Monday, 25 November 2013

Key Points and Questions for NICHE New Scholars Discussion, Wednesday, November 27, 2013: Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles

(Note: This is a guest post by Jessica DeWitt discussing Armstrong and Nelle's book Wilderness and Waterpower.) 

In preparation for Wednesday's discussion I have organized a list of the points and arguments that struck me as most important in relation to Armstrong and Nelles' new book. To facilitate discussion I have attached most of these points to a possible question. I look forward to hearing other peoples' takes on the book.

1. Armstrong and Nelles open the book with a claim that hydroelectric power had as much of a effect on the development of Banff National Park as the CPR. After reading the book, do you think that they illustrated this claim effectively or is it an overstatement?

2. Two main questions that Armstrong and Nelles are seeking to answer:

a. "Why did Banff National Park have to be significantly altered to accommodate hydroelectric storage?" (vii)

b. "More broadly, how did the production and consumption of electricity in sourthern Alberta shape Canada's premier national park?" (vii)

3. The story is one that is supposed to illustrate the battle between "path-dependent technology" and public policy.
-"The phrase path dependence," they write, "describes a familiar predicament: early choices in system design virtually determine downstream incremental change." (viii)
Can we think of other examples of path dependence in environmental history? Is this a useful analytical concept for other studies?

4. Armstrong and Nelles emphasize that this is not a story of pre-determinism and that the results were the outcome of various decisions made by different factions.

5. They state that "there is no necessary incompatibility between power generation and a national park." Our conception of what a park is has evolved over time, what is deemed unsavory development today was considered a legitimate development at the turn-of-the-century. Do Nelles and Armstrong effectively demonstrate this evolution? They use the term "Doctrine of Usefulness" to explain why Calgary Power was able to dig its claws into Banff. Does their use of the "Doctrine of Usefulness" agree with Robert Craig Brown's original definition or are they trying to apply it in a broader manner? Does the doctrine work in this instance?

6. Armstrong and Nelles state that a increased demand in power was a result of a kind of social gospel status surrounding electrification. Is this factor given enough attention in the book? Or does it get lost behind a story of decades of political manoeuvring? 

7. They mention that much of this situation can be attributed to Canadians ambivalence towards the natural world in which they live. Since I'm not Canadian, I would love to hear some Canadian opinions on this assertion, which I have run into in numerous Canadian environmental histories.

8. What do you think of the definition of wilderness that Armstrong and Nelles choose to work with?
"The problem of wilderness is that creating an imaginary separation between humanity and nature masks the essential humanness of its construction." (xiii) <-I like this quote.

9. They mention that waterpower exists in a cultural context. Not every waterfall, they say, is dammed. Society makes culturally informed decisions about what happens to each waterfall and how it will meet its energy requirements.

10. They emphasize that the reengineering of the Bow was necessary if it were to be used for waterpower because of the unreliability of its flow (heavy during Spring thaw, low at other times of year).

11. I saw a lot of parallels between their treatment of hydroelectric power development on the Bow and Nelles' The Politics of Development, particularly in regards to discussions of possible provincial and private cooperation. Have the rest of you read The Politics of Development and if so do did you notice the similarities? Also, perhaps we could discuss the connection of this book to their earlier work, The River Returns.

12. Nelles and Armstrong state that they are using the concept of second nature. How effectively did they apply this concept to their narrative? Could they have given this idea more attention? (I say, yes)

13. I found it interesting how the hydroelectric developments and other development were deemed acceptable if they were hidden. Although there is an assertion that resistance to such development in parks has developed since the mid-twentieth century. Is it true that the out of sight, out of mind attitude is still alive and well in our parks and protected areas?

14. I especially enjoyed the portion of the book that dealt with the Spray Lakes. Concluding this portion of the story, they write, "the argument that hydroelectric development should not take place within national parks, a point of view that seemed to gain wide public acceptance, when forced through the sausage machine of federal politics in the late 1920s, led to the remarkable conclusion that such places should not be within national parks in the first place." (115)

I looked at a current map of the region in order to gain a better understanding of where the Spray Lakes were and the positioning of the four national parks that were made out of Rocky Mountains National Park in order to cut out those pieces of land that were natural resource rich. What I found most interesting is that the Spray Lakes which were cut of Banff are now surrounded by 4-5 provincial parks. This relates directly to my research on provincial parks. What does this tell us about the values/expectations we place on national vs. provincial parks?

15. This book also fed my growing fascination with Canadian and American's acceptance of dams. So many parks, particularly at the provincial and state level are designed around an artificial lake, treating the lake as a natural landmark. What does this say about our understanding of nature and the relationship between recreation and the natural world?

16. In their conclusion, Armstrong and Nelles talk once again about the way in which people reconstructed their conception of nature in order to accept the presence of hydroelectric technology in their parks. They also reassert that humans are a part of nature and that the Bow was not "natural" before the hydroelectric development. This development, they state, was "relative rather than absolute change"

As I finished the book I found myself wishing they had put more emphasis on these two themes instead of going into the minutiae of the political and economic events surrounding the hydroelectric development.  Did anyone else come to the same or similar conclusion?

-Well, I could go on--and on--but I'll wait until Wednesday.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Thoughts on Absent Reading Companions

Reading is perhaps the dominant activity of grad school and especially the pre-exam period of a PhD. Books seem to breed on my shelves, both at the office and at home, and the "to read" folder on my hard drive is consistently larger than that containing articles I've already read.

Although our modern practice of reading is essentially a solitary pursuit, there's comfort in knowing I'm not alone. More than reading groups, seminars, and the awareness that the offices around me are full of other grad students diligently reading, sometimes books lent by professors or picked up from the library provide another kind of companion.