Review of MacFarlane: Natural Allies

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Daniel Macfarlane, Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023. 280 pgs. ISBN 9780228017592.

Reviewed by Robert Suits

There is a delightful and eerie absurdity to the 9,000,000-by-6 metre clear-cut strip along the U.S.-Canada border—one I first encountered during a long-distance hike. Maintained by both countries, almost-straight lines of grass and occasional stone pediments slice through what would otherwise be the unpopulated and thickly forested lands lying between the two. Outside of cities and border crossings, this is really the only visual cue that there is a border at all. The strip is an apt metaphor for a border that requires constant maintenance while in other ways being barely present. Canada and the northernmost parts of the United States are closely intertwined economically, demographically, socially—and, as the weeds growing in the clear-cut suggest, environmentally as well.

Colour photograph of green hills covered in deciduous trees under a cloudy sky. In the middle of the photograph, the trees are cut down in a wide swath that extends into the distance.
The Canada U.S. Border as encountered by the reviewer. Credit: Robert Suits, used with permission.

Daniel MacFarlane’s Natural Allies is a fascinating and often delightfully funny exploration of energy and environmental diplomacy along the US-Canada border. As MacFarlane shows, cross-border treaty-making, politics, and governance from both nations have grappled with the classic environmental problems (plants, animals, pollution, and water have little regard for socially-constructed lines on the map) and these bilateral agreements have been some of the most important in setting environmental policy across both nations. The book also offers substantial new insight for environmental historians on the significance of diplomacy, and for diplomatic and political historians on the centrality of environment. It is well-worth a read by members of either group.

Though the book covers various topics, the most important elements for its argument and narrative are water and energy. The first chapter explores the earliest treaties, which focused on disputed fishing grounds in waters between and around either state. But the book really hits its stride with the development of hydropower, navigation, irrigation and flood control on border rivers ranging across the continent. The decisions around who should get water or hydroelectricity—and how much—set lasting precedents for border diplomacy. Cross-border flows also thoroughly integrated the two countries economies.

The result, in MacFarlane’s eyes, was not just integration and growth but a “Faustian bargain” for Canada, “a privileging of prosperity over autonomy” (12). Canada effectively became an extractive hinterland for the United States, particularly in its energy resources, and eventually it developed fully into a “petro state” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In terms of not just export and production but also consumption, Canada and the United States have experienced parallel tracks of fossil-fueled economic growth: “societies and economies based on plenitude and consumption” (183). Settler colonial economies built off of massive per capita energy consumption, “Canada and the US are both climate villains” (192). This is the result not only of considered choices around energy and environmental diplomacy and governance, but of the two nations’ close ties.

Dark colour photo of power infrastructure in the fall. Snow-dusted mountains can be seen in the distance. Blue and white water boils out from under a dam.
“Hydro Power Generation,” Yukon Territory, 2009, courtesy U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Canada.

Just by dint of the different populations and economies, the Canadian state has always been relatively junior in this history. As MacFarlane notes, American presidents can effectively live in complete ignorance of Canada, while north of the border Canadian national elections have been won and lost on the results of treaty negotiations. Yet treaties and joint commissions usually operated from a principle of equality, creating a vital proving ground for Canadian statecraft. Negotiating as a sovereign equal both strengthened Canada’s claims to  sovereignty as a state independent of Britain and the Commonwealth and established the country as a player on the global stage. Canada’s geopolitical status was only strengthened by the country’s energy abundance.

On the other hand, pollutants and non-human organisms crossed the border with little respect for treaties negotiated by leaders in Washington. Chemical pollution in the Great Lakes, “biological pollution” (including what are colloquially called “invasive species”) in lakes and waterways, and atmospheric pollution like smog, soot, and acid rain are constant bugbears of transnational negotiations. The negotiations and resulting regulations around these problems have had mixed results, as have conservation movements: while both countries generally have made some effort to actually adhere to treaties, pollution and organisms proved difficult to fully corral.  As MacFarlane notes, this is once again a major point of contention in contemporary periods with carbon emissions and climate change—and we might add to the stack of cross-border pollutants the now-perennial threat of wildfire smoke.

Satellite image over the great lakes region showing a stream of grey-brown smoke flowing south-east from Canada.
“Smoke from Canadian Wildfires Drifts Down to U.S.,” NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team.

There are, of course, omissions in any volume. Though Natural Allies is entirely successful, there could have been more on how transnational governance affected the creation and expansion of the electricity grid. Despite the book’s focus on energy, this gets only a brief treatment, despite nearly the entirety of North America being part of two transnational interconnections; electrically, the US and Canada are tied more strongly to each other than within their own countries. The book briefly notes this, but it would seem to be one of the strongest examples of the book’s wider arguments around the materialities of energy. Because of the construction of the grid, the two countries’ electricity systems are almost entirely interdependent. Similarly, more space might have been devoted to the effects of environmental negotiations and treaties on the industries of each nation. However, such criticisms border on asking for a different book and MacFarlane’s editorial choices have produced a tight focus around what environmental diplomacy meant for each country.

Natural Allies fits neatly into a wider historiography on transnational environmental issues between the United States and Canada, complementing Norman’s Governing Transboundary Waters and Langston’s Sustaining Lake Superior. One might also see it fitting into wider lists around transnational environmental governance, or an energy history bibliography. More generally, it would be a valuable addition to U.S. or North American history courses, where Canadian historiography has traditionally been woefully neglected despite the strong ties between the nations. In all, I would strongly recommend the volume—not just for environmental historians of the border or Canada, (who I suspect have already found it) but also for historians of the U.S., diplomacy, and transnational environmental historians of all stripes.

Feature Image Credit: Robert Suits.
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Robert Suits

I am the Fennell Early Career Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. I received my PhD in environmental history in 2021 from the University of Chicago. My work focuses on energy and climate; my first book explores the history of migrant labour and environment in the United States. I am also heavily involved in interdisciplinary work on the digital and public history of energy transitions.

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