- At the Wilderness Edge: The Rise of the Anti-Development Movement on Canada’s West Coast by J.I. Little
Environmentalism and its affiliated movements have puzzled historians for years. What counts as environmentalism? When and where did it start? Was it a grassroots movement or was it centrally organized from the top down? Was [End Page 126] there a Canadian environmental movement or was it merely an offshoot of activism in the United States and Europe?
In 2014, Stephen Bocking wisely asked why historians obsess over the origins of environmentalism when it seems likely that there were multiple concurrent and coincidental environmental movements (Environmental History Science blog, 25 February 2014). Recent historical scholarship on environmental activism in Canada supports Bocking’s observations. Within the last several years, historians have published books on the origins of environmental activism in Ontario and the Maritime provinces, the birth of Greenpeace in British Columbia, the role of counterculture in the emergence of environmentalism, and the work of small, grassroots organizations across the country. In each case, the links among the different groups were tenuous at best but more often non-existent. It would appear that Bocking was correct. Environmentalism in Canada did not emerge as a single coherent movement or set of ideas. Instead, it was locally based, fragmented, and ideologically capacious from one region to the next.
At the Wilderness Edge adds something new to this mix of scholarship that might get us closer to understanding the history of these multiple environmental movements across Canada. In five anti-development case studies from British Columbia’s southwest coast, J.I. Little makes a persuasive case for expanding the historical lens on environmentalism to include these largely middle-class and often women-led movements. “Environmentalism” in each case, however, does not necessarily match up with present-day understandings of that term. Still, whether resisting development of a hotel and apartment complex on the doorstep of Stanley Park or fighting to stop the construction of a coal port on Howe Sound, the activists involved in each case made claims to protecting the environment in one form or another. Some fought for aesthetics, some for recreation, and some for ecological preservation. The environmentalism that Little finds is diverse, complex, and driven by numerous competing interests.
Little is clear that in these instances of conflict from the 1960s to the 1980s environmental issues were not the exclusive or even predominant concern of the activists. Hence, he refers to these as “anti-development movements” and draws connections to similar forms of activism in cases in San Francisco and the Bay area, the anti-highway activism in Toronto, and resistance to postwar urban renewal projects elsewhere in North America. He is also open to analysis of these conflicts as forms of “not-in-my-backyard-ism.” This is an important consideration given the private property interests at play in most of these cases. Protection of a scenic area or preservation of ecologically sensitive environments could also serve to protect the property privileges of the middle-class opponents to some of these development plans.
This book also adds some necessary attention to the role of regional planning outside of metropolitan centres in the latter decades of the twentieth century. In many parts of Canada, regional planning boards have played significant roles in shaping conservation and development. They have been fundamental to the expansion of suburban sprawl, but they also have set aside lands for parks and recreation. Little’s analysis of the conflict over the lands of the former Union Steamship Company on Bowen Island in the 1970s is one of few historical [End Page 127] studies of regional conservation planning. It offers new insights for scholars looking at suburban and peri-urban development.
Most importantly, Little’s new book expands the scholarship on the history of environmentalism in Canada by going beyond the usual suspects. Few of the conflicts covered in this book involved organized environmental groups, students, or counterculture...