Trees, Tar Sands, and Environmentalism

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Hi, my name is Lauren and I am fascinated by four things; the environment, visuality, transition zones, and the Rocky Mountains.

In my masters work this combination manifested itself in a study of visual representations of winter recreation in the Rocky Mountains created by 20-something life-long residents of Banff, Alberta in the 1920s. I have temporarily left the Rockies behind for my doctoral work to look at universities and environmentalism in late twentieth-century western Canada. A dissertation addressing three of the four is not too shabby and the Rockies may make a guest appearance.

Why universities? Universities present the opportunity to examine the modern middle-class transition zone from adolescence to adulthood that many in that segment of the population experienced by the late twentieth century. Universities are also spaces of education, each one with a distinct campus culture that changes every four or so years as the student population circulates through and brings in new demands on the institution in terms of educational expectations and social opportunities. As interest in environmental issues increased from late 1960s onward so did the prevalence of environmental sciences and studies departments and programs to respond to the demands of students and the interests of academics. On the social side, student organizations and newspapers offered an outlet for students to experiment with activism and advocacy in a relatively protected space.

Why environmentalism? The last three decades of the twentieth-century saw the rise of environmentalism from the fringe of 1960s social activism to the choice ideological discourse for the critique modern capitalist consumer culture and a main avenue for the educated middle class to exercise varying degrees of resistance to modernity. The environmental movement relies on bringing people together to form a unified voice and body of action, making it difficult to study without focusing on the organizations created to promote specific issues, like pollution, habitat destruction and conservation, and energy consumption. The stories of groups like Greenpeace and Pollution Probe are vital to our understanding of the environmental movement, however the current cultural currency enjoyed by the movement is a product of the emergence of environmental sciences, the development of a language and rhetoric of environmental degradation that is both narrative and visual, and the debates which occurred around the issues targeted by advocacy and activist groups.

Where is the visuality? By the end of the twentieth-century at a time when visuality constituted the main medium through which people constructed and transmitted messages and attempted to understand the rapidly changing environments around them. To look at any history of the late twentieth-century without considering visual images – photographs, films, cartoons, etc. – as sources that are as important as anything textual is to take for granted how visually reliant our culture is.

My research looks at western Canadian universities, specifically those in Alberta and British Columbia. It looks at convergence of advocacy, activism and education in universities, and the instances where the issues move beyond campus to join with movements in the larger urban community. The choice to focus on Alberta and British Columbia comes from years of wondering if the two provinces are deserving of the environmental reputations and assumptions made about them. Alberta is often painted as black as the oil that drives the economy, while British Columbia is as green as the coastal temperate rainforests. Yet, both provinces rely on natural resource extraction and development to sustain their economies and in both provinces environmental activism is often connected to these very activities – forestry, fisheries and oceans, and oil and gas. What the nature of the connections between economy, education, and environmental activism is the context of western Canadian universities remains to be seen and I am looking forward to exploring these topics as my doctoral work progresses. But first there are comprehensive exams to get through.

Lauren Wheeler is a PhD Candidate (History) at the University of Alberta.

Featured image: The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863) by Albert Bierstadt. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Public Historian specializing in visual representation, memory making, environmental history, and Alberta history. Currently a Program Lead with the Alberta Museums Association. Past NiCHE New Scholars Representative and Place and Placelessness Virtual Conference organizer.

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