of environmental titles with a book that, for me, is close 'to home in more ways than one. I'm talking about Too Good To Be True: Alcan's Kemano Completion Project (Talonbooks, 352 pages, $16.95 paper), by Bev Christensen, a reporter for the Prince George Citizen. Since I come from the area- north- central British Columbia-have canoed and fished there, and have known the author since I was a child, it might be possible to accuse me of leaning toward her version of the story. But a relative of mine has been the chief of Alcan's public relations for many years, so I've also heard the other side of the story more times than I care to remember.
In any case, what side I'm on doesn't really matter. This is an essential story, and a fascinating one, starring multinational corporations, megaproject-dazed governments, abrogated Native rights, bemused locals, and a terrible toll in dead (and never-born) salmon. The Kemano story is an almost perfect paradigm of the key currents and figures of what may turn out to be the tragedy of all our lives.
Here are the basics. In the late 1940s, Alcan received government permission to dam a vast chain of lakes drained by the Nechalko River at the easterly end, and to divert the stored water to a hydroelectric generating complex at Kemano, on the western side of the chain. 'Me entire project was intended to provide power for Alcan's aluminum refinery at Kitimat, which was built simultaneously.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the project was regarded as a wonder of technology. The construction phase was an economic windfall for central B.C., a sizeable industrial complex was created at Kitimat out of nothing, flooding on the unruly Nechalko River was ended forever, and the only casualties were a few farms and Native villages within the 358 square
miles that were flooded -- an acceptable cost of progress in those days, particularly if it isn't your farm or village being drowned. All in all, a model megaproject, right'?
When Alcan proposed, in 1985, that it ought to be allowed to complete the final elements of the water license the government gave it in the 1950s, raising the reservoir level further, reducing waterflows to the Nechalko yet again, and selling the hydroelectric power to the power-grid system, the cracks in this megaproject's shiny patina quickly became visible. What appeared to be a model of government/corporate cooperation began to look like big corporation bulldozing of near-sighted governments, and the apparently few broken eggs were exposed as numerous. The completion project was cancelled early this year by the B.C. government, but what Christensen has delivered is not a post-mortem: the project remains alive and in the courts, and with or without a weaker government's compliance, it may eventually go through.
Christensen makes generous use of the voluminous historical record and local testimony, past and present, to demonstrate the cultural damage these megaprojects inflict both directly and indirectly- something that today's environmentalists often miss. The environmental depredations of Kemano, meanwhile, are extensive and cumulative, and as Christensen painstakingly outlines, the measures in place to deal with them are as woefully inadequate as our understanding of the problem. Finally, she's about as clear as anyone I've read on how vulnerable we remain -- or have once again become, despite our improved methods of evaluating environmental impacts -- to losing control over our resources by signing bilateral trade agreements like NAFTA and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
The Last Great Forest: Japanese Multinationals and Alberta's Northern Forests (NeWest, 222 pages, $18.95 paper), by Larry Pratt and Ian Urquhart, is another good book from another pretty good independent press. The authors' approach is more academic than Christensen's; as a result, an awful lot of the narrative presents what goes on in the corridors of the Alberta legislature and the Daishowa corporation's boardroom as the primary reality. Still, if you treat this book as an adjunct to Christensen's localized perspective, you get an informative view of just exactly how much trouble we're in on the environmental front, and why. Alberta's sell-off of its boreal forests is a piece of insanity equal to B.C.'s mismanagement of its forestry and water resources. It hasn't been going on quite as long, that's all.
Witness to Wilderness: The Clayoquot Sound Anthology (Arsenal Pulp, 292 pages, $17.95 paper), edited by Howard BreenNeedham, Sandy Francis Duncan, and Susan Yates, is a hodge-podge of more than a hundred statements, vignettes, memoirs, pleas, poems, photographs, cartoons, and self-sensitive correct thoughts in support of preserving the trees at Vancouver Island's glamorous Clayoquot Sound. The contributions range from the intelligent (Joyce Nelson, Des Kennedy) to the irrelevantly pompous (nearly all of the poetry) to the utterly silly (Ingeborg Woodcock dropping the Dalai Lama's name in a letter to B.C. Premier Michael Harcourt).
