Maurice Strong, Conspiracy Theories, and the Pitfalls of Environmental Diplomacy

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This is the third post in a series based on papers presented at workshop held in Banff, Alberta by Petra Dolata and David Painter called “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Transformation of the Postwar World.”

When the Canadian and international diplomat, environmentalist, philanthropist, and oil baron Maurice Strong died in 2015, tributes poured in from intellectuals, activists, politicians, and world and Canadian leaders.1 Strong was one of Canada’s most visible postwar representatives on the world scene, especially during the 1970s. Although the event he is best remembered for – organizing the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm – took place before the 1973 energy crisis, the oil shock legitimated the emphasis on resource scarcity at the Stockholm meeting. For the rest of the decade, Strong promoted a “New International Economic Order” to help the Global North and South adjust – sustainably – to the collapse of Bretton Woods and the high price of oil. In Canada, meanwhile, Strong was perhaps more famous as the first chairman of Petro-Canada, the crown corporation founded in 1975 in response to the oil crisis.

Yet a cursory glance at Strong’s internet footprint turns up a different legacy – dozens of sites exposing his alleged role in various global conspiracies. There, and in books with titles like Cloak of Green, Green Tyranny, and Web of the Illuminati, Strong is portrayed as an evil mastermind of world government, a eugenicist seeking radical depopulation, a communist enemy of growth and (paradoxically) a corrupt capitalist greenwasher.2 While hard-core believers in these conspiracies are probably not numerous, the cloud of innuendo surrounding Strong and his allies has diffused widely and undermines the causes that Strong promoted: sustainable development, environmental governance, and action to address climate change. Strong’s case shows the need for insight into how environmental conspiracy theories originate, propagate, and convince. Yet Strong’s career also shows that conspiracy theories can’t entirely be avoided – that is, many effective techniques for building pluralist consensus for environmental action simultaneously offer skeptics grounds to impute ill intent. In this post I’ll show three ways in which Strong’s approach planted the seeds of conspiracy theorizing: he used private spaces to broker agreement among different parties, drawing accusations of behind-closed-doors collusion; he represented those parties’ collective position publicly, in tension with his individual actions (eliciting inferences that he was pursuing a hidden agenda); and he mixed business deals with his philanthropy and diplomacy, encouraging suspicions that his environmentalism was secretly to his own benefit.

A white man, named Maurice Strong, sitting on a table next to a globe of the Earth.
Maurice Strong. Source: Library and Archives Canada/Ted Grant fonds/e008300486. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada. Credit: Ted Grant.

The rather unlikely arc of Strong’s career raised eyebrows from early on. Born into fairly desperate Depression-era poverty in Manitoba, he found his way to Calgary and the mentorship of Dome Petroleum’s charismatic CEO, Jack Gallagher, in the late 1940s.3 Through both oil deals and visibility in various religious, political, and civil society organizations, Strong soon joined Calgary’s social elite – which he then traded for a foothold in the political and financial elite of Toronto and Montreal in the early 1960s. From there, with help from Minister of Foreign Affairs Paul Martin, Sr. (whose son – and future prime minister – Strong hired as his executive assistant), he began a second career as a diplomat, first as founding director of the Canadian International Development Agency and later with the United Nations.

From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, Strong’s commercial and diplomatic lives ran in parallel. He served as, among other things: secretary general of both the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit; first director of the UN Environment Programme; chair or president of various companies including Power Corporation, Canada Development Investment Corporation, the International Energy Development Corporation, and American Water Development, Inc.; board member of dozens of companies, philanthropic foundations, NGOs, and academic institutions; and a leading voice on the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission, which enshrined “sustainable development” as a core principle of global governance). Not bad for someone so ordinary that one journalist remarked that “in a crowd of two you wouldn’t notice him.”4

Which, in a way, was the source of both Strong’s success and the rumors that trailed him. Strong excelled at convincing representatives of differing viewpoints – leaders from the Global North and South, industrialists and environmentalists, bankers and mystics – to sit at the same table and work toward a collective consensus that he personally could present to the world. His unassuming mien facilitated that approach. Despite inserting himself into world affairs, there was nothing grandiose about Strong. The same journalist (EJ Kahn of The New Yorker) called him an “unpompous millionaire” and “man of simple tastes” given to dining from hot dog stands. That style-of-no-style reassured both cynics and bigwigs that he was acting in their (and the world’s) interests rather than his own.

A white man and an Indian woman shaking hands surrounded by other white men in suits. The Indian woman is Indira Gandhi and the white man is Maurice Strong.
Strong greeting prime minister of India Indira Gandhi on her arrival at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (for which Strong served as secretary-general), June 5, 1972. UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata.

Strong was also aided by allies who were similarly committed to pluralist consensus-building, particularly the Aspen Institute5 and the Club of Rome.6 Especially in the run-up to the 1972 Stockholm meeting and through the rest of the 1970s, Strong regularly convened gatherings at sites controlled by those (and other) allies in the Rocky Mountains, Swiss Alps, Greek islands, a Rockefeller Foundation villa on Lake Como, etc. In those picturesque and rather luxe locales, Strong could put fractious parties at ease and mediate breakthrough agreements.

