Rethinking the State through the Environmental Politics of the 1970s

Three of the 20 wind turbines at the Magrath Wind Power Project in southern Alberta. Source Wikipedia.

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Lovins - Energy Futures in Canada - Henry Tim Otter Post
Canada caught between the Conserver Society and the Consumer Society. A. Lovins, Conserver Society Notes 1, 4 (May/June 1976)

In the spare moments I steal from the seemingly endlessness of dissertation writing, I have been reading Theda Skocpol’s analysis of the recent collapse of cap and trade legislation in the United States. For those unfamiliar with American political history, Skocpol is one of the preeminent scholars of state power. Her analysis focused on how environmentalists manoeuvred within the structures of the American political system. Environmentalists’ failure to manipulate the political system effectively, her view, lost them an opportunity to pass cap and trade legislation. Denialism and the Koch brothers’ resources, which many environmentalists often focus on, was less of a problem than environmental groups’ misunderstanding of the political system.[1]

This got me thinking, perhaps environmental historians, particularly those of us studying environmentalism and committed to its success, have misunderstood the agency of science and undervalued the state’s influence on environmental politics. At first, this seems preposterous. Environmental historians have produced excellent analysis of how state ideologies – high modernism – have motivated specific approaches to human and non-human nature. Others have shown modern environmentalism to be a reaction by former war protestors and members of the Counterculture to technocratic approaches environmental management. Still others have focused squarely on scientists, such as Barry Commoner, and the lobbying of professional environmentalists. In short, the state and science seem to be everywhere even if there is disagreement over their exact roles.[2]

Environmental historians, however, have often approached the state and expert knowledge a specific way, a way that Theda Skocpol would describe as society-centered. This approach sees society and social movements as the primary historical actors. Put very simply, in this view, a social movement, such as environmentalism, emerges in response to some problem, gathers support and then uses its support, through either protest or lobbying, to force the sate to address the issue with legislation or some form of policy. In response, economic interests or oppositional social movements often attempt to block change or propose alternatives. Experts also take part in this struggle, providing facts that rival social groups use to strengthen their demands for action. The state in this analysis is largely passive as social groups fight over what direction to take.

High modernism is similarly ineffective at analyzing the nuances of state power as it approaches the state as a monolithic entity uninterested and unresponsive to the concerns of its subjects. Similarly, experts in this understanding of the state speak in chorus as they justify the states actions and enhance its abilities. In short, it is an excellent critique of an extreme modernist idealization of the state and the horrible consequences of this ideology when authoritarian political systems allow it to exist, but it is not particularly useful for analyzing how democratic states, such as Canada or the United States, interact with rights bearing citizens or broad social movements.[3]

In contrast, Skocpol’s work highlights state autonomy and argues that it exerts its influence both directly, by acting upon its interests, and indirectly, by setting the boundaries of political discourse. Theodore Porter, a leading historian of quantification, offers a different, but no less important insight. His work demonstrates the instability of expert authority. According to Porter, regimes of quantification are the tools of the weak not the powerful, since it is only the politically weak who need to support their position through appeals to objectivity. Just as importantly, appeals to instrumental reason open the state to criticism from the expert community upon which the accuracy of instrumental reason rests. Therefore, as Porter points out, expert knowledge is nearly always a zone of conflict as differing interpretations are contested. As a result, it is only one of many tools used to fight the state’s internal or public struggles over policy. Further, its influence rests heavily on both the support of the state and that of the expert community, making it a less than effective means of causing change.[4]

Using this interpretation of the state, as an autonomous actor directly and indirectly influencing the polity, but torn by internal conflicts as it either privileges or contests expert’s authority, I will analyze one of earliest attempts made in Canada to outline a program of sustainable development. This initiative, named the Conserver Society and carried out by the elite Science Council of Canada in the 1970s, briefly became quite influential as environmental groups such as Pollution Probe adopted it and used its principles to pressure the Trudeau government. The Conserver Society also had a small, but significant influence on Canadian energy policy as provincial and federal governments used it to frame their support for renewable energy in the late 1970s. Since then it has been largely forgotten as it failed to transform Canada and was superseded by the Brundtland Commission’s international push for in sustainable development in the 1980s. Nonetheless, the Conserver Society offers an excellent means of analyzing the relationship between environmentalism and the state, particularly the state’s indirect influence and ability to mediate the authority of expertise.