I hope this book sells well, because it's for a decent cause and some of it makes good reading. But a part of me worries that if the executives down at multinational headquarters read the book and take it as an indication of how divorced from ordinary reality most of the Clayoquot supporters are, they'll level everything on Vancouver Island.
The Presence of Whales (Whitecap, 319 pages, $17.95 paper), edited by Frank Stewart, is a similar kind of book, but mercifully, it has only 20 contributors (including our very own Farley Mowat, with two pieces) and only one poet (W. S. Merwin). If you're fascinated by these creatures, this would be a good book to take on a whale-watching expedition. It provides a working (if possibly over-lyrical) knowledge of whales, and it will give you something to do while waiting for them to show up by the side of the boat to chat about what utter morons and jerks human beings can be.
G. Bruce Doern and Thomas Conway's The Greening of Canada: Federal Institutions and Decisions (University of Toronto, 297 pages, $19.95 paper) discusses the period leading up to the Earth Summit of 1992, and all those sensible decisions about the global environment that every government on the planet, including ours, has since backed away from. The authors' analysis might have been timely if the book had been published early in 1993, but with the signing of NAFTA and the real-world government agenda consigned wholly to convincing us that dismantling the civil service and cutting programs are the only way to preserve civilization, it is already seriously out of date, and even, well, quaint in its enthusiasms.
Still, I don't want to be too negative about this book. It does offer an intelligent history of the federal government's attempts to come to terms with our environmental difficulties, and it is surprisingly clear about how lousy the record has been.
At first, Elizabeth Brubaker's Property Rights and the Defense of Nature (Earthscan, 328 pages, $15.95 paper) seems abstruse, but once you get your head around its working vocabulary it's quite readable and informative. Brubaker, eschewing the conventional right/left hassle over property as the basis of social and political divisions, seeks ways of employing existing concepts of public and private property in the defense of the environment, and considers 1 subtle alterations that could change our evil ways. Worth reading for its own sake, and a valuable reference book.
Environmental Health Risks and Public Policy: Decision Making in Free Societies (UBC, 117 pages, $17.95 paper), by David V. Bates, is a remarkably articulate evaluation of how environmental health risks are (or ought to be) calculated, and a highly useful manual for determining when scientists and government are foot-dragging, dissembling, or lying about them. Because Bates is so unhysterically clear about how risks can be played down or ignored -- and why -- this is a book I intend to keep on my active shelf for the foreseeable future. Highly recommended.
I've said this before, but I'll say it again. I'm grateful for the existence of Black Rose Books, and only partially because it's just about the only proof left in this country that the Left hasn't been permanently brain-damaged by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This year, Black Rose has published two wildly different books of interest to environmentalists: Nature and the Crisis of Modernity (187 pages, $18.99 paper), by Raymond A. Rogers, and Balance: Art and Nature (250 pages, $19.99 paper), by John K. Grande.
Rogers's book is particularly worthwhile, for its critique of the West's evolving concept of nature and its account of how our current resource-management-oriented view of nature turns everything into a technical problem. Rogers argues, persuasively, that the cultural and political dysfunctions of the modernist project parallel (and elucidate) our growing environmental crisis.
In Balance: Art and Nature, John K. Grande demonstrates that art criticism doesn't have to give readers a sinus headache. Some of the pieces in the book are more difficult than others, but his basic argument is that visual artists have a political and cultural -- and environmental -- responsibility that is not reconcilable with he usual sucking up to the marketplace. Stated in the abstract, it may seem a little naive, but then almost everything important sounds naive until you get into the details. And Grande's grasp of the details -- both artistic and political -- makes this book convincing, and even better, interesting.