Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Timelines and the Environmental Narrative in Canada

A while back I wrote about the apparent lack of a timeline covering the history of the environmental movement in Canada. Well, I recently stumbled across one, which you can find here. Beginning one million years ago and moving forward to 2002, this timeline is heavy in international context. However, it does mark many Canadian milestones, including the founding of Pollution Probe in 1969, the restriction of DDT's usage in 1974, and the closing of the Newfoundland cod fishery in 1991. The timeline, hosted on The Sustainability Report website, also features links to a chronology of the Great Lakes environment and an environmental history timeline, as well as "The Environmentalists' Narrative," a compelling essay by Dr. Stuart Schoenfeld.

One point that Dr. Schoenfeld makes in his essay is "that in the early years of the 21st century it is not all that easy to tell what the environmentalists' narrative is." I find this to be a rather interesting observation, given that we tend to equate the term "narrative" with re-telling the story of the past. Part of the problem, as Dr. Schoenfeld explains, is that environmental activists in the years after the first Earth Day were confronted by an increasingly complex series of issues that made earlier concerns, such as the high level of phosphate in detergents, seem rather simple in comparison. Another problem, as I see it, is that many current activists have little understanding of their predecessors' work. I recall a conversation with one Canadian environmental activist who took great glee in telling me that he knew the movement's backstory. "It all started with Silent Spring, then there was Earth Day, then it was the ozone layer and global warming." As wonderful as Rachel Carson's work is, and as popular as the first Earth Day was in the United States (note: the first Earth Day barely cracked the Canadian consciousness), they didn't instigate environmental activism in Canada. To suggest they did does a great disservice to the movement's pioneers here in Canada.

Anyhow, before I come off as a grumpy academic berating modern day environmentalists for not knowing their history, I have to admit that I bear a partial responsibility for this. As a historian of the environmental movement in Canada it is my responsibility to expose the public to the past. While I hope that this blog helps spread some insight on this wonderful topic, I also recognize that I have to transform my dissertation into a book so that it will be available to the broader public. I'm working on it ... just as I'm working on a history of the acid rain issue and a couple other projects.

By the way, it looks like I'll be teaching a course on the history of the environmental movement this summer at the University of Prince Edward Island. While much of the course focuses on events in the United States, I will incorporate aspects of the environmental movement's history in Canada. More details on that course will be posted as they become available.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dissertations, postdocs, and acid rain

When I was in grade six I created a science fair project on the topic of acid rain. That was back in 1990, when acid rain was a constant in the news media. At the time there was great concern that acid rain would destroy our forests, waterways, and buildings, and that it would also have a deleterious effect on human health. I thought it would be interesting to see how acidic properties would influence the development of radish plants.  (I'm not quite sure why I picked radishes, but I did.) The project went over well at my school's science fair and I was invited to participate in the provincial fair. All told, I got to take three or four days off of classes to hang around with my friends and talk about acid rain.

This past month I successfully defended my PhD dissertation, "Toronto the Green: Pollution Probe and the Rise of the Canadian Environmental Movement." This month I began work on my latest project, which is a study of the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain. While I didn't realize it as an eleven year old, the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain played a major role in lobbying the Canadian and American governments to address this pressing issue. It is widely regarded to have led one of the greatest environmental lobby campaigns ever orchestrated, and I intend to unravel the story behind it. This work is funded by a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship.

My interest in the subject of acid rain was originally spurred by a discussion of it in the wonderful Canadian Junior Green Guide, which my parents gave me in 1990. By the time I started work on my dissertation this book was a faded memory. One day I was in the midst of a tour of Pollution Probe's current headquarters when I saw a copy of that book on a shelf. I mentioned to the executive direct that I had that book as a child, to which I was told, "Yeah, we did really well with that book." As it turns out, Pollution Probe played an important role in shaping my environmental consciousness as a child, but I never quite realized it until that moment.
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