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BOOK REVIEW – Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature, and the Future

September 2019

Review by Irena Knezevic

You probably don’t know all the facts that Darrin Qualman discusses in Civilization Critical, but even if you did, you should still read the book for its powerful synthesis of those facts. The book’s central argument is that contemporary human lifestyles rely on linear economies. We extract, consume and dispose of goods at unprecedented rates, growing the landfills and ocean dead zones. The myth of “dematerialized” information economy falls apart given the evidence that despite the growth in non-material commerce (be it services or apps) humanity’s consumption of material goods and energy continues to increase. This global “petro-industrial consumerist civilization” (p. 1) or eCivilization, to use Qualman’s shorthand, is headed for disaster. “Linear civilizations are terminal” he writes (p. 59).

The alternative to this civilization, Qualman argues, is to be found in circular flows that have characterized many pre-modern societies, some contemporary communities, and even the early Industrial Revolution-era Europe. These flows work by looping materials and energy in ways that mimic nature. Nowhere is the loss of this circularity better observed than in agriculture, where circularity of farming started to be replaced with linearity just over a century ago with mechanization, chemical inputs (particularly synthetic fertilizer), and technical “expertise”. Qualman is careful to note that this linear, industrial agriculture, has had some positive outcomes too, and he is reluctant to condemn all practitioners of modern agriculture. Nevertheless, he identifies the linearization of agriculture as the foundation upon which we have linearized all other areas of life, paving way for “a comprehensive restructuring of human civilizations and economies” (p. 47).

Nowhere is the loss of this circularity better observed than in agriculture, where circularity of farming started to be replaced with linearity just over a century ago with mechanization, chemical inputs (particularly synthetic fertilizer), and technical “expertise”.

The scope of what Civilization Critical covers is extensive, but Qualman’s accessible writing style makes it an easy read and an excellent teaching tool. In place of a summary of the book, an example may serve better to illustrate what it is that the book does so well. In the chapter that deals with efficiency (Chapter 23), Qualman introduces the Jevons paradox, the 1865 observation by the economist William Stanley Jevons that as the production of something becomes more efficient, cost of it falls and consumption increases – outweighing any resource conservation achieved through the greater efficiency. “Efficiency is good” Qualman writes, “What is not good is that too many people assume that efficiency itself leads to decreased material and energy use and lower greenhouse gas emissions” (p. 185).

If you want to dig up the antecedents of Qualman’s linear-circular argument, you are bound to find many, but this does not make the book any less original. Qualman’s ability to use this argument to articulate both the most pressing issues of our times and the solutions at our disposal is impressive. Qualman’s research is meticulous and the sheer volume of information included in this book is virtually encyclopedic. His storytelling through numbers is superb, and he is careful not to romanticize the past but instead make pragmatic, well-supported observations. The book is at once an historical account, social critique, analysis of power structures, and spiritual appeal. We don’t have to choose doom, Qualman concludes, because solutions are all around us. We just have to make wiser choices. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of that argument. Read the book, share it with others, and if you teach, assign it to your students. It’s a gem.

Qualman, Darrin. (2019). Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature, and the Future. Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Su Morin Food Justice Scholarship

September 2019

Su Morin was a fearless fighter for food justice. No battle was too small, and every pollinator plant and every heirloom vegetable counted on the journey to better food and better communities. Her boundless knowledge and generous sharing of seeds and seedlings leave a legacy in many gardens throughout Ontario and Nova Scotia. This legacy is extended through the many students who had Su as a mentor and who absorbed her contagious love for seeds and nature. Her past work with the Canadian Organic Growers and Seeds of Diversity made her known in food justice circles across Canada. More recently, Su worked with the Ecology Action Centre in Nova Scotia where she further influenced colleagues and students with her passion for community gardens, seed saving, and community food security.

In the spirit of Su, a travel and research scholarship in the amount of $500 is being offered to fourth year undergraduate and graduate students for research and/or travel expenses. To apply for this award, please submit a 250-word essay describing how you will use the funding and how this contributes to food justice. Please send your submission to Irena Knezevic at: Irena.Knezevic@carleton.ca including ‘Su Morin Food Justice Scholarship’ in the subject line.

Applications will be accepted until November 15, 2019 with a decision by mid-January 2020.​

Everyone at the Table: A National Food Policy for Canada

August 2019

By Maggie Mills

On June 17, 2019, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, announced the first-ever national food policy for Canada in Montreal, Quebec. FLEdGE researcher, Patricia Ballamingie, was one of roughly 50 in attendance for the announcement, in which Bibeau framed the policy in the context of working towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which seek to end hunger, promote good health, cut food waste and encourage a sustainable food system. The policy comes after years of extensive engagement with the public and other stakeholders.

