Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Written in anger

Leading eco scribe exposes Harper's anti-science agenda

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This slim, angry volume is clearly not a book Chris Turner, perhaps Canada's best-known chronicler of sustainability issues, wanted to write.

On the heels of the Calgary-based writer's inspiring titles The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need (2007) and The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy (2011), The War on Science comes across as having been written in profound regret, and in something of a state of shock.

It is Turner's economical, devastating account of how Prime Minster Stephen Harper has overseen the systematic, deliberate elimination or weakening of entire branches of government-funded science, environmental policy and regulation, and withdrawn from international agreements, such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

Turner exposes as hollow official justifications for these cuts under the need for fiscal restraint: Harper's Conservatives spent lavishly (and pointlessly) on $16-million Economic Action Plan advertising and used the Canada Revenue Agency to hound environmental interest groups protesting the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area, in the process spending many times more taxpayer dollars than the ELA had actually cost.

It wasn't always this way, not even under recent Conservative governments such as that of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Turner recounts how, until the defeat of Paul Martin's Liberals, Canada was seen as a "ferocious" global leader in science and environmental protection, most notably in the form of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals.

By contrast, Harper's Canada, he argues, doesn't look like Canada at all, which might explain why he chose a title so similar to that of 2005's The Republican War on Science, by U.S. politics and science journalist Chris Mooney, which discusses how, under president George W. Bush, an ideologically driven government motivated by commercial interests and appealing to a fundamentalist base undermined and ignored science.

However, whereas debate over science policy in the U.S. concerning such issues as evolution and climate change is bound up with that country's "culture war," Turner uncovers a critical difference in Canada.

Federally funded basic research and scientific communication are not being hollowed out and crippled here because of an anti-intellectual disbelief in the validity of science. On the contrary, Harper seems to trust and fear all too well how effectively scientific evidence unhampered by political control would demonstrate the irreparable harm threatened by the oilsands, Arctic resource development and transcontinental pipelines.

To prevent any delay in or interruption to resource development, Harper has, in Turner's view, wilfully blinded the government -- and the Canadian people -- by rendering us incapable of learning what might be happening to our country.

Quite apart from the unknown harm wrought on the environment, Turner warns we are at risk of losing our Enlightenment-era inheritance of empiricism and reason and returning to an age of royal prerogative.

The War on Science is a powerful and eloquent plea for Canada to not only restore its place as an international leader in science and environmental responsibility, but to once again become a fully modern state.

Michael Dudley is the indigenous and urban services librarian at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 19, 2013 A1

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