Striving for Environmental Sustainability in a Complex World: Canadian Experiences

Striving for Environmental Sustainability in a Complex World: Canadian Experiences

George Francis

Reviewed by Zoë A. Meletis

The title suggests a broad discussion of sustainability, with Canadian examples.  The core of this book, however, is about “Canadian experiences” with Man and Biosphere Reserves (sic) or MAB, and Model Forests.  Francis was an initial chair of the first Working Group on Biosphere Reserves, after UNESCO/MAB was formed in 1971. He is well versed in MAB operations over time, and includes rich detail on the program.

This book touches briefly on topics such as complexity, resilience, cycles and systems, panarchy, citizen science, and the Anthropocene.  It offers history and interpretations of the MAB and Model Forests as experiments in resource management. The target audience for this book is not obvious. The book could be used as secondary text for a graduate level class on environmental policy or resource management; it could inform related research as well.  It might also prove useful for employees of the MAB, Model Forests, or non-governmental organizations with “on the ground” efforts to engage communities in resource management. 

I gained an appreciation of biosphere reserve (BR) governance challenges via this book. Prior to reading it, I did not know that Mont St-Hilaire was Canada’s first BR.  I had not realized that each MAB Reserve in Canada is a “non-profit-without-shares organization,” and that “soft advocacy” is a key MAB purpose (31-32).  I had not appreciated that BRs deal with perpetual funding challenges, with the exception of Clayoquot Sound BR and its endowment fund.

Despite rich detail in some sections, others, such as the chapter on aspirational communities, offer limited inclusions. The book is also largely devoid of visual components, save for a few grey maps and lists.  This is disappointing—why not include visual representations of the unique landscapes and communities involved?

I am not sure how this book fits within greater discussions of sustainability. Notions and practices related to sustainability at every scale are impacted by dynamic socio-economic factors and geopolitics. Given that it was published in 2016 and written before that, it is out of date.  This is foreshadowed in the introduction, which notes that for questions of sustainability, “future global geopolitics may well be the decider” (8).

Most of my environment-related reading comes from critical environmental geography, political ecology, or social and environmental justice-focused spheres.  Perhaps for this reason, I found some content to be quite Western-centric or colonial. For example, in Chapter 3, the categorization of “countries associated with the current stage of market capitalism” as composing political modernization struck me as outdated, Western-centric labelling that does not adequately reflect contemporary ways of understanding the world.  Additionally, Francis’ incorporation of Indigenous peoples in Canada is limited.  One exception is the short section on the The Peace of the Braves between The Cree and the Quebec Government (71-74). The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is not discussed, despite it predating this publication by nine years and being central (at least in theory) to current conversations about sustainability, governance, and environment.  Similarly, there is inadequate acknowledgement of the growing successes of Indigenous peoples and communities asserting their sovereignty in environmental governance—a critical oversight. 

My last main critique is that both the MAB and Model Forests are supposed to have people and livelihoods at their cores. Despite this, “human dimensions” of these programs and sustainability gets short shrift in this book.  This is typical of writing that focuses on a larger scale (e.g. organizational operations; networks of actors), but it is disappointing nonetheless.  We have abundant evidence that paying insufficient attention to “people factors” such as psychology, social networks, and cultural and political influences, can cause sustainability-related efforts to fail.  For this reason, I expected deeper explorations of such factors.

The book does offer details and analysis useful to those interested in studying the roots and history of the Man and Biosphere Reserves and/or the Model Forests, in Canada.  It raises important questions such as: If both were innovative concepts in their day, are they still? (7).  For readers interested these topics, this book could prove useful. It is not, however, a book about environmental sustainability for general audiences.  The attention paid to greater issues (e.g. alternative forms of organization; de-growth; sustainable incomes) is limited. 

I appreciate the opportunity to have reviewed this book and what I have learned as a result.


Striving for Environmental Sustainability in a Complex World: Canadian Experiences
George Francis
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016. 260 pp. $34.95 paper.

BC Studies no. 199 Autumn 2018