FieldWork, Episode 2

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Welcome to FieldWork, I’m James Sidney.

Conservation, it could be argued, is all about health. About preserving the integrity of living systems. Later in the broadcast we’ll meet Dr. John Howard and poet Adam Dickinson to hear their thoughts on this broad topic.

But our examination begins with a larger diagnosis of Ontario’s rivers and streams—the arteries of our freshwater resources. Linda Heron, the Chair and CEO of Ontario Rivers Alliance, discusses the misunderstood and often misrepresented hazards of hydroeclectric power. I met with her on the Vermilion River, in Worthington, Ontario.

I do this, everyday, because I have been concerned about all of our future generations and how they will survive on this planet without, clean, healthy, fresh water.

Our rivers are the arteries of Mother Earth. And it’s like in our bodies: if we clog our arteries we get sick, if enough arteries get blocked, then, we die.

Governments will always say that hydroelectric produces clean, green energy. But they know it’s not true. Because there are numerous studies that show the negative impacts from hydroelectric. The reason they’re not clean is because scientists have reported that there are high amounts of methane that come off of these reservoirs, and the new types of power generation on these smaller rivers—small hydro—often will use reservoirs to store water so they can produce power during peak demand hours, and those reservoirs produce methane. And not just for a few years, they produce it for many years. Approximately 5-7% of world greenhouse gas emissions are coming from reservoirs.

Hydroelectric dams have a lot of impacts associated with them. For one thing, the turbines chop up fish. Not many of them have fish-friendly turbines and there are those available. Very few dams have fish passage, so migration of fish to their spawning areas is blocked. And there are only two or three dams in all of Ontario—at least hydroelectric dams—that have fish passage.

Dams also degrade water quality. When water is held back behind a dam in a reservoir the water warms and you get problems with eutrophication and blue-green algae, but water quality is degraded.

These dams are also given a forty year contract to produce power. The proponent will tell you, well these dams will last for seventy-five to a hundred years, but there still should be decommissioning provisions upfront. Dams do fail. And especially now that we’re into climate change, a lot of rivers around the world are drying up. So it’s important with climate change on the horizon that we have dam decommissioning provisions. It’s okay to have a dam, but it needs to be done with fish passage, there needs to be decommissioning provisions, there should be fish-friendly turbines—but none of theses things are requirements. And that’s one of the main reasons for the decline of our fisheries in Ontario. So, we would like to see that change.


1. Ontario Rivers Alliance is celebrating a major victory for Ontario’s waterways.
2. After stopping 19 hydroelectric projects on 10 different river systems.
3. The reservoirs of hydroelectric projects create numerous negative impacts.
4. Including methylmercury contamination of fish, blue-green algae, and methane emissions.
5. “Hydroelectric is not clean and green, as proponents and governments would have us believe.” -Linda Heron

CAPE, or the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, seeks to be the voice of Canadian medicine on environmental affairs. I sat down with CAPE’s Chair, Dr. John Howard to hear about the Association’s work, and its personal importance to him as a physician and educator. We met at his home in London, Ontario.

In Canada physicians are still recognized and appreciated. I think when we speak, we carry the respect of our own patients, we carry the scientific background that we came from, and we’re generally thought, particularly at local levels, to be leaders in the community. And we can use that leadership and respect in bringing about legislation that protects the environment.

I think the unique perspective of a physician is that they don’t have a vested interest in the outcome. They come from a perspective of health. They care for the health of people and particularly the health of children and the future generations. And they also have a good scientific background so they can speak, not just rhetoric, but they can quote the literature, they can put together position papers, and they can present in a way that patients understand—and since we’re all patients—the public can understand.

Our main program is that of the pesticide program, and we were very successful in working with other organizations in creating pesticide by-laws across Canada. So 70% of Canadians now are under a pesticide by-law banning the use of pesticides on lawns. Also we are now working on getting rid of coal generation. Coal generation is a really big problem as far as creating air pollution, and for lung disease as well as heart disease. And we’ve been succesful working with the Liberal government here in Ontario getting rid of coal generation, and we’re now working with the Alberta governemnt for that.

