THIS YEAR'S ROUND-UP of environment-related titles contains some of the best books I've encountered in years. That's the up side. The down side is that it also contains what I'm convinced is the most damaging environmental book ever published in this country. More depressing, this same title is the largest of the bunch, and - not to give everything away in my first paragraph - a book that you and I have already paid for.
The best of the good is Alexander Wilson's remarkable The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (335 pages, $39.95 cloth, $24.95 paper), from Between the Lines, which has, on a shoestring budget, brought us more intelligent theoretical texts on the state of our cultural environment over the last five years than all of Canada's mainstream presses put together.
Wilson's book is a perfect example of what the press excels at. It is the first study ever done on the effect that the Disney-led "Let's-have-fun-and-not-think-about-who-gets-the-profits" approach to architecture, land use, and civic culture has had on our urban and natural environments. Although occasionally made opaque by its complexity, Wilson's analysis of the environments we have constructed around us (and the natural systems we have damaged or destroyed) is refreshingly neutral. He is neither a wildflower-brandishing Birkenstock environmentalist nor a bug-eyed techno-fun fascist. He argues that if sustainable development is ever to be more than a public relations term, technology, human culture, and nature are going to have to be integrated in ways that previous eras have been incapable of imagining. According to Wilson, the most dangerous problem we face is a conceptual deficit, not a technological one. This is an indispensable book, and one that readers will find themselves going back to again and again as the effects of the single-minded and single-purpose messing around of the last 50 years become more unavoidable.
In general agreement with Wilson's argument is The Age of Ecology (Lorimer, 272 pages, $16.95 paper), by the CBC-radio journalist David Cayley. The book is a selection of interview transcripts Cayley has done over the last five years on "Ideas," and the most interesting things in them are Cayley's interventions and structurings. That's no big surprise, since the people he's interviewing are verbally summarizing what are usually much more complex arguments, and even judiciously edited conversation is nearly always less rich in realized ideas than a written text. Several of the interviews are fascinating (the conversations with James Lovelock and William Irwin Thompson on the Gaia theory are marvellous) and one or two are just this side of Tilley Endurable psychosis. The best pieces in the book, finally, are Cayley's introduction and afterword, unless you're just hunting for juicy partisan quotes, of which you'll discover a rich supply.
An almost equally interesting and intelligent book is One Animal among Many: Gaia, Goats and Garlic ((NC Press, 128 pages, $14.95 paper), by David Waltner-Toews. Waltner-Toews is a Harrowsmith columnist and a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Guelph, and his book, despite the crunchy-granola title, lousy design, and a nearly unreadable typeface, is still eminently readable. Goats, Gaia, and garlic do make their appearance in the text, along with some chickens, newborn calves, and an array of nasty parasites and genetic anomalies. What makes the book so interesting is that Waltner-Toews almost never gets hung up on the particularity of his knowledge. His menagerie's intrinsic qualities are used to reveal the truth about the larger ecosystems we're enmeshed in. Personally, I'd like to have this guy as my next door neighbour, although I suspect that I'd ask him so many stupid questions he'd eventually put up electric fences to keep me away. I guess I'll have to buy a subscription to Harrowsmith instead, and keep his book around.
Sean McCutcheon's Electric Rivers: The Story of the James Bay Project (Black Rose, 194 pages, $37.95 cloth, $18.95 paper) is a very competent if somewhat laconic primer on Quebec's catastrophic hydroelectric mega-project. Published before the next-scheduled stages of the mega-project were cancelled, it is nonetheless essential background reading for those of us who sense that the James Bay plan is merely on hold. It is also helpful in understanding how Rene Levesque's essentially social-democratic vision of Quebec sovereignty has been transformed under the province's present political leadership (Parizeau as well as Bourassa) into a deeply xenophobic economic vision that would end up with a Quebec independent of Canada, but the economic slave of the Northeast US power grid.
Liz Armstrong and Adrienne Scott have written a remarkably coherent and depressing attack on chlorine and consumerism in Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women's Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers (HarperCollins, 194 pages, $12.95 paper). Their arguments against the use of chlorine-bleached products are so convincing that one is astonished that the manufacturers keep putting them on the market, that governments continue to permit it, and that anyone in -their right mind would now use such products. What is depressing about this book is that such chlorine-bleached products are still bought and sold, and nobody seems terribly excited about the issue.
Paving Paradise: Is British Columbia Losing Its Heritage? (Whitecap, 192 pages, $22.95 cloth) comes from the Vancouver heritage aesthete Michael Kluckner, and is really only of interest to upper-middle-class Vancouverites. The irritating rhetorical question in the subtitle isn't really answered by the book, even though anyone in Vancouver, simply by opening their eyes in the morning, can figure out that the city and its extraordinary environmental assets are being trampled into oblivion by its development community and by civic governments that don't have the collective political will or intelligence of a herd of sheep. Kluckner, who evidently believes that the rest of B.C. is located somewhere in the megadeath suburb of Surrey, and is so stunningly naive about corporate development practices that he makes you wonder if he's even aware that we're living under a system of economic procedures called capitalism, seems to think that the answer is to stop all this nasty development and make nicer renovations.
In the realm of the more or less completely silly is Des Kennedy's Living Things We Love to Hate: Facts, Fantasies and Fallacies (Whitecap, 224 pages, $14-95 paper). An attempt to change our biophobia to biophilia, it is one of those "personal" books that is so, er, charmingly written and illustrated that it is downright annoying. The author knows we're facing ecological Armageddon, but he appears to believe we're all either 11 years old or have spent our lives reading Winnie the Pooh. But maybe I'm not the best judge of books like this. I'm not blophobic, and I get excessively irritable when apparently friendly adults try to talk down to me. As far as I can see, the only amazing thing in this book is how they got David Suzuki to write a foreword to it.
