Interview with Dr. Sean J. McGrath on Newfoundland and Labrador and the Anthropocene

November 25, 2017

This text is an Interview with Dr. Sean J. McGrath conducted by Dr. Jens Soentgen for the Annual Report of the Centre for Environmental Sciences at the University of Augsburg (Wissenschaftszentrum Umwelt).


Jens Soentgen (JS): Sean, can one say that Newfoundland suffers from problems that are typical in the Anthropocene?

Sean McGrath (SJM): Newfoundland and Labrador is in many ways a poster child for the Anthropocene. Occupied continually since the 16th century by every European colonial power with a navy (particularly the English), Newfoundland and Labrador was settled on a policy of ruthless European and later North American exploitation of human and natural resources. In the early years, fishing boats would leave the West Coast of England for the lucrative Newfoundland and Labrador summer fishery, with a schedule to return laden with salt cod in the fall. En route, they would stop in Ireland to pick up cheap laborers. The Irish laborers were essentially slaves, but they were given an opportunity to carve out a piece of land for themselves and try to survive the extremely harsh Newfoundland winters. Many were leaving famine and destitution in Ireland and chose to stay, and from them developed a unique community, with its own distinctive traditions, dialects, economy and architecture. From such a lineage, I was born. However scenic and remote the setting, the purpose of the colony was environmental exploitation, specifically of the massive cod stocks off the banks of the island.

JS: Cod then was essential to the development of the island?

SJM: The fish were so abundant when the Europeans arrived that wood engravings show seamen dropping buckets over the side of the boat and hauling them in. Inland laborers complained of having to eat salmon all the time. In 1949 Newfoundland was more or less sold by a bankrupt Britain to Canada, intent on bookending its part of the continent, and capitalizing on the billion-dollar Newfoundland fishery awaiting industrialization. Industrialize it did, and as a direct result, Newfoundland and Labrador experienced the first global eco-collapse of a natural resource. The closing of the Newfoundland cod fishery occurred in 1992. The scientists confirmed what the fishermen already knew, that they had overfished the northern cod to the point of near extinction. A moratorium was imposed and 35,000 Newfoundlanders lost their livelihoods. Fish plants were shuttered and families left the island forever. Offshore oil reserves were discovered, in the 90s and now the province is almost entirely dependent on the extraction, refinement and sale of fossil fuels, the oil that the world has said in so many ways it does not want and which should stay in the ground.

JS: What is the history of Newfoundland and Labrador’s dealings with their indigenous populations?

SJM: Newfoundland and Labrador has a history of violations of aboriginal rights. The native people of the island, the Beothuk, were hunted and starved to extinction in the 19th century. The massive hydro electric dam on the lower Churchill River in Labrador, Muskrat Falls, which has ballooned in costs, and will kill other forms of green energy in the province forever, will poison and disrupt the north for many indigenous groups, particularly, the Innu, who depend upon the land for food.

JS: What solutions do you see for these problems?

SJM: The ecological challenges Newfoundland and Labrador faces in the near future are in many ways typical of the anthropocene. We need to diversify and green our economy. We need to revitalize our rural communities. We need to develop local food production. The good news is that we have a vast territory abundant in resources with a small population of humans—none of this should be impossible. In fact, it is impossible under the current provincial government, and with the dominant attitudes in the province. But governments and attitudes can change.

JS: What role is there for indigenous peoples in the province today?

SJM: There are three major groups claiming some part of the province as their ancestral home, the Mi’kmaq, the Inuit, and the Innu. In recent times, these groups have begun to influence policy through protest actions. Notably, a group of largely indigenous “land protectors” occupied the offices of the government owned energy corporation, Nalcor, in December 2016, to protest the development of the Muskrat Falls dam. Their protest did not stop the construction of the dam, but did lead to some positive alterations to mitigate the effects of the methylmercury poisoning of the surrounding countryside.

JS: What role can the humanities play in Ecology?

