Environmental Pioneer Christian de Laet

Life and Legacy Celebrated in Canada

Adapted from MaximsNews Network, 29/11/2008. Reproduced below is a sketch of his engaging life journey, written by Wayne Kines from the World Media Institute.

UNITED NATIONS - / MaximsNews Network / 29 November 2008: Tomorrow in Montreal Canada, Dr. Christian de LaŰt's widow, Susan, and friends will gather to celebrate the life and times of this remarkable environmental pioneer. Dr. Christian de LaŰt passed away November 13th, at the age of 81.

"As far as half a century ago, Christian understood the fragility of the planet's critical life support systems and dedicated his career and personal life to protecting 'the only thing we have'. His legacy will live on through those of us who were graced with his teachings. It is with deep sorrow that we bid farewell to our mentor and friend", says Marisha Wojciechowska-Shibuya, Senior International Editor of MaximsNewsWATER. 

Leadership for the Global Environment

From the chaos of wartime youth in Belgium, Christian de Laet set out on a life journey searching for truth about the world and sharing with all he met along the way.

His enthusiastic, diligent devotion to a greater understanding of the global environment, from grassroots to the stratosphere, is now expressed in vigorous advocacy of individual and social change, so that personal behavior and corporate conduct address the reality of the global human condition. "It is urgent for the sustainability of civilization" de Laet says.

A Man For All Seasons

As teacher, scholar, and scientist, counsellor, consultant and communicator, he is in continuous motion, always observing, discovering and exchanging insights , ideas and information of growing significance for the strengthening and sustaining of human community.

His journey has taken him to the furthest corners of the earth, into classrooms and boardrooms, farms and villages, cities and countries on every continent.

"We must all be ready to attempt the bridge between science and personal responsibility," he told the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome in an April 2000 address. That ambitious concept is the core of his lifetime of achievement in fostering sound ecological practices world-wide.

"There are growing numbers of people engaged in this endeavor," he added hopefully. "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."

Christian de Laet was born in Brussels 12 years before the start of the second World War. He spoke French and Flemish but soon had to become German-speaking. A few years later he became acquainted with army English. During the course of his life, he has also learned Italian, Spanish, and Russian, as well as, eventually, Hindi.

He was accepted at Advanced Level in mathematics at the Ecoles Speciales of the University of Louvain, in 1944, and in engineering at the Polytechnical School of the University of Brussels when it re-opened in 1945.

Arrival in Canada

When he first came to Canada in early 1949, de Laet combined part-time study with executive training at ALCAN, the aluminium company. His timely switch to applied mathematics and computer systems, serving as an Operation Research Officer with Sir Robert Watson-Watt and Partners, led to his becoming a technical and management consultant to private and public-sector organizations.

Early Environmental Pioneer

In 1964, Christian de Laet was elected secretary-general of the Canadian Council of Resources and Environment Ministers (CCREM). He spent nine years traversing the vastness of Canada's provinces and territories, building informed consensus within that forum designed to make joint policy more possible in a federal state. The national conference on `Pollution and Our Environment' permitted him to test the importance of the qualitative, rather than the quantitative, aspects of resources use, as bench-marked by the founding `Resources for Tomorrow Conference' of 1962.

His work with CCREM raised Canadian awareness of environmental concerns, and empowered wider citizen involvement, including the First Nations, in local, national, and global affairs. The 1968 `Water Seminar' was, in many ways, a determinant of the way water policies could be structured in the future, in terms of resources with multi-layered responsibility.

Advising UN Agencies

In the years following the UN Stockholm Conference of 1972, when he was invited to monitor and advise on the natural resources sector (a rare experience in itself in inter-governmental conflict management), Christian de Laet became a consultant to INGOs, as well as IGOs, and specialized UN agencies such as WHO, UNESCO, UNU, UNEP and UN/ESCAP.

Over the years, he participated in many of the key UN conferences and carried out travels and assignments in all the major five continents, in places such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Mauritius, Papua, New Guinea, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Sweden, Thailand, Tunisia, Zaire.

One of Christian de Laet's key objectives during this period was to correlate development, or mal- development, with the substantial list of parameters that are culture and site-specific. He traced many environmental concerns to values, attitudes, and to levels of technical maturity which oscillate between progress and retrogress. Being in India gave de Laet the opportunity to discover some deep cultural roots; this gave him an understanding of the many ways environmental challenges could be met through re-interpreting traditional knowledge systems and folk cultures.

Commonwealth Science Council

In 1977, de Laet was invited by Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal to become his science advisor, a position which extended to being 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. Beyond the Commonwealth network of nearly 50 countries, he also represented the Secretary-General abroad and developed working contacts with other IGOs, such as the Francophone counterpart, l'Agence de cooperation culturelle et technique (ACCT).

In those years, he travelled the highways and byways of the world and found other ways to correlate concerns common to all human cultures - such as architecture, proverbs, fables, songs, dancing and mime. The Commonwealth Secretariat itself was a world in microcosