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

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.