7] Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2018) – “Yields and Land Use in Agriculture”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/yields-and-land-use-in-agriculture‘ [Online Resource]

[8] Bill Waiser, “History Matters: The baby in the Depression photograph,” Star Phoenix, December 20, 2016 http://thestarphoenix.com/opinion/columnists/history-matters-the-baby-in-the-depression-photograph

[9] My book Flax Americana: A History of the Fibre and Oil that Covered a Continent, is available for preorder at McGill-Queen’s University Press.

 

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I am an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. As co-investigator on the Sustainable Farm Systems Project (based at the University of Saskatchewan) I am building on the work of the Great Plains Population and Environment Project, conducting new research in agriculture on the Plains and my own case study of Prince Edward Island. From 2010-2014 I was a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow and then NiCHE project coordinator.

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