Sustainability in Historical Perspective: Canada's Conserver Society Studies Revisited

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In the late 1970s, an extraordinary research effort was undertaken to map out what a future "Conserver Society" might look like in Canada. Two organizations were instrumental in this effort: the Science Council of Canada and GAMMA, a joint McGill-University of Montreal futures study group. In many ways, this pioneering work preceded some of the current thinking in the area of sustainable development, especially as it applies to the business sector. To demonstrate both the value and current relevance of Conserver Society thinking, an attempt is made in the following pages to show that this literature (see Exhibit A) anticipated by some fifteen to twenty years much of the conceptual framework of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Report, "Sustainable Production and Consumption: A Business Perspective" (Falkman, 1995). To prove this is indeed the case, direct quotations, some from WBCSD sources and others from the Conserver Society literature, will be used to highlight important similarities.

The first comparison is between key aspects of a Canadian Conserver Society as spelled out in the two benchmark investigations of this topic--by the Science Council and GAMMA--and current WBCSD concepts of Sustainable Production and Eco-Efficiency. Similar but not quite as detailed comparisons will then be made in the areas of new market opportunities and appropriate marketing practice. Next considered will be the relative role of the market and the state in both a Conserver Society and in a WBCSD world committed to Sustainable Development. Finally, the painful possibility that a commitment to "doing more with less", a key concept underlying some Conserver Society and most WBCSD thinking, might not in itself be sufficient to resolve a global ecological challenge is briefly explored.

By conscious design there is very little that is new in this paper. Since the intended objective is to demonstrate a de facto intellectual recycling of ideas, there was very little that had to be new. However, this is not to suggest that only limited progress has been made in the last quarter century in operationalizing Conserver/Sustainability concepts. In other parts of that same WBCSD report so extensively quoted, the extent to which major corporations are currently adopting eco-efficient practices is discussed in considerable detail. The fact that enlightened managers are now both more willing and more proficient at employing ecologically sound technologies is a very positive recent development. However, the purpose of this paper is to show how much and how completely the current WBCSD position was anticipated in a body of Conserver Society literature that still deserves academic attention.

SIMILARITIES IN OVERALL DESIGN: SUSTAINABILITY AND THE CONSERVER SOCIETY

The following excerpts suggest, to this author at least, that the conceptual similarities between late 1970s Conserver Society publications and the WBCSD report on Sustainable Production and Consumption are quite pronounced. Both the Science Council material quoted and other Science Council publications anticipate the WBCSD report in terms of stressing the essentials of the WBCSD's eco-efficiency without, admittedly, using the term itself. Another important similarity, a similarity that is reinforced in subsequent sections, is between Gamma's C[S.sub.1] and the eco-efficient world that the WBCSD advocates. Gamma team members frequently referred to C[S.sub.1] as a Scotch Efficiency model that emphasized "doing more with less". Efficiency is also at the heart of the WBCSD initiative and a similar emphasis on "doing more with less" is found as well in Sustainable Production and Consumption: A Business Perspective".

1976: The Conserver Society: An operational definition

[Source: Science Council of Canada, Conserver Society Notes (May-June), p. …

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