This coming weekend — April 29th to May 1st — is EH+, the conference for Canadian environmental historians. Co-sponsored by NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment) and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, it will be held at Hamilton. It promises to be an interesting event. With a keynote speech from Andrew Nikiforuk (Dirty Oil: Tarsands in Alberta fame…), the weekend offers a chance to get together, discuss, and reflect on the current state of this particular genre of history. As well, there will be some great new ideas for projects, proposals, and possibilities moving forward.
In reading the statements of the participants — which, if you are so inclined, can be found online at http://niche-canada.org/, then click on EH+ and Participant Statements — two distinct themes come to the forefront. One, most of the members of NiCHE and attending this conference feel that it is time for environmental historians to step it up in terms of their public participation. Environmental historians have real perspective and wisdom to offer to policy developers at municipal, provincial, national, and (even?) international levels. We study how humans interact with their landscape, and that means physically, economically, and culturally. And, as we move through issues of climate change, environmental degradation, floods and droughts, pollution, and toxicity, that knowledge becomes the keystone to future planning.
The second theme that rises out of the participant statements is: scale. No, not the numbers that pulsed back at me this morning as I stepped on the metal monster in the bathroom. By ‘SCALE,’ geographers are essentially talking about size. In most cases, scale refers to space, as in the following: I could map where I am right now as 1) my basement office, in a diagram that shows my house layout; 2) in my house, on a map of the town of Biggar, SK; 3) in Biggar, on a map of Saskatchewan; 4) in Saskatchewan, on a map of Canada or North America; 5) on Earth, as opposed to other planets in our solar system.
You get the idea. Scale is a key concept when defining space and place, but it can also apply to time or theme, as necessary. All that is needed is a very clear indication of scale — what scale are you using in this study, and why.
Geographers define their scale, and away they go with their research, conclusions and publications. Historians, however, must spend an inordinate amount of time defending their choice of scale, especially if that scale is anything less than national in scope.
And that’s exactly the point. Canadian environmental historians, as opposed to geographers, have inherited a burden of guilt from Canadian historians in general. Canadian historians have spent decades turning themselves inside out trying to argue which is the best scale to study Canadian history — local, regional, or national. In far too many cases, practitioners have argued that the best or only scale at which to write ‘good’ history is national in scope. Somehow, the impression is that only national history has the capacity to truly affect Canadians. By extension, those that study regional or local history — read between the lines, me! — have an uphill battle to defend their choices. Dismissed as parochial, the local in particular has all-too-often been denigrated by academic historians, and not practised.
The cloud over local studies causes particular angst for environmental historians, whose research can and does quite often turn on the local. Engagement with the environment, and environmental history, is often most in tune with the physical presence of the land, and human influence/built environment/cultural perception/degradation of the landscape. Yet, many of the participant statements for EH+ push for, even demand, a much larger scale — national, transnational, or international in scope. It is only on this scale, some declare, that we as environmental historians can have an impact on national policies relating to the environment.
But I question this attitude, while supporting it in theory. I would love to see environmental historians regularly consulted on national environmental issues. I think the world will become a better, cleaner, safer place for all (humans and non-humans alike) when these sorts of consultations take place now and into the future. I think, however, that environmental historians can make as much of a difference, collectively, while giving significance to the local. For example, someone who has done extensive research on chemical, endocrine, and other pollutants within a watershed would be an excellent member of that watershed’s technical advisory committee. Or, a local environmental historian might be a superb fit on a city’s payroll, not as an archivist or storyteller to children (those are perks of the position…), but as a policy advisor: in 1952, the flood crest hit two meters above where you are proposing to site that construction. You should move it to higher ground.
Environmental historians may, in fact, find that their key center of influence — the place where they can do the most good — is the local and the regional. And really, what can possibly be wrong with that?