James Murton. Creating a Modern Countryside: Liberalism and Land Resettlement in British Columbia. Nature/History/Society Series. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007. xxix + 267 pp. $93.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-1337-2; $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-1338-9.
Reviewed by Shannon Stunden Bower (Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta)
Published on H-Canada (January, 2008)
Super, Natural British Columbia: Nature and the Provincial State
Tourism British Columbia's official website pairs the slogan "Super, Natural British Columbia" with photographs of spectacular scenery and happy people. It is an appealing website, one that makes a ski vacation or cabin rental seem entirely within reach. But the historical relation between people and place is, of course, far more complicated than suggested by contemporary tourism materials. In Creating a Modern Countryside, historian James Murton addresses British Columbia's distinctive attempts to promote in tandem particular ways of life and particular methods of land use. Through a case study approach to interwar land resettlement programs, Murton illustrates how "changes in the state and changes in the land were inextricably linked" (p. 1). In the soldier settlements at Merville on Vancouver Island and Camp Lister in the Kootenays, as well as in efforts to irrigate the Okanagan Valley and drain Sumas Lake, the natural world was transformed through efforts to create new agricultural landscapes, even as environmental processes curtailed human ambition. Murton's study exposes the complex entanglements of nature and the provincial state in a landscape that, for all Tourism British Columbia's efforts to promote the availability of beauty and pleasure, was not always amenable to human designs.
Published by the University of British Columbia Press as part of the Nature/History/Society Series (and with a substantial foreword by series editor historical geographer Graeme Wynn), Murton's volume is an impressive contribution to the burgeoning subfield of Canadian environmental history, as well as an engagement with themes such as high modernism that are of importance to the international field of environmental history. And given its close engagement with liberalism, a topic of concern to Canadian historians at large, Creating a Modern Countryside is also one of the most compelling illustrations to date of why Canadian historians cannot afford to ignore the work of their environmental history colleagues.
Murton organizes his work thoughtfully. Part one explains the intellectual context for resettlement efforts and the ideological character of interwar state activities. Part two focuses on specific resettlement projects and their environmental contexts, and provides a measured discussion of the outcomes of each, both immediate and longer term. Murton situates the government programs he considers within a particular stage in the evolution of the liberal state. In this he heeds the call by historian Ian McKay for consideration of Canada as an attempt to extend the politico-economic logic of liberalism. In contrast with classical liberals who believed the state should do little more than ensure conditions conducive to success by individuals, the new liberals Murton considers were keen for the state to take an active role in support of public welfare. The prevailing view was that both returning soldiers and others would be well served through the creation of alternatives to urban modernity: agricultural landscapes possessed of all the virtues associated with rural life. In mountainous British Columbia, where arable acres were hard to come by, any significant agricultural expansion required substantial efforts to remake local geography. For new liberals fortified by faith in the righteousness of their undertakings, such projects seemed eminently reasonable. As he details efforts at the creation of a modern countryside, Murton also provides valuable insight into the new liberal mindset, which has remained largely unexplored despite historian Barry Ferguson's call in Remaking Liberalism: The Intellectual Legacy of Adam Shortt, O. D. Skelton, W. C. Clark, and W. A. Mackintosh, 1890-1925 (1993) for further scholarly attention to what he saw as a distinctive and important aspect of Canadian liberalism.
While Murton maintains his focus on new liberalism at work in interwar British Columbia, he recognizes the wider implications of his work. It is not only in this specific instance that nature and culture are inextricably interlinked. Rather, as Murton makes clear: "Understanding environmental change requires moving beyond the consideration of ideas explicitly about nature to more general logics ... that implicitly encourage a particular form of engagement with nature" (p. 6). In this way, Murton promotes an expansive view of the field of environmental history, one in which the focus is not solely or necessarily on the most blatantly environmental human activities, such as national parks creation or wildlife regulation (as important as are such processes). While Murton does not go so far as to argue that all history is environmental history, he does suggest that historical processes often incorporate unacknowledged environmental aspects; in effect, that history is more environmental than many historians have recognized. In addition to a penetrating analysis of new liberalism at work in interwar British Columbia, then, Murton's work is also an example of the sort of environmental history analysis that might be possible for other ideological perspectives or, to use his terminology, general logics.
Murton also engages in an important way with the idea of high modernism, conceived by anthropologist James Scott in an influential work on large-scale state projects and applied to the Canadian context by historian Tina Loo. Both Scott and Loo distinguish between the perspective of the state as manager of large projects and that of the people subject to consequences of all sorts, both intended and unintended. While possessed of legitimate authority and all the power of modern engineering, states lacked the intimate knowledge of the local social and environmental context that often proved essential for project success. While Murton considers human experience as well as state policymaking, he does not emphasize the sort of discrepancy between the perspective of the state and the perspective of some portion of the population that is evident in the works of Scott and Loo. Rather, Murton documents a widespread adherence to the new liberal mindset, one that is shared by the high modernist state and those people most affected (for better or worse) by its undertakings. Ultimately, however, repeated failures to realize human ambition in a challenging and variable natural environment eroded the faith of both government and populace in new liberal efforts to expand the agricultural landscape. Even as the Great Depression led to increased calls for state-directed efforts to support hard-pressed people, it seemed clear there would be no modern agricultural countryside in British Columbia. The province's future would have to be conceived in other ways. At least in part, this future would be bound up with the recreation industries highlighted on Tourism British Columbia's website, which in its emphasis on mountains and ocean, brands the province as anything but agricultural.
Perhaps it might be said that Murton's work is more a series of necessary and valuable correctives than a bold new interpretation. Even allowing this, the book offers a vivid rendering of new liberalism in interwar British Columbia, an important contribution to key themes in the fields of Canadian and environmental history, and a compelling illustration of how these fields might benefit through greater recognition of their overlapping concerns (in "Super, Natural British Columbia" and beyond). Historically specific instances of the relation between nature and the state in Canada are likely to be best explained by historians who, like Murton, straddle the fields of Canadian and environmental history.
. Tourism British Columbia, "Official Travel Website of British Columbia," http://www.hellobc.com/en-CA/default.htm (accessed November 28, 2007).
. Ian McKay, "The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History," Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 4 (2000): 617-645.
. James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); and Tina Loo, "People In The Way: Modernity, Environment, and Society on the Arrow Lakes," BC Studies 142/143 (Summer/Autumn 2004): 161-196.
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Shannon Stunden Bower. Review of Murton, James, Creating a Modern Countryside: Liberalism and Land Resettlement in British Columbia.
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