Planning the Future: The Conserver Society and Canadian Sustainability

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Canadian environmental historians know by heart the exhortation to think globally and act locally. Often, however, they are less familiar with the expansion of scientific knowledge and state policy that made it possible to think of the world as a global system and push for change in the late twentieth century. My post explores the interweaving of environmental politics, scientific expertise, and state power that constructed sustainability by examining the Science Council of Canada’s “conserver society” of the 1970s. I recently examined the conserver society for the Canadian Historical Review.

In early 1973, the Science Council of Canada announced Canadians must change their way of life: “[Canadians] as individuals, their governments, institutions and industries, [must] begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavors.”[1] This sweeping announcement from a respected Crown corporation staffed by the county’s leading scientists caught Canadians’ attention.

The conserver society cannot be separated from the ideal of science-based policy. The Science Council emerged from efforts in the 1960s and 1970s to provide the federal government with scientifically-founded policy advice. Prime Ministers Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau expanded the state, reorganized it, and brought in numerous expert advisors. Pearson created the Council in 1966 to review science policy and engage Canadians in constructive discussions about science and its impact on society.

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson addressing the Science Council of Canada. July 5, 1966. Pearson is seated at the podium. Omond Solandt, the Council’s first chairperson is seated on Pearson’s right. Solandt was the Chancellor of the University of Toronto, a former head of Defence Research, and a personal friend of Pearson.  Library and Archives Canada/Duncan Cameron fonds/e011093238 (reproduced with permission).
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson addressing the Science Council of Canada. July 5, 1966. Pearson is seated at the podium. Omond Solandt, the Council’s first chairperson is seated on Pearson’s right. Solandt was the Chancellor of the University of Toronto, a former head of Defence Research, and a personal friend of Pearson.
Library and Archives Canada/Duncan Cameron fonds/e011093238 (reproduced with permission).

Under the Trudeau government the Council expanded its activity. By 1973 it had produced 21 reports on everything from forest management to space technology as well as 29 special studies on more specific topics, such as national impact of foreign investment. The Council also worked closely with the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources (EMR) in an effort to improve the EMR’s ability to guide Canadian energy development, a topic of national importance after the oil shock of 1973. This placed the Council at the centre of a fractious national debate over energy scarcity and the environmental impacts of development.

Determined to resolve this debate in rational, science-based ways, the Council created the Conserver Society Committee to develop a response. Ursula Franklin, a politically active physicist who would later become famous for her Massey Lectures on the “real world of technology,” led the Committee.[2] Franklin’s committee leaned on the Council’s scientific expertise to argue that using systems analysis to devise prices that reflected total costs (including pollution) would create incentives to protect the environment. From this foundation, it asserted that the finite nature of the globe necessitated greater efficiency and a shift to renewable sources of energy. To provide good news to those frightened by predictions of scarcity and environmental collapse, Franklin presented limits as an opportunity. Her committee argued that if Canadians led this transition they could provide the renewable energy technologies the world would need. In short, the conserver society required Canadians to “do more with less” but showed how this ability could become an important source of economic opportunity for the country.

Franklin and the Council’s call for environmental responsibility reflected the Trudeau government’s emphasis on scientific knowledge and its efforts to guide Canadian development. Directly addressing past ad hoc approaches, the Council stated that Canadians had dithered for too long, “particularly[] when we possess the technical and scientific knowledge to foresee the consequences of our actions with reasonable certainty.”[3] In its view, continuing to think short-term and rely on the ability to “muddle through” was no longer responsible or even feasible. Instead, Canadians had to start conserving to keep their options open and be a “smart” society able to take advantage of opportunities in a rapidly changing world.

The Council’s conserver society gained considerable traction among environmental groups, the government, and the Canadian public. The popular magazine Saturday Night dedicated most of an issue to profiling this new concept in 1977. Similarly, Pollution Probe, one of Canada’s leading environmental groups in the 1970s, organized a conserver education program in Toronto and produced The Conserver Solution to detail how Canada could become a conserver society.[4]

An artist’s depiction of the Science Council’s desire to shift from a consumer society to a conserver society. Copyright John Bianichi, reproduced with permission. Conserver Society Notes 2, 3 (Summer 1977): Cover Page. Library and Archives Canada. CA.SS.2 Amicus no.7933
An artist’s depiction of the Science Council’s desire to shift from a consumer society to a conserver society. Copyright John Bianichi, reproduced with permission. Conserver Society Notes 2, 3 (Summer 1977): Cover Page. Library and Archives Canada. CA.SS.2 Amicus no.7933

The federal government bought in as well. On 4 July 1978, Alastair Gillespie, minister of energy, mines and resources, announced a five-year $380 million subsidy program for solar energy and biomass. When other research spending and joint federal-provincial funding were included, Gillespie estimated total outlays would reach roughly $600 million (in 1978 dollars).[5] This program remains one of the largest financial pledges ever made to developing renewable energy in Canadian history.

The Trudeau government’s plans drew directly on the conserver society’s nationalist approach to alternative development. As Gillespie put it in his announcement of the solar programs, “we see no reason why equipment for solar heating can’t be designed and manufactured in Canada by Canadian firms.”[6] It is also worth noting that the minister’s speech began with an imagined statement of thanks from future generations for looking ahead and planning effectively, an echo of the Council’s continual calls for careful long-term planning.

Unfortunately for supporters of the conserver society, the solar programs of the late 1970s would be renewable energy’s high point. Nonetheless, the conserver society’s holistic approach to development lived on to become part of the concept of “sustainable development” that caught the world’s attention in the 1980s. In a small, but important way, we have the scientists of the Science Council and the Canadian state’s privileging of expertise to thank for the ubiquity of sustainable development today.

[1] Science Council of Canada, Report 19: Natural Resource Policy Issues in Canada (Ottawa: Information Canada, 1973), 39.

[2] Ursula Franklin’s five-part lecture series can be found at http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-1989-cbc-massey-lectures-the-real-world-of-technology-1.2946845. These lectures also formed the foundation of Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology (Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1990).

[3] Science Council of Canada, Report No. 27: Canada as a Conserver Society: Resource Uncertainties and the Need for New Technologies (Ottawa: Science Council 1977), 13.

[4] Lawrence Solomon, The Conserver Solution: A Project of the Pollution Probe Foundation (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1978).

[5] Timothey Pritchard, ‘‘Federal Plan to Encourage Use of Solar and Waste Energy,’’ Globe and Mail, 5 July 1978.

[6] Renewable Energy Speech, 4 July 1978, vol. 311, file Renewable Energy Resources, 1977–8, A. Gillespie Fonds, LAC.

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Henry Trim

Hank Trim is an economist with the Circular Bioeconomy and Supply Chain Economics team in the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada. He welcomes questions from readers at henry.trim@canada.ca.

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