Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: climax thinking

Coastal Zone Canada 2018

Typical St. John's streetscape with a cheering paintpot effect.

Typical St. John’s streetscape with its cheering paintpot effect.

Thanks to the organizers of Coastal Zone Canada 2018 last week in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where our NRCan project Making Room for Movement was launched. We ran a back-to-back special sessions to introduce the project and explore its conceptual and practical foundations, with presentations from SMU PI Danika van Proosdij, MPlan student Matt Conlin, Dal Planning prof Patricia Manuel and I. Postdoc Tuihedur Rahman and I put together a presentation on social aspects of nature-based coastal adaptation, as well as some of the conceptual foundations of this concept, proposing climax thinking as our experimental frame for the work to come. Despite an incredibly hot room, thanks to unseasonably warm conditions for Newfoundland, attendance was strong, in the presentations (below) as well as the subsequent workshop session.   It was wonderful to be among practitioners, consultants and public servants as well as academics for a few days to explore the challenges along coasts.

Hot ticket: question period at the Making Room for Movement special session.

Hot ticket: question period at the Making Room for Movement special session.

Unsettled

Unsettled

It was also special to have the opportunity to explore The Rooms at the Tuesday dinner event, including the wonderful Newfoundland Gallery and Museum. I rounded a corner in the gallery and was faced with a great portrait of my grandmother’s uncle, Captain Bob Bartlett by Margaret Fitzhugh Browne, and was also moved by the map of the taking of Demasduit, drawn by the last Beothuk, Shanawdithit (her niece), images of resettled island outports (right) and struggling livyers, and the brave young members of the Newfoundland Regiment in WWI.

NOLA book serendipity

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Bookshelf serendipity strikes again! I can’t resist telling this story, though it was awhile ago. Appropriate to the geography conference I was in town to attend, I bought a compelling atlas of New Orleans by Rebeccas Solnit and Snedeker, Unfathomable City, part of a series at UC Press, at a small bookstore behind the Cabildo. Each map and essay tells an idiosyncratic story about the place, including human and river channel migrations, social and landscape erosions, including social clubs, seafood and sex. While excellent, it wasn’t an easy one to tote in my bag for idle moments.

The ‘take a book, leave a book’ shelf at my hotel filled the gap with But What if We’re Wrong, by pop seer Chuck Klosterman (sorry Columns Hotel, I’ll leave one next time). Klosterman is talking about the same thing that I was at AAG to talk about: climax thinking. He asks how we can learn to make decisions anticipating the many ways that we might be wrong, so we don’t box ourselves in. Instead we denigrate the people who made decisions or assessments we reflect upon today as folly, but assume against evidence that we’re going to be right. There is something to be said about doubt.

Having finished both of the above, I needed another book for the flight home. During a layover in Toronto airport I bought Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowicz. He is a computer scientist who thinks data mining has replaced social science, so a few sections (particularly the conclusion) grated, but this was a fun (and surprisingly dirty) introduction to how secondary online datasets like our Google queries help us learn what people are really thinking and feeling. I have since brought up his examples in a few social science contexts, like the energy incubator at Cornell. I’m loathe to hand it to students, given some of the icky content (people are, it turns out, gross), but as survey response rates drop, offensiphobia rules, and questions around sustainability cross the sociology/psychology boundary, such datasets may well be the only way we can really understand what kind of society we are really working with.

Chignecto wind survey launch

Ellen Chappell addresses her notification postcards in the SRES Hayes Room, March 25, 2018.

Ellen Chappell addresses her notification postcards in the SRES Hayes Room, March 25, 2018.

Great that research design, ethics and funding has finally lined up to allow MES candidate Ellen Chappell to get her survey of residents underway in the Chignecto area of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (around Sackville and Amherst). This multiple-reminder survey is the first out of my lab with the general public rather than farmers. This work is affiliated with the Energy Transitions in Canada SSHRC project led by John Parkins at the University of Alberta. This week the first full survey will be sent, and we cross our fingers for a healthy response rate.

Urban stasis … what about rural?

