Paving Paradise? Terres d’asphalte

Mesly, Nicolas. Terres d’asphalte: notre agriculture sous haute pression. Montréal: Éditions MultiMondes, 2022.

Nicholas Mesly’s Terres d’asphalte examines the status of agricultural land ownership and the encroachments of the suburban development industry and international land speculators. This Quebec focused book could be located as anti-urban and anti-globalist but its geographical and political focus on one province gives it the advantage of specificity. Mesly defends the importance of agricultural production and the stewardship of soil fertility. The title in French, ‘Land of asphalt,’ summons up images of newly paved suburban roads with the topsoil removed and sold to garden centres. Just enough is returned around the completed constructions to support the growing of grass lawns, a mere 2 or 3 inches of fertile loam.

To this ecological threat, the viability of the ‘francophone islet’ (p.11) or pocket is added as a source of anxiety. Without the first, how will the second survive? The very linguistic difference of mainstream Quebec identity (an important assumption worth questioning in the context of increased immigration) sets it in opposition to the mainstream of North America. This (should) includes opposition to the unquestioned rule of the market which understands land only as real estate (the private lot), or as a resource for production but neither as a value in itself nor a means of supporting production and reproduction of life. Yet even the market values land, as Mesly notes the value has tripled in the decade prior to writing (2010s). Since even before this, it has been evident that while the population of the planet is increasing, the land supply is fixed. How can not only Quebec, but Canada withstand the pressure of immigration? However, Mesly’s main preoccupation is the loss of ownership by Quebec actors.

I’ve argued that the separation of nature and society, animals and humans, in Western cultures has tended to reduce the environment and ecosystems to an abject ‘bare nature.’ Mesly concurs with contributors to Space and Culture, such as Janel Curry-Roper (Dec. 2000) who argued that a sense of place contributes to sustainable agriculatural practices embedded in suspect for ecosystems.

To address this problem Mesly advocates the addition of the value of ecosystem services to agricultural land. This would counterbalance the industrial and mechanized agricultural stress on monocropping, the use of drainage tile systems so heavy equipment will not sink in muddy fields, the use of pesticides and fertilizers. Notable in Quebec is the existence of legislation limiting non-resident land owners. Mesly identifies loopholes and calls for strengthening restrictions, particularly on international investors.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)