SJM: The important role of the humanities in ecology is often overlooked by traditionally trained ecologists. In the Department of Philosophy at Memorial University, we are deeply interested in the concept of “integral ecology”: an ecology that no longer leaves ecological issues in the hands of hard scientists alone, but, recognizing the convergence of philosophical, metaphysical, political, and historical questions with scientific and economic issues in ecological discussions, opens the debate to all voices and areas of expertise. It was largely for this reason, to deploy the arts and sciences without restriction for the sake of converting the world to an ecological lifestyle, that we founded For a New Earth.

JS: How important is ecology to political debates in Canada?

SJM: The current federal Liberal Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made ecology, and particularly climate change, a central issue for Canada, and has imposed carbon taxes on all of the provinces. At the same time, the Liberal Government remains committed to the fossil fuels industry, which plays a huge part in the Canadian economy, and is going ahead with building controversial pipelines to help transport Canadian fossil fuels south. Many people, including myself, wonder how these two agendas, fighting climate change, and developing fossil fuels are compatible.

JS: What do you think of the philosophical position current today that holds that nature is over?

SJM: The ‘death of nature’ trope re-entered ecological debate in the English speaking world largely through the writing and lecturing of three high profile academics: Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour, and Slavoj Zizek. Unlike earlier forms of this concept, which date back to the work of Carolyn Merchant and Bill McKibben in the 80s, the new ‘death of nature’ is not about the vanishing of wilderness and urbanization; it concerns rather the very concept of nature itself, which these eco-critics argue has lost all significance. In the face of advances in technology and social constructivist critiques of science, what meaning or use could the traditional concept of nature still have? This raises the question, what are the meanings of the traditional concept of nature? The consensus of these authors is: nature means the other of the human. We call that natural which is non-human or which flourishes independently of human beings. Not only is this concept of nature declared ontological unsound, it is also held to be eco-politically suspect for it has allowed ecology to indulge in the worst kind of politically impotent romanticism: nature as the wild, as the infinite aesthetic spectacle of the cosmos, as the verdant and dense backdrop of human life.

JS: What sense could nature have in the Anthropocene?

SJM: I was granted an award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 2014 to research this very issue: is nature dead? What did the concept originally mean? What could it mean in the anthropocene? I have a forthcoming book addressing these questions, under the title Thinking Nature: An Essay in Negative Ecology.  I argue that Morton, Latour, and Zizek have confused our symbol of nature with a technical or scientific term. As a symbol, nature is over-determined with multiple and even contradictory meanings. As a living symbol, it can survive the death or transformation of its traditional forms of significance. Nature in the anthropocene can no longer mean what it did: it can no longer be conceived as the other of the human, or the stable cosmological backdrop of human life. But that is not to say that it means nothing, or that it is not capable of acquiring new meanings. Negative ecology, I argue, has the task of removing worn out or no longer tenable meanings of nature, but the constructive work of conceiving nature anew is still needed. It is clear that nature still means something for us, and still remains the rallying cry for the environmental movement, even if we have trouble defining what it could mean today, in an age of climate change, geo-engineering, and the advent of the technosphere (the self-organizing technological network upon which all life on earth now depends). But the same could be said for concepts such as freedom or political equality, and no one is talking about discarding those.

JS: How do we develop a new concept of nature?

SJM: It was to address this very question that For a New Earth launched The Future Nature Initiative, with our inaugural festival and conference in Gros Morne National Park in September 2015: to celebrate that which we love and wish to protect and to deploy scientists, philosophers, and artists in the task of articulating what exactly we mean by nature.

I would like to add that a steady partner in this project has been the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Augsburg and the WZU, with whom Memorial University has signed a Memorandum of Understanding. We have had several fruitful exchanges of faculty and students, and held numerous joint workshops and conferences on the themes of nature, the anthropocene, and environmental philosophy. We are looking forward to continuing this international ecological work, and forging an even tighter bond between our universities and between Germany and Newfoundland and Labrador. With so much at stake, what could be more important?

