by Nigel Haggan
Note: Please see YouTube for a video from the 2017 Pipelines and the Poetics of Place event in Vancouver, BC.
As “tar sands,” the Alberta bitumen deposits are a vector for protest. As “oil sands,” they are hailed as vital to Canada’s economy. The Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker proposals to ship expanded production through British Columbia’s waters attract an incredible outpouring of passion and creativity.
This outpouring is a classic example of the poetics of place or, in other words, every way in which our relationships with place and planet can be understood and expressed. Some of this is recorded inside Canada’s National Energy Board hearings. More takes place outside: as Aboriginal ceremony, treaties, lawsuits, injunctions, art, film, music, the prayers of Indigenous Elders for threatened waters, and the words of religious leaders from Desmond Tutu in Fort McMurray to Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on climate change. ’Yágis, the ancestral guardian spirit portrayed in a mask by Heiltsuk artist Nusi (Ian Reid), signifies the collision between the measurable values of need and desire and those values that cannot or should not be measured.
The project Pipelines and the Poetics of Place is designed to bring art, Indigenous spirituality, ecology, eco-theology, ecological economics, and Indigenous and Canadian law into conversation on how project review might entertain a fuller range of values. The objectives are to (a) Expand the perceptual scope of environmental review to include Indigenous spirituality, religion, and art, as well as the voices of those impacted and marginalized; (b) Explore how Aboriginal and religious ceremony and theater can create spaces that are physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually safe and welcoming to all comers; (c) Invite modes of expression that will make environmental assessment reviews accessible to people of all ages and all educational and cultural backgrounds; and (d) Launch a multi-year program to promote transformative change in environmental practice, policy, and law.
Pipelines and the Poetics of Place draws a parallel between how homes, lifeways, and habitats are torn up to distill sand and bitumen into synthetic oil that can flow through a pipeline, and how Canada’s National Energy Board review distills and pipelines the poetics of place to decision-makers in dispassionate scientific language, tables, and graphs. What is lost in translation? What values are excluded or under-represented? How might these values, and the stories that bring them to life, be conveyed to people of all ages and all cultural and educational backgrounds?
The National Energy Board is mandated to “represent the ever-changing interests and concerns of Canadians” in a “sustainable energy future.” What then are these “interests and concerns”? In its preamble, Canada’s Species at Risk Act states: “…wildlife, in all its forms, has value in and of itself and is valued by Canadians for aesthetic, cultural, spiritual, recreational, educational, historical, economic, medical, ecological and scientific reasons.”
This list typifies the ecosystem valuation literature. Major studies, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, concur with Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen that commitment to intangible values often outweighs material interests. Translation to dollar equivalents, however, is then justified on the need to influence decision-makers, the difficulty of measuring spiritual values, and outright dismissal of religious or spiritual values as inappropriate in a pluralistic society — a dismissal that fails to recognize that compassion or the “golden rule” are central to all religions and Indigenous spiritualities. Meanwhile, entire dimensions of moral concern go unaddressed.
The issue then is the capacity of environmental review panels to entertain intangible values and represent them in their reports and recommendations. Also, lists of atomistic or disembodied values, such as those in the ecosystem services literature, only come to life through stories that take many forms: myths, maps, parables, equations, ecological and climate models, art, tables, music, graphs, journal articles, and more. While the focus here is on the Alberta tar sands, the approach is equally applicable to massive hydropower projects, such as the Site C Dam in northern British Columbia, and to local and regional ecosystem-based management and response to global climate change.
The core value of the project is welcoming different ways of understanding and being in the world. We are open to ideas and modes of expression that are incommensurable with our formal training and strive for openness to things that our upbringing has not equipped us to recognize. We anticipate that the epistemic virtue of compassionate listening will reveal, as opposed to some rational notion of discovery or invention. We see our work as a work of Creative Justice, that is, reuniting or reconciling those separated by forces outside their control. In one respect, the project is a humble successor to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In another, it is a way to unsettle victorious linear narratives of science, religion, and law that justified residential schools, and whose cultural shadow still determines who can participate in environmental governance. The desired outcome is a step towards epistemic or cognitive justice.