Six priority areas for the next five years were discussed at the press release, including:

  • New Local Food Infrastructure Fund which will provide $50 million in funding to greenhouses, urban gardens, community kitchens, projects at food banks and farmers’ markets.
  • Northern Isolated Community Initiative Fund which will provide $15 million to provide community freezers, greenhouses, skills training and support to Indigenous food systems.
  • Buy Canadian Promotion Campaign which will seek to encourage local and international purchase of Canadian foods using $25 million in funding.
  • Tackling Food Fraud which will use $24.4 million in funding to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to address fraudulent foods in commodities such as fish, honey, olive oil and spices.
  • Reducing Food Waste which will provide $26.6 million to fund innovative practices to reduce food waste in processing, grocery retail and food service sectors.
  • National School Food Program which will launch the first consultative steps towards achieving a National School Food Program in collaboration with

Guidance for the new policy will come from the Canada Food Policy Advisory Council, which will be composed of a diversity of experts, health professionals, academics, and community organization representatives. They will ensure that the policy is as effective as possible.

Opportunities to apply for funding will be released in the coming months.

For the complete Food Policy for Canada, visit https://www.canada.ca/en/campaign/food-policy/thefoodpolicy.html

Food policy FLEdGE resources:

Mapping the Food Policy Landscape in Canada

From Local Food Actions to Systems Change: Experiments in Social Movement Governance Through the National Food Policy in Canada

Andrée, P., M. Coulas, & P. Ballamingie (2018, September) Governance recommendations from forty years of national food policy development in Canada and beyond. Canadian Food Studies, 5(3): 6-27. Available at: http://canadianfoodstudies.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cfs/article/view/283 DOI: 10.15353/cfs-rcea.v5i3.283

Supporting Community-Led Research in Délįnę

August 2019

By Neala MacLeod Farley

Although it’s 11pm you wouldn’t know it looking out the window at the clear blue sky. It is easy to lose track of time when the sun only sets for a couple of hours each day. It is my third week in Délįnę, Northwest Territories. This remote community is on the shores of the eighth biggest freshwater lake in the world, and is home to the Sahtúot’ine Dene, the “Bear Lake People”. I gaze out the window from the house of the local family I am staying with. The surface of the lake still shimmers with ice despite the warm June air. Suddenly there is a bustle of activity in the house. “We spotted a caribou across the lake, we’re going out!” shouts the son of my hosts, a gleam of excitement in his eyes. A few minutes later, I hear the 4-wheeler take off and it’s quiet once more.

Welcome to Sah-tu and Deline

I get up late the next morning and head out to the yard. I am greeted by my host family and their friends and neighbours who are gathered around the picnic table, socializing and preparing the fresh caribou meat. I can smell the wood fire burning and see that a portion of the meat is already cooking on the grill. It is generously shared with everyone who comes by. Since arriving, I have been warmly welcomed to meals at neighbours’ homes, birthday parties, Father’s Day brunch, and community celebrations for Indigenous Peoples Day and the regional holiday, Sahtú Day. There has been no shortage of food at any of these events and I am always encouraged to eat more.

Most of these shared meals contain a mix of traditional foods such as caribou, lake trout, and duck, alongside market foods such as hotdogs, burgers, and salad. There are two local stores here and I was surprised to see that although the produce sections are small, there is quite a wide variety of fruit and vegetables offered. This even includes specialty items such as avocados, pomegranates, and mangos at times. These fresh items are not cheap, however, and processed food is much more abundant.

Délįnę’s food system faces many of the challenges typical of remote, northern communities in Canada, including the very high prices and limited availability of fresh produce. Agriculture is not a part of the traditional Dene way of life and is not currently practiced here beyond a couple of small, home gardens and the remnants of an attempted community garden. Although a few people have expressed interest in gardening and there have been discussions about building a greenhouse, hunting and fishing remain central to both the food system and the Sahtúot’ine way of life. I can see people’s eyes light up when telling stories about being out on the land and water, and the sense of community is strong when gathering to share traditional foods.

It is not difficult to understand people’s strong connection with the water as the lake itself is spectacular. It is over 31,000km2 (larger than Belgium) and straddles the Arctic circle. It is likely the largest freshwater lake preserved in as pristine a condition, clean enough that people drink straight from it when out on the land. Traditionally, the Sahtúot’ine would travel all around the lake, going where the best hunting and fishing was throughout the year.

Today, Délįnę is the only community found on the shores of Great Bear Lake, and they have worked hard to look after the lake as it looks after them. In recent years, the lake and the portion of its watershed within the Sahtu region were declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve as a result of these efforts. The Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve is the largest in Canada and is the only Indigenous-led biosphere reserve in the world. The community hopes that this designation will help them to continue to protect the lake and their way of life.

