Montreal Gazette

Environmen­tal pioneer de Laet


After a lifelong quest to meld science and conscience, environmen­tal pioneer and grassroots activist Christian de Laet died Thursday at the age of 81.

Born in Belgium 12 years before the Second World War broke out, de Laet made Montreal his home in 1949, where the young mathematic­ian first landed a job with Alcan.

But he spent the better part of his life travelling across the country and around the world, from the Canadian prairies to Papua New Guinea, trying to understand the global environmen­t and humans’ place within it.

At a time when few thought of natural resources as anything but commoditie­s ready to be exploited, de Laet was already talking about the “sustainabi­lity of civilizati­on” to anyone who would listen. Many of them did. “It’s a great loss – he was a very dear person to so many people,” said Sylvie Van Brabant, a filmmaker currently working on a documentar­y about de Laet and other environmen­tal pioneers around the world.

“He had great wit and a sense of humour. He was a genius who worked in so many places and with so many people across the globe.”

After a decade in the private sector, de Laet’s public career took off in 1964, when he was elected the first secretary-general of the Canadian Council of Resources and Environmen­t Ministers.

He spent nine years crisscross­ing the country trying to forge a consensus on resource management and raising Canadian awareness of environmen­tal concerns along the way.

As early as 1966, he was able to put a figure on how much Canadians were losing to water, air and soil pollution every year – $494 each.

“He really pioneered the environmen­tal movement in Canada by getting all the provincial and federal ministers to work together,” said Wayne Kines, cofounder of the World Media Institute in Ottawa, who has worked with de Laet on and off for 30 years.

It was with the CCREM that de Laet attended the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environmen­t in Stockholm – considered a turning point in the developmen­t of environmen­tal politics – making his mark on a global scale.

Over the next decade, he would be at the forefront of the new science of sustainabl­e developmen­t, attending conference­s and fulfilling assignment­s for a wide range of public and private agencies, from Argentina to Zaire.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, he was asked to prepare the environmen­tal sector for coming independen­ce from Australia in 1975.

In 1977, de Laet was invited by Commonweal­th Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal to become his science adviser.

Ramphal said of de Laet’s work at the time that it was always characteri­zed by “originalit­y, wit and creativity.”

Perhaps de Laet’s most lasting legacy will be the creation of Developmen­t Alternativ­es, a nongovernm­ental organizati­on he co-founded in India in 1983.

Having started with one employee on a project to find a way to build bricks that wouldn’t involve cutting down trees for fuel to bake them with, the agency now employs hundreds around the world and is considered a model of grassroots developmen­t.

De Laet remained active in many endeavours until he was hospitaliz­ed with pneumonia about a month ago, including on the film shoot for Van Brabant’s documentar­y called La dernière planète.

A date has not yet been set for a public celebratio­n of de Laet’s life, his widow, Susan, said.

 ??  ?? Christian de Laet: a melding of science and conscience.
Christian de Laet: a melding of science and conscience.

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