Play is at the heart of our work. Play combines concentration with cooperation and openness. It adds delight to the absolute attention of research, prayer, or worship. It extends interdisciplinarity by interweaving graphic, musical, and performative elements. Weaving play into collaborative work is a gift. It requires messengers of joy and absurdity to bring to life activities that are supposed to break down barriers but can actually deepen discomfort. Play here includes creative disruptions that recognize and nudge or jolt tension / boredom / disbelief / dissent / anger into another space of dance, dialogue, or skit, and that transform the theoretical and technical into the hilarious and comprehensible. Our messengers of joy include an inspirational choir leader with the challenge of harmonizing voices that have not sung together, or at least not in public, for hundreds of years, improvisation artists, participants, stand-up comics, and slam poets.
To say that the voices of science and economics are too loud is unfair to scientist and economist friends and colleagues who are passionately committed to the flourishing of species, places, and people. The problem is that the narrow focus of environmental review forces science into a confrontational role, where project economics vie with jobs and revenue at risk from catastrophic oil spills. Their voices are not too loud, just too lonely. The voices of Indigenous spirituality, of religion as compassion for the poor and for impoverished nature, of musicians, poets, and painters are as lonely outside the wall as the scientists and economists are inside.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” (Robert Frost). A wall that has been centuries in the building cannot be demolished in one go. But we can knock enough stones off the top to allow people to climb over in both directions. The workshop Values, Stories, and Modes of Expression, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in April 2017 took the first step in reuniting voices separated by forces beyond their control. One of the highlights was a lunch hosted by the Tu’wusht Aboriginal program and staff and students at the University of British Columbia Farm. We had a spirited conversation about values and commitments where land, air, water, food, and people come together. But, really, the food spoke for itself.
The ecological imperative to reach a new covenant with the planet suggests that, in time, the Pipelines and the Poetics of Place project might provide process design and advice to government and industry. Forward-thinking universities might also consider expanding their “resource management” schools to include aesthetic, spiritual, and religious perspectives alongside natural and social sciences and engineering.
When we reach for the infinite, we must rely on stories. So, I’ll leave the last words to that ancient and wily navigator of myth, map, model, and metaphor…
The Salmon of Knowledge
I am a term in an equation
Connection in a model
I am a noun in a government report
And a verb in the river
I am a scintilla of stardust
A sparkle of sunlight
I am the depth of the sea
I am the life of the river
I am the death and resurrection
A chorus of carbon
A net of nitrogen
A parable of potassium
A psalm of phosphorus
I am the dress of the cedar
The brawn of the bear
The dance of many peoples
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Acknowledgments. I am deeply grateful to departed friends, Hereditary Chief, artist and spiritual activist Wallas Gwy Um (Beau Dick), pianist Naomi Takagi, and poet Francisco X. Alarcón, for generosity, inspiration, and unwavering support. Many more people and institutions generously contributed to the project than I can name here. Thank you! You know who you are.
Nigel Haggan, PhD, grew up in Northern Ireland. Exposure to diverse cultures, notably work with Aboriginal people, opened his eyes to different worldviews. He is assembling a crew to unsettle environmental assessment with the values and commitments of art, Indigenous spirituality, religion, and grassroots conservation that reflect love as well as need.
Learn more about the Pipelines and the Poetics of Place project.
A film from the 2017 Pipelines and the Poetics of Place event debuted in October 2017 at the Heart of the City Festival in Vancouver. Find it on YouTube.
Brady, I. (2008). Poetics for a planet: Discourse on some problems of being-in-place. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds). Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials (pp. 501–564). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Chandler, M., & Neimanis, A. (2013). Water and gestationality: What flows beneath ethics. In C. Chen, J. MacLeod, & A. Neimanis (Eds.), Thinking with Water (pp. 61–83). Montréal, QC: McGill-Queens University Press.
de Sousa Santos, B. (Ed.). (2007). Cognitive Justice in a Global World: Prudent Knowledges for a Decent Life. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.
Meyer, K. (1904). The boyish exploits of Finn. Ériu, 1(1901), 180–190.
Reimchen, T. E. (2001). Salmon nutrients, nitrogen isotopes and coastal forests. Ecoforestry, 16, 13–17.