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Say No to BC’s ‘Avaricious’ Boom and Bust Rulers

Warnings from the ghost of Roderick Haig-Brown. Second in a series quoting the Campbell River visionary.

Andrew Nikiforuk 20 Dec

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

[Editor’s note: This series is drawn from Andrew Nikiforuk’s talk “Why Haig-Brown Matters More than Ever,” given last month in Campbell River as the Seventh Annual Haig-Brown Memorial Lecture. A PDF is available here.]

Roderick Haig-Brown, who died 40 years ago an internationally renowned author of more than 25 books on nature and society, has largely been forgotten by most Canadians, let alone British Columbians.

Perhaps it’s because Canadians don’t much like visionaries, especially great ones that question the materialistic nature of their culture. Haig-Brown repeatedly committed that sin.

Even during Canada’s centennial celebrations he had the cheek to call British Columbia a profligate province: “In British Columbia there has always been a gallantry about the job and a shoddiness about the end result.”

When people trumpeted, “We can’t stand in the way of progress,” Haig-Brown heard a “tricky little catch phrase” in service of ruin. His bold and evolving critique of progress still makes him frighteningly relevant in country violently addicted to resource extraction.

Boomers and Stickers

Like the American author Wallace Stegner, Haig-Brown rightly divided North Americans into two kinds of citizens: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers, wrote Stegner were “those who pillage and run,” and want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street.” In contrast stickers sought to “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”

Haig-Brown had lived the whole story. As an emigrant and logger he had been both fascinated and repelled by its wanton waste and destruction. When he became a sticker, Haig-Brown dared to ask the rude kinds of questions that Canadian politicians still don’t like: How do you care for a place once you have exterminated the wildlife, plundered the forest, excavated the minerals and fished all the waters? What do you do, for example, when you’ve sold your most fertile land to developers?

To Haig-Brown, the nation’s boom and bust economic culture represented nothing more than “large scale opportunism” that was adolescent. He couldn’t wait for the country to sober up.

Haig-Brown also made a few impolite observations about resource booms. Every smash and grab for exportable staples turned Canadians and British Columbians from polite Jekylls into murderous Hydes. During booms we became “avaricious, conservative in politics, pragmatic and destructive and careless of resource management.” Here, in half a sentence, Haig-Brown has already described two economic circuses he didn’t live to see: the nation’s ruinous bitumen frenzy and B.C.’s fraudulent LNG scam.

Furthermore, Haig-Brown observed, as countless sociologists have since documented from the coalfields of Wyoming to the fracked farms of North Dakota, resource booms do not make people happy. In The Living Land, a sort of snapshot of the province’s resources written in 1961, he cited the dismal statistics on drug addiction, divorces and mental health in logging towns to prove his point.

Haig-Brown thought we needed a new economic thinking and land ethic. “Ideals that were useful in opening a continent are weak, childish and unpleasant when applied to the task of making wise and satisfactory use of a continent already up.”

Society needed to replace the ruthless mind with a generous heart and the self-centred economy with community-minded enterprise that respected the future and the finite nature of things.

He recognized the difficulty: “It is in the history of civilizations that conservationists are always defeated, boomers always win and the civilizations always die. I think there has never been in any state, a conservationist government, because there has never yet been a people with the sufficient humility to take conservation seriously.”

He also wrote, “No people have the right to act against its knowledge and damage and destroy the face of the earth for short-term gain.”

It is instructive that the government of the day refused to buy the book, let alone read it.

Clear-cut arguments

In every respect Haig-Brown was ahead of his time. In 1938, for example, he sounded the alarm about the pace and scale of clear-cutting on the Island when 80 per cent of the trees being felled were Douglas fir. In a somewhat heated meeting he asked the Courtney Board of Trade just when and how reforestation was going to take place and just who the hell was going to deal with the unemployment, lack of revenue, disorder and environmental ruin when there were no more tall trees to fell.

The problem, he added, was the cowardice of government. It was unwilling “to make citizens uncomfortable for their future as comfortable citizens do not generally elect those who have made them uncomfortable.”

Haig-Brown, who was an elegant and civil man, once had a meeting with the American timber baron J.H. Bloedel. “I hear you’re the worst troublemaker on Vancouver Island,” began Bloedel.

The moment passed and Bloedel showed the conservationist his valuable collection of knick-knacks. (All tycoons appeared to be collectors of one thing or another, Haig-Brown later told the poet Al Purdy.) At the end of the evening Bloedel asked Haig-Brown if he was interested in doing some writing for the company.

Haig-Brown replied: “I don’t want to be collected.”

Tomorrow, the series continues: Roderick Haig-Brown on the foolishness of humans who believe they can re-engineer the vital, complex ecology of the salmon.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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