Review of Leeming, In Defence of Home Places

Stearman biplanes spraying insecticides. Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

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Mark R. Leeming. In Defence of Home Places: Environmental Activism in Nova Scotia. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017. 240 pgs, ISBN 9780774833400

Reviewed by Mark McLaughlin.

In recent years, environmental historians and others have increasingly turned to writing about the history of modern environmentalism in Canada. One of the most significant works on the subject has now been published: Mark Leeming’s In Defence of Home Places: Environmental Activism in Nova Scotia. By focusing on an entire Canadian province from the 1960s to the 1980s, Leeming asks the reader to divert their attention away from the usual suspects of Canadian environmentalism, the big national and international organizations like Pollution Probe and Greenpeace. He also challenges the notion that there was ever much of a national movement; instead asserting that it was a series of connected provincial movements, each with strong roots in the defence of local “home places.” For Leeming, it was this concern about the impacts of modernity on immediate home environments, more than any other factor, that was the glue that bound together an array of environmentally-minded groups in Nova Scotia, which often had differing and sometimes competing motives and visions.

At its core, Leeming’s study is an impressive mapping out of the linkages between the many groups that constituted Nova Scotia’s environmental movement, from its founding in the late 1960s to its maturation in the early 1980s. Even in a small province, the range of groups that popped in and out of existence over a period of approximately twenty years is somewhat staggering. There were three major issues that fuelled the growth of the province’s environmental movement: nuclear power, chemical spraying, and uranium mining. From the outset, Leeming argues, there was a substantive division present within the movement, one that only grew worse over time. He divides the resulting movement into two broader ideological camps: the “modernists,” those who thought environmental problems were rectifiable consequences of modern society and sought collaborative solutions with industry and the state, and the “non-modernists,” those who thought environmental problems were non-rectifiable consequences of modern society and sought radical change rather than collaboration with industry and the state.

Divided into five chapters, the book lays out how modernist and non-modernist environmentalists in Nova Scotia formed bonds through mutual defence of home places in the late 1960s and 1970s, but then largely went their separate ways by the early 1980s. Chapter 1 is an overview of the province’s formative conservation and environmental disputes in the 1950s and 1960s. The pace in this chapter is quite hectic, missing opportunities for the sort of detailed, in-depth analysis that historians prefer. In the second chapter, Leeming identifies opposition to nuclear power development as the issue that initially compelled environmental groups across the province to work together, first successfully against the Stoddard Island project in the early 1970s and then unsuccessfully against the push for nuclear power across the Bay of Fundy at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick later in the decade. We are also introduced to some of the elements that would eventually create tensions within the Nova Scotian environmental movement: the preference of some groups for “respectability” and more conservative language and goals, the watering down of the concept of “soft energy,” and the failure of “limits to growth” ideas to take hold in the province.

The remainder of the book details how the split between the modernists and the non-modernists came about. The third chapter, and the strongest, is an examination of the campaigns against insecticide and herbicide spraying in Nova Scotia in the 1970s and early 1980s. The central occurrence is the 1982-1983 “herbicide trial” presided over by Justice Merlin Nunn, which gained international notoriety. The modernist groups were eager to bring the case to court, and yet the very high bar for scientific evidence conclusively linking chemical spraying to detrimental effects on human health basically ensured defeat. Intriguingly, Leeming concludes that the loss of the trial, which featured no appeals to concepts like wildlife, ecology, or home places, marked the real beginning of the schism between the modernist and non-modernist environmentalists. The fourth chapter explores the efforts to stop uranium mining in the province, an issue that drove a permanent cleavage between the provincial movement’s two ideological camps. What caused the final division was the question of whether to participate in the proceedings of the Royal Commission on Uranium Mining in the early 1980s. As Leeming argues convincingly, the willingness of the modernists to participate with the government commission and the unwillingness of the non-modernists fractured the movement into mainstream and radical factions by 1985. Finally, chapter 5 is a brief synopsis of related environmental events that occurred later in the 1980s, with Leeming concluding that the fracturing of the movement continued to play an important role, even up until the present.

At times, the alphabet soup of environmental groups discussed in the book can be overwhelming, even though it does accurately reflect the number of organizations formed during this period in Nova Scotia. Leeming’s analysis is most effective when it is concentrated on key events, such as the herbicide trial and the uranium commission. More detail about pre-1960 contexts and attitudes would have also been helpful. As it stands, only a few paragraphs out of approximately 150 pages of material are really dedicated to anything that occurred prior to the 1960s.

On the whole, Leeming has produced an important work that will require environmental historians and others to rethink their approach to the growth of modern environmentalism in Canada. The shift in focus away from the big organizations and from the national to the provincial level, combined with a meticulous mapping out of linkages between myriad groups, culminates in a significant contribution to the burgeoning historiography on environmentalism. Leeming does not think of his study as “a decline-and-fall story,” but rather one of “intellectual growth and differentiation in a diverse movement.” “If there is a lesson to be taken from these pages,” he concludes, “it is not that environmentalism in Nova Scotia failed, but that it has always contained the elements of success, and at times has even managed to make them work” (p. 11). Well said.

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I am an Assistant Professor of History and Canadian Studies, a cross-appointment with the Department of History and the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine in Orono. I have research interests in the history of forestry, resource management and science, modern environmentalism, and government comics in Canada.

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