Environmental Aspirations in an Unsettled Time: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Club of Rome, and Canadian Environmental Politics in the 1970s

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This post is based on the author’s recently published article: Christopher Orr, “Environmental Aspirations in an Unsettled Time: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Club of Rome, and Canadian Environmental Politics in the 1970s,” Canadian Journal of History, 57, 2 (August 2022): 246-279.

Plagued by economic, energy, and national unity troubles, the 1970s were a tumultuous time in Canadian federal politics. At the centre of Canadian politics was the energizing figure of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Trudeau’s ideas were complex and often did not fit standard labels such as liberal, progressive, or nationalist. Much attention has been paid to Trudeau’s positions on national unity, the economy, and energy, while others have focused on his approach to foreign policy, his political appeal, or repatriation of the constitution. In contrast, much less is known about Trudeau’s environmental views, their extent, and how they fit into his thinking. Was Trudeau not only an avid paddler, but also an early environmentalist? And, if so, why did the decade not produce a more environmental result?

My recent article in the Canadian Journal of History documents this early chapter in Canadian environmental governance and shows how Trudeau’s environmental aspirations in the 1970s were much more ambitious, integrative, and far-reaching than previously thought.

These ideas emerged in parallel with ongoing interactions between the Trudeau government and the Club of Rome. The Club of Rome, which commissioned the 1972 publication The Limits to Growth, was founded by Aurelio Peccei and Alexander King. Peccei was an Italian Industrialist and King was Director-General for Scientific Affairs at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. They met in 1967 after King encountered Peccei’s idea that seemingly unrelated global problems were related. Quantitative growth had led to overpopulation, environmental destruction, urban pollution, social discontent, and other problems. They called this idea the Problématique. Although the idea of the Problématique was, perhaps, before its time, it parallels the recent framing of global environmental problems in terms of the Anthropocene.

Donella H. Meadows, et al. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972.

Recognizing the political nature of the Problématique, Peccei and King reached out to Trudeau and the Canadian government. On June 15, 1969, Peccei and King first met with senior members of the Canadian government, and the group had dinner with P.E. Trudeau at 24 Sussex Drive the following evening. They requested Canadian support to study the Problématique and asked Canada to take a leadership role to bring other countries on board.

Meetings continued between the Club of Rome and the Canadian government and included notable figures such as Trudeau, Governor General Roy Michener, Jean Chretien, Marc Lalonde, J.M. Davey, Michael Pitfield, and Senator Maurice Lamontagne, among others. In 1971, Canada would sponsor the Club of Rome’s second full meeting at the Seigniory Club at the Chateau Montebello, where MIT researchers presented early ideas for The Limits to Growth.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau in front of the Chateau Montebello in 1981. Photo courtesy of Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello.

These early exchanges between the Club of Rome and the Trudeau government were mirrored in Canadian environmental thinking and policy. Examples include creating institutions such as the Department of the Environment, passing a system of environmental laws, and creating a group in Statistics Canada to resolve tensions between environmental and economic indicators (Roberts 1990; Wood et al. 2010; McDowall 2008). For his part, Trudeau persistently voiced, and initially supported, a transformative environmental agenda that included a systems approach, rejection of economic growth in favour of an alternative view of prosperity, and a shift in societal values from consumerism and greed toward sufficiency and well-being. Together, these ideas and actions reflect a transformative vision of environmental governance.

The onslaught of economic, energy, and national unity problems of the mid-1970s was a significant turning point in Canadian environmental politics. Although Trudeau did not discard his holistic environmental vision, his government’s environmental policies and actions did not match its rhetoric. The 1970s were fraught with persistent problems. Following Trudeau’s near electoral loss in 1972, he changed his staff and strategy, purging his inner circle of systems thinkers. Interdepartmental tensions underlain by ideological differences, the structure of Canada’s federal system, and the long-term nature of environmental problems all contributed to Trudeau’s inability to move from rhetoric to action on his transformative environmental vision. 

The 1970s were a missed opportunity. Trudeau’s environmental rhetoric was ambitious but its realization in policy and practice was lacking. At the same time, Trudeau’s calls for a new ethic and ecological consciousness may have fallen on deaf ears. Were Canadians overwhelmed by persistent problems and not yet ready for the changes proposed by the Trudeau government? Trudeau ultimately failed to help Canada renegotiate the relationship between society and nature. In the face of compounding pressures and overwhelming crises, the search for an ecologically benign economy-environment relationship was a casualty. 

Canada continues to struggle with many of the challenges he faced at the birth of Canadian environmental governance. One challenge is the scope and long time horizon of environmental problems in the face of short-term crises and election pressures. For instance, renewable energy programs developed in the 1970s had the potential to improve energy security and supply in the long run. However, these programs were discarded because energy conservation and fossil fuel production were favoured in the short term. Challenges related to Canada’s federal system also contributed to the failure to realize Trudeau’s environmental vision throughout the decade. Departmental infighting and resistance to integration was an important reason why the initial integrative vision for the Department of the Environment was never realized.

These political frustrations were echoed by Peccei himself just before he died on March 14, 1984. From 1968 until 1984, the Club of Rome had encountered governance issues as a critical barrier, and before his death Peccei had been preparing a document entitled Governability and the Capacity to Govern. This document identified the main governance problems that the Club of Rome had encountered: the limits of sovereignty in the face of global problems; the inability of siloed institutions and structures of government to address interconnected problems; and the short-term focus of electoral cycles in the face of long-term problems (Peccei 1984).

Much has changed in the intervening years to make the transformative environmental vision of Pierre Elliott Trudeau more feasible. The false promise that economic growth will deliver societal wellbeing and protect ecological integrity has been laid bare. Free markets, globalization and technological innovation have proven insufficient to address environmental problems. The science on climate change is clear and we understand the long-term implications of inaction. Environmental education and public support have increased. Still, at its core, the global Problématique remains a political predicament of collective values, leadership and action.


McDowall, Douglas. The Sum of the Satisfactions: Canada in the Age of National Accounting (Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2008), 167.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, Limits to Growth: A Report to the Club of Rome (Washington, DC: Potomac, 1972).

Peccei, Aurelio. (1984). Governability and the capacity to govern. Library and Archives Canada: R13167-76-0-E, Box5. File 3-20. Correspondence – Club of Rome. [1970-1979].

Roberts, John. “The Environment” in Towards a Just Society: The Trudeau Years, ed. Thomas Axworthy and Pierre Elliott Trudeau (Markham, ON: Viking, 1990), 148–76.

Wood, Stepan, Georgia Tanner, and Benjamin J. Richardson, “Whatever Happened to Canadian Environmental Law?,” Ecology Law Quarterly 37.4 (2010): 996.

Feature image: Photo by the author.
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Dr. Christopher J. Orr is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo. His research on environmental history, governance, and sustainability transformations seeks to understand how societies can better govern complex environmental challenges in Canada and globally. He recently co-edited Liberty and the Ecological Crisis: Freedom on a Finite Planet (Routledge). He completed his PhD in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) project at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and is an Earth System Governance Research Fellow. His doctoral research focused on understanding deep transformations in society-nature relationships and explored their dynamics in the context of Canadian climate change politics. He holds a B.Sc. in Physics and Environmental Science from the University of Toronto and an M.S. from McGill University.

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