Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments

Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments

Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones, Editors

Reviewed by John Thistle

Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments is a fascinating set of essays edited by Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones. Its overall argument is that threats to the environment pose not simply technical or scientific problems amenable simply to regulation and economic solutions, but also deeply cultural ones rooted in the way people imagine, value, and view the world. In making this point, which of course others have done in different ways before, the essays collected here highlight “the essential contributions from humanists in solving our environmental crisis (1).”

Sustaining the West includes not only contributions from academics but also from activists, artists, and poets. The book is avowedly interdisciplinary but, interestingly, no scientists are involved, although several essays do address science as a way of knowing nature. Instead, the book seeks interdisciplinary connections among humanists. As Piper and Szabo-Jones observe in their introduction, “for those interested in interdisciplinarity, greater emphasis is placed upon the value and need for work between the sciences and arts rather than among disciplines within the arts and humanities (1).” Building on this insight, Sustaining the West “proceeds from recognition that individuals working in the arts and humanities already share much common ground and produce work that either speaks to a broad public, or to narrow disciplinary audiences, yet rarely to each other (2).”

The book is divided into three parts. The first set of essays provides cultural perspectives on environmental activism. This is followed by a group of essays on the different ways that scientists, industrialists, farmers and others have known western natures. The final set of essays concerns the poetics of place, in particular “the sentiments, personal and projected by others, that connect people to place (10).” And a wonderful essay by Pamela Banting -- about bees, discipline, cross-pollination, and Claude Levi-Strauss’s notion of bricolage -- ties the collection together.

The result is a remarkable collection of pieces as diverse as they are numerous. In the course of twenty chapters covering 300-plus pages and much of the Canadian West, including somewhat surprisingly parts of Ontario, we learn about grass, waste, deforestation, bitumen, escarpments, agriculture, hydroelectricity, and much else. We also learn a lot about ourselves from this book. My only criticism of Sustaining the West, and really it’s a very minor one, is that it seems to lose some of its interdisciplinary focus as it goes on. Only a handful of essays -- Piper and Szabo-Jones’s brief but useful introduction, and Pamela Banting’s summary reflections being the most important examples -- deal directly with interdisciplinarity: what it means, or has meant, in different contexts, and what sorts of challenges and opportunities might be involved. Then again, it could just as easily be argued that this is the strength of Sustaining the West: that rather than simply discussing interdisciplinarity (which of course many others have done before), it actually does interdisciplinarity, or rather “performs” it, to borrow a phrase from Lisa Szabo-Jones and David Brownstein’s insightful essay on the restoration of Camosun Bog in Vancouver.

Either way, Sustaining the West deserves to be widely read. Most of the essays are so accessibly written that it could easily be used as a textbook in upper level undergraduate courses on the environment, as well as in graduate seminars in the social sciences and humanities. There’s probably no point in looking for policy options in this book, although the first set of essays on activism comes close. But if the goal is to encourage a deeper and more nuanced, and ultimately more complex, understanding of environmental problems -- which this book shows are also deeply cultural -- then Sustaining the West is an excellent place to start.

 

Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments
Lisa Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones, editors
Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 2015. 365 pp. $42.95 paper.

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017