Change and persistence, gains and losses since 1971.

WHEN THE FIRST ISSUE of Alternatives Journal rolled off the presses in 1971, the world was a very different place – politically and technologically. There was a self-conscious political left and the political right was far less ascendant. Computers filled whole rooms and munched on punch cards to obtain information. Most cars were large, leaded-gasoline guzzlers, and fuel was dirt cheap. Nuclear electricity was new, and discussion about pollution and ecology had just entered public discourse.

WHEN THE FIRST ISSUE of Alternatives Journal rolled off the presses in 1971, the world was a very different place – politically and technologically. There was a self-conscious political left and the political right was far less ascendant. Computers filled whole rooms and munched on punch cards to obtain information. Most cars were large, leaded-gasoline guzzlers, and fuel was dirt cheap. Nuclear electricity was new, and discussion about pollution and ecology had just entered public discourse.

Produced from offices on the campus of an adolescent Trent University, Alternatives emerged from IBM electric typewriters, scissors, Letraset (a decal) and lots of glue applied to stiff paper forms provided by our printer. Alternatives’ content was also very different in some interesting ways, one of which I will elaborate on here.

From Skeptic to Saviour

Early-1970s environmentalism was uneasy with the trajectory of industrial society. It was partly due to nascent sustainability, though that word was not yet in use. It was also a rejection of the priority assigned to economic growth. Environmentalism involved an ethical objection to the endless clutter of stuff that capitalist society disgorged and socialist societies, such as the Soviet Union, aspired to produce.

Alternatives expressed this anti-materialist perspective and our writers mostly doubted that producing goods was the highest purpose of society. There was a sense that the environment was in crisis and an assumption that the economy was healthy only because it was measured by conventional metrics, including growth, production and profits. I wrote, in florid prose, in the editorial in the first issue: “Consider … present rates of growth in resource use, in population, in electrical power generation, in urbanization, in the burning of fossil fuels, in the chemicalization of world agriculture and in the production of ‘durable’ consumer goods [and] it is clear that the future of present directions is an impossibility.”

Most of the authors in that inaugural issue spoke of an environmental crisis and about the need for fundamental change, especially in the relationship between humans and nature. Peter Victor wrote: “If, as a society, we wish to have a cleaner environment and are prepared to forgo material wealth to get it, we cannot express this choice via the market.” The tone was in keeping with the wider environmental literature of the time.

The Limits to Growth was a bestseller, and Paul Ehrlich, who predicted that human population would quickly outstrip its capacity to produce food, wrote The End of Affluence in 1974. Others spoke of “zero population growth” and “zero economic growth” and a “steady-state economy.” Barry Commoner, in contrast, saw the ecological crisis as rooted primarily in the poor technological choices of industrial decision makers – a view that has aged rather well. Critics of environmentalism saw environmental regulations as a leading enemy of job creation. They win the prize for being most off the mark.

Most of these perspectives have shifted dramatically over the past four decades. Environmentalist ideas that once expressed fundamental doubts about industrial society are now widely assumed to be, of all things, a leading means of creating jobs, restoring economic growth and restarting an economy in the doldrums. Governments around the world enacted green stimulus plans in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed. Nation after nation, from Korea to Germany to the United States, funded renewable-energy initiatives, public transit and smart power grids. Walmart’s pledge to green its supply chain has motivated thousands of product manufacturers to pull up their environmental socks or lose their spot on Walmart’s lucrative shelves. Green products are now widely touted by environmentalists, economists and even the President of the United States as a means to restart economic growth and to improve the overall economic future. It is difficult to imagine a more thorough transformation for any set of ideas.

The intriguing tale of how we arrived at today’s understanding of environmental ideas can be extracted from the pages of 40 years of Alternatives, from the wider environmental literature and from the economic transformations that have changed our world.

Getting Here From There

In 1971, North America was at the apex of industrial society. Europe was trying to keep up while the nations behind the iron curtain were full of envy regarding the West’s industrial output. Gaining ground in power dams and steel production, the Soviet Union lagged hopelessly in consumer goods, especially food. Most of the rest of the world, including China, India, Brazil and a majority of the global population, had not industrialized. Japan was exporting pottery and party favours. It was hard to imagine any “Third World” nation ever being anything other than poor.

Environmentalism’s distinction was that it questioned growth-as-the-central-objective-of-society that had become the mantra of all nations, rich and poor, capitalist and socialist. In the 1970s, both conservatives and the political left criticized environmentalism for being unconcerned with industrial workers, especially loggers and miners. Environmentalists were widely portrayed as elitists, which led to some self-reflection including a 1973 editorial in Alternatives (2:2). It recognized that “many poor and working people have been convinced that their only hope for increased prosperity is in further economic growth.…” In the years that followed, Alternatives sponsored and participated in labour-environmentalist conferences involving the Canadian Labour Congress and the Ontario Federation of Labour.

Another response from environmentalists to claims that it didn’t care about labour was a wealth of jobs and environment literature, including William Glenn’s article in 1987 (14:3/4). It showed that soft-energy paths, recycling, public transit and ecological agriculture actually created jobs. Ted Schrecker argued that there was a need to address both social equity and the environment in his article: “Economic Growth, Equity and the Conserver Society” (9:3, 1980).

