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.

Dr. Barry Stephenson: “Ecology and the Ritual Body”

May 22, 2016

Dr. Barry Stephenson

Dr. Barry Stephenson

Dr. Barry Stephenson
Department of Religious Studies, Memorial University

We’ve forgotten that we are bodies, and this forgetfulness is a significant part of what ails us.

Last summer I heard rumors of a new group –‘For a New Earth,’ — and their plans for a rather quixotic event on Newfoundland’s West Coast. It was immediately clear that something more than a standard academic conference was in the works, and that is what attracted me to it. Yes, there would be numerous papers and presentations and panels, but art, music, performance, feasting, conversation, walking—these would also take centre stage, supplementing, amplifying, perhaps even negating the ethos of a conference.

People were unsure about the performative genre that was being created—‘conference’ did not capture the range of the action; ‘event’ sounded too generic and managerial. At some point, I suggested it was a ‘festival,’ and the idea stuck in the minds of some. I had my own reasons for dropping the ‘festival’ label—much of my research and teaching is in the area of ritual studies, so it was a way of making myself relevant.

‘For a New Earth.’ What does this mean? In papers and discussions last fall some raised critical questions, reading into the phrase an effort to pull the earth up by her own bootstraps—we will make the earth new, we will change things on her behalf, since she is unable—and saw in this a misguided, problematic, hubristic sensibility resting at the very heart of life in the anthropocene. I sensed something different in that little word, ‘for’: I imagined the phrase and the festival in terms of an offering, a gift given to the earth—and gifts, freely given, are a means expressing thanks and sustaining relationships: perhaps the festival was as much a gratuitous, celebratory gesture as a ‘staged intervention.’ It may also have been a cry of despair (which is the tack I took in producing a short film of images and voices, ‘Remembering the Future of Nature’).

An early book in the theorizing of festivity, written a generation ago, was titled In Tune with the World. Festivals, ideally, attune people to their local surroundings, to each other, to their histories and traditions. One way of imagining our ecological crisis is that we are out of tune, our beliefs, attitudes, practices are discordant, they lack harmony—from this musical perspective, ritual action is one way of getting in tune, of becoming attuned. Ritual is not merely or even chiefly confirmatory or expressive but rather noetic, a way of knowing, and also pragmatic, a way of responding. Another thing rituals such as festivals accomplish is the making of kin outside the biological line – weddings are the obvious example, or traditions of making godparents and godchildren. But festival cultures also build and sustain close relationships with others across space and time. At the follow-up event to The Future of Nature, The Future, the Arts and Ecology, held this past March, after Dr. Eaton’s talk, during the opening reception, I heard several people comment, “it is like a family reunion.”

I am pointing here to the ritual dimensions of ecological crisis and response, and suggesting that For a New Earth is informed, though rather tacitly, unconsciously, half-knowingly, with a ritual intuition, a recognition that form is as important as content; if our choreographies simply ape our worldview, not much changes, regardless of the content the apes speak. Dystonic bodily forms cannot simply be thought or desired away, at will. A ‘disposition,’ lets remember, is a thoroughly embodied phenomenon—attitude, position, posture, stance, pose, inclination, stand—we think in and through our body. There exists an interplay of bodily habits, patterns of practical ways of being in the world, and forms of thought and valuing. In western culture, the body has been long been subjugated to semantic content, and the tentative, awkward ritualizing that took place during The Future of Nature bears this fact out.

So, the big question: Is the nature of our ritualizing part of the ecological crisis facing us, and is ritual in any way part of the answer? Ritual barely makes it on to the map of ecological and environmental concerns and responses, even though Native traditions, which are often lauded for being ecologically sensitive, are generally ritual-centric, and there does exists a growing tradition of ritualized responses to ecological crisis—the Buddhist practice in Thailand, for example, of ordaining trees in the face of deforestation.