But Strong’s approach (and that of the Club of Rome and the Aspen Institute) could only succeed in intimate, comfortable, closed-door settings where each party’s representatives – i.e., a relatively small elite – could interact face-to-face. Much of his environmental diplomacy was necessarily non-transparent, since if those representatives had interacted in full public view they might have felt pressure to perform their opposition to each other for the benefit of their constituencies. Convening elites behind closed doors was Strong’s preferred method of achieving consensus; but doing so gave his opponents then, and conspiracy theorists ever since, the grounds for accusations that secret plans had been hatched out of public view.

Of course, Strong would say that privacy was only necessary in order to reach preliminary agreement: as Kahn put it, Strong had “this marvelous theory that to make an international conference successful you have to accomplish all the substantive work beforehand.” Yet here, too, Strong’s approach was tactically solid but also weakened his strategic defense against conspiracy theories. By brokering preliminary agreements within a diverse and ideologically heterogeneous network, Strong could claim to speak in public on behalf of that network. Yet the compromises necessary to reach consensus meant that the biography of almost any individual member of the network – and especially Strong’s biography – was at odds with the compromise position. It was entirely reasonable to ask whether there was some hidden agenda that would explain why Strong – or other oil barons in his network, such as (Aspen Institute chair) Robert O. Anderson or (Club of Rome member) George McGhee – would suddenly be so concerned for the environment and for the people of the Global South. That doesn’t mean it was justifiable to infer that Strong’s hidden agenda was to erect a totalitarian world government or depopulate developing countries; but his tactics made it difficult for him to show why such views were wrong.

A white man named Maurice Strong standing in front of a crowd of reporters and cameras on a stage. A bright light shines over his shoulder.
Strong addressing an unofficial anti-whaling delegation to the 1972 Stockholm meeting led by countercultural impresario Stewart Brand (left, in top hat), June 7, 1972. UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata.

Strong’s and his allies’ sharp business practices also fostered such accusations. He was a master of intricate business deals, and even in his Montreal days local money thought him “excessively freewheeling.”7 An illustration from later in Strong’s career helps show why suspicions trailed him. In 1977, Strong and business partners including Paul Nathanson (“Canada’s Howard Hughes” and a longtime ally of Paul Martin, Sr. and Jr.) bought Arizona Land and Cattle, which they renamed AZL Resources.8 Strong began moving AZL out of agribusiness and into oil, but he and his second wife, Hanne Marstrand, took a personal interest in a remote but picturesque AZL holding, the Baca Grande Development near Crestone, Colorado. For the next few years, AZL donated land around Baca to various religious, Indigenous, environmental, and New Age groups, while using those groups’ presence to sell lots to various high-flyers: Robert McNamara (president of the World Bank), Mary and Laurance Rockefeller, Najeeb Halaby (former Pan-Am CEO and the king of Jordan’s father-in-law), etc. Strong also arranged for the Aspen Institute to move some programs to Baca in the wake of a bruising multiyear zoning battle with the Aspen city council. In return, the Institute pressed both its seminar participants and corporate donors to purchase Baca real estate from AZL.9

In 1982, though, AZL was bought by TOSCO (The Oil Shale Company), which began liquidating its holdings in order to survive the oil shale bust. In 1985, under rather non-transparent circumstances, TOSCO sold the Baca development to an anonymous group that turned out to be Strong and some new partners, this time incorporated as American Water Development.10 By 1987 (but possibly earlier, based on Strong’s knowledge of geological surveys that AZL and TOSCO had access to) AWDI was planning to drain the San Luis Valley aquifer and pipe its water to Denver – while publicly claiming that AWDI was interested only in “ranch uses” and “agricultural projects” such as irrigating some barley fields to supply a brewery that they planned to build nearby.11 Local activists sued, tying AWDI up in court for years, with Strong extricating himself from the controversial project in the mid-1990s.

four white men stand behind a table. two in the middle are shaking hands. One of Prince Abdul Reza Pahlavi and the other is Maurice Strong.
Strong receiving the International Pahlavi Environment Prize from the government of Iran (represented by Prince Abdul Reza Pahlavi, shaking hands with Strong), June 4, 1976. Secretary general of the UN Kurt Waldheim is at right. UN Photo/Teddy Chen.

