- Canadians and the Natural Environment to the Twenty-First Century by Neil S. Forkey, and: An Environmental History of Canada by Laurel Sefton Macdowell
The publication of these two surveys of Canadian environmental history by major Canadian university presses is yet another indication of this field’s continuing maturation. They join the one other textbook on this subject, Graeme Wynn’s Canada and Arctic North America: An Environmental History (abc-clio, 2007), and several ancillary readers. Neil Forkey and Laurel Sefton MacDowell each take the measure of a [End Page 631] body of secondary literature that is much less robust than its American counterpart, but that is rapidly expanding. Their volumes provide welcome and timely syntheses, yet in a sense, they have come too soon. Many early-career environmental historians of Canada will shortly be publishing original and important books and articles; the field may appear quite different before long. Forkey and MacDowell diverge substantially in their approach to the subject material. They offer those who teach Canadian environmental history a real choice between different visions of past and present relations between humans and the environment in this country.
The central thesis of Forkey’s slim volume is that Canadians’ relationship with their environment has been informed by two major impulses: the need to exploit the country’s natural resources, and the desire to protect them. While this argument is hardly new, it provides a clear means by which to parse the literature and move the narrative through successive eras in a coherent, connected fashion. The narrative unfolds both chronologically and thematically. Chapters focus upon the classification of Canada’s environments, economic growth and the conservation of natural resources, romanticism and the preservation of nature, modern environmentalism, and Aboriginal peoples and natural resources. This last chapter is both original and timely. Selecting case studies that lay bare the core differences between Aboriginal people and environmentalists, Forkey meditates on inclusion, exclusion, and fracture in the Canadian environmental movement. Finding consensus on what environmentalism means, let alone how to be environmental stewards in a settler society, has become more challenging, he argues, given the complex, changing position of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society over the last forty years. Forkey also makes good use of work by intellectual historians and historians of science when considering how natural historians and scientists made sense of the environment over time.
Forkey’s accessible narrative will appeal to students and teachers alike. In addition to the easily graspable ideas of preservation and conservation around which the book revolves, Forkey’s inclusion of the concepts of local, national, and continental commons in the second chapter provides good fodder for classroom discussion. He also asks a question that is no less important for being obvious: why do environmental problems still exist, despite fifty years of environmental action and awareness? In seeking an answer, students will have to reflect upon the individual and communal choices regularly made in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Canadian society. [End Page 632]
In their conclusions, both authors admit to pessimism, not an unusual perspective for environmental historians. Forkey has less cause for this admission than MacDowell, who has written a deeply declensionist narrative with a specific moral agenda in mind. Current concerns are squarely to the fore: her objective throughout is to explain how and why the present state of environmental degradation in Canada has come to pass. Her main argument is that “sustained economic growth, not sustainable development, has been the driving force in Canadian history” (5). Untrammelled development, spurred by the irresponsibility and hubris of governments and businesses, has yielded grave environmental consequences across the nation. MacDowell informs Canadians of this history with the hope of inspiring them to examine their own lifestyles critically and to become stewards of the environment for the benefit of future generations. Her strident approach to textbook composition will suit the tastes of some instructors, but not others.