Workshop on Canadian Business and Environmental History

10 12 2013

The Rotman School of Management in Toronto will be hosting a workshop on Canadian business and environmental history on 22-23 May 2014.  I’ve organized this workshop with Jessica van Horssen of Toronto’s York University. Funding has been generously provided by NiCHE (the Canadian Network in History and Environment) and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, and  L.R. Wilson/R.J. Currie Chair in Canadian Business History.  The main deliverable from this workshop will be an edited collection published by a university press.

Back in 1999, Christine Rosen and Christopher Sellers called for the integration of business history and environmental history. They observed that most business historians have followed Alfred Chandler in ignoring the natural world “beyond factory and office. They devoted equally little attention to the effects of resource extraction and use on plants, animals, land, air, or water, much less entire ecosystems and climate.” They also noted that “our colleagues in environmental history have shown almost as much reluctance to tackle business’s environmental relations as business historians have.”[1]

Can Canadian historians contribute to the project outlined by Rosen and Sellers in their manifesto?  In recent years, historians in the standard comparison countries have made substantial progress in integrating business and environmental history. This trend has been championed by William Cronon, the current president of the AHA, who has supervised both business and environmental history PhD dissertations.[2] Another example would be Richard White’s recent book Railroaded,[3]which has been praised by both environmental and business historians: this book mixes business and environmental history and does so quite well. Members of the Business History Conference have also published in the top environmental history journals.[5] In the last decade, articles on environmental-historical themes have appeared in the three highest “ranking” business-historical journals. As a result of all of this research, we have developed our understanding of the histories of the Netherlands, Japan, Britain, and the United States.[4]  But what about Canada, a nation that has, in per capita terms, a very large community of environmental historians? How have they integrated business into their research?

In recent years, several works on business and the environment in Canadian history have appeared. For instance, a new monograph on the history of the Bow River blends environmental and business history. An article comparing Swedish and Canadian responses to smelter pollution since 1960 appeared in Business History in 2008.[6] However, it is still true to say that historians of Canada have yet to fully undertake research that bridges business and environmental history.

Our workshop and the resulting edited collection will be a contribution to the integration of these two sub-fields of history. We believe that this edited collection will be read and cited by scholars in Canada and around the world. Canada has a large and active community of environmental historians, which means that Canadians have the opportunity to make an important contribution to the international literature on the relationship between business and the environment.

Some top scholars have agreed to present their research at this workshop. Their papers cover a wide range of topics in Canadian business/environmental history, ranging from the history of environmental accounting in the HBC to the overseas operations of Canadian mining companies.

I will present the following paper at this workshop: “Canadian Capitalism, Nature, and Confederation: a Hayekian View of Environmental Regulation in Nineteenth-Century Canada.”

At this point, I would just like to thank everyone who is helping to make this workshop possible, especially my co-organizer Jessica!


[1] Christine Meisner Rosen and Christopher C. Sellers, “The Nature of the Firm: Towards an Ecocultural History of Business,” The Business History Review 73 no. 4 (1999): 577.

[2] “William Cronon’s Students” http://www.williamcronon.net/students.htm#phdstuds.

[3] Richard White,  Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Nodern America (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2011).

[4] James Darby, “The Environmental Crisis in Japan and the Origins of Japanese Manufacturing in Europe,”  Business History 39 no. 2 (1997): 94-114; Keetie Sluyterman, “Royal Dutch Shell: Company Strategies for Dealing with Environmental Issues,”  Business History Review 84 no. 2 (2010): 203-226; Pierre Desrochers, “How Did the Invisible Hand Handle Industrial Waste? By-Product Development Before the Modern Environmental Era,”  Enterprise and Society 8 no. 2 (2007): 348-374.

[5] Christine Meisner Rosen, “The Business-Environment Connection,” Environmental History 10 no. 1 (2005): 77-79.

[6] Christopher Armstrong, Matthew Evenden, and Henry Vivian Nelles, The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2009); Magnus Lindmark and Ann Kristin Bergquist, “Expansion for Pollution Reduction? Environmental Adaptation of a Swedish and a Canadian Metal Smelter, 1960–2005,” Business History 50 no. 4 (2008): 530-546.

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