Notes from the Last Time

As part of my work on my climate change blogging project I started to look at climate change policy here on Prince Edward Island. This led me to look into energy and sustainability policy on the Island historically, and this search inevitably led me to learn more about the Institute of Man and Resources and The Ark, two projects that arose, more or less, in reaction to the 1973 energy crisis that saw world oil prices quadruple in a single season.

I immediately found two excellent resources in the collection of the Robertson Library: The Institute of Man and Resources, and Environmental Fable, by Alan MacEachern, is a thoughtful history of the Institute and and the personalities behind it; A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design, by Nancy Jack Todd, provides a good summary of the work of The New Alchemy Institute, including its work on The Ark.

After making short work of these two helpful resources, I realized that many of the players involved in the two efforts were still here – indeed several of them are friends or colleagues, although in some cases I didn’t realize this – and I resolved to seek them out and interview them about that time, about their role, and about whether there are lessons about technology, design, political or organization that we might take from the Institute and The Ark and apply to today.

Fortunately, I found a receptive audience for my requests, and I’ve spent the last week fiddling with tripods, learning the ins and outs of my tiny video camera, and trying to learn how to conduct interviews and edit the results.  Several pieces are still in the editing room, but I’ve now completed the first two:

  • Notes from The Last Time: The Architect and The Ark is an interview with architect David Bergmark, who, with partner Ole Hammarlund, designed The Ark.  As David says in the interview, he “came to Prince Edward Island for the weekend and stayed for 35 years,” and while I’ve known David for a long time, I’d never heard him tell the story of how he came to be involved with the project, nor his thoughts about it looking back on its wake.  I was happy to get the chance.
  • In Notes from The Last Time: Andy Wells and The Institute of Man and Resources I interviewed Andy Wells.  I’d spoken to Andy on the phone several times over the years, and his wife Lynne Douglas has worked on projects with my partner Catherine, but this was my first face-to-face meeting with Andy.  As principal secretary to then-Premier Alex Campbell, Andy was a driving force in moving Prince Edward Island toward an exploration of renewable energy; as director of the Institute of Man and Resources he headed an ambitious effort to transform the Island’s energy economy.  I visited Andy in his beautiful pond-side home in Hazel Grove – Alan MacEachern quotes him as describing it as his “private bioshelter” – and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the Institute and its work, and whether the conditions that gave rise to it are likely to reoccur.

After a week of talking about “the last time,” I’ve come away with one overwhelming realization: our challenges responding to the climate crisis are not technological, they are social and political

We know all we need to know to be able to address our energy needs in a less climate-impacting way right now.  We’ve known it for a long time.  

The issue is not what we need to do, but how we’re able to do it

By 1980 The Ark project had come to an end and the Institute of Man and Resources hobbled along, poorly funded, until 1990.  Each owes its demise to a different set of circumstances; the lack of political will to keep these projects going, however, and the internal and external struggles each wrestled with, are cautionary tales for how we can best marshal our resources and talents to address climate change today. 

Similarly, the successes these projects did achieve suggest that, when the stars align properly, world-changing activity can happen right here in Prince Edward Island: for a all-too-brief time in 1976 the Island was a world leader in energy and sustainability research and the focus of considerable attention by all manner of influential thinkers in this area.

I’ve another week of interviews coming up, so stay tuned for more.


henriette weber's picture
henriette weber on November 1, 2009 - 08:08 Permalink

Hi Peter — it sounds like a truely amazing project. You really inspire me to do something equal here in Denmark =)

Leo's picture
Leo on November 1, 2009 - 19:11 Permalink

I remember those days of such promise and where we believed we were on the cutting age of doing some new, innovative and environmentally sound things — My father, his brother and others were active in helping build the Ark and my parents hosted one of the sites for solar hot water demonstration projects and the Dixon model delivered enough hot water for all of our needs (no mean feat when ours was the only test household with double digit household membership (having been one of 8 siblings!) — It makes be nostalgic and yearning for days where we believed we could live better and wean ourselves off an unhealthy oil dependency and use our natural resouces wisely — I remember my older sister, mother and grandmother attending a rally at Brundenell against the Pt. LePreau nuclear energy plant — which with its recent announcement of another 18 month delay in its refurbishment and the unmanageable debt accumulated by New Brunswick Power has now proven to be the expensive boondoggle that was claimed back then by my mother and others  — let’s return to some sane energy policy where we believe we can make a difference , that might help be the difference between solving the current global warming crisis rather than throwing our hands up in the air and not doing anything (actually worse than that as they seem to allow speeding up carbon emissions in Tarsands and elsewhere) as our current federal government is want to do -Canadians want to be part of the solution not part of the problem and we must not burden future generations with the looming environmental collapse that seems imminent if we do not change course.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on November 2, 2009 - 00:02 Permalink

Op-ed’s, commentary, research a topic, video interviews. Is the CBC hiring?
Reminds me of Nixon’s “I am not a crook” or Bubba’s “I never had sex with that woman”.
Best case of self-fulfilling prophecy by denial I’ve ever seen.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on November 2, 2009 - 14:42 Permalink

Touché, Wayne, touché.