Introducing “Canadian Countercultures and the Environment”

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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, Colin Coates introduces Canadian Countercultures and the Environment.

Opposition to a “broken system”


Between the 1960s and the 1980s, many people, particularly among the young, believed that the “system” was broken, and they had to make radical changes. The ravages and injustices of the Vietnam War led many North American citizens to critique the societies in which they lived. But rather than turning their anger outwards, they embraced the challenge of changing their own lives. Many young people across Canada, accompanied by Americans rejecting the war actions of their own government, chose counterculture lifestyles, sometimes moving back-to-the-land on communes and attempting to live outside of the mainstream economy.

People who did not embrace their choices, including some of their neighbours, did not always like them, especially when they insisted on gardening or swimming in the nude. Their critics adopted Timothy Leary’s phrase, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,” to castigate them, assuming that their lifestyles revolved around drugs, sex and withdrawal from reality. As the chapters in this volume show, members of the counterculture in fact confronted key environmental problems and embraced new and innovative ways of dealing with them. They saw nature in a holistic sense – and hence celebrated the human body and the natural environment within which it thrives.

The book contends that the Canadian counterculture popularized issues of recycling, bicycling, renewable energy and midwifery, and they worked with their rural neighbours to fight pollution, often overcoming the initial antipathies that they experienced when they arrived in the areas. In many case, the counterculture used street theatre and civil disobedience to attract media attention to their causes. To a perhaps surprising degree, many of the groups discussed here benefitted from small funding opportunities provided by the federal government for a few years in the 1970s. Some of these small public investments have repaid their worth many times over, the Blue Box recycling programmes now common in many countries being a stellar example of such success. Even if members of the counterculture wished to remove themselves from the mainstream, they could see opportunities and seized them. English- and French-speakers drew similar inspirations and made similar choices, and in “going-back-to-the-land” they met those who had never left: Indigenous peoples in some locations and non-Indigenous farmers in others. Over time, the differences between the newcomers and the older inhabitants of the region diminished, and children raised in the counterculture often look back on their upbringing with wry humour and fondness.

"Hippies Welcome at Heron Rocks." There is debate locally whether this was meant ironically.
“Hippies Welcome at Heron Rocks.” There is debate locally whether this was meant ironically.

This volume originated in conversations under a beautiful oak tree on two warm and sunny June days a few years ago at the Heron Rocks Conservation Society property on Hornby Island. The location, along with other pockets of similar activity on the West Coast, the Kootenays in BC, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, the Yukon and the Eastern Townships of Québec offered a home to people who sought to develop their own responses to the uncertain world they saw around them. In the presence of some of the Hornby Islanders who had made that choice themselves decades ago, we discussed a wide range of environmental issues. We wanted to capture the enthusiasm and optimism of the 1970s and 1980s and to recognise the great efforts many individuals and groups made to improve themselves and their society during that time period.

While the counterculture may not have exclusive claim to the parameters of current environmentalist debate, their perspectives created new ethical positions concerning these issues. Much of the counterculture critique of contemporary attitudes to the environment has become more mainstream today. But the gains of that period are not necessarily permanent. In the 2010s, we face a different and equally frightening “system,” just as the counterculture did in the 1960s-1980s. The Canadian counterculture was rooted in worldwide youth culture and oppositional stances. Participants engaged with the state in an attempt to achieve their aims. Perhaps some lessons from that earlier period can inspire local action today. As the counterculture foresaw, finding a balance between technology and environment remains one of the most pressing issues facing the world today. A host of individual lifestyle decisions and collective actions stem from our shared interest in protecting the environment.

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Colin Coates

Colin Coates is Professor of Canadian Studies at Glendon College, York University.

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