Biographical testimony for Christian de Laet

by Arjun Khosla

Professor Christian de Laet one of the founding fathers and life long friend of Development Alternatives and a world renowned scientist and environmentalists passed away in Montreal on Friday November 14 due to complications from pneumonia. His wife Susan survives him.

Born on July 4 1927, in Belgium he spent the war years in Belgium, studying mathematics at the University of Louvain and Engineering at the University of Brussels. In 1949 he moved to Montréal in 1949, which became his home base for the rest of his life.

Christian earned his global citizenship the hard way by spending the next 60 years of his life, living and traveling to every corner of the globe . He knew Papua New Guinea, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Argentina, Laos, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, the Sudan, Sweden, Brazil, Thailand Tunisia and Zaire intimately, working to improve the environment, the lives of the underprivileged and gain a true understanding about the role that individuals and communities play in our world in general, but more specifically in the context of the local culture.

He was a pioneer in contextualizing environmental concerns within the cultural and historical framework of communities and individuals. His time in India with DA gave him the opportunity to understand how so many local environmental challenges could be resolved through reinterpretation and re-deployment of traditional knowledge systems and folk cultures.

Professor De Laet’s philosophy was that true change could only come about through a global movement, perhaps catalyzed by a few remarkable individuals such as himself, but only successful through the participation of every citizen. As he said in an address to the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome in an April 2000 "We must all be ready to attempt the bridge between science and personal responsibility,” He went on to say "Prospects for survival which now confront all humanity as we emerge into a single community ultimately depend upon each individual's conduct. That requires a common will of care and concern for each other and for the environment that sustains us." These concepts guided him and his work throughout his life, and were a guiding principal in his work with Development Alternatives.

In his nominating speech for the World Bank’s Global Environment Achievement Award, Wayne Kines of the World Media Institute described Professor De Laet as a “man for all seasons.” Starting his career as an executive trainee with ALCAN, he also continued with his studies, a pattern he followed for the rest of his life. De Laet was the first secretary-general of CCREM (Canadian Council of Resources and Environment Ministers), advised a multitude of UN organizations, assisted private and government intuitions across the world, and even taught at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.

In 1977 Commonwealth Secretary General Ramphal appointed Christian to be his science advisor and secretary of the Commonwealth Science Council, head of the Commonwealth Science Division of the Secretariat, and adviser to the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation as well as represent the Commonwealth with other IGO’s including ACCT. It was during this period that he had Ashok Khosla began their dialogue on the future. The issues they confronted were not WHAT had to be done but HOW. They gradually brought into the dialogue others who had spent a lifetime of searching for answers. Out of these discussions the heart and soul of DA emerged.

While there are a number of founding fathers, Christian’s role in the foundation of DA remains unique. Christian was different. He was both a thinker and a doer. He was that rare human being who was, in Plato’s words, a Philosopher King. After he left the Commonwealth Secretariat he decided to volunteer his time to DA. In 1983, Christian and Ashok working together out of Ashok’s garage began to lay the foundations and groundwork of Development Alternatives. Starting with a very simple idea - finding an environmentally friendly method of baking bricks that didn’t involve cutting and burning trees, Development Alternatives has since flourished into a world-renowned institution affecting over 7.5 million people. From his experiences in India, Christian learned one of his most important life lessons, the “role of the individual self in a globalized world,” which he further describes in his book ‘Development Alternatives – A Personal Appreciation’.

For many years Christian, often accompanied by Susan spent a part of each year in Delhi and Jhansi. With his flowing what beard, and always a twinkle in his eye he was a familiar figure in the Garage and latter at Tara Crescent and Jhansi. To the many who welcomed his challenging questions on what they were doing and why, he always added value, a new insight and a different viewpoint. To the few who were intellectually lazy and were aimlessly experimenting in the dark he could be a terrifying presence with a singular impatience for humbug.