CANADA'S environmental writers didn't produce a book anything close to matching Alex Wilson's remarkable The Culture of Nature, which was published last year. It's orts and sorts in 1993: several books that are interesting but not profound, and more than one that is neither.
The most interesting book, with the somewhat improbable title Food, Sex and Salmonella: The Risks of Environmental Intimacy (NC Press, 176 pages, $15.95 paper), comes from David Waltner-Toews, a veterinarian who writes a column for Harrowsmith magazine. Waltner-Toews is intelligent, sensible, and genuinely funny. This book realty is about salmonella, but it has a wider scope that is constantly enlivened by the author's insightful wit and considerable research skills. It may turn you into a compulsive hand-washer, but you'll be a laughing, better-informed compulsive hand-washer. Highly recommended.
Also highly recommended is a strange little book by Vivien Lougheed called Kluane Park Hiking Guide (168 pages, $12.95 paper), from Repository Press in Prince George, British Columbia. It's exactly what it claims to be - a guide to get you into, through, and out of Kluane National Park and it's a model of what environmental guidebooks ought to be. Part of the interest is that Lougheed managed to take the B.C. writer John Harris with her into Kluane without killing or crippling him, so she knows her stuff, and her book is loaded with fascinating information on this unique park.
From not far away, at Fort Good Hope in the North West Territories (and a number of government agencies in Ottawa), comes Lore: Capturing Traditional Environmental Knowledge (International Development Research Centre, 190 pages, $14.95 paper), edited by Martha Johnson. It's the proceedings of a conference in which a group of professional social scientists met with Dene elders and rediscovered what any sensible person knows: that the locals (at Fort Good Hope and elsewhere around the globe) are actually aware of what's going on around them, and that professionals ought to listen to what they say more carefully than they have in the past. Unfortunately, this book contains a lot of tore-gathering methodology (including cunning tips such as making sure you've checked the batteries on your tape-recorder before you start a lore-gathering interview) and almost no lore at all. It's a professional anthro-kit addendum, useful in what it offers, which is almost nothing for the general reader.
Balancing Act: Environmental Issues in Forestry (UBC Press, 244 pages, $29.95 paper), by the University of British Columbia forestry professor Hamish Kimmins, is an interesting attempt to be both topical and scientific on the subject of how we're mowing down our trees. It's a noble but doomed attempt, I'm afraid, because Kimmins is trying to be judicious and sane about an industry that has been tragically abusive for half a century, and attempting to explain the logic behind practices that a six-year-old can recognize as crazy and wrong. The problem is that there is a vast gulf between Canada's industrial practice of forestry and the theoretical principles that regulate it. Forestry is a political industry, and its future will be governed by political and even religious winds - in which the saner heads will be hung out to dry by both sides.
Robert N. Richards's Abuses and Improprieties of the Niagara Escarpment Commission: A Regulatory Agency Experience and Review (Medric, 220 pages, $19.95 paper), is just about everything Kimmins's book isn't. Richards is an MD, outsider extraordinaire, and the kind of citizen-from-hell every bureaucrat fears. In 1987, he applied to the NEC and other relevant agencies to create a pond on the Caledon property his late father purchased in the 1950s, and which father and son spent the next 30 years rehabilitating as amateur naturalists. The purpose of the proposed pond was to drain sections of the small forest they'd planted. As the trees matured, they were being victimized by the boggy soil - trees were blowing down. The other regulatory agencies to which Richards applied recognized his plan as an elegant solution to a micro-environmental problem, but not the NEC, which doesn't seem to like artificial ponds and has a blanket policy against them.
At first Richards played the game, but the NEC, which to all appearances is an agency right out of a Franz Kafka novel,
stonewalled him: no pond, nowhere, nohow, and never mind why. Unfortunately for the NEC, it is hard to imagine a book less like a Kafka novel than this one. Richards excoriates and ridicules his Leviathan; he fulminates and roars, stopping just short of calling for summary executions at the NEC. He also documents his case with astonishing thoroughness, and it is impossible not to agree that he's got the NEC dead to rights. His book is a testimony to just how angry and articulate intelligent citizens can get, and it leaves you wishing there were more people like him.