The Conserver Society first appeared in the Science Council of Canada’s 1973 report on natural resources published just months before the Yom Kippur war and OPEC embargo set off the energy crisis. In their report the Science Council informed Canadians that “[they] 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.”[5] A relatively minor element of a broader report championing cautious resource use and employment of input-output analysis and simulation modeling as policy tools, the Conserver Society caught both media and government attention. The Science Council, sensing an opportunity, developed its early ruminations into a coherent approach to development.

The foundations of the Conserver Society’s approach prefigured today’s sustainable development programs. Its guiding principles, “Concern for the future”, “Economy of Design”, “Diversity, Flexibility, and Responsibility”, “Recognition of Total Costs” and “Respect for the Regenerative Capacity of the Biosphere” all remain central to any definition of sustainability today.[6] What intrigues me about the Conserver Society is not that it represents an early formulation of sustainable development, although that is important. Rather I am interested in who constructed this vision of national development, why they did so and what it may mean to environmental historians.

Lester B. Pearson founded the Science Council of Canada in 1966 to provide the federal government with expert advice on science policy, specifically how to better use science and technology as an engine of economic growth. Its first chairman, Omond Solandt, had a distinguished career in Canadian science, serving on the defense research board during the Second World War. His area of expertise was mathematical modeling. Before heading the Science Council, he had helped found the Canadian Operational Research Society in 1958 to develop Canadian expertise in mathematical modeling and to enhance their ability to study and organize Canadian industry and society. In the early years of the Trudeau government, the Science Council became a well-financed crown corporation with a mandate to offer scientific advice on all policy matters. In short, it was an elite body of technocrats tasked with analyzing Canada’s present and future and developing a science based responses to looming problems.[7]

The influence of the Science Council rested in turn upon the Trudeau government and its approach to policymaking. Although Pierre Trudeau is often remembered romantically as a playboy, his government took a highly rationalistic, almost mechanistic approach to policymaking. In Trudeau’s view and that of his cabinet, science based policy would make the government more accountable, minimize bureaucratic influence, and depoliticize policymaking, important considerations for a government contending with Québécois patriotism and the strained politics of the Cold War.

The Trudeau government’s attempts to implement a science-based policy were particularly influential in heavily technical fields, such as energy policy. In that field, experts and their forecasts, including the Science Council, largely defined the federal approach to energy development. As Porter’s analysis would suggest this science-based approach neither removed bureaucratic influence nor depoliticized policymaking. Rather employing scientific facts and constructing elaborate forecasts of potential policy outcomes simply became a new means of contesting policy and exerting departmental power. What the Trudeau government’s scientism did was frame government discourse, setting certain expectations for discussion of policy and privileging groups that could fulfil them. This privileging of some groups over others, according to Skocpol, is the foundation of the state’s indirect influence. Among the groups benefited from this indirect influence was the Science Council.

Adopting government discourse, the Council built its appeal for sustainability around its expertise in modeling and presented environmental problems as failure of management amenable to improved administration. However, the Council did not simply parrot government priorities. It used the authority the Trudeau government’s emphasis on science gave it to launch a critique of the government’s damaging resource policies, its reliance on unsustainably growth, and the social dislocations caused by industrial technology. The solution, which the Council used 1970s forecasts of resource scarcity to present as inevitable, was to rapidly develop sources of renewable energy and eventually export Canadian renewable energy technology to the world. This vision of renewables used repeatedly by bureaucrats to argue for investment in renewables and by 1979 helped generate hundreds of millions in federal funding for solar and wood ethanol projects.

