Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fire on the Don River

It shouldn't have happened. But at some point during the night on February 2, 1931, a fire started on Toronto's Don River.

City waterways have long been used as dumping grounds by industry and the general public. The Don is no exception. Sufficiently polluted with flammable compounds, the river caught fire when a spark from a passing train landed on an oil patch. Thanks to an eagle-eyed watchman, the fire department was promptly dispatched and the fire was tamed. No injuries were reported, but the Eastern Avenue footbridge was sufficiently damaged that the structure had to be torn down.

No doubt things could have been worse. A strong wind raised concern that the fire might spread to the neighboring industrial area. Likewise, tragedy was narrowly averted when bridge planks gave way beneath two firemen. They fell, but managed to scramble to safety.

Truth be told, river fires were not uncommon features on the industrial landscape. The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 has gained a somewhat mythic spot within the lore of the emergent environmental movement, with many claiming that this fire helped spark concern throughout the United States in regards to ecological degradation. Well, yes and no. As Mark Hamilton Lytle notes in The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), the same river had been on fire numerous times over the years. In fact, the fire that gained infamy in 1969 was of relatively minor scale … it did not last long enough for journalists to snap photographs, which led newspapers to utilize more dramatic photographs of river fires from years prior. Why, then, did this 1969 event strike an interest in the general public? According to Lytle, “Timing, more than the fire itself, made the Cuyahoga a symbol of environmental abuse.” In other words, the general public was sufficiently ready in 1969 to be concerned about such matters.

Of course, the story of the Don River and environmentalism doesn’t end with the 1931 fire. In 1955 the municipality of Richmond Hill was sued by a resident for polluting the river with sewage. When Pollution Probe arrived on the Toronto scene in 1969, one of their first projects concerned raising awareness about the sickly state of the Don. They proceeded to hold a funeral for the river, which gained considerable publicity. While the Don River remains a toxic dumping ground, at least there is a widespread understanding that such is the case. Of course, recognizing a problem is the easy part. If we could only find a way to clean it up ....

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

History of the Environmentalist Movement at the University of Prince Edward Island

This summer I'll be teaching History 483: History of the Environmentalist Movement at the University of Prince Edward Island. The course will run during the First Summer Session, from May 9 until June 21, and we will meet each Monday and Wednesday from 7:00-9:30 PM. For registration information, please see the website of the University of Prince Edward Island's Registrar's Office here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Does Pollution Make Us Drink?

Smog. Dirty water. Escalating cancer rates. Loss of wildlife habitat.

These are some of the problems that we typically associate with pollution. According to a paper presented at the Ontario Pollution Control Conference, we can also blame environmental degradation for increased alcohol consumption. 

Held December 4-6, 1967, at the Inn on the Park in Toronto, and funded by Ontario taxpayers, this conference brought together interested parties from agriculture, industry, and the various levels of government to discuss what could and should be done in regards to pollution. While there were many noteworthy presentations, it was Dr. Norman Pearson, head of the University of Guelph's Centre for Resource Development, that managed to grab my attention with his "pollution = boozin'" thesis.

Sure, the idea may sound far-fetched at first. Dr. Pearson, however, was able to view a direct relationship between the two. As he asked those in attendance: "Have not water pollution, soil pollution and air pollution played a key role in the decline of such Canadian sports as crosscountry skiing, enjoyment of the beaches and shores of the rivers, streams and lakes of the Southern party of Ontario?" Unable to pursue traditional avenues of enjoyment, more people, according to this theory, resorted to alcohol consumption. "Gin has always been the fastest way out of problems in urban areas," he noted. "Few would agree it is the best."

An interesting idea. However, I'm not so sure that I'm sold on it. Dr. Pearson suggested that sociologists and philosophers would do well to explore this question. I have no idea if anybody took him up on this.

On a side note, thus far I've been unable to locate the proceedings from this conference. If anybody happens to know their whereabouts, please feel free to let me know.
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