Dr. Jens Soentgen is the Director of the Centre for Environmental Sciences at the University of Bonn (Wissenschaftszentrum Umwelt). Dr. Sean J. McGrath is Professor of Philosophy at Memorial University and the Founder of For a New Earth.


Do We Really Care About Climate Change in Newfoundland and Labrador?

November 19, 2017 ·

Climate change is a global issue whose major actors — and factors — seem impersonal and impenetrable. Corporations, government bodies and industry influencers make our personal attempts to reduce our own individual daily burning of fossil fuels — e.g. taking Metrobus, walking to school or work when possible, etc. — seem insignificant. Our individual efforts (or equally, our personal ignorance) thus look to be inconsequential in the face of the problem of climate change, which in turn drives many into a state of apathy.

But presumably not everyone has met the issue of climate change with complete resignation. Not everyone has covered their eyes and ears to mute the mumble jumble of convoluted, self-interested political-speak, overly technical scientific data and proliferation of semi-truths and FAKE NEWS! in the media. If that was the case, I doubt you would be reading these words.

But how much of the question “Do we care about climate change?” is entangled with the questions, “Are we going to do anything about it?” and “Are we optimistic that we even CAN do anything about it?”

I think most of us would answer this set of challenges with “Yes, but…”: “Yes, but I feel my actions are inconsequential.” “Yes, but not many others seem to care so large-scale collective action isn’t possible.” “Yes, but I don’t have faith in our government or multinational corporations to do anything about it.”

I personally do think that many of us care about our future generations, each other, and our common home, and as an extension of this, we are also concerned about climate change. When it comes down to the wire, in our hearts, tangibly, practically, personally, and emotionally, the our close relations with others and the well-being of our families are what matters to us — particularly in our most trying and existentially threatening moments. And this concern extends to our children, their children, and so on.

But if the common feeling is that individual efforts — the philosophy of “everyone-does-their-part,” — does not produce an effective force against climate change, then to what extent can we — those who concede that we care about the future of the planet and our children as a connected issue, we, who also admit that the poor suffer the most from climate change and weather related disasters, — to what extent can we collectively act and do something about climate change?

The fantasy of a global community seems to have little to no relevance on how we live our lives. The clothes we wear, the products we consume, the technology we use daily, are typically produced in conditions most of us would find deplorable and downright indigestible if we had to witness them. The disparity between the rich and poor on a world scale (for example, the fact that about 800 million people are living on less than $2 per day) should detonate any of our illusions about interpersonal care between the citizens of the world. Consequently, although we know climate change is a global issue, it often seems we depend on large governmental organizations and state representatives (rather than our common sense of care) to do something about it

Yet these actors are failing miserably. The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, and Trump’s clarification that the U.S. will not pay the 3 billion dollars Obama promised to the Global Climate Fund, are exemplary of that fact. Instead of committing to strategies of mitigation or even adaptation to climate change, Trump has publicly expressed his skepticism concerning the reality of climate change over one hundred times, and routinely professes his commitment to a coal, oil and gas economy, along with exercising a mythological appeal to blue collar workers to further his agenda. And frankly, Canada is not much better in its vehement commitment to expanding oil production. Furthermore, despite pressure from the UN, we in Canada currently have no plans for how to meet the 2030 target for cutting emissions. This is largely due to a complete lack of will to stop or curb the future development of fossil fuels in Canada.

So who is the “we” who could collectively act here?

For a New Earth has increasingly emphasized over the past two years that we are a Newfoundland and Labrador based initiative. One of our goals is to think globally, but to act locally. The way that people relate to each other in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has always been tied to the land, and this for better or for worse. The narrative of our political and economic history, as Dr. Jerry Bannister among others has shown, is tied up with a Newfoundland nationalism that has been both productively motivating and stubbornly impeding.

I thus want to propose that, in reference to the question posed here — do we really care about climate change? — that we consider the “we” as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and people who call Newfoundland and Labrador their home.