Mural on the in-progress Roy Building on Barrington Street, downtown Halifax, featuring a quote by architect Daniel Liebskind.

Mural on the in-progress Roy Building on Barrington Street, downtown Halifax, featuring a quote by architect Daniel Liebskind.

Halifax is a mess. I’m not kidding. For those of us who have cars and kids in summer camps all over the place, instead of its usual peaceful summer self, Halifax is detour central. Downtown is under construction, with towers pushing out of heritage skins, and two of the five roads leading into the dreaded Armdale Rotary are closed for various reasons. This is relatively new. For years, nothing could be built downtown, it seemed, because of the need to protect views to the 18th century defensive citadel at the heart of the city. While the volume of work simultaneously underway is inconvenient, it is like a wildfire spreading after decades or centuries of fire suppression. This is Yellowstone, circa 1988.   Liebskind is right (see photo). The citadel is not what Halifax is about anymore.  It doesn’t meet new needs for urban densification, for instance. (It also bears mentioning, it never did meet needs; the Citadel was never attacked.)

But why stop at cities? Why is it that busses line up on cruise ship days to take thousands of visitors  to Peggy’s Cove? Peggy’s Cove is a simulacra of an 18th century coastal Nova Scotia fishing village, with its Peggy’s Point Lighthouse sitting atop massive granite outcrops arguably the most photographed place in the region. Rather than relying on fishing, this place and others like it now rely on tourism that commemorates a Golden Age idea of ‘Maritimicity’ (coined by eminent Canadian historian Ian McKay in 1988). We might need rural places for new things, like renewable energy, but if we’re not careful, the ‘tourism state’ will deny such alternate visions.

Convenient untruths in Alberta

Last week brought fascinating insight around energy transitions in rural Alberta, which feel worth discussing the day after President Trump pulled the USA out of the Paris Accord. The last day of my field trip there with colleague John Parkins and a few students we spent investigating the context of a wind energy proposal. We visited a local councillor/reeve for the municipal district, the host landowners and some opponents in our mini case study. It produced much food for thought. This post is name and hyperlink-free to avoid identifying the specific proposal, or the generous folks who gave their time to talk to us.

Some interesting issues arose in those discussions that are not commonly part of the discourse elsewhere, such as the lack of regulation around wind infrastructure, including end-of-life remediation and responsibility. This was raised by the eloquent reeve, as well as one of the opponents. It was a good reminder that just because regulation generally comes as a result of mistakes or accidents, we should not wait until that happens to develop strong expectations and governance. It would be unlikely, but awful, if turbines were orphaned in the way that so many oil and gas wells are in Alberta.

Even more compelling, however, was the way that industrial history, social dynamics and politics drove discourse among opponents. Most of the farmers in this area host oil and gas wells or compressor stations on their properties, and earn good money doing so. Some of these make noise, and some smell, and sometimes there are spills. But such risk and/or disbenefit has been normalized: this is the way that it has been for a long time. Similarly very large farming infrastructure like grain bins and elevators are accepted in the landscape as “the way we make our living”. This is the same way the landowners hoping to host the wind farm see it: just another way to make money off their land. They are ready to bear any disbenefits from hosting, but they largely dismiss such concerns. They see the opposition as a response in part to their cultural difference, which sets them apart from the local community, and the annoyance of others at the success of their livelihood model.

Despite this highly utilitarian landscape, and sparse population, a few of their neighbours asserted that wind presented more risks, e.g. to nearby grandchildren, than the oil and gas exploration or climate change itself.  Every possible reason for wind opposition was touched upon, but without clear evidence, apparently in part fed by the online echo chamber. We heard strong  denial of human-caused climate change.  Renewables were seen as useful only for when oil and gas ran out. Otherwise we heard that renewables were unnecessary because of new ‘clean’ (and conveniently distant) coal and gas thermal plants. These voices did not differentiate between visible particulate pollution and invisible greenhouse gas emissions. The key opponent was a longstanding member of the community with many relationships to leverage; it will be interesting to see if the social implications prevail.

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