Mark R. Leeming. In Defense of Home Places: Environmental Activism in Nova Scotia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017).
By Edward MacDonald
In Defense of Home Places is a little book that encourages us to think big. Part of UBC’s interdisciplinary Nature|History|Society series, it traverses that most treacherous of historical territories, the recent past, examining the environmental movement in Nova Scotia between the early 1960s and late 1980s. The appearance of “Home Places” in the title is telling; it speaks to the concept of environmental localism, that jealous love of place, the intimate, sensory, psycho-social relationship with specific settings that so often underlies environmental activism. It is integral to Mark R. Leeming’s rationale for focusing on one province’s experience of environmentalism. Nova Scotia’s experience can be written into a larger story, certainly (and in any case requires no justification for any regional historian), but it is also essential to any deeper understanding of the nature of environmentalism and how it works. As Leeming puts it, the rooted, “place-loving” local is the indispensable counterpart to the “placeless modernity” that characterizes current environmental discourse (and, by implication, the writing about it).
Series editor Graeme Wynn seizes upon this trope in his lengthy and thoughtful foreword, “Environmental Action and the Question of Scale,” a sober meditation on the nature of, and prospects for, environmentalism. Wynn invokes René Dubos’s now distant injunction to think globally yet act locally as an environmentalist mantra, a strategy for saving the planet incrementally, one local act at a time, though with an eye to the inter-relatedness of all things. At the heart of environmentalism, Wynn reminds us, is resistance, and at the core of Leeming’s book is the escalating tension between the local and the universal dimensions of environmental activism. Those two horses may – must – be harnessed, but that does not mean that they always pull together.
In contrast to Wynn’s discursive musings – meant to mediate the narrative that follows – Leeming’s concise, clipped prose quickly plunges into the deep end of the pool. His introduction is actually shorter than Wynn’s foreword, leaving much of the interpretive heavy lifting to his perceptive conclusion, where he makes his case for the fundamental importance of the local when considering environmentalism.
Leeming begins with some early 1960s backstory and historical context, a familiar fable of the modernist state (in this instance, Nova Scotia) fecklessly courting outside investors as part of a fumbling effort to revitalize a stagnant economy. This time Leeming gives the tale an environmental twist, since “development” so often came at an ecological price. The key chapters track the history of Nova Scotian environmentalism and its internal conflicts through three telling case studies spanning the 1970s and 1980s: the rise of anti-nuclear activism in the face of the government’s flirtation with nuclear energy; a drawn-out, costly campaign against the use of chemical pesticides in the forest industry; and a fierce protest against uranium mining in the province.
These episodes involved many of the same individuals and organizations (an alphabet soup of acronyms only intelligible by frequent reference to the handy list of abbreviations). They are narrated separately, but often unfolded at more or less the same time, which makes it somewhat difficult for readers to appreciate how each issue may have played off the others. Over the course of those fraught campaigns, the environmental movement in Nova Scotia fractured. By the mid-1980s, Leeming concludes, “There was no longer an environmental movement in Nova Scotia; there were two” (137). The “non-modernists” (his somewhat awkward term) were found largely outside of metropolitan Halifax, in rural and small-town Nova Scotia. They generally regarded government and industry by definition as “the enemy” (sometimes on ideological grounds) and favoured popular protest and a battle for public opinion, as the most likely strategies against environmental threats. The modernists, epitomized by the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, saw themselves as citizen-scientists. Financed partly by government grants, they craved respectability and favoured working with the state rather than against it, optimistic that good science was capable of converting decision-makers to environmentally responsible positions. This conflict between “fringe” and “mainstream” environmentalists, radicals and moderates, was not, Leeming argues, “a factor in the shaping of the provincial movement. It was itself the shape of the movement” (148). The book’s treatment of these two, ultimately divergent, streams of environmentalism is admirably balanced. In the same way that, in his view, the local and the global must mesh, Leeming concludes that Nova Scotia’s environmental movement was most successful when the pressure tactics of non-modernist strategies drew upon the research expertise and public respectability of the modernists.
If there is a villain in this story (though that descriptor over-states Leeming’s measured narrative), it is the Province of Nova Scotia, that is, its politicians and their advisors. Jealous of their authority, smugly hubristic, and desperate to generate jobs, successive governments adopted a predictable range of responses to environmental protests that might interfere with economic opportunity. Whenever possible, they ignored environmental activists. If they could not ignore them, they tried to co-opt them with the carrot of research funding or a pretense at consultation. And if activists could not be co-opted, they were marginalized, dismissed as a lunatic fringe, self-promoting outsiders, or ideologically driven subversives (or all three).
The case studies are instructive in describing the narrative arc of Nova Scotia’s environmental activism. Leeming’s choices also highlight the anthropocentric nature of these environmental battles. The protesters confronted pollution and the despoliation of natural landscapes, but the emphasis is mainly on their impacts on human health and quality of life, rather than, say, other flora and fauna. That other actors had a care for wildlife or biological diversity is acknowledged, but not pursued.
In Defense of Home Places posits the notion that there is no single history of environmentalism in Atlantic Canada. There are four histories, though each shares a larger context. Only when each story is told can we begin to compare notes, bridging the regional gap between local and global. Leeming’s admirable study has given us Nova Scotia’s experience. It represents a friendly challenge to others to unearth the remaining Atlantic Canadian experiences.
Edward MacDonald teaches Atlantic Canadian and Prince Edward Island history at the University of Prince Edward Island. His most recent book, co-edited with Joshua MacFadyen and Irené Novaczek, is Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).