New Scholars October Meeting Recap

Partially dismantled pumpjack in the smoke. August 2018. Judith Ellen Brunton.

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The NiCHE New Ncholars October digital meeting on natural resources and environmental humanities convened on October 26th led by Heather Green, and attended by Justin Fisher, Michelle Murphy, and myself. Despite some internet connectivity excitement we were able to have a short but great discussion, focusing mostly on introducing ourselves and our current work, but also exploring some common questions. In this blog I will provide a short recap of our discussion and our questions for the future. To begin, let me first introduce Heather, Justin, Michelle, myself, and our current research interests.

Heather Green is the Wilson post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University and the NiCHE New Scholars rep. Heather’s doctoral dissertation examined the environmental impacts of gold mining in the Klondike region of the Yukon from 1890 to 1940. Her current project examines the growth of sport hunting in the southern Yukon in the mid-20th century as tourism, specifically the ways in which this influenced wildlfire regulation and Indigenous Yukoners engagement with hunting economies.

Justin Fisher is a first year PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan and will be researching the history of fossil fuels in Saskatchewan, focusing on local impacts of production and consumption. This is partly inspired by a community-based research project Justin has been working on since 2017, which is examining the barriers to and feasibility of phasing out coal-fired electricity generation in the province. For the project Justin interviewed folks from coal-producing communities in the south of the province about their views, and this piqued his interest in the historical context of fossil fuels in the province.

Michelle Murphy is a PhD student at the University of Alberta in the faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation. Her research examines the cultural and environmental history of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. In particular, she investigates tourism and recreational developments along the eastern slopes to probe the context of conservation politics and development decisions. She is also interested in incorporating historical GIS to her PhD work to further examine landscape change.

Finally, I (Judith Ellen Brunton) am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion. My dissertation project is an effort to describe the specific cultural and moral space that surrounds the oil industry in Alberta. It is an anthropology of moral economies, in which I use ethnographic and archival research to explore how legacies of oil extraction allow for specific contemporary imaginaries of what a good life is, and how to live it. I returned from a year of fieldwork in October to begin the process of writing my various case studies, which include: Imperial Oil’s publications on history and culture, Alberta’s Energy Heritage sites, The Calgary Stampede, and various Calgary-based corporate aspirational initiatives.

Our conversation touched on many opportunities for ongoing connection and discussion, but one major theme that emerged in this meeting was the multiple dynamics at play in thinking about conflict and resource development. For each of us, the prompt of ‘conflict’ allowed for different dimensions of our work to be explored.

For Michelle, in thinking about the relationship between recreation-based land use and conservation initiatives she has encountered, conflict is at times conspicuously absent. Thinking about ski hills in Alberta, Michelle has discovered that the people using the hills often don’t think about skiing as having an ecological impact. This prompted a series of questions in the assembled: What is it about recreation that masks its reality as a kind of extractive land use? What are the histories of recreation that create the conditions for this ‘non-impact’ imagining? And what are some moments where either institutions or individuals doing the recreation feel differently or pivot their recreation love for landscapes and environments into activism?

For Justin, reflecting on the coal-producing communities he has encountered in his previous project and in conceiving of his current work, conflict exists both in the development of resources and the possibility of resources not being developed. Conflict can exist in moments when the difficulty of imagining a future of not developing resources meets the way coal and other resource development in Saskatchewan is entangled with ideas and experiences of labour, economy, and land.

This version of conflict, the antagonism, fear, and perceived threat that travels with how people can think about the non-development of resources, was also something that resonated with me as I reflected on my ethnographic experiences in Alberta. Additionally, for Heather thinking about the entangled ideas and experiences of labour, economy, and land prompted an opportunity to think about how the shifts in different kinds of mining shaped what conflicts occurred and how people understood them.

Justin’s contribution prompted some interesting questions: What does it tell us when conflict exists both in moments when an environment is determined to be developed for resources and in moments where resource development is halted or encouraged not to begin? What can historical narratives of these moments tell us about resources and the communities interacting with them? How can different communities and their specific conflict to resource extraction or non-development speak to wider themes?

For me, thinking about my project, our discussion prompted a series of thoughts and questions that will be constitutive to build on going forward. The cultural elements that shape life for many people living in Alberta also shape the conditions that allow for ongoing oil extraction in the province. From being in discussion with my colleagues at this meeting, I came away with a better understanding of the importance of thinking about this affective, symbolic, and cosmological infrastructure of extraction and land use. In addition to the importance of mapping this infrastructure’s centrality in these conflicts by asking ‘what is at stake’ when communities and individuals are negotiating a perceived threat. Our discussion also foregrounded for me a query that could be helpfully placed at the centre of work on natural resources and environmental humanities: What are the narratives, symbols, feelings, ideas, pasts, and imagined futures that go into determining something as a resource, and how does that establish the conditions for conflict from the beginning?

Though the internet connection did not afford us the luxury of a long conversation, it was an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas.

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Judith Ellen Brunton

Doctoral Candidate at University of Toronto, Dept for the Study of Religion
Judith Ellen Brunton is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion. Judith’s current project explores how legacies of oil extraction allow for specific contemporary imaginaries of the good life in Alberta. With case studies on: Imperial Oil’s publications on history and culture, Energy Heritage sites, The Calgary Stampede, and various corporate aspirational initiatives. Judith held a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Scholarship to pursue her research. She is currently a junior fellow at Victoria College and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Judith is completing fieldwork in 2018.

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