The Baca/Crestone story has nothing whatsoever to do with Strong’s supposed part in a conspiracy to achieve world domination. And yet, conspiracy theorists often reference it as evidence for that conspiracy. And not entirely without justification. Strong wasn’t above self-dealing, and his financial affairs were not very open; it’s a stretch to call his commercial arrangements “conspiracies,” but they do indicate his penchant for backroom deals – which his critics take as evidence of an unseen agenda lurking behind his diplomatic activities as well. The Crestone story also shows just how elite some members of Strong’s network were, and also how heterogeneous that network was more generally – it’s difficult not to be puzzled about how he kept such different people committed to a common agenda. And, finally, one way he did keep the members of his network on-side was to offer them access to private, restricted locations where – no doubt – they conducted business out of public view. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – indeed, for Strong it was the only way to achieve many good things in the arena of environmental governance. But it’s an approach that does come with certain pitfalls, not least the likelihood of attracting accusations of conspiracy.

Research for this post was funded primarily by Dutch Research Council (NWO) grant VI.C.191.067 “Managing Scarcity and Sustainability” and benefited from discussions with Odinn Melsted and Simone Schleper as well as with members of European Research Council Synergy project NanoBubbles (grant no. 951393).


1. Strong’s reputation is clear from this story about the global and Canadian dignitaries who attended his memorial service: “‘A Truly Great Citizen of Canada’: Maurice Strong Remembered in Ottawa,” CTV News (January 28, 2016):

2. Elaine Dewar, Cloak of Green: The Links between Key Environmental Groups, Government and Big Business (James Lorimer and Co., 1995); Rupert Darwall, Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex (Encounter Books, 2017); Kevin Tucker, Web of the Illuminati (, 2013). Some of the conspiracy theories about Strong, and his response to them, are contained in Leo Hickman, “Maurice Strong: Ignore Glenn Beck – I Don’t Want to Rule the World,” The Guardian (June 23, 2010).

3. Strong was not the most reliable narrator of his own life, but his memoirs are certainly worth reading: Maurice Strong, Where on Earth Are We Going? (Vintage Canada, 2000). Biographical details in this post are pulled from there and from various potted bios, e.g., the “Short Biography” at

4. This and other quotes that I attribute to Kahn are taken from his notes for what eventually became “Environmentalist,” The New Yorker (June 3, 1972): 45ff. The notes can be found in Box 92, Folder “Maurice Strong” (1 of 2), EJ Kahn Papers, MssCol 1611, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

5. The Aspen Institute (originally the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies) was founded in 1949 by Walter Paepcke as a place where business executives could spend a few days in the mountains discussing great works of philosophy and literature while debating the corporation’s role in contemporary society. After Paepcke died in 1960, Robert O. Anderson – founder and CEO of the Atlantic Richfield oil company – took over, first as president and then as chair. Around 1969, Anderson and the Institute’s new president, Joseph Slater, remade the Institute into a prominent site for policy analysis and debate; one of Slater’s first actions was to offer the Institute’s services to Strong in preparation for Stockholm 1972. For more, see Sidney Hyman, The Aspen Idea (University of Oklahoma Press, 1975).

6. The Club of Rome was a “non-organization” of influential industrialists, intellectuals, diplomats, activists, and scientists founded by Aurelio Peccei and Alexander King in 1968. It is best known for commissioning the 1972 Limits to Growth report, which Strong and his allies spotlighted on the global stage before and during the Stockholm meeting. Although Peccei and other Club members were ambivalent toward the dire predictions of resource scarcity contained in Limits, conspiracy theorists then and since used Limits to portray the Club as a cabal seeking to undermine economic growth and national sovereignty. The Club was particularly influential in Canada; see Christopher J. 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 (2022): 246-279.

7. Quote is from Kahn’s notes. Kahn also wrote that Strong “has his detractors in Canada esp. in the … finance establishment that has never accepted him because he has moved too meteorically, has stepped on too many toes.”

8. Nathanson’s moniker (and details on his ties to the Martins and to Strong) comes from Marci McDonald, “Blind Trust,” The Walrus (October 1, 2003):

9. William E. Schmidt, “Some Question Aspen Institute Tie to Resort Sales,” New York Times (December 13, 1981). On the link between the Aspen Institute’s move to Baca and its dispute with the Aspen city council, see “Institute Needs Aspen, Should Compromise,” The Aspen Times (September 6, 1979). A flavor of AZL’s countercultural and spiritual activities at Crestone can be found in Barbara Haddad Ryan, “Cultural Activity Headed for Tiny Crestone,” Rocky Mountain News (September 9, 1979).

10. Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, “Around Aspen,” The Aspen Times (October 17, 1985). For more on AZL, Baca, and AWDI see Rick Boychuk, “Money Comes Calling in a Remote Poor Valley,” High Country News (November 6, 1989).

11. The barley and brewery story was offered by Hanne Marstrand Strong; see Erin Smith, “Bace No Place to Make a Buck,” Pueblo Chieftain (August 12, 1995). A 1986 AWDI application contained the language about ranch uses and agricultural projects, according to Julia Rubin, “Residents Mistrustful of Canadian Developer,” Los Angeles Times (July 30, 1989).

Feature Image: Strong mapping out a plan of action 167 days before the start of the 1972 Stockholm conference. UN Photo.
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Cyrus Mody

Professor of the History of Science, Technology & Innovation at Maastricht University

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