I think that the same sense of connectedness to one another and our shared identity can both, on the one hand, prompt us to come together in the face of disaster (for example, our responses to the Fort MacMurray and the Froude Avenue fires), and on the other, be misused to reinforce a bias in our choice of democratic representatives, to scathingly distinguish authentic Newfoundlanders and Labradorians from CFA’s, and arguably, can to induce us to go ahead with large scale energy products that are doomed to be economic failures. But could this collective identity and love, along our unique ecological disposition in this province, propel us into action concerning climate change?

If the answer would entail renouncing oil profits in the name of ideology, I would answer no.

In Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador alike, if it is profitable to drill and extract oil, we are going to do it. Oil companies may adopt varying strategies in the direction of either greenwashing or slowing down their production rates, but must remain skeptical as to why these companies would do this. Green washing by corporations is typically not an indicator of sort of paradigm shift. Rather, in cases like Norway, slowing down oil production seems to have been in view of increasing profit over time, and furthering the goal to be the so called “last man standing” or sole player in a given oil market or area.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that small lifestyle changes by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians towards reducing personal carbon emissions will not stop huge corporations and factories in our own backyard from producing fossil fuels. Worse again is the reality that Canada “exports most of the fossil fuels we produce,” and thus a decrease in our local carbon footprints will not have a significant impact on Canada’s decision to expand and pursue oil production.

In our province, after the devastating decrease of oil prices in recent years and the effect on the our local economy, it is obvious that, whether we care about climate change or not, we should be diversifying our sources of income. But if we are to choose solutions in the future that specifically make a step away from the oil and gas industry, there are two major factors to consider: (1) the current political situation, (2) the relation between our lifestyles and the relation to our geography and infrastructure.

Muskrat Falls has shown itself to be an economic failure which has significantly negatively impacted the future of large scale green energy in the province. When initiatives in small countries like Denmark and Norway towards a green diversification of their economy are presented as an analogy for the possibilities of Newfoundland and Labrador, most of us locals laugh. What politician would touch that issue with a ten foot pole? The fact that Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador is emphasizing the bleak reality that almost no one wants to be a politician in this province is not irrelevant here.

I think, realistically, alternative large scale green energy projects will not to be the answer to our future. Rather, the impending question for our provincial politicians in the coming years seems much more related to whether we are going to see the failure of Muskrat Falls reflected directly on our energy bills. Interestingly, as discussed by local economist Dr. Jim Feehan, if we force Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to pay for Muskrat Falls through a direct increase in our energy bills, the result could be that individuals search for alternative heating options for their homes, which would bring us right back to the same carbon emissions problem have now.

The second point to consider in whether we will decide in the near future in Newfoundland and Labrador to take a step away from the development of fossil fuels is the particularity of this physical place itself, and the relation of geographical considerations to our lifestyle. To live on the island of Newfoundland in particular is to be committed to Newfoundland, whether you’re a Newfoundlander born and bred or a Come-From-Away (CFA). This is another factor that contributes to our shared sense of identity: that is, the fact that we are stuck here. Our geography poses a challenge when conceiving of alternatives to air travel for getting off of the island. It also makes envisioning mass-scale cycling and the implementation of effective street cars difficult.

But we have to think about what things we can change about our lifestyles in reference to living on this rock, or in regions of Labrador which also suffer from harsh winters, are marked by rugged landscapes and have poor connection possibilities for travel to the rest of Canada (such as the still largely unpaved Trans-Labrador Highway). The St. John’s sprawl has increased dramatically over the past twenty years, yet alternatives to vehicle-travel in the city (and in the rest of the province) have not seemed to increase. Further to this, we have since offered no deterrents to people who live a carbon-heavy lifestyle day to day, and there are no incentives in place for people who work, on the other hand, to live more sustainably.

In general, we must deal with a philosophico-sociological question which I think remains largely unanswered in this province: what type of province do Newfoundlanders and Labradorians want to live in? A province that provides effective healthcare, a thriving university and that invests in grassroots initiatives to care for our common home? Or an individualist province with the lowest possible taxes subsidized by the exploitation of natural resources?