It's difficult to be completely negative about a book that offers clearly written and presented basic information about the environment, and to be sure, On Common Ground: Managing Human-Planet Relationships (John Wiley, 216 pages, $24-95 paper) has those merits. But the subtitle gives away, methinks, the book's bias. Written by the University of Toronto geology professor Barbara Murck and the Club of Rome member Ranjit it Kumar in the opaque language of 1970s urban planning, it has the answers to all our ecological problems: we simply "manage" things properly. Given the book's listed pedigrees - it is a publication of something called Project Learning, which is an initiative of the Foundation for International Training, which is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and connected spiritually with a series of UN organizations and publications noted for their successes in protecting the environment by hosting diplomatic receptions in New York City - I'm more than a little sceptical about this book.
I don't mean to impugn the sincerity of its authors, but the tone of their book is so smooth - a hallmark of management vocabulary -that the grit of our collective ecological nightmare slides right off its surfaces. It implies that the collapse of our ecosystem is a minor technical problem that is either about to be solved by the planet's managers, or at least easily solvable by the injection of better management teams and concepts.
This is, of course, both true and not true. The technologies do exist to eliminate most of our environmental troubles, and if our politicians and industrial leaders just shifted their financial and management resources away from killing and ripping off one another, it could be done. The problem that On Common Ground doesn't seriously acknowledge is that the will to do this isn't there. Nowhere in these pages is there an acknowledgement that our world is controlled and governed by effluent-dumping industrialists and political leaders who see nothing wrong with spending $ 10,000 on weapons for every dollar they spend on the environment. Still, to give the book its due, it provides a competent, non-alarmist catalogue of what's wrong in the global environment, and an interesting overview of what ought to be done about it.
Erring on a different side of competent and interesting is David H. Breen's Alberta's Petroleum Industry and the Conservation Board (800 pages, $39.95 cloth), from, you guessed it, the University of Alberta Press. Competent this book is, exhaustively and exhaustingly. Breen, a history professor at UBC, takes us from the discovery of petroleum resources across Alberta before the turn of the century through to the promulgation of a national oil policy by the federal government in 1961. The book reveals, along its labyrinthine narrative, that Alberta's various governments did a comparatively intelligent job of husbanding the development of the province's petroleum resources, demonstrating that "resource policy" wasn't always the oxymoron it has become under recent governments. This isn't a thrilling read by any means, but Breen's prose doesn't stir up the intellectual dust-storm one might expect from such an obscure topic. And for anyone studying the development of our natural resources, he offers some interesting materials and a few pleasantly sobering surprises about Alberta's past governments.
Rodney R. White's North, South, and the Environmental Crisis (University of Toronto Press, 214 pages, $50 cloth, $17.95 paper) describes the globalization of environmental difficulties that has evolved in the past several decades. White, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Institute of Environmental Studies, offers intelligent analyses of CO2 buildup, ozone depletion, and acid rain, details the declines and shifts in natural systems, and ties them directly to rapid population and industrial growth without minimizing the seriousness of the problems or the complexities of possible solutions. White's conceptual frame, that "To the world's current problems there are no sectoral solutions," is pretty much free of the banal management optimisms that befoul. the Kumar/Murck volume, and his prose is wonderfully clear and direct.
My chief problems with the book are that the type is unreadably small, the illustrations and graphs too few and too dry, and the cost of the clothbound edition seems designed to prevent budget-starved libraries from buying it. That's a shame, because this is an important and disturbing assemblage of research and conceptual analysis, and it ought to be in every library in the country.
On the more or less totally frivolous side is Peter Brock's Variations on a Planet (Pottersfield, 110 pages, $9.95 paper). Brock is a chemical engineer turned shepherd, teacher, cabin builder, potter, television producer, boat builder, and amateur New Age philosopher who plans to help solve the world's environmental problems by sailing around it - and them. His book is a rambling personal account (replete with art circle-competent line drawings) of his own life experiences and feelings, with an emphasis on the feelings. "Joy comes," he writes, "in strange ways and I felt it surging over me for no reason, felt an almost physical and buoyant exultation." Yes, indeed.
Even though I come from a place where most of my friends try to run over people like Peter Brock with their pick-up trucks, I'm quite prepared to merely wish the man a safe and spiritually enriching trip on his new boat - and recommend his book to serious folks not at all.