Landscapes of Science

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and the histories of science, technology, and medicine. Subsequent posts are available here.

On Canada’s west coast an archipelago of islands and straits sits between northern Vancouver Island and the mainland. In the north, the Mackenzie River meets the Beaufort Sea in a delta landscape of channels, wetlands and lakes. Down east, the woods, fields and hills of the Oak Ridges Moraine arc across Toronto’s suburban sprawl. These are very different landscapes, with distinctive historical patterns of environmental use: forestry, fisheries and salmon farming; fur trapping and oil exploration; and urban development. But they all share a history of scientific activity. Like many other places in Canada, they are landscapes of science.

These landscapes remind us that although science is often associated with laboratories, there’s an extensive history of scientific work outside, in a variety of environments, for a multitude of reasons. Scientific activity has proliferated in industrial, resource and urban landscapes, and in places where human activities are less dominant. The questions that scientists ask and the methods they apply in these places have been shaped by their training, disciplinary affiliations and funding, among other factors. Political and managerial imperatives are also important, such as surveying and asserting national territory, justifying and guiding resource exploitation and management, and tracking the impacts of human activities. Science has been central to key episodes in the environmental history of Canada. Over the last decade, as the Broughton Archipelago became a controversial site for salmon farming, it also attracted intensive research activity. The Mackenzie Delta has been amply studied over the last several decades, partly because of interest in and concerns about oil and gas development. And in controversies concerning development of the Oak Ridges Moraine, research, particularly on groundwater, has played a leading role.

The Mackenzie River on a calm day. Photo credit: Anson Chappell.
The Mackenzie River on a calm day. Photo credit: Anson Chappell.

Much has been written about the history of science in the Canadian environment. I’m thinking, for example, of Matt Farish’s work on military science in the Arctic, Stéphane Castonguay’s study of agricultural, forest and entomological science (Protection des Cultures, Construction de la Nature), Caroline Desbiens’ analysis of environmental science and the James Bay hydroelectric project (Power from the North), and Richard Rajala’s study of forestry (Clearcutting the Pacific Rain Forest). All of this work combines in different but interesting ways the history of science and environmental history. But much remains unexamined. What topics and themes deserve more attention in the environmental history of Canadian science? Here are five ideas.

1) The political and economic contexts of science. Discussion these days of science and politics in Canada tends to be dominated by criticism (amply justified) of the Harper government’s manipulation and ignorance of science. But debates about science policy should be placed in their historical context. This means following the money: paying attention not just to how government funds science, but the implications of private funding for environmental research, by industry, foundations, and even wealthy individuals. Although it’s likely accelerated in recent years, privatization has in fact been a factor in Canadian environmental science since at least the early 1970s, when the Trudeau government began shifting research activity from its own agencies to the private sector, in an effort to build an environmental consulting industry. The nature and implications of this creeping privatization of environmental knowledge for government, public spaces and civic life remain largely unexamined by historians.

2) Scientists’ practices and material cultures. Study of the environmental history of science includes examining what scientists actually do, and with what – how they interact with the environment, designing surveys, conducting experiments, using models of various kinds to make sense of their data and identify patterns in nature. Scientists’ choices about their methods and how they use these to assert their own credibility helps determine what gets to count as knowledge.

3) The environmental contexts of scientific activity. Scientists work in many environments: both controlled field sites, and unpredictable landscapes, including those transformed beyond recognition, such as the tar sands or hydroelectric dam sites. Developing reliable results in such places can pose real challenges, particularly when these results are controversial. Attention to where science is done can help in understanding how knowledge is affected when the environment being studied is itself transformed – and how constructing scientific practices and facts is inseparable from constructing the identity of a place.

4) The historical geography of science. Scientific activity has ebbed and flowed across the Canadian landscape, responding to government and industrial patronage and scientists’ priorities. This geography raises many interesting questions, such as the relation between the postwar expansion of science in northern Canada and efforts to administer and exploit the region, the influence of global scientific activities (such as climate change studies) on knowledge of our own environment, and the relation between local knowledge and technical expertise imported from elsewhere.

5) Indigenous knowledge and its relation to science. Once dismissed by scientists as anecdote and superstition, Indigenous knowledge has more recently been recognized as a source of guidance, of insight into memory and meaning, and as much of the basis for asserting territorial rights. But there’s also a history of scientists drawing on Indigenous knowledge, often without acknowledging their sources. These and other relations between knowledge systems deserve more study.

So there’s much to pursue in the study of the environmental history of landscapes of science. In the Anthropocene, thinking about environmental knowledge raises essential issues of power, identity, interests, and even human survival. This is fertile ground for environmental historians ready and willing to engage with the biggest questions of our future.

Feature Image: Science happens here too. Salmon Coast Field Station, British Columbia. Photo: Stephen Bocking.
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Stephen Bocking

Professor, Trent School of the Environment at Trent University
Professor of environmental history and policy in the Trent School of the Environment, Trent University. Teaches courses on environmental history, science and politics, and environmental issues in the Global South. His website is:


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