How a small journal laid the foundation for today's renewable energy movement. Click here to see full version the timeline

The “age of ecology” dawned at the end of the 1960s. Cold-war fears of nuclear fallout, warnings of a pesticide-laden silent spring and rivers so polluted they caught fire drove new attention to the environment. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. The US created its Environmental Protection Agency that same year and next the predecessor of Environment Canada was formed. Eager to seize the moment, some activists took up staging media events to direct public attention to the issues. Others tried to imagine what the economy might look like if that attention created real change.

Alternatives Journal stood at the centre of the second effort. Its groundbreaking, ground-laying work with the era’s visionaries, industry and government created a practical foundation for economic development that didn’t ravage the environment. What happened next, however, is a story of a savage turn of market forces, dashed hopes and decades of eclipse followed more recently by a long-overdue renaissance.

The magazine was created at Ontario’s Trent University in the same year as Environment Canada. Its founding editor, Robert Paehlke – still a member of its editorial board and board of directors – had the new publication take a reasoned stance between academia and activism. Eschewing simplistic wilderness preservation, it sought to illuminate links between the environment and social and economic issues.

Paehlke connected with environmental groups like Toronto’s Pollution Probe, and followed international developments such as the first global conference on the environment in 1972 at Stockholm. Shrugging off accusations from some activists that it was “unduly philosophical,” and from some scientists that it was too “sensationalist,” Alternatives became a forum where strategies for implementing a more sustainable economy could be thrashed out.

Then, in October of 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. In retaliation for American support for that country, a group of mainly Arab oil-exporting countries embargoed shipments to the US and unilaterally slashed their petroleum output. The combined measures sent world oil prices rocketing upward – and shockwaves through the global and North American economies.

Alternatives was already well aware of the relevance of energy to the environment. It was critical of megaprojects like the James Bay hydro development and proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which promised energy at exorbitant environmental cost. In one article, economist Michael Goldberg chided government and industry for their “illusion of near Olympian knowledge,” and challenged them to provide credible evidence that such projects would not create “technological or environmental disaster.”

Its reporting resonated with others working at the time. Donella Meadows and co-authors had published The Limits to Growth in 1972. Based on modelling, the report projected overshoot in human demands on the planet followed by a collapse commencing in the early 21st century. The next year, E.F. Schumacher published a response to that warning. Small Is Beautiful catalyzed interest in renewable energy, appropriate technology and localized supply chains.

In Canada, these ideas were catching on with at least some leaders. Prince Edward Island’s then-premier Alexander Campbell took the 1973 oil crisis as an opportunity to build a pioneering provincial policy on decentralization, renewable energy and the idea of a “conserver society.” Campbell’s program helped attract to Canada a young American soon to become a leading visionary of a sustainable economy.

A physicist from Washington, DC, Amory Lovins had become disenchanted with both academia and nuclear energy while studying at Cambridge in the early 1970s. A stint helping the British group Friends of the Earth draft a submission to the UN’s Stockholm conference had exposed him to Meadows’ highly quantitative analysis. Lovins merged this approach with his own knowledge of thermodynamics to pioneer a new, high-resolution analysis of energy use and transport across the economy. His specialty was matching the form that energy takes to its most efficient use. He memorably characterized heating with electric radiators as “cutting butter with a chainsaw,” and argued instead for capturing waste heat from power plants through co-generation.

Lovins spent the winter and spring of 1975-1976 in Canada working with the Science Council of Canada. The advisory body had become interested in the environment, efficient resource use and the conserver society. In early 1976, Lovins supported premier Campbell’s launch of his new policy by explaining how greater efficiency and local renewables fit PEI’s need for a low-cost response to the energy crisis

Through the Science Council, Lovins also met Canadian economist and energy analyst David Brooks – and through him, Alternatives Journal. Earlier in the decade, Brooks had led the Energy Conservation Branch at the federal Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, making it his mission to convince the Trudeau government that the Canadian economy could prosper using less energy and fewer resources. Writing for Alternatives in 1974, Brooks had presented economic arguments that a “human alternative” to megaprojects was not only feasible, but could also create jobs and reduce social inequality more efficiently.

By the mid-1970s, Brooks had left the government to join Energy Probe and lead Friends of the Earth Canada in Ottawa. He was also working closely with Alternatives to popularize a less-destructive course toward economic growth.

Now working together, Lovins, Brooks and Alternatives set about convincing Canadian environmentalists, public resource administrators and political leaders that the country didn’t have to remain over the oil barrel that the embargo had placed it on. The centrepiece of this effort would be a three-day workshop at Trent in October 1978. Its goal was to help environmentalists develop evidence and arguments for a “soft path” economy that would give policy makers a persuasive case for action.

The event attracted 20 leading energy activists, researchers and industry insiders from groups like the Maritime Energy Coalition, Toronto’s Energy Probe and Petro Canada. Led by Brooks and Lovins, attendees learned how to create rigorous plans for more sustainable energy and resource use. Their approach began by considering how consumers actually use energy in their daily lives – for heating, transportation, cooking or entertainment. Then it worked backwards from that need – and forward from a detailed technical knowledge of energy production – to determine the energy mix with the lowest “whole-system” costs.

The emphasis on gathering extensive data, careful calculation, and accurate and accessible conclusions had a political purpose as well as a practical one. Lovins, Brooks and their collaborators believed that their criticism of the inefficiencies of conventional energy flows would only be credible if they could give accurate examples, such as how much excess heat was produced in generating nuclear power, or all the energy needed to refine and transport its fuel. They hoped the ability to reveal such hidden costs, and more importantly to suggest ways to turn them to advantage such as by local co-generation, would catch the attention of policy makers. They persuasively demonstrated that “official forecasts of GNP are readily attainable by soft energy paths,” and drew pointed comparisons among the socio-political impacts of different energy scenarios.

