New Book – Canadians and their Natural Environment: A History

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“If they blow a hole in my backyard,” Kingston singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer sang in 2005 of the Niagara Escarpment, “Everyone is gonna run away / The creeks won’t flow to the Great Lake below / Will the water in the wells still be okay?” For people who live in what is now Canada, engagements with the more-than-human are inevitably local. But backyards are also, of course, connected to great lakes. Water from lakes and creeks flows into our homes through pipes and out of taps and into our bodies. At the heart of the engagement of people with nature in this place, then, is getting the things we need to survive: things like food, water, and shelter. That idea roots Canadians and their Natural Environment: A History, out now from Oxford University Press in Canada and the wider world.

I’ve reflected earlier in this space on how the idea of subsistence and access to nature frames the book. If we ask how different sorts of people use nature to get the things they need to survive, then we have to ask who gets access to nature, how, and for what purpose. These are social, cultural, and political questions. The answers to these questions shift profoundly as Canada moves to becoming a modern industrial society over the 19th and 20th centuries, as Indigenous people are forced off the land and their means of subsistence destroyed, as household economies are replaced by wage work and markets, as lands and waters are made available for consumption by industry, as science replaces experience and local knowledge and as people — Indigenous people, environmentalists, scientists, hippies and hikers — resist the implications of these changes.

The book therefore starts with the retreat of the glaciers and the assembling of the natural environment of Canada. It then looks at the means of survival and the different impacts on the land of Indigenous People and of pre-industrial European colonizing societies. Industrial capitalism in the later nineteenth century encouraged a new ordering and control of nature, while science both facilitated and challenged this and its effects. The latter half of the book examines the results: a massive re-engineering of nature, the development of new chemicals and materials and their presence in the environment as waste and pollution, the conservation, preservation and environmental movements, and the attempts, up to our present-day and including the crisis of climate change, to reconcile economic development with environmental protection.

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Jamie Murton is associate professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University. He is interested in the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. Canadians and Their Natural Environment: A History is out now from Oxford University Press.

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