Sometimes a hard brush stroke is needed to give a picture some definition. Is it easier to think oneself into a new way of acting, or act oneself into a new way of thinking? By ‘act’ here I don’t mean merely activism—throwing our selves at the barriers, chaining our bodies to trees, laying down in front of bulldozers—though certainly more of that is direly needed. Nor do I mean only the action of digging into the soil with one’s hands, planting and harvesting, though more dirt under our fingernails is also a pressing need. I mean ritual action—stylized, repetitive, elevated, condensed, formalized, embodied enactment—and this kind of action may well complement both activism and activities such as gardening.

In the opening scene of the acclaimed film The Sacrifice, written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander, an aging professor and theatre critic, a man of words and ideas, wanders with his young son along a bleak shoreline, plants a scraggly tree, and ponders the mysteries of life. Alexander tells his son a short tale of a monk who each day carries a dipper of water up a mountain to water a tree. He does this for three years, and one morning, he arrives to find the tree in full blossom. Alexander continues: “You know, sometimes I say to myself, if every single day, at exactly the same stroke of the clock one were to perform the same act, like a ritual, unchanging, systematic, every day at the same time, the world would be changed. Yes, something would change, it would have to.”

Gary Snyder has penned many sinewy lines; this is one of them: “Performance is currency in the world’s deep gift economy.” So, I ask, as we continue to live in and toward the future that is now: upon what kind of performative currency are we building our exchanges, the intercourse among persons and the intercourse of person with the environment? How do we offer deep gifts to the earth and its inhabitants? What acts, what gestures, what postures, what words, dedicatedly rehearsed, rightly performed, and collectively enacted can save the planet? That question seems as urgent to me as questions about the ideas, attitudes or ethics that might save us.

When religious liberals or secular humanists or philosophers wrestle with ecology, it is ideas, beliefs, and ethics that are first and foremost laid on the table. The guiding assumption is: get the idea right, the value right, the facts right, and the rest will follow. Within my field of religious studies, Sallie McFague’s The Body of God: Toward an Ecological Theology is an exemplary case. Catherine Keller, in her review of the book, writes: “McFague has created something important and necessary—a model of God specifically for the sake of the earth. If traditional concepts of god have alienated us from the bodies of the material world, then what alternative do we have?” The solution, argues McFague and echoes Keller, is a better concept—in this case, feminist inspired images of the sacred. Elsewhere, we read or hear of a call for a better ethic, or for improved scientific knowledge—all this necessary, to be sure, but also terribly insufficient. No number of Earth Charters, no matter how laudable the principles informing them, will amount to a hill of beans without ways of driving those attitudes deeply into our bones and sinews and organs and brains.  We can imagine our relationship to the earth as an I-Thou relationship—but if there is no exchange of gifts, no embodied gestures, such a relationship does not exist because we are, after all, bodies not minds.

Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century mystic, healer and visionary, wrote of the “green life force of flesh,” so she can help in the greening of religion, and we should use her words; they are good words. Religious leaders are now scouring scriptures and textual traditions in search of images, translatable into concepts and precepts that might inspire ecologically responsible behavior. Keepers of the world’s religions are also variously putting tradition in the dock as well as defending tradition against attacks that blame our religious inheritance for the sorry state of the environment. In self-defense, they launch criticisms of economic greed and human failure to exercise stewardship of the land. The monotheistic traditions bear a large share of the blame, because of their entanglement in Western ideologies of natural domination and dualistic separation. The truth is that none of the large-scale religions has resources adequate to the crisis. None of the “world” religions is an earth religion.

If one asks, What are all those bodies in McFague’s book doing? The answer is that they are thinking, imagining, or acting ethically. What they are not doing is ritualizing. The connection between ethics and ritual is not at all obvious in the popular mind, in religiously motivated environmental activism, in philosophical treatises, or in ritual theory, for that matter. It seems we’ve forgotten that we are bodies, and this forgetfulness is, I think, a significant part of what ails us. As For a New Earth grows and moves and shifts, its members would do well to reflect on the role and place of formative ritualized gestures.