Taking such calculations as a tool of environmental action, Alternatives sought to raise awareness of this promising path among Canadians. Again, it wasn’t the only voice pointing to different energy choices. The Canadian Renewable Energy News, appearing monthly, covered business, technical and political developments in the field.

As the end of the seventies neared, Alternatives had become the leading editorial voice articulating a coherent vision of energy and the environment. In 1979, it gave Chris Conway and Robert Crow space to argue that an aggressive program of investment and regulation could deliver nearly 70 percent of Ontario’s energy from renewables by 2025. The following year, William Ross urged Alberta to invest in efficient house construction and transportation, and to adopt biofuels. The combination, he asserted, would reduce Alberta’s reliance on fossil fuels, diversify its economy and buffer the bust cycles that typically follow resource booms.

With oil prices still stubbornly high, the message was beginning to resonate with politicians, analysts and more than a few businesses. In 1978, Energy Minister Alastair Gillespie announced that the federal government would invest more than $460-million (adjusted for inflation) over five years to create a market for solar energy in Canada. It was Canada’s largest-ever single commitment to non-hydro renewable energy, and remains impressive even today. Quoting advice from Brooks and others, Gillespie estimated that solar energy would create “15,000 [person-years] of employment” by 1990, on “$900-million in annual sales.”

The program briefly created a Canadian solar industry from scratch. It was almost instantly stillborn. Technical problems inherent to any new technology plagued the industry. In 1981, oil prices began to fall and kept falling for the next five years. Meanwhile, interest rates soared, crippling the nascent industry’s access to private capital. Government-wide spending cuts, instituted to rein in inflation, put the solar program under review and in early 1983, the government cancelled it.

That wasn’t quite the end of official interest in the soft path. Even as it cut funds for solar development, the federal government hired Brooks and Friends of the Earth to prepare a series of national and regional soft-path studies. These appeared in book form as Life After Oil – A Renewable Energy Policy for Canada.

But little made its way into policy. Oil was continuing its slide, and with it the apparent economic relevance of energy. The Canadian Renewable Energy News closed its doors. A new government elected in 1984 had its sights on free trade with the US, not soft energy.

For the better part of a decade and a half, the soft energy path went, if not underground, certainly to the margins of mainstream economic discussions. Alternatives persisted, keeping alive a network of citizens who saw the shortcomings of “cheap” fossil energy. Tinkerers and investors developed better solar panels, wind generators and low-energy building techniques. Lovins moved to Colorado and established both an institute and an ultra-low-footprint residence built on his soft energy path principles.

By the late 1990s, oil prices were creeping back up. In 1999, Lovins’ and co-author Paul Hawken’s global best-seller Natural Capitalism introduced the corporate world to the idea that its dependence on natural ecosystems and their services represented a type of capital. And as the century turned, a new breed of economist began to put hard numbers on this idea, finding that Toronto’s urban trees, for example, provide air-freshening and health-rejuvenating services worth $80-million a year to that city. The increasingly evident onset of climate change, meanwhile, put a new focus on both the untallied costs of fossil fuels and the economic impacts of ecosystem loss.

Municipal governments are on the front lines of many environmental impacts – from supplying clean water to garbage disposal. In Canada, many started to plan for a changing climate and mitigate their own contribution to it. Perhaps the most innovative was Vancouver.

The city took the first step as early as 1990, publishing a prescient report on climate change. Among the 35 recommendations in Clouds of Change, several drew deeply on soft path ideas. One was to tap methane from landfills to generate electricity and heat. Another was to pursue more energy-efficient land use, decentralizing industry and commercial development and encouraging more self-contained neighbourhoods. The ideas could have been lifted from Ross’ soft path vision for Alberta published in Alternatives 10 years before. Many of these ideas have since been implemented. Vancouver’s methane-burning power plant avoids greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 45,000 cars and saves money for greenhouse owners who receive its waste heat.

Another city on the soft path is Portland, Oregon. Like Vancouver, the city often called America’s greenest rejected expanded urban highways and in the 1990s launched development plans based around transit and increasing density. Portland’s famous local food and craft beer industries owe much to this decision, with nearby farmland protected by an urban growth boundary. 

Oil prices have slumped again from their latest peak. But this time, solar and wind development continues apace. Visionary businesses promote local renewable energy in developing markets to leap-frog expensive distribution from big fossil fuel plants. And just as a small journal and its visionary contributors foresaw in the 1970s, they’re doing it for a win-win situation of profit and a sustainable environment.


Photo courtesy of Robert Paelkhe

Photo by Alex McDonald

Photo by Alex McDonald

A\J Founder Robert Paehlke (top left circa mid-70s) envisioned a publication that takes a reasoned stance between academia and activism. He writes for A\J regularly and remains on the board of Alternatives Inc. in its newest iteration as Canada’s only national environmental media organization. Both Paehlke and David Brooks (middle circa 1993) are on A\J’s board of directors. Brooks filled his early A\J days with deep, innovative thinking about energy. He and Amory Lovins (bottom right circa 1990) lead a team of about 20 energy activists to create the Energy Soft Path – the first iteration of today’s renewable energy movement. Yes, that is the late NDP leader Jack Layton beside Lovins.

See our full A\J history at ajmag.ca/history and catch up on our most recent renewable energy coverage at ajmag.ca/renewables.

Henry Trim is an historian of science and the environment in 20th century North America. He is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

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