Research Spotlight: Alice Cohen

Research Spotlight: Alice Cohen
By Omar Bhimji

Omar Bhimji (OB): In terms of research, what are you working right now?

Alice Cohen (AC): I’m writing a book with Andrew Biro about Canadian environmental politics. There are a few books on the subject, but they tend to focus on governments and government institutions as the be-all and end-all of environmental policy and decision-making. That’s only part of the picture.

For example, if you look at the debate over Northern Pulp in Pictou County, it’s not really about what laws exist, or who’s in government. It’s about pollution, jobs, and how you make decisions as a community. Our book looks at not only the formal governance institutions, but also economies, identities, and communities, and how they shape Canadian environmental politics more broadly than just the outcome of elections and what laws exist.

OB: Anything else?

AC: I’m also looking at the politics of knowledge with respect to water governance and how we make decisions about water.

One of the trends that we’re seeing in water governance is a move towards community-based water monitoring (CBM), which is where community groups who are concerned about something in their water will get some water assessment tools and take measurements.

The politics around this knowledge are fascinating to me. We talk about CBM as if it’s empowering communities to measure what’s important to them, and that’s true, but our research suggests that these programs are also being shaped by what the technology can measure, and what their funders require. And often these programs are implemented to pick up on where provincial or territorial programs left off. So, it’s more complicated than communities just going out and measuring what they want to measure.

OB: How do these projects fit in with your broader research agenda?

AC: I could say that my research agenda is about water, but really it’s not. What I’m really interested in is the relationship between people and place, and how we navigate that relationship. I have found water to be a very good tool for understanding that relationship.

We have this idea that there are people, and there’s nature, and they are two separate things – but they’re not. For example in Ontario, post-Walkerton, there are strong protections for any body of water that is a source of drinking water, which don’t apply to bodies that are not. But water doesn’t work like that – it moves around. This false division is one of the themes we’re exploring in the book.

OB: What are you doing for fun these days?

AC: I spent a lot of time skating on the Wolfville reservoir this winter. There’s a group of volunteers who measure ice depth, and shovel and snow blow a big oval around the whole reservoir, so you can skate around it. It’s great fun.

In the summertime, my partner Jamie and I sometimes go canoeing in the evenings. We go to the south mountain: Gaspereau and Black River Lake. It’s really fun to get out on the water on those long summer evenings.