Introducing “Moving Natures”

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We’ve invited the editors of the six new titles in the Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press to introduce the book they’ve edited. In this post, Ben Bradley, Jay Young, and Colin Coates introduce Moving Natures: Mobility and Environment in Canadian History.

Moving Natures explores mobility as one of the key ways people have encountered Canadian environments, changing and being changed by them in the process of doing so. mn1It examines the construction and productive use of mobility technologies and infrastructure, their environmental constraints and consequences, and the social and cultural motivations behind the use of those vehicles and pathways for an array of purposes – from provisioning to outdoor recreation. In doing so so, it brings together scholars who are studying different kinds of movement in the diverse environments of a very large country over a period of more than 150 years.

The mid-nineteenth century represents the book’s point of departure. It was during that period that the speed, distance, and regularity of corporeal movement began increasing on an unprecedented scale. A new energy regime saw fossil fuels burned in order to power locomotives, steamships, and other modern modes of transportation which in many places supplanted older, muscle- and wind-powered modes. That period also saw communication separated for the first time from corporeal movement through the use of electrical impulses. Many of the chapters show that the effects of this transportation revolution were highly uneven. Nevertheless, they did contribute to a widespread perception that time and space were being radically altered. To many Canadians, it seemed as though the pace of life was accelerating, the world was becoming a smaller place, and nature’s traditional constraints on human needs and desires for movement were being cast off.

“Mobility” is used in the book title instead of more familiar terms like “transportation” or “travel” in order to reflect a widened field of analysis. Over the last 15 years, scholars working in geography, sociology, and technology studies have proposed shifting the focus of social analysis towards mobility (or mobilities) in order to provide a fuller understanding of the forces that shape modern societies. This is a response to poststructuralist arguments that the social sciences’ traditional treatment of their subjects as neatly bounded, fixed, and impermeable – whether they be bodies or nation-states – has proven inadequate for understanding key aspects of an increasingly globalized world.

“Mobility,” then, is meant to indicate the movement of people, objects, images, and wastes across political boundaries and over time and space, as well as the implications and consequences of those movements. Considering mobility in this very broad sense can allow scholars to simultaneously build upon and transcend the disciplinary literatures around transport, travel, and tourism, which often focus narrowly on cost structures, economic modelling, and cultural representations. By permitting passengers and other users to be drawn into the foreground, it can also illuminate the motivations, practices, and experiences associated with all kinds of movement.

The chapters in Moving Natures are materially grounded, place-specific studies of diverse historical intersections between movement and the environment. They plow through topics including spring mud, winter blizzards, displaced soil, traffic jams, and unpredictable currents. As such, they make an important contribution to the emergent field of mobility studies, which has tended to overlook the environment. Closer consideration of disparate, fragile, unpredictable, and intractable environments can help ground some of mobility theory’s more fanciful flights, in which modernity is characterized by airy, seemingly dematerialized networks of travel and communication. Furthermore, as geographer Tim Cresswell has pointed out, much of the theoretical literature on mobility has been highly ahistorical.[1] Scholars who have embraced the approach most enthusiastically have tended to focus on contemporary, “innovative” topics such as wireless internet and driverless automobiles. Far less attention has been paid to older, less exotic forms of mobility –canals, canoes, sailing vessels, railroads – or the prosaic diesel engines and container carriers that environmental economist Vaclav Smil calls the “prime movers of globalization.”[2]

moving-natures-snowMobility studies can offer new insights to environmental history, whose practitioners have long argued that humans are not the exclusive “movers” of history. Both fields tend to recognize that culture affects human perceptions of material conditions, and each offers avenues for exploring cultural meaning – the ways that people understand the world around them – within the rhythms and practices of everyday life. For example, while most of the chapters in Moving Natures examine materially-grounded aspects of mobility, many also involve ‘imagined travels,’ primarily in the form of landscape representations that were produced by and for travellers.

Furthermore, perceptions of the natural world influenced the design of the fixed infrastructure that was essential for many modern types of mobility. Because this fixed infrastructure – whether a bridge, a snowshed, or an urban subway line – tends to have high economic and social costs, it therefore becomes almost a kind of permanent geographic feature. These lines, networks, and systems transform the environment by their construction and also impose path dependencies. Over time, they become taken-for-granted aspects of daily life and can shape people’s interactions with and perceptions of the environment for decades and even centuries. They have the potential to “lock” societies into certain patterns of movement and interaction with the environment, steering people and development over the very long term.

We hope Moving Natures will encourage other historians to look closely at the intersections and tensions between mobility and the environment. This is particularly the case for Canada, which has a rich tradition of historical writing about transport and communication, but in which the environment was often depicted as static geography, an inert and timeless “stage” that inspired and challenged the plans of human actors. At a moment when high energy use, changing climates, and habitat disruption rank amongst our most pressing concerns, there is an urgent need for better understanding of all kinds of mobility, the motivations behind them, as well as their on-the-ground consequences.

[1] Tim Cresswell, “Towards a Politics of Mobility,” Environment and Planning D: Space and Society 28 (2010): 17-31; “Mobilities II: Still,” Progress in Human Geography 36, 5 (2012): 645-653.

[2] Vaclav Smil, Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).

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