Review of Clapperton and Piper, Environmental Activism on the Ground

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Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper, eds., Environmental Activism on the Ground: Small Green and Indigenous Organizing. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019. 376 pgs. ISBN 9781773850047.

Reviewed by Justin Fisher.

Click here to download free PDF copies of chapters from Environmental Activism on the Ground

Grassroots and Indigenous organizing around environmental issues – and climate change in particular – is a major factor in political debates around resource development and climate action across Canada and the United States. Alberta’s recent adoption of Bill 1, the “Critical Infrastructure Defence Act,” aims to limit the direct action tactics of activists and is a strong indication of the influence they have had in recent years, and of the challenge they represent to the status quo. Indeed, Canadians were reminded of the power of grassroots and Indigenous organizing in February 2020 when people across the country blockaded rail lines in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders resisting colonial encroachment and the construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territories. Environmental Activism on the Ground takes an in-depth historical and analytical look at this kind of organizing. Its 12 chapters not only elucidate the historical context of small-scale, local, and Indigenous activism, but also provide valuable insights for scholars and activists engaged in such organizing.[1]

The collection aims to re-frame our understanding of the history of the modern environmental movement with what the editors call “small green” and Indigenous organizing at its core, as opposed to the “Green Giants” – e.g. the Greenpeaces and Sierra Clubs – that have often dominated attention. Small green refers to a broad range of small activist groups organizing primarily on issues of local concern, although generally not without drawing connections with national and global environmental issues. The case studies span Canada and the US (with one chapter also touching on Latin America), ranging from the conservation of tribal land in Western Apache territory (John Welch) to anti-nuclear organizing in rural Nova Scotia (Mark Leeming). Altogether, they make clear that small-scale organizing was not merely the foundation that the so-called Green Giants were built from, but rather that small-scale organizing persisted throughout the late-twentieth century and into the twenty-first and scored critical victories in a variety of localized contexts. In fact, Frank Zelko’s chapter on the transition of Greenpeace from small green to Green Giant, and Jonathan Clapperton’s chapter on the failure of SPEC to survive as a large-scale organization, show that even these kinds of transitions were far from inevitable or permanent.

Global Climate Strike in Saskatoon, SK, September 2019. Photo: Justin Fisher.

Two principal strengths of this collection are its interdisciplinary approach and methodological insights. There are vital contributions from public history, geography, and sociology that serve to expand the analysis and bolster the environmental history content. For example, Zoltán Grossman’s chapter on organizers targeting transport infrastructure to limit the shipping of fossil fuels in the Pacific Northwest offers geographical analysis that connects local partnerships and activities to a global issue and movement. Jessica DeWitt’s chapter on state and provincial park development offers insight on what kinds of sources historians can benefit from examining when expanding the historical narrative of environmentalism beyond the ‘elite’, whose records are more readily available. The approaches showcased in this collection have the potential to open new lines of inquiry for historians looking at the environmental movement and to offer a better grasp of its diverse geographies and participants.

The most prominent theme in this book is the intersection between environmental and Indigenous organizing. Multiple chapters shed light on the evolution of Indigenous legal rights as they pertain to environmental issues. The chapter by the late Tobasonakwut Peter Kinew, former grand chief of Grand Council Treaty 3, for example, highlights how Indigenous rights were often ignored in the 1970s, in stark contrast to their power today. Chapters by Anna J. Willow, Grossman, and Clapperton on alliances between environmental and Indigenous activists demonstrate that relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists have changed over time and have often been critical to environmental victories while fostering longer-term partnerships. These chapters also show how environmentalism has fit into larger struggles for Indigenous rights and sovereignty, or as Willow puts it, how alliances in environmental struggles have often been “components of comprehensive ongoing struggles for survival” for Indigenous peoples” (23). These insights are valuable not only for historians seeking to understand the complexities and contingencies of alliances through time, but also for activists engaged in small-scale organizing today.

Protests in the 1980s resulted in Ouje-Bougoumou being established as a community in Eeyou Istchee. Photo by Nancy Capassisit. Nancy Capassasit collection, Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, 21.9.140 (1), creeculturalinstitute.ca.

This collection also does an excellent job of situating small-scale environmentalism within local and material struggles, which expands our conception of the movement well beyond the domain of the “elite” who have time to worry about the “environment.” Welch’s chapter on the White Mountain Apache’s legal battle to conserve Fort Apache and area shows further how environmental conservation became a component in the push for sovereignty and community-oriented development. Leeming’s examination of rural activism in 1960s and ‘70s Nova Scotia highlights how organizing activities stemmed principally from concerns over threats to local bodies of water and therefore to the well-being of local communities and the livelihood of lobster fishers. This manifested in actions like battles for the regulation of effluent dumping and anti-nuclear activism. These case studies show that when it comes to small green activism, it is crucial to understand local conditions and the intersections between the environment and locals’ well-being.

It was largely my involvement in grassroots environmental activism that precipitated my turn to studying environmental history, and I am certainly not the only one who has spent time navigating between these spaces.[2] Indeed, a number of the contributors to this collection identify as activists as well as scholars, and their work demonstrates how research can be enriched by this experience. That said, the book would have been bolstered by the inclusion of more voices from outside academia. The aforementioned chapter by Kinew, nicely contextualized in a chapter by Piper on Alternatives journal, in which Kinew’s piece was first published in 1978, is a highlight of the book for the way it is grounded directly in the local conflict over resource development and Indigenous rights. It suggests the potential for more integration of scholarly and grassroots perspectives, and it will hopefully inspire scholars to consider such integration going forward. Alternating chapters with more short pieces like this one could have been one way to further integrate grassroots struggles directly into the collection.

Environmental Activism on the Ground successfully foregrounds small-scale, local, and Indigenous organizing in the history of the environmental movement. Not only does this recalibrate our understanding of how the movement has been constituted and has changed over time, but as the editors suggest, it obliges us to reconsider what the impacts of the movement have been. The collection presents an alternative to declensionist narratives and helps to explain one reason why grassroots organizing continues unabated: because it has proven capable of winning and fostering lasting connections.


Feature Photograph: Protesting for official recognition of Ouje-Bougoumou in northern Quebec, 1980s. Nancy Capassisit. Nancy Capassasit collection. Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, 21.9.140 (1).


[1] The volume stemmed from a 2014 workshop in Edmonton, which also resulted in a special issue of RCC Perspectives. See Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper, eds., “Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Politics: Case Studies from Canada and Western Europe,” RCC Perspectives 2016/4.

[2] NiCHE has hosted a number of reflections on the intersections of academia and activism and of the role of environmental historians in the environmental movement in particular. See, for example, Heather Green, “What is our role? Environmental History and Activism,” February 28 2019; Jamie Murton, “Defeating Pipelines Through Play,” January 9 2020; and Andrew Stuhl, “Activism and our Day Jobs,” February 18 2020.

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Justin Fisher

Justin is a PhD candidate in Environmental History at the University of Saskatchewan. A settler from Treaty 6 territory in Saskatoon, his research is currently focused on energy history. Justin is also a community organizer and researcher with Climate Justice Saskatoon and the current NiCHE New Scholars representative. He loves lentils.

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