News and Interviews

Lucky Seven: Raymond A. Rogers Examines the Price of Progress In His New Book


Raymond A. Rogers knows a thing or two about the delicate relationship between humans and their environment. Working in Nova Scotia as a commercial fisher in the early 1990s, he witnessed the industry's slow disappearance as the economy shifted. After leaving the east coast for Toronto, he became the first person in Canada to earn a PhD in Environmental Studies, and went on to teach the subject at York University for twenty five years, publishing three books along the way.

His newest, Rough and Plenty (WLU Press), ties together his experience of displacement as a fisher with that of the 19th century Scottish crofters who came to Canada after leaving their homeland. Studying the parallels between the two, Rogers raises larger questions about the impact of industrialization on local ways of life, and the environmental costs that come along with it.

We're very happy to have Raymond at Open Book today to discuss the inspiration for his book, why it was important to place his subject above himself, and why all of us should be concerned about the environmental impact of industry.


Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?

Raymond A. Rogers:

Rough and Plenty represents an integration of two distinct periods in my life: first, when I was a fisher in Nova Scotia, and second, when I was an academic at York University, a shift that was brought about by the collapse of the east coast fishery in the early 1990s. As an academic, I wrote about management issues in the fishery that focused on the analysis of power relations and their influence on policymaking. This book brings forward the voices of the people I cared about in Nova Scotia as they reflect on their lives. These first-hand accounts gain deeper resonance by being linked to the voices of nineteenth-century Scottish crofters who experienced similar dislocations on their way to being displaced to Nova Scotia. So, what was compelling for me about this research is that it integrated being a fisher and being an academic.

This research immersed me in a world that means a great deal to me. But there is another reason as well. After teaching about environmental issues for twenty-five years, what became clear is that no matter how many good conversations we have about our current ecological plight, and no matter how many reasonable proposals are put forward, the forces of injustice and over-exploitation have only become stronger. So I have tried to “make the present strange” by focusing on the voices of disempowered, marginalized groups at the very moment of their dispossession, making that grief central to the book in hopes that this recognition of grief and loss, and their link to attachment and affiliation, will resonate in a way that reasonable argument hasn’t.


Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?


The central question is this: “Do you want to live in a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and more and more of the planet gets destroyed in the process?” Of course, most people would answer no to this question, but this is the world we live in. Why? In historical terms, this work responds by chronicling what can be described as a “double disappearance” in terms of human-to-nature relations: not only is the natural world disappearing in terms of species and habitat, but so is the social basis for the connection between humans and nature. Modern humans are losing the ability to see nature as part of us. This social impoverishment narrows the environmental debate so that nature is understood only in utilitarian terms. What Rough and Plenty does is attempt to bring into immediacy this deep connection to nature by showing the grief that is experienced by those for whom this connection has been broken in a brutal way by forces of domination. Since reasoned arguments about justice and the environment made from within the structures of late modernity are failing, I am trying to make emotional claims outside of modernity as a way to broaden the conversation so that voices at the periphery, informed by a landscape that gives those voices resonance and authority, can challenge the powers at the centre.


What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?


I began the book as an academic and finished the book as a fisher. The book began as environmental history and gradually transformed into life-writing based on first-hand accounts. In any political conflict, there is always a process of denigration of those less powerful (think of the term “tree-hugger” or the characterization of women as “too emotional”). Beware those who ask you to feel less. A major influence in this shift of perspective was reading the 4000 pages of the Napier Commission (1883), which recorded the testimony of Scottish crofters as they were being displaced from their lands. The evocativeness of the crofters’ language and their rootedness in the community is so impressive, as compared with the antiseptic legalese coming from the powerful. I am sure if Canadians sat down and read the Truth and Reconciliation Report testimony about residential schools, they would be overwhelmed in the same way. The shift in perspective would demand more of us as citizens.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


John Updike made the case that the best books are smarter than the people who wrote them. This has to do with the inspired wager one makes with the unknown in creating a work. In this perilous journey, which has been likened to crawling from Vladivostok to Rome on your hands and knees, it is useful to have around you a few mementos that generate auspiciousness, like found objects from a boat wreckage or smooth stones given to you by loved ones.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


During the writing of this book, I said to myself: “Don’t write with your face, write from somewhere further back.” The subject is important, the writer is not. Non-fiction is a relief in this way; you are trying to do justice to a subject rather than conjure a work onto the empty page from within yourself.


What defines a great work of non-fiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


In a book of essays entitled True Stories (2017), Francis Spufford states that “the imagination dis-imprisons the soul of a fact.” Facts are not autonomous entities. They require a context to give them meaning, hence the idea that a fact might have a “soul.” Empathy is another word for imagination. I have recently been reading through the work of W. G. Sebald, where narratives such as The Immigrants (1996) combine empathy and historical reality in a very evocative way.


What are you working on now?


My mate Laura and I have recently moved back to rural Nova Scotia after twenty-five years in Toronto, so everything is up in the air at the moment. The pattern in my life is that I immerse myself in projects or occupations, and then think about them later. That is when the writing comes in. So, we will see what the future holds.


Raymond A. Rogers was a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University for twenty-five years. He is the author of three previous books: Nature and the Crisis of Modernity, The Oceans Are Emptying: Fish Wars and Sustainability, and Solving History: The Challenge of Environmental Activism. He earned the first PhD in Environmental Studies in Canada.

Buy the Book

Rough and Plenty

As a commercial fisher in Nova Scotia in the early 1990s, Raymond Rogers experienced the collapse of Canada’s East Coast fishery first-hand. Afterward, while preparing to leave the province to find work elsewhere, Rogers noticed a lone gravestone across the road from his home in Shelburne County that commemorates the life of Donald McDonald, a crofter from the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, who “departed this life” in 1881. Rogers wondered if there might be a connection between the necessity of his own departure, and McDonald’s lonely presence on the nearby Atlantic shore, linking them as members of local communities that were displaced in the name of “economic progress. ”

In Rough and Plenty: A Memorial, Rogers explores the parallel processes of dispossession suffered by nineteenth-century Scottish crofters expelled from their ancestral lands during the Highland Clearances, and by the marginalization of coastal fishing communities in Nova Scotia. The book aims to memorialize local ways of life that were destroyed by the forces of industrial production, as well as to convey the experience of dislocation using first-hand narratives, recent and historical. The author makes the case that in a world where capital abhors all communities but itself, remembering becomes a form of advocacy that can challenge dominant structures.