It is my hope that by engaging in local events and active, trans-disciplinary discussions surrounding ecology and the future of our province, we can change the framework of considerations which inform our disposition in key decision making processes. Hopefully in the crucial, futural moment of caesura in which we will have to decide “what next?” for Newfoundland and Labrador, this disposition will be enough to carry us away from the gospel of fossil fuel development as we quite literally try to keep this rock afloat.

Kyla Bruff

This post is also featured on Kyla Bruff’s personal blog,

FANE Public Lecture: Do We Really Care About Climate Change?

November 5, 2017 ·

On Tuesday, November 7th at 8pm, three members of the For A New Earth team will publicly discuss the question “Do We Really Care About Climate Change?” at the Ship Pub. Is the answer hopeful, pessimistic, pragmatist, or otherwise?

More specifically in recent months, in view of Trump’s defection from Paris, the rise of one populist government after another in Europe, the worst summer on record for heat and dangerous storms, and the resignation of climatologists that we will not meet the Paris targets, we are prompted to ask: Why don’t we care? Why do we proceed on a path of self-destruction when we know better? Why don’t we do what we know we ought to do?

Please join us on Tuesday at 8pm, as Dr. Sean McGrath, Dr. Barry Stephenson, and PhD Candidate Kyla Bruff discuss the most pressing issue of our time–and why some don’t seem to mind.

**Listen to the talk on the Podcast page


The Ongoing Muskrat Falls Debacle: How not to Develop the North

June 27, 2017 ·

The massive hydro-electric project on the lower Churchill River in Labrador is expected to go online in 2019. Described as a “boondoggle” by policy makers and at 12.7 billion dollars–over double the anticipated budget–the Muskrat Falls project emerged into international attention in the fall of 2016 when protesters occupied the Labrador premises of the Newfoundland and Labrador energy corporation, Nalcor. The protesters demanded that the company and the government of Newfoundland heed a joint MUN/Harvard study that proved that if the flood basin was not cleaned of vegetation prior to flooding, the surrounding lands would be poisoned with methylmercury for years to come, endangering the lives of Innu and Inuit who depended upon the fish and game to survive. At the zero hour, and with an unprecedented hunger strike threatening the lives of protesters, the government relented and agreed to clear the basin. But problems continue to this day, with Nalcor refusing to produce documentation to satisfy local concerns that the builders of the dam have reckoned with the seasonal instability of the river bank (particularly the north spur), and also denying, against local knowledge, that spawning salmon populations are at risk due to low water levels. The protest has never in fact stopped, as this writer learned recently on a visit to the site.

Economically, no one denies that Muskrat is a fiscal disaster. Nalcor CEO, Stan Marshall, sees little prospects for the province to recoup its losses. “I think this project is a hell of a lot worse … deal than the Upper Churchill,” Marshall said in  recent interview ( MUN economist Dr. James Feehan has proven that it is virtually impossible for the project to break even. Moreover, by flooding the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador with hydro-electric energy for generations, Muskrat Falls has doomed the development of other sustainable energy in the province, such as wind and solar. The project is called “green” but when one considers the transformation of the Churchill river, the flooding of indigenous ancestral lands, and the adverse effect on human and non-human communities, the descriptor is dubious at best.

Historian Dr. Jerry Bannister at Dalhousie University has argued that the 20th century political history of Newfoundland is key to understanding why the project goes ahead, despite its unprofitability. In the early 2000, former NL premier Danny Williams’ promised to make right the infamous bad deal signed by Premier Joey Smallwood in the late 60s to export hydro-electric power through Quebec from the dam on the upper Churchill river in Labrador. The Churchill Falls dam is an infamous economic failure for the province. According to the original deal, Newfoundland and Labrador must sell the power to Quebec at 1969 rates, while Quebec resells the energy at current rates. According to conservative estimates, Newfoundland and Labrador has lost billions of dollars on Churchill Falls. Muskrat Falls, according to Bannister, is driven not so much by neo-Liberal economic as by Newfoundland nationalism.