I think that all the physicians have noted that when they’re working hard fixing diseases all the time, we sometimes have to think about those patients being a symptom of the environment or of society. And I think more and more we’re seeing the environment impacting on our patients and we need to be aware of that. So every patient coming in we have to ask, “Why is that patient here? And what can we do as physicians to prevent other patients from coming with the same problem?”

I think doctors have to think about, what is health? And traditionally we’ve thought of it as physical health and mental health, but we also have to think about social health, economic health, political health, and environmental health. And beyond that we even have to think more, we have to think of spiritual health and moral health. What we have to start thinking is, are we, as human beings, morally healthy when it comes to the environment. Are we morally healthy when it comes to the world that supports us? And I think we have to start thinking really big. And I think, not only as physicians, but as governments we have to think of looking after our whole selves.

Adam Dickinson’s new in-progress collection of poems, a follow-up to his Governor General’s Award nominated book The Polymers, scrutinizes what he calls his literal “interior landscape.” The new work, tentatively called Anatomic, traces, and in some cases imagines, the stories behind alien chemical substances found in his body. I met with him at his home in St. Catharines, Ontario, near Brock University, where he is a professor of English Language and Literature.

I’m interested in thinking about my body as a form of biological media. I found uranium in my blood, and I want to know where that came from. What is the story, what is the biography, so to speak, of all these chemicals and microbes that constitute my own biography?

I think the larger purpose of my project, is to really look at the way in which people, humans, in a sense constitute permeable membranes. We’re not separate from the energy systems of our historical moment. And I’m very interested in thinking about my body really as a kind of text, as a kind of writing that has been written over by my historical moment.

How can I tell the story of a person living in the Anthropocene, right now, this moment in our geological history, where humans now have become geophysical forces on the planet?

Poetry is always pushing the limits of what it means to write. What means to conceive of writing, on the one hand, which I think is partly what I’m doing here—thinking about writing as a kind of biological entity here. Understanding myself as being written over by my environment.

Poetry pushes narrative, it pushes the possibilities really of linguistic expression. And as much as that is challenging, I think it has to be challenging. I think that’s where poetry lives. I think of it as a kind of extreme writing, necessarily. I think that’s what poetry is.

One of the difficulties, I think, that the Anthropocene presents us with is the issue of scale. It’s difficult in many cases to see global warming, for example, because it happens at such an incremental level. You have to actually step back and look at ice core samples or look at temperature changes over decades to see it—it’s hard to see. And I think the same is true when it comes to petrochemical pollution, and I think part of what I’m doing with this project is attempting to look at scale a bit differently. What happens when we magnify this? When looked at from a different scale we can see petrochemicals and microbes as a form of writing.

It’s been an interesting journey for me to understand myself as a modern being wearing, as I do, the energy sources and the products of those energy sources of my contemporary historical moment, whether I like it or not. You know, I wear industrial, agricultural, military history inside me. That’s terrifying, and strange, and weird, and disturbing to learn.

Are we okay with that? Are we okay with living in a world in which these companies can pollute in this way? I mean, there’s a kind of, in a sense, imaginary science project that the industrialized world is performing on the bodies of its citizens without consent. Are we okay with that?


You don’t have to fly across the world to see wonders. Like, you see them here. It’s like this massive movement of birds that you can see in your backyard if you pay attention.

Around the world, the right to a healthy environment has gained recognition in the last fifty years or so more than any other human right.

If there’s a mission that I could apply to what I’m doing now, I guess—well it’s more of a hope I suppose, as an artist, is that in the years to come, through my work more and more people may feel a greater appreciation for these landscapes.

Thank you for joining us on this edition of FieldWork. Please remember to follow and share our broadcast to help build an audience around issues of conservation. Until next time, I’m James Sidney. Thank you for watching.

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