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A Political Space: Reading the Global through Clayoquot Sound

By Warren Magnusson, Karena Shaw

November 4, 2013

Review By David Tindall

Clayoquot Sound. Home of the Nu-Chah-Nuulth First Nation for thousands of years. Home of loggers and fishers who have contributed to a global market for wood and fish products for decades. Home to scenic fjords, spectacular temperate rainforests, expansive windswept beaches, and tremendous biodiversity. A recently discovered favourite eco-tourism destination for urbanites from major metropolitan areas in North America and around the world. The site of the largest civil disobedience campaign in Canadian history. An area that is valued for a variety of reasons by different actors and, consequently, is a site of contention among different groups. 

A Political Space: Reading the Global through Clayoquot Sound uses Clayoquot Sound as a case study to examine various contemporary political, economic, and social processes. This book should be read by anyone interested in the contention over Clayoquot Sound and the possibilities for the future of the region. It would also be an interesting read for those interested in understanding the interconnections between local political, economic, and social processes and global ones. A Political Space is part of a larger project investigating these themes. A parallel product of the project is a fabulously informative Web site located at http://web.uvic.ca/clayoquot. 

A Political Space contains some of the best scholarly descriptive accounts of the context and implications of the Clayoquot protests that are available. Indeed, Karena Shaw provides an excellent descriptive overview of the key historical events that have occurred with regard to this site. This is easily the best account I have read on this topic. 

There are also several cutting-edge “theoretical” chapters that will be of interest to those who wish to probe beyond the surface detail of these events. More than in most edited books, the editors and contributors of A Political Sphere have made a concerted effort to create linkages across chapters. This is done in a variety of ways, including providing a useful introduction and conclusion, several chapters that comment on preceding chapters, and cross-references between the chapters themselves. 

A Political Sphere uses Clayoquot to explore the “interactions[s] among the movements, powers, and authorities that produce the world in which we live … [to explore] Clayoquot Sound as a microcosm of global politics ….” (vii). The phenomena of interest include environmental protests and global market campaigns, issues of First Nations sovereignty; the implications of ecotourism, the shift from industrialism to postindustrialism, state intervention in the economy, and scientific representation and traditional ecological knowledge. As the editors note, they “are advocating a particular method of inquiry, a method that privileges the site itself rather than the interpretive frame that we bring to it” (viii). 

It is beyond the scope of this review to systematically address all the chapters in this book, but I will briefly comment on several key ones. 

One of the most analytically interesting chapters is by Timothy W. Luke. It is well grounded in political economy theory and makes a conceptual distinction between “extractive and attractive” models of development. Luke states: “Much of what has hit Tofino, Ucluelet, and Clayoquot Sound is a shift from an extractive to an attractive model of development, which is, in turn, a response to other extensive changes in commodity production, urban growth, and the quality of life all over the world” (92). The switch to an attractive economy has implications: “creating a new growth centre in Tofino/Ucluelet for outdoor leisure, recreational, and sport industries means downsizing, if not entirely eliminating, much of the traditional timber industry” (94). Luke cites another author in this volume (R. Michael M’Gonigle) when he observes that both “extractive and attractive models of development are extremely dependent on forces, interests, and markets far removed from their peripheral sites of production and consumption” (102). He notes, with irony, that the environmentalist campaign to preserve Clayoquot Sound (through slide shows, videos, posters, etc.) has morphed into “envirotisements” for the new attractive industry of eco-tourism. While Luke provides an interesting analysis, it is not entirely clear whether “attractive economy” is an analytical concept that adds to political economy theory or whether it is just a cute phrase. 

Related to Luke’s work, R. Michael M’Gonigle’s chapter provides some elements for an ecological political economy. In doing so it considers the network of resource flows (products, profits) and media control and dissemination related to the struggles over Clayoquot. M’Gonigle argues that there is a need to cut off cities from “the ability to exploit remote resource regions at will,” and he calls for cities to develop and rely on “circular processes”: “resource efficiency, materials recycling, industrial ecology, demand management, and so on” (130). Some linkage to Schnaiberg’s “treadmill of production model” would have been useful here. 

Catriona Sandilands examines representations of Clayoquot Sound and the issue of eco-tourism. She focuses on, and is critical of, arguments that favour wilderness preservation (which promotes pristine areas, with mega-flora and fauna, and an absence of humans) and how they are constructed to appeal to eco-tourists. Her analysis is rooted in a postmodern conceptual framework developed by Jean Baudrillard. This is an interesting chapter, but it illustrates some of the book’s weaknesses. Sandilands focuses primarily on aesthetic values and issues related to eco-tourism and criticizes environmentalists for not having a more complex analysis. However, I think that she focuses on the surface of environmentalist arguments and neglects to examine the strategy that motivates environmentalist discourse. Environmentalists are not just interested in pretty landscapes, big trees, and opportunities for eco-tourism. But, thus far, these are the types of “frames” that they have deemed likely to be successful in the wider arena of public discourse. They are really interested in protecting biological diversity and in ecological production. But they feel constrained to use arguments that they think will appeal to politicians and the general public. This is a chapter in which linkages to mainstream social movement concepts (such as the importance of “frame resonance”) would have strengthened the analysis. The focus on “big trees” is a framing device (a type of frame amplification) that has been very successful for environmentalists. And while it is true, as Sandilands argues, that some environmentalists have a vested business interest in eco-tourism, by and large this is seen as a soft form of economic development – one that resonates with key audiences. Another weakness of this chapter is that it is an exemplar of “hard social constructionism” in that it is not apparent that there is any real world out there – just competing, and differently packaged, social constructions. Many social and natural scientists (as well as citizens more generally) would argue that there really is an ecological world out there and, indeed, that some people are very concerned about its well-being. Further, within the context of considering competing worldviews, Sandilands fails to analyze the fundamental distinction between anthropocentrism and eco-centrism. 

I conclude by discussing some of the volume’s weaknesses, the most glaring of which is that it is a social science book that contains very little mainstream social science. Ostensibly, A Political Space applies political “theory” to a particular case. (I put “theory” in quotes because, in the social sciences, theory generally refers to a logically interrelated set of propositions that attempt to explain a given phenomenon. For the most part, this is not how the authors of this volume use the term.) Most, if not all, of the contributors are “postmodernists,” and the theory that is utilized mostly involves postmodern discourse with some smatterings of classical political theory and a smidgen of political economy theory. 

There is, however, a wealth of mainstream social sciences literature that could have been fruitfully brought to bear on this material. For instance, a sizeable proportion of A Political Space deals with a social movement (namely, the environmental movement), yet the book is pretty much devoid of references to mainstream social movement scholarship (two particular social movement perspectives that could have been usefully integrated into the analysis include political process theory and framing theory). 

Connections could also have been made to other literature. For example, much of the book is about how the local is linked to global processes and to other local sites. Global markets influence the nature of extractive and attractive development in Clayoquot Sound. Eco-tourism is possible in Clayoquot Sound because an environmental movement “markets campaign” disrupted inter-national demand for old-growth wood fibre. Eco-tourism is possible in Clayoquot Sound because timber harvesting has (largely) shifted to other areas. One mainstream approach that would have been interesting to utilize in exploring these issues is network analysis. Network analysis allows for the simultaneous investigation of interrelations among multiple social units (individuals, communities) at various levels of analysis (cities, regions, states). It might have pushed the analyses contained in A Political Space further and, at the same time, linked the material to more mainstream literature. Although, somewhat predictably, this volume has many silly things to say about science, A Political Space remains an important work both for its substantive insights into the region and for (some of) its conceptual formulations.