Environmental views on the compatibility of environmental protection and urbanization evolved over time. Today’s environmentalism embraces cities as more energy- and materials-efficient than rural or suburban living. One of the earliest expressions of this more urban environmentalism within Alternatives came in 1976 when Ron Argue and Bruce McCallum made an environmental case for multiple-family housing in “Environmentally Appropriate Housing” (5:3/4). That same issue and the one that followed embraced ecological agriculture. Both of these themes began to detail the kinds of products and production that were environmentally appropriate. With articles on the terminator gene, seed saving and local agriculture, Alternatives’ 2006 issue on food (32:3) demonstrates how closely aligned environmentalism and today’s local food movement have become.

Green thinking, as it has come to be called, climbed inside the processes of industrial products and production techniques, from farms and forests to cities and factories. The change from seeking a redesign, rather than a rejection of production, entered popular consciousness with the publication of Canada as a Conserver Society in 1977. Published by the Science Council of Canada, a mildly politically provocative agency that was axed during the federal budget cuts of 1993, it embraced the idea of doing more with less, and of growing the economy while simultaneously sharply reducing the impacts of economic growth on the environment and resource use. Alternatives published the Science Council’s Conserver Society Notes in 1979 and 1980, and they eventually morphed into today’s notes section.

The same doing-it-better perspective was at the core of Amory Lovins’ work on soft-energy paths, which grew out of his seminal 1976 article published in Foreign Affairs. Soft-energy paths set out a long-term transition to greater energy efficiency and environmentally benign, renewable sources of energy supply. Lovins, in the pages of Alternatives, argued: “A soft path, if done right, can have a great political appeal.… It offers … jobs for the unemployed, capital for business people (otherwise their capital goes to energy and they never see it again), savings for consumers … better environmental protection for conservationists.…” And just about anything anyone could ask for. Overstated perhaps, but Lovins, as did the 1987 Brundtland Report, firmly and consistently argued that prosperity and a clean and sustainable environment are not diametrically opposed.

The 1980s saw the beginnings of the widespread adoption of the blue box, a possibility that 1970s decision makers viewed as radical daydreaming. Loblaws’ and other grocers’ first generation of “green products” hit shelves in the 1990s, furthering the environment-and-economy-can-be-compatible approach. Loblaws, of course, has since turned its line of green products into a major brand, moving these environmentally friendly consumer goods to front and centre of its advertising campaigns.

Some called this embrace of product innovation in the service of environmental protection co-optation. Some doubtless was. Toby Smith, for example, questioned green products in The Myth of Green Marketing. Promoters of some “green” products practise what has come to be called greenwashing. So abused has it become that the Ottawa-based firm TerraChoice has created the Seven Sins of Greenwashing, which Alternatives published in 2009. Despite unfounded promises, some of the changes in product design and production technologies have resulted in measurably less damage to the environment. Some have even had a net-positive effect. A dramatic example of success is how efficiency improvements are allowing wind and solar energy to create opportunities to close coal-fired power plants.

Rethinking the limits – again

Clearly something is off the mark when “greening the economy” is first and foremost a means of achieving economic growth that cannot otherwise be achieved. The first objective of a green economy should be less environmental damage and improved resource sustainability – economic growth is at best a bonus. The view that green is a means to growth seems to be politically saleable within nations that have exported many of the manufacturing jobs they once held, as evidenced by the best-seller status of Van Jones’ book The Green Collar Economy and the multination adoption of green-stimulus initiatives. That is arguably the case in today’s North America. Only the jobs that are immoveable, such as transport driving and police, have not migrated offshore. Almost everything that can be sold in Walmart is now made on the other side of the world.

North America is less successful than Europe at manufacturing high-value-added goods. We produce some airplanes and computer chips, and governments have bailed out a failing auto industry, but an increasing proportion of our economy involves construction, health care, education, agriculture and finance. Our continent’s leading products are financial products, which are not really products at all. Canada – luckily for our economy, unluckily for our environment – has the significant addition of rapidly expanding energy production and still significant food, forest and minerals production.

Only by recognizing the radical changes to North America’s economy, and the history outlined above, can we fully appreciate today’s transformation of environmental thinking, from doubts regarding economic growth to alleged saviour. American authors Van Jones, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, as well as Toronto’s Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery and the Green Party of Canada all assert that green jobs are crucial to restoring the economy and social fairness. There is now a broad-based desire in Canada and the US for preserving and creating jobs wherein people make things, and for opportunities to purchase local food and other products.

This contemporary longing supports the rising local-food movement – a trend recognized in Alternatives, which has published several recent issues that address the topic: Thought for Food (32:3, 2006), Saving the Land that Feeds Us (34:3, 2008) and Just Food (37:2, 2011). Making handmade crafts, buying vintage goods (or even watching people doing so on television) and the DIY (Do it Yourself) movement are other embodiments of re-use á la the conserver society. These activities are in part a result of the decades-long separation between manufacturing and consumers that we call the global economy. Today’s most crucial environmental challenge, climate change, seems almost ready-made to bring jobs home.

Despite today’s fix-the-economy environmentalism, perhaps in a future issue, Alternatives should harken back to 1971 and once again ask if we really need all of the things we consume – especially now that they travel halfway around the world, overloading our environmental debt in the global marketplace.

For those interested in the “green collar economy,” ECO Canada is a resource for employers, job seekers, professionals, educators and students. Check out their services at

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.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy’s Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).