MUN Gazette: “The Future of Nature Begins Now” by Sean McGrath

January 19, 2016

McGrath at Quidi Vidi

Sean J. McGrath, Professor and Head, Department of Philosophy, Memorial University

Op Ed for the online edition of the Memorial University Gazette, January 2016
by Sean J. McGrath

In spite of some promising—although non-binding—commitments from our elected representatives who met in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, we are miles away from the “ecological conversion” called for by Pope Francis in his extraordinary 2015 encyclical Laudato Si. The problem is no one knows how to get there from here. “Government alone is helpless,” Bruno Latour wrote shortly before the meeting, “it needs all its citizens in this effort.” How do you mobilize the entire human community to change its ways of living?

As Paul Gidding argued in his 2011 book, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, we have already come to the end of ‘unlimited’ economic growth. Faced with disappearing natural resources, exponentially increasing climate change, and ballooning human population, we can no longer afford to live beyond the means of our planet’s ecosystems and resources. Economists and governments still talk of stimulating the sluggish global economy, failing to notice that while we remain dependent on fossil fuels, this stimulation is at the expense of the earth that makes human life itself possible.

Unfortunately, the solution is not simply a matter of “greening” our economy and weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. Nothing less than the end of consumer capitalism is required if the planet is to be habitable for future generations of humans, not to mention countless imperilled species of animals and plants.

The Republican Party makes an industry of climate change denial while the ‘developed world’ continues to shop, encouraged by governments anxious to keep the economic fires burning. No one knows how to overcome consumer capitalism or indeed, how to re-organize a global economy that is no longer based on the idea of growth.

One of the hurdles we face—and it may prove insurmountable—is a radical transformation in our thinking about ethics. We are accustomed to extending our ethical concerns to our fellow human beings, maybe even some of the animals we share the planet with. We include our children and perhaps our grandchildren in the orbit of our ethical considerations. But what climate change activists are hesitant to tell you is that the reductions they are calling for, the limitation of emission to 350 ppm or the confinement of global warming to 2 degrees above pre- industrial times—which will require immense economic sacrifice and a degree of collective self- limitation that we have perhaps never before seen—is not for the sake of our children’s children, it is for future humans who will likely not even remember our names. The reductions debated in Paris will have no effect on the next two generations of humans. James Lovelock has been arguing for a decade that our children are destined to suffer the effects of the greenhouse gas emissions of the last century, regardless of what we do now. It is the children of the 22nd century whose lives are at stake in our response to climate change.

The Future of Nature, a festival of ecological ideas held at Grenfell Campus and in locations in Gros Morne Park last September, was not about mobilizing activists or producing policy papers: it was about changing our ecological imaginary. No quick results can be expected where nothing short of a conversion is required. And yet something did happen on the West Coast of Newfoundland, if only for a few days: a community of concern was constellated, made up of scientists, academics in the humanities and social sciences, artists, and community leaders. The one thing we had in common was our love for this earth and our desire for an attitudinal shift at every level, from the local to the global.

The event was by design, trans-disciplinary: philosophers talked to scientists; sociologists talked to theologians; all talked to the public, made up of local people, aboriginal communities, and students from high school to the graduate level. No one had the luxury of remaining within the boundaries of his or her discipline. As a result, powerful alliances were forged among specialists who would otherwise never have met and a genuine conversation occurred. The visual and performing arts played a key role, bringing a non-propositional dimension to the academic proceedings and connecting the conference with the broader public. Most innovative of all, The Future of Nature: Gros Morne had a field component: busses, boats, and wilderness guides were deployed to introduce the group assembled to the ecology of the Bonne Bay and Gros Morne area, not only to witness to its beauty and power, but also to become more cognizant of its fragility and the special challenges it faces as the climate changes in the coming years.

From the 3rd to the 4th of March this year, Memorial University St. John’s campus, in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Queen’s College, will host a workshop in “Integral Ecology: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences.” The phrase “integral ecology,” is Pope Francis’: it refers to a total mobilization of all areas of human inquiry and creative activity for the sake of producing a plan of “care for our common home.” If there was ever a time for teachers, writers and researchers in the humanities and social sciences to make a contribution to the one issue that affects us all, it is now. For more information on the upcoming event contact Maria Mayr in German and Russian ( or Sean McGrath in Philosophy (