Sean J. McGrath

FANE Retreat 2017

April 28, 2017

On Saturday the 4th of March 2017, the FANE planning team (Jens Soentgen, Tracy O’Brien, Michelle Mahoney, Kyla Bruff, Barry Stephenson, and Sean McGrath) spent a day at Clarke’s Beach re-visioning For a New Earth. After an intense day of trans-disciplinary discussion, it was agreed that (1) FANE would concentrate on ecological conversion, in all of its philosophical, theological, and socio-political depths; and (2) it would root itself in Newfoundland and Labrador. We hope to move to non-profit status soon, and to launch a series of initiatives in the province aimed at deploying science, art, and philosophy for the sake of awakening and mobilizing care for our common home in our province. Thanks to Michelle Mahoney and Peter Wilkins for hosting.

Dr. Barry Stephenson in the Memorial University Gazette: Climate Change Demands Radical Transformation

December 1, 2016 ·

Read Dr. Barry Stephenson’s recent op-ed for Memorial University’s Gazette:

“The crux of the matter is that climate change demands radical transformation on a collective scale at a moment in social-cultural history characterized by hyper-individualism, cynicism about social institutions and politics, and, outside of sporting events, the absence of occasions to experience broad-based group identity and solidarity.”

Read the full article on the MUN website.

Town Hall Meeting on Climate Change and The Green Economy in NL

November 15, 2016 ·

Memorial University, For A New Earth and St. Bonaventure’s College to host town hall meeting on climate change and the green economy in Newfoundland and Labrador

What is a Green EconomyMemorial University of Newfoundland, with the support of St. Bonaventure’s College, and facilitated by the SSHRC-funded research group, For A New Earth, will host a town hall meeting on the theme “What is a Green Economy?” on Tues., November 29 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. The two-hour event will feature presentations by experts in ecology, economics, and rural development, as well as an open forum for members of the general public to speak to the challenges facing the province as it transitions from fossil fuels to green, renewable energy in an era of global climate change.

Dr. Sean McGrath (Department of Philosophy and director of For A New Earth) will moderate with Dr. Barbara Neis (Department of Sociology), Dr. James Feehan (Department of Economics) and Dr. Bill Montevecchi (Ocean Sciences) presenting. An open discussion will follow the presentations.

The event is designed to foster a greater dialogue among all interested parties and stakeholders concerned with the greening of the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador and is intended to create greater public awareness of the social, political and ecological complexity of renewable energy and resource development in the province.

Among the questions addressed will be: What exactly is a green economy? Who is best served by it? Who are the stakeholders in the inevitable transition from fossil fuels to renewables? What role will there be in the green economy for rural communities? How much energy do we need, and why?

What is a Green Economy? will be held in the historic Aula Maxima of St. Bonaventure’s College, 2 Bonaventure Avenue, St. John’s. Parking is available.

For more information, please contact Dr. Sean McGrath at 709-746-3897 or email

Sean McGrath on Muskrat Falls: Score one for democracy

November 10, 2016 ·

Read Sean McGrath’s recent letter to The Telegram regarding a Globe and Mail article about the Muskrat Falls protests:

“In both the editorial and the press conference that preceded it from St. John’s, we were told that this is a victory for science, or even that science will henceforth decide how to proceed. It is not a victory for science at all. It is a victory for democracy. … Democracy, this time, in the form of political protest such as has never before been seen in the province.”

Read the full article on The Telegram website.

Sean McGrath in The Telegram: N.L. should be leading the way to a green economy

October 22, 2016

Read Sean McGrath’s recent letter to The Telegram:

“A Harvard study has reminded us that while hydroelectric plants do not emit significant greenhouse gasses, the construction of the dam on the Lower Churchill could poison and destroy Innu and Inuit hunting and fishing grounds. The protests this week in Labrador and St. John’s demonstrate that not everyone sees this as a reasonable price to pay for renewable energy.”

Read the full article on The Telegram website.