It is clear that conservation of this area is essential to the food security of the Sahtúot’ine. To even put it in those terms, however, feels reductive. You do not have to be here for long to realize how essential the health of the lake is to the culture, language, spirituality, and well-being of the people of Délįnę. “Ecological integrity” doesn’t begin to cover it and people here would likely laugh at the idea of putting monetary values to ecosystem services. It is inspiring to see the strength of the people here, and the passion they have to continue caring for the land that cares for them, as their ancestors have since time immemorial. They have maintained this despite facing extreme challenges and marginalization including the effects of colonization, the history of residential schools, and the uranium mining at Port Radium which caused extremely high rates of cancer due to exposure to radiation. Hearing first-hand accounts of the recent history of the Sahtúot’ine, I am even more amazed and humbled by the kindness, humor, and generosity of the people I have met.

Beyond the challenges mentioned, the Sahtúot’ine are now facing climate change in a part of the world that has seen increases in average temperatures 4-5 times the global average. Its effects are already being felt and impacting people’s everyday lives. My host tells me that in the past they would check their nets every two days for fish, and that now they have to be checked twice a day since the water is warmer than it used to be, and the fish do not stay fresh for long after being caught. Climate change is an additional stress on a way of life already threatened by the past and present effects of colonization and the loss of traditional knowledge it has resulted in.

The community-based research that we do seeks to support Délįnę in adapting to climate change and determining how food security can be achieved. Although it is a small community, there are many people here who are working hard on these issues. Together, researchers from within and outside of the community are asking questions such as whether agriculture should be promoted here, how to best protect the lake and animals, how to restore the tradition of intergenerational knowledge transfer, and how Délįnę’s recently established self-government can best face these challenges. Researchers from Laurier’s FLEdGE network have been supporting this work in Délįnę and establishing a strong relationship with the community for five years now. This work continues through the Northern Water Futures Project.

I hope that in my work I can continue to build this relationship, and to demonstrate a method of research that is based on partnership and distinct from the exploitative research that the community has experienced at times. For now, I am simply grateful to be in such an amazing place and for all I have already learned.

About the Author: 

Neala MacLeod Farley is a research assistant working with Andrew Spring on his work in the Northwest Territories.

Olivier de Schutter, Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has become an Ambassador for the Open Food Network

Olivier de Schutter,  former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food recently announced  that he is proud to be an Open Food Network (OFN) ambassador. In voicing his support for OFN, De Shutter notes that he has been working on food issues for more than 10 years.  He notes that throughout that time he arrived at 3 ‘rules’:

  1. Consume local as much as possible,
  2. For distant products,  focus on fair trade which pays producers fairly and supports local communities,
  3. As much as possible, choose fresh products that are cooked at home versus processed foods

De Schutter notes that the Open Food Network globally offers a “digital highway” that enables different eaters and producers  in a given territory to connect and build initiatives together and support food sovereignty.  He notes that in the digital era,  such tools are essential for alternative food systems to develop.

FLEdGE Researchers Host Partners to Prepare a CIHR Climate Change and Food Security in the North Proposal

June 2019

By Andrew Spring and Kelly Skinner

Following the 2018 call for a CIHR Team Grant addressing Food Security and Climate Change in the North, our FLEdGE NWT Node team came together with other northern food researchers and community partners to develop a Letter of Intent (LOI) in October 2018. Led by Kelly Skinner (UWaterloo), Sonia Wesche (UOttawa) and Andrew Spring (Laurier and FLEdGE NWT Node Leader), the LOI brought together multiple partners in the NWT, including those involved in FLEdGE-supported projects to further community-led initiatives to address issues of food security and climate change adaptation. On February 19th, 2019, we heard that the LOI was successful, and a $15,000 development grant was secured to put together the full application by April 4th, 2019.

John B. Zoe speaks to the group about Indigenous governace perspectives. (Photo: Stephanie Woodworth)
John B. Zoe speaks to the group about Indigenous governace perspectives. (Photo: Stephanie Woodworth)

Supported by our successful development grant and leveraged funds, our team met from March 24th-26th, 2019 in Waterloo, Ontario for a research planning workshop. Thirty-four people attended the workshop including community members, government decision-makers from the NWT, and academics and students from five universities. The goal of the workshop was to:

  • Share existing knowledge and identify core areas of research focus based on community partner priorities
  • Discuss the potential to leverage current and future research projects
  • Understand the existing governance context and key related initiatives from the Government of the NWT (GNWT)
  • Work together to conceptualize and develop the approaches and activities outlined in this full proposal

This event was also a gathering of FLEdGE-funded graduate students from different institutions. Students from Laurier, Carlton, Waterloo and Ottawa Universities were able to participate and share their past, current and proposed research with the group.

For more information about the on-going work in Northwest Territories visit https://wlu.ca/academics/research/gnwt-report/index.html