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.