Monday, 8 April 2013

Crosspost: The Politics of Place: Local history and the Megaproject

Note: This review was written for and originally posted at Active History on March 14, 2013. I encourage anyone interested in commenting to leave a note on the original paper.

Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environment, and the Everyday, 1953-2003
Joy Parr
University of British Columbia Press
Paperback, 304 pages, $32.95

Sensing_Changes_300Just as all politics can be viewed as local, so, too, can history. Joy Parr’s Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953–2003 (UBC Press, 2010) explores local reactions to a series of “megaprojects,” with a focus on how the residents and workers involved adapted to changing environments, technologies, and everyday experiences often outside of their control. Through seven diverse episodes—ranging from the creation of CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, the building of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in eastern Ontario, the flooding of the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia, three aspects of Canada’s nuclear program, and the local and provincial response to the e.coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario in 2001—Parr seeks to reclaim the vital importance of local, embodied experience in historical research and writing, and, by extension, in political and policy decision-making processes.

Each story in Sensing Changes is accompanied by an online “new media” package prepared by Jon van der Veen (see, which also includes an additional section on Asbestos, Quebec). The episodic nature of the work allows for a more casual reading, as each event is self-contained and can be easily read in a sitting, though the multi-media package is not as well integrated into the work as it could be. Nonetheless, the oral histories that inform the text and the accompanying multimedia package provide Parr’s narrative with a sense of place not always found in purely textual sources and narratives. It also shows the importance of taking local stories seriously and of policy makers being aware of the effects that their decisions have on the well-being, habits, and lived experience of individuals and communities.

While Parr introduces her intellectual predecessors from a host of disciplines and a number of tightly defined academic words in her introduction, three closely related concepts stand out as important for understanding her book as a whole: “embodied knowledge”; habitat; and the local. Embodied knowledge refers to the fact that as physical beings our “minds are embodied,” and that “doing can organize knowing: that logic can be founded in practice” (8). Parr argues that we come to know our world not only through abstract thought, but also by acting in and upon our environments. Our actions are possible because we have bodies that exist in the physical world and are capable of knowing that world through our sensory perceptions. The human body, then, becomes the fundamental archive of historical experience that is researchable through written and oral accounts of lived experience.

Parr defines the places in which we live as our habitat. In particular, she argues that habitats are more than just homes, they are “sites of mutual remaking” (2) in which human beings adapt to the specific challenges and opportunities presented by their surroundings. We become familiar with our habitats and we form habits in them. Just as the environment influences human action, humans also act upon the environment, thereby making changes to their habitat. These habitats ultimately form the “local” at the core of Sensing Changes. Local, in this context, refers not just to particular places, but also to those people who live, work, and play in them. It refers to the idea that provincial, national, and continental politics ultimately relate to, and make demands on, individual human beings and their communities.

Local communities, of course, are not homogeneous. People may react differently to the same circumstances. For example, while seasonal visitors to the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario may have been turned off by the smell from the nearby heavy-water plant, permanent residents knew that you only had to worry about the gases you could not smell, and many associated the smells from the plant with stable, well-paying jobs. Tragically, the local definition of “good water” in Walkerton—one that explicitly excluded the taste of chlorine—was a contributing factor in the deadly e.coli outbreak that struck the community during the Victoria Day long weekend in 2001. In both these examples, embodied experiences of habitats helped to shape local opinions of changes that occurred in the postwar period and, in particular, point to the importance of all senses, not just sight and touch but also taste and smell, in the telling of stories about the past.

Much of Sensing Changes focuses on stories of loss and the dissonance created in the sensuous experience of local residents when their habitats are dramatically changed or they are forced to relocate in the name of technological progress. The rising waters of the Arrow Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River deeply affected the “sensescape” to which residents had become accustomed throughout their lives. The relocation of Iroquois to make way for the Saint Lawrence Seaway, in particular, radically changed the way people experienced the town in both basic (a social, walkable downtown was replaced with an impersonal, car-centric shopping plaza) and minutely profound ways (the orientation of the houses was shifted by 90?, altering how light entered living spaces). At the same time, Parr discusses the ways that modern technology forced people to change how they interacted with the physical world. In particular, while discussing the decentralized safety routines in nuclear power plants, she shows how the invisible, scentless threat of radiation was made physical through the use of colours and signs, and in teaching workers to read instruments that could detect and make knowable these seemingly imperceptible dangers.

A wide range of past and present events and projects benefit from Parr’s methods of analysis. For example, she points out the similarity between the people affected by the megaprojects she examines, specifically the urban residents who found their neighbourhoods targeted for demolition in the name of healing “urban blight,” or building controlled-access highways in the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary megaprojects ranging from resource exploitation in the provincial and territorial north to the transformation of villages into suburban and exurban bedroom communities can be understood and made more human in a manner similar to the flooding of the Arrow Lakes, the relocation of Iroquois, and the e.coli outbreak in Walkerton by taking locally embodied experiences seriously. Indeed, Sensing Changes should serve as an inspiration to historians, politicians, and policy makers to re-examine and re-emphasize the importance of embodied knowledge, habitat, and the local in all of our work, as well as remind those of us living in the wake of these megaprojects that our experiences are important historical stories.