Dangerously close to the same vein is Teri Degler and Pollution Probe's The Kitchen Handbook: An Environmental Guide (McClelland & Stewart, 144 pages, $16.99 paper). There's nothing wrong with the book, really: it has the predictable gee-whiz prose, the illustrations and two-colour layout are thoroughly pedestrian, and everything in it has been done before, and better. Certainly the book has modest aims. It seems to think things will be just fine if members of the Anglican Church simply do a little more recycling, and the authors and publisher seem convinced that all that's needed to solve our ecological problems is Marjorie Lamb's granola recipe and some tips from Peter Mansbridge on how to make an ecologically correct chicken salad. Books like this support the delusion (AKA the Dave Nichols Fallacy) that we can survive on this planet without making fundamental changes in the way we appropriate and consume its resources. Sorry, guys, it isn't enough, and it is a disservice to suggest that it is.
Don't get me wrong. Silliness can be charming. Such is the case with Joan Rattner Heilman's Bluebird Rescue: A Harrowsmith Country Life Nature Guide (Camden House,48 pages, $6.95 paper). This slim little volume asks that we join what it calls the "Bluebird Rescue Team," and offers precise instructions about how to build bluebird boxes, where to put them, and how to protect these beautiful but vulnerable little birds from their enemies. The book is filled with brilliant photographs of bluebirds, the illustrations are handsome and practical, and the author's prose is clear and chirpy. What she's saying, without clubbing us over the head with it, is that bluebirds are the coal-mine canaries of the 1990s, more so than most bird species. If they go, we won't be far behind. She has me convinced.
Various corporate, government, and quasi-governmental agencies sent in four books for review this year. Two are of mixed value, one is, well, political malfeasance in action, and one is a perfect illustration of the kind of publications that governments should be producing but aren't.
Of mixed value - they're useful, but not terribly interesting - are Workplace Guide: Practical Action for the Environment (170 pages, $21.40 paper), from Ottawa's Harmony Foundation, and The Canadian Environmental Education Catalogue (Pembina Institute, 296 pages, $20 paper). Funded by a slightly odd conglomerate of corporate and government sponsors (CIBC, Molson, Xerox, Environment Canada, and several Ontario government agencies), Workplace Guide is part sensible resource conservation advice, part corporate management propaganda, and part safety-Nazi nonsense so impractical that it will give hard-nosed business executives a bad case of the giggles. The Canadian Environmental Education Catalogue is funded by Shell Canada and Immigration Canada's Section 25 program. It brings together, in a looseleaf binder, a listing of non-radical educational supplements for teachers. I don't think it is an exhaustive catalogue by any means (it fills only about a quarter of the binder) but it's a useful start towards filling an important educational need. Meanwhile, I want to know what the Pembina Institute thinks "appropriate development" might be.
The malfeasance resides in a huge (and, one suspects, deliberately unpaginated) volume titled The State of Canada's Environment (Canadian Communications Group Ottawa, $29.95 cloth), which, Minister of the Environment Jean Charest announces in the "Minister's Message," is an "important signpost" towards the government's 1990 Green Plan for a Healthy Environment. What bothers me isn't that the volume is filled with lies. It isn't. I'm sure the endless individual chapters are perfectly accurate, and that the nameless authors are competent professionals. What's wrong is the process, and the sliminess of a government that offers us this tome of seamlessly solemn prose and extravagant but politically correct illustrations instead of mounting a serious program to turn around the depressing trends outlined by the book's contents.
The State of Canada's Environment is, in reality, precisely the opposite of Alexander Wilson's The Culture of Nature. It has no point of view, and is more concerned that we know the government has followed environmentally correct procedures than whether or not it intends to do anything about the mess we're in. It is, therefore, full of sentences like these:
The design [of this book] optimizes the amount of text and graphics and minimizes unused space, while incorporating sufficient white space to be visually attractive ... According to the definition in the Environmental Choice Program, the text and endleave papers and the binders board used in this publication all contain a minimum of 50 percent post-consumer and post-commercial recycled fibres, of which at least 10 percent is of the post-consumer variety.
Maybe it's because I wasted 10 years of my life writing this sort of disinformation and am now having an allergic reaction to it, but I think this book is an offence against all of us, whether we read it or not. And few of us will. It is not meant to be read, and those who try will find that the volume's slippery-smooth anonymity of style will soon put them to sleep, and that the subliminal calm at the root of the style-sheet will render them incapable of remembering how depressing the facts really are. The emotional message this volume delivers can be summarized as follows: We're all going to die soon; however, your government is earnestly gathering statistical profiles that will ensure an orderly process as we go down the drainpipe. Please stay on your couch and keep the television on, etc. Please don't mistake what you're reading here: it is a death sentence with semicolons in it. Never mind that the publication cost of this book was clearly astronomical, and that the staff cost of writing it almost certainly ran far in excess of the total monies paid out in advances and royalties to Canadian writers last year. Try to remember that there is absolutely no plan behind it, green or otherwise.
Finally, what sort of environmental information should governments be providing? Well, last year an agglomerate that included the B.C. and federal governments, Lone Pine Press, and the B.C. Forest Service produced a long overdue handbook entitled Plants of Northern British Columbia (345 pages, $19.95 paper). It was written by a group of Forest Service employees and naturalists from all over Northern B.C., and it is, unlike The State of Canada's Environment, both specifically and structurally factual and useful. Instead of undermining our ability to see who and where we are, this book provides what governments ought to, but don't: the real goods, plainly and colourfully delivered. I wish I'd had this book while I was growing up, and if kids across Canada were given region-specific equivalents in elementary school and taught how to use them, we'd all be a lot better off than we are.