Flipping the Switch: Energy and History in Atlantic Canada

C. W. Vernon, "Dominion Coal Company Colliery No 2, Industrial Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, ca 1903." Source: Wikipedia

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Two years ago, at the NiCHE event EH+, I suggested a summer school on energy in the North Atlantic. It seemed like a nifty way to bring together people from Scandinavia and Canada to talk about the long histories and highly topical political implications of different energy sources in this part of the world. We tend to take energy to mean oil, originating in Alberta and being shipped elsewhere, but energy – and, more quietly but persistently, energy history – is in the headlines daily on the East Coast, whether wind, tide, biomass, or fossil fuels.

And there is so much energy history here. From Norse explorers to schooners from Lunenburg, to windfarms along the Danish coast and the Pictou highlands. From Abraham Gesner discovering kerosene to drilling platforms in the North Sea and Hibernia. From coal wealth and dependencies to a commitment to renewables – led by Denmark in Europe and Nova Scotia in Canada – spurred by climate change. Whale oil to woodlots … Muskrat Falls to the Minas Basin …

Grand plans for Scandinavian-Canadian world domination gave way to a workshop called “Sustainable energy in the North Atlantic: Historical lessons to support long-term energy solutions.” And the day was one of the best experiences in “dissemination” and “outreach” I’ve had as part of NiCHE.

Why? Principally because three historians got forty non-historians thinking about history – as interesting, important, and directly related to the decisions they are making about energy policy in Nova Scotia today.

We know this stuff is important. But we often struggle to convince policymakers, or even our students, that history is necessary to understand environmental issues. And to a teacher, there’s nothing quite like the feeling when someone says, “I’d never thought of it this way before!”

The day was largely organized by Jeff Wilson, a newly-minted PhD from Dalhousie’s Interdisciplinary PhD program who researches sustainable economics and energy use in urban areas. As he said at the outset, the day had two goals: to discuss the possible contributions of history and institutional memory to informing better energy policy; and establish some transfer of knowledge between generations.

The best part of the day was the combination of people who showed up. Professors of materials engineering, environmental biology, and law. Staffers from the province’s Department of Energy and the city of Halifax’s energy program. Lobbyists and activists from places like the Ecology Action Centre. Recent university graduates, some now in graduate programs in resource and environmental studies, others working for NGOs or in climate change education. These were people who work in energy policy every day: fielding calls from the public about their energy bills, the proposed cost of the Muskrat Falls development, or the windfarm planned near their cottage; lobbying for the province to get off imported coal; or planning subsidized solar installations. Almost everyone knew each other, but few people in the room worked together or listened to each other frequently, and that made a big difference.

Decisions about energy are generally crafted out of a political mandate, and based on economic or market criteria. But we wanted to know: what does history tell us about Nova Scotia’s capacity for energy transformation? The province has proposed some of the most ambitious targets for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the country. How might cultural memory affect political support for different types of energy? What are the motivations at work behind energy projects, past and present? What initiatives from Nova Scotia have worked compared to neighbouring jurisdictions?

The day began with an overview of energy history in Nova Scotia, from seventeenth-century coal mining to the current target of 40% electricity from renewables by 2020. The goal was to show the diversity of energy sources in the region’s history, but also the longstanding association between energy security or self-sufficiency and ambitions for provincial sovereignty. John Sandlos of Memorial broadened the discussion to the sustainability of mining, based on his work with Arn Keeling on abandoned mines, arguing that despite the industry’s recent rhetoric, the decrease in ore – coupled with the “cyclonic” lifespan and environmental effects – shows that this is a material- and energy-intensive, and profoundly unsustainable, sector.

Then there were two sessions of “storytelling.” For each session, we could choose to sit at the table of one of four storytellers: someone who had been integrally involved with an energy initiative in Nova Scotia in the past forty years. These included the energy advisor for the consolidated Mi’kmaq nation; the authors of the province’s renewable energy strategy; a director of an offshore petroleum venture; and the energy coordinators from the Ecology Action Centre, a community cooperative, and Efficiency Nova Scotia. At each table, we were asked to listen for key moments in the story: turning points, critical actors and networks, moments of surprise. (Note to self: try this in teaching one day. It’s a terrific way to encourage “active listening,” and to both give someone the floor for a coherent narrative and then generate equitable participation.)

The first group of storytellers were generally older, the second generally younger. (The author is counting “younger” as “under 45,” with the accompanying positive implications for herself. ~Ed.) Then a “world café” style session further mixed the group up, asking for feedback on what we had learned, what had been missing, and what we would say to the next generation of energy leaders. Given the number of recent university graduates in the room, that was easy: they were sitting right there, and had been participating all day.

Finn Arne Jørgensen, of Umeå University in Sweden, gave the keynote evening public lecture. Speaking on “sacrifice zones,” comparing mining and windfarms in boreal Scandinavia, Finn Arne suggested even renewable energy requires such zones, pointing to public controversies over wind turbines placed in formerly scenic spaces.

Alternatives journal would like to host podcasts or video interviews with the storytellers – and many of the other participants. So we’re thinking of partnering with the Department of Energy to schedule a public series of talks in this format, featuring different actors from energy initiatives from the past few decades. It seems like a great way to continue the unexpected enthusiasm for learning about the surprisingly complex energy history in Nova Scotia.

One postscript: I was asked, “So, what does the historian see happening by 2050?” This has happened before, whether with climate change, national parks, or a host of other topics. How do other historians answer that question? We certainly don’t ask it of ourselves as a group; indeed, it seems to be completely outside our identity as a profession. But if policymakers and others are willing to hear about 1850 or 1950, then perhaps we should think about bridging past to future, and hazarding some predictions for 2050.

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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