Introducing ‘Environmental Activism on the Ground: Small Green and Indigenous Organizing’

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We invited Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper, editors of Environmental Activism on the Ground: Small Green Organizing, to introduce this new installment in the Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press.

This project originated with Jon. It was an outgrowth of his doctoral research at the University of Saskatchewan that examines Indigenous peoples, parks, conservation, and environmental management. Upon coming to the University of Alberta as a postdoctoral fellow in 2012, Jon wished to organize a workshop that focused attention on late twentieth century environmentalism ‘from the bottom up’ and which explored the effectiveness and contributions of small-scale and subaltern environmentalist organizations, including in particular Indigenous organizing on environmental issues. This was an exciting area of research in the ways that it promised to redirect attention away from the largest environmental organizations, the “Green Giants” like Greenpeace, the WWF, or Earth First!, that predominate in the scholarly literature and popular attention; and in the ways that it forces us to further unpack some of the assumed harmony between Indigenous political and environmentalist aims.

According to the University of Alberta’s internal rules, however, to secure the funding necessary to run a workshop Jon needed a full-time faculty member with whom to collaborate. Jon would have looked for a collaborator regardless, but the choice was not his. When asked to be involved Liza happily said yes. Although her main areas of research were still fairly distant from contemporary environmentalism, an emerging project on the history of strip mining for coal in Alberta had brought her into the late twentieth century, and teaching Canadian history to undergraduates had made her more interested in the diverse character of environmental activism.

Environmentalism From Below Workshop Participants, University of Alberta, 2014.

What followed was, first, a workshop and then two collective publications: a 2016 special issue of RCC Perspectives focused on “Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Politics: Case Studies from Canada and Western Europe,” and the 2019 edited volume Environmental Activism on the Ground: Small Green and Indigenous Organizing, focused primarily on Canada and the United States, with some inclusion of Latin America. Comparison from these different national contexts are illuminating given shared North American histories of colonial settlement combined with the similar trajectories and mutual influence of contemporary environmentalism.

The essays in Environmental Activism on the Ground present multidisciplinary case studies focused variously on processes, relationships, and histories that illuminate and advance our overall understanding of late twentieth- and early twenty-first century small green and Indigenous activism. As the title suggests, small green activists (our preferred term for small-scale, local environmental activists) are rooted in place, “on the ground,” and work from here upwards. Their rootedness meant that local history and relationships, community solidarity, and divergent interests profoundly shape what they do and how they do it.

“It is here – on the ground – where we see the intersection of small green and Indigenous activism most sharply.”

It is here – on the ground – where we see the intersection of small green and Indigenous activism most sharply. Several of the case studies in our collection focus on these two forms of organizing as distinct (Willow, Welsh, Evans, and Kinew address Indigenous activism; DeWitt, McLaughlin, Clapperton on SPEC and Zelko engage with small green activists). Others (Grossman, Piper, Clapperton on Clayoquot Sound, and Leeming) explore the intersection, alliances, and divergence of small green and Indigenous groups.

Environmental Activism on the Ground was an emergent collaboration shaped almost entirely in the doing—in adjusting the final product based upon the workshop participants’ expertise and dialogue at, and following, the workshop. As such it has required patience and collective efforts on the part of all the contributors; we are grateful to them for their work. We are also thankful for the support from NiCHE, the Rachel Carson Centre, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Departments of Sociology as well as History & Classics at the University of Alberta, and Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences for ASPP funding. Perhaps most importantly, we hope our book acknowledges the tireless activism of the many people and organizations who the book is about and inspires others to do the same.

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