The Science Council’s ability to manipulate government discourse did not go unnoticed. The provincial government of PEI in particular employed a very similar technocratic approach to plan local development and used it to convince the Trudeau government to fund the Institute of Man and Resources and its experiments with solar energy and conservation.[8] Premier Alexander Campbell, being an astute politician, also worked hard to associate his proposals with the popular Conserver Society. Environmental groups also copied the Science Council. The Pollution Probe Foundation, for instance, carefully constructed a detailed argument for the Conserver Society in the group’s book The Conserver Solution. To argue for the substantial changes in Canadian society that “conserver principles” required, Pollution Probe adopted the technocratic rhetoric of the Science Council. Seeing the Conserver Society as the best method of reconciling Canada’s environmental and economic needs Pollution Probe introduced the concept to its readers by stating:

“[The Conserver Society] is the only basis for sustained economic growth. Without assured supplies of energy (which we no longer have) and assured supplies of mineral resources (which we no longer have) economic growth cannot be assured. Our progress is illusory – woefully short-term and won as the expense of some other part of our system. Conserver principles only reconcile our environment with our economy; our ends with our means. Having a base from which we can progress without later being pulled back can let us systematically solve our present economic problems – unemployment, inflation, and our foreign debt – while assuring a sound future economy.”[9]

Progress, in short, relied on rational action and long-term planning, which in the view of Pollution Probe, the state had a duty to provide.

The Science Council constructed the Conserver Society within a specific political and intellectual context, a context defined primarily by the Canadian state. Similarly, it had influence and was copied or adopted by environmental groups and the government of PEI because of its ability to successfully employ the technocratic discourse of the state for its own ends. One could say the actions of the state shaped the messages it received from the environmental movement as well as its environmentally concerned advisors. Perhaps, more importantly, the example of the Conserver Society suggests that scientists’ authority relied heavily on structure of the state. In the 1970s, as the Trudeau government sought to use science to improve policymaking, groups who could employ science effectively benefited. Even then, their ability to change policy was by no mean assured, since the state could ignore their advice or act on the recommendations of others.

This brings us back to Theda Skocpol’s analysis of cap and trade. The ability to manipulate state structures and discourses played an important role in the failure of cap and trade in America, just as they played an important role in the successes, albeit limited, of Conserver Society in the 1970s. The ability of state discourse to frame issues makes it a fundamental actor in the history of environmentalism. It also shapes the political authority of science. This is particularly true in Canada where legislation is not subject to congressional oversight and more directly the product of cabinet, ministers, and ministries and their approach to policy. In sum, as efforts to address global warming fall off government agendas or go down in defeat perhaps it is time to take the state and the nuances of its influence more seriously and spend less time discussing the truth of climate science and more examining its politics and authority within the state.

Henry Trim is a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia.

[1] Theda Skocpol, “Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming,” prepared for The Politics of America’s Fight Against Global Warming, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 14, 2013.

[2] James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improves the Human Conditions have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Frank Zelko, Make it a Green Peace: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Michael Egan, Barry Commoner and Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

[3] I am not first to notice these shortcomings in analysis of the state or critique High Modernism. See Brian Balogh, “Scientific Forestry and the Roots of the Modern American State,” Environmental History 7, 2 (April 2002): 198-225; Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Tina Loo and Meg Stanley, “An Environmental History of Progress: Damming the Peace and Columbia Rivers,” The Canadian Historical Review 92, 3 (September 2011): 399-427; Jess Gilbert, “Low Modernism and the Agrarian New Deal: A Different Kind of State,” in Fighting for the Farm: Rural America Trasformed, ed. Jane Adams (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

[4] Theda Skocpel, “Brining the State Back in: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research,” in Bringing the State Back In, eds., Peter Evens, Dietrich Rueschemyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

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

[6] Science Council of Canada, Canada as a Conserver Society: Resource Uncertainties and the Need for New Technologies,Report 27 (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1973), 24-36.

[7] G. Brent Clowater, “Canadian Science Policy and the Retreat for Transformative Politics: The Final Years of the Science Council of Canada, 1985-1992,” Scientia Canadensis 35, 1-2 (2012): 107-134.

[8] Alan MacEachern, The Institute of Man and Resources: An Environmental Fable, Charlottetown: Island Studies Press, 2003.

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

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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

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