Lessons from Environmental History: Success Through Past Failures

Pivotal moments in Canadian environmentalism are not restricted to successes; failures to produce change and instances where institutions created to promote a more sustainable way of living are also important. Successes are great sources of celebration, but failures offer the opportunity to learn and adapt approaches to achieve future success. The easiest way to understand this is through notable successes and failures in the history of modern environmental movement in Canada. The successes of Pollution Probe, the Algonquin Wilderness Preservation movement and Silent Spring show how small groups and individuals can effect change on a wide scale. The failure of initiatives like Prince Edward Island’s Institute of Man and Resources and the Commission of Conservation, as well as the revisionist commemoration of legal battles like the Trail Smelter dispute point to weaknesses in how we approach instituting environmental sustainability and remember our past attempts to control things like pollution.
Modern environmentalism emerged in the decades of prosperity and increasing consumerist consumption following the Second World War. Historians like Richard Grove argue environmentalism is rooted in events as far back as the fifteenth century. However, the connection between the emergence of environmental activism and advocacy, and increased consumer consumption and environmental degradation distinguishes modern environmentalism from earlier interests in conservation, preservation, and sustainability. The emergence of similar environmental movements in post-war societies focused on sustaining a consumer capitalist economy speaks to the distinguishing feature of modern environmentalism. The similarities between Canadian and American movements are an example of this. In both countries the renewal of liberalism, the rise of student activism, and the increased political involvement of educated middle class housewives – discussed by Adam Rome in the American post-war context are also true of Canada – are key features of the establishment of the movement. An instance of the convergence discussed by Rome in the Canadian context is evident in the protests against phosphate pollution in the Great Lakes in the early 1970s. Jennifer Read’s article `Let Us Heed the Voice of Youth’ shows the role of University of Toronto’s student organization Pollution Probe in initiating protest and political action to combat phosphate pollution and notes the importance of housewives supporting that initiative out of interest in protecting the health of their children. It was through these two segments of society coming together around a common goal that companies were forced to curb the amount of phosphates used in detergents and government was forced take the first steps in improving the water quality of the Great Lakes. What neither of these historians account for is the importance of science and scientific literacy and education to the success of environmental initiatives.
The importance of integrating scientific knowledge to create substantive change was first seen in Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring. Some attached the work as the product of female hysteria, but her use of scientific proof to support the message about biomagnification and the implications on the health of all living things did eventually lead to the banning of the use of chemical pesticides and DDT in North America. The best Canadian specific example of the use of science to promote environmental issues and protection is seen in the 35 year catalogue of the CBC television program The Nature of Things with David Suzuki as the host.
Not all attempts to change how society uses the environment have succeeded. In Canada two notable failures, the 1920s Commission of Conservation and PEI’s Institute of Man and Resources (IMR), can help understand and overcome obstacles to the progress of the environmental movement. Though established decades apart – the Commission of Conservation in the years following the First World War and the IMR in the 1970s – these institutions had the similar goal of promoting conservation of the environment while maintaining the modern standard of living. The Commission of Conservation was closely tied to the conservation movement and National Parks through JB Harkin, but also focused on research to determine the best ways of ensuring long term, non-wilderness conservation. The greatest hinderance to the success of the Commission was its reliance on government funding to continue researching and initiating conservation programs. When the economic recession of the 1920s placed a strain on federal government finances, and the public interest became fixated on economic survival, the Commission ceased to exist. The story is similar for the IMR. It was a government funded project devised during the OPEC Oil Crisis by the government of PE I to test and promote sustainability of the island in case access to and price of oil became a problem in the future. It flourished for about six years and conducted numerous tests to better utilize the island’s resources. The difficulty came in instituting alternative energy and sustainability option and making them economic option for Islanders. When the recession of the late 1970s and 1980s set in, like the Commission of Conservation before it, the IMR lost its funding and disappeared. The failure of these two government funded institutions shows the need to maintain funding for environmental sustainability research through economic recessions to ensure progress on environmental conservation.
It is also important to recognize past environmental success and failures for what they were and not re-write the past to seem better than it was. In British Columbia the 1920s Trail Smelter dispute is recalled as the victory of the environment over industry and the first environmentally sensitive conclusion to a dispute over pollution in Canada. Yet, this local memory does not in fact reflect the reality of what happened. The environment did not come out victorious because in the dispute with American ranchers and farmers over pollution from the smelters, the Canadian government poured money into finding a way around a solution that would impact the level of production. Because of a superior legal team, significantly more financial support and publishing a report on the pollution levels before the American government, the Canadian side was victorious.
The past successes and failures of the Canadian environmental movement serve as learning opportunities for how we can approach sustainability and environmental protection today. We can model our efforts off what has worked in the past and work to avoid the problems that have derailed past initiatives. We must also recognize that in what happens in Canada affects the United States just as what happens there affects us and work towards a transnational approach to environmental protection and sustainability. Nature does not recognize national boundaries and if we are to produce effective change then we must expand our thinking and actions beyond Canada’s borders. If we want to create a society that is a darker shade of green than it is at present, then sustained funding from the government or unbiased institutions is essential. Research into making the Canadian society less wasteful, polluting, and environmental destructive requires money. This research can teach us how to better maintain our current standard of life while demanding less of the limited resources of the planet. Without funding for that research we will continue to use what is accessible and easy because the alternative options are not viable or economical. Here the great failures of environmentalism in the past century need to be heeded to ensure success of future endeavours.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Canada, Environment, Environmentalism, Public History, Research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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