Taking Stands: Gender and the Sustainability of Rural Communities
November 4, 2013
Review By Karena Shaw
MAUREEN REED’S BOOK, Taking Stands: Geàder and the Sustainability of Rural Communities, tackles a crucial but almost systematically neglected tangle of issues embedded in the conflicts over forestry in BC: those emerging from and through the lives of women living in forestry-dependent communities. It is an ambitious book, both conceptually and substantively, characterized by a systematic effort to disrupt inherited assumptions – whether of policymakers, researchers, or activists – about the meaning and motivation of women’s activism on North Vancouver Island during the early and mid-nineties, persuasively arguing that these assumptions conceal realities that must be understood in order to move these communities towards sustainability. Grounded in a rich understanding of the diverse and complex realities of these women’s lives, Reed provides a nuanced reading of both the processes through which these realities have been erased or ignored and the necessity of revealing and engaging them in both research on and policy towards sustainability in these communities.
After a context-setting introduction, the book proceeds through an analysis of the contribution of the “greening” of public discourse to dynamics of social marginalization in rural resource-dependent communities. It then moves on to examine the policy changes that have influenced structural change in these communities. The subsequent three chapters draw most directly on the research into women’s lives, detailing the activities pursued by these women, the contexts in which they chose their actions, and the meanings they gave to them. In the process, the social dynamics of these rural communities begin to emerge with rare detail and nuance. The final two chapters build on the rich picture that has been painted to explore how policymaking in these regions has failed to engage this richness, and thus has tended to ignore crucial aspects of social sustainability. The book concludes with a consideration of how research agendas might be framed more effectively to better inform future policymaking towards the social sustainability of rural communities.
Taking Stands makes important contributions to a range of literatures and offers much to a range of readers: researchers interested in dynamics of gender and sustainability, or indeed in the character and implications of past forestry conflicts in BC; policymakers or analysts concerned to better respond to the challenges posed by gender, in both the content and process of policymaking; activists seeking to craft more wide-ranging coalitions to move communities towards sustainability and students of all of the above. This diversity of resources provided by the book also reveals its potential weakness, however. The individual chapters are each well researched, grounded, and argued; each develops a focused and discrete analytical territory and pursues this territory with considerable intricacy. The obvious reluctance to allow any thread of the analysis to slip, or to oversimplify any aspect of the terrain, is admirable and works well at a chapter level. However, integrating this level of detail and complexity into an overarching analysis is a challenge, and although most of the chapters could stand alone, at times the coherence and consistency of the overall argument suffers. This problem becomes apparent in the juxtaposition of the analyses in different chapters. While the rise of environmentalism figures heavily as a causal factor in the analysis of transition and social marginalization of forest-dependent communities in Chapter 2, for example (and the role of government policies is virtually absent), the subsequent chapter details a range of government policies that arguably have much greater consequences for the character of the transition faced by these communities, yet little mention is made of their contributions to social marginalization. As a consequence, despite Reed’s efforts to resist “blaming” environmentalism for the social marginalization of these communities, the analysis lends itself to that kind of scapegoating. The contributions of government policies, unions, and forestry companies to processes of social marginalization are never systematically analyzed, and so they escape blameless, an eerily familiar repetition of how anti-environmental rhetoric diverted blame from them during the conflicts as well. The overall argument suffers from similar failures to sustain a consistent analytical framework throughout, itself at least partially a consequence of the attention to detail and context that simultaneously provides the core strength of many of the chapters.
This concern should not overshadow the very important contributions of the book, however. It tackles highly politicized issues from a far-too-long obscured perspective, negotiating the charged terrain that results with atten-tiveness and care. It is generally accessible, and provides those of us teaching and researching in this area with a resource, reference point, and series of important challenges. Reed sets a high standard for her own research, and the results will help many of us who seek to engage more effectively with similar terrain.