Fifty years ago, when Alternatives launched, computers were the size of buildings and exclusively used by organizations like Departments of Defense and large banks. The cars of the day were also outsized and most cities were cloaked in smog. Few people knew what ecology was or why it was important. Nonetheless, the environmental movement burst on the scene.
The years from 1968 to 1971 saw the creation of environmental organizations and institutions including Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto, the York University Faculty of Environmental Studies (the first interdisciplinary environmental degree in North America), and both the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada. Also in 1971, a faculty and student group began Alternatives: Perspectives on Society and Environment at Trent University.
Alternatives was intentionally created to be as much magazine as an academic journal. We wanted to reach a wide audience rather than any specific academic discipline or specialization. As useful as academic publications written mostly for academics are we believed that solving environmental problems required greater society-wide understanding, concern, and action. And, we believed environmental problems would be with us for a long time.
We got that right even though some early environmental problems did get fixed, at least in part. Many other problems have emerged since and have proven to be more intractable. We should not, however, overlook the improvements that the environmental movement has spurred over these five decades. Humans can fix the problems we create.
The early issues of Alternatives addressed waste and recycling well before blue boxes were an everyday thing. We also questioned the second Toronto airport which, it was claimed at the time, was urgently needed. Fifty years later there still is no second airport. Water quality is also still concerning, but at least rivers flowing into the Great Lakes do not catch on fire. And, one can buy organic food just about anywhere whereas in 1971 store workers were apologetic (or confused) if one asked for organic produce.
It takes looking back on that long-ago time to realize that environmental concern has led to some significant improvements. Habitat loss has, however, continued and profound challenges like climate change have arisen.
Reading our very first issue repeatedly, I was also struck that we got some other things right enough to contribute in a small way to changing how universities approach environmental problems. In that first issue, we chose authors from diverse disciplines (including anthropology, political science, economics, biology, and history) and called for an interdisciplinary approach to environmental problems (see both the editorial in that issue 1 and the excellent article by Peter Victor). Environmental problems themselves have driven the creation of university-based interdisciplinary efforts. Most universities now offer many interdisciplinary degree options — many more than there were in the 1970s.
Alternatives first issue made several other points worth noting in a 50-year retrospect. Joel Edelstein documented the horrors of Los Angeles smog where school children, including his young son, could not play outdoors many days of the year. Henry Steck noted the extent to which technological choices contributed to environmental problems. We know now that urban air quality has since improved considerably because catalytic converters are required in all gas-powered cars and coal-fired electricity is now close to a thing of the past in North America. Technology choices may not solve every environmental problem, but they can make a huge difference.
We were also very clear from the outset that Canada’s environmental challenges could not be treated in isolation from those of other nations. Geoff Mains’s article in that first issue (titled Canada, the United States, and the Environment) makes this clear. A reader of this piece today would also see more easily the extent to which environmental problems are global. In 1971 few were thinking about ozone depletion, climate change, or global habitat loss.
Indeed, to get a better sense of how far we have come and how far we have to go take an afternoon to read the first year or two of A/J and other publications of the day while reflecting on what has changed and what has changed not.
A word from Alternatives Journal: This is our last piece on the AJ Pilot Issue Revisited series. Thank you for joining us in this period of reflection and happiness. Fifty years of publication, all of them devoted to you. We would not want anything less and dare not ask for anything more. Well, maybe to keep reading and dreaming with us. From our first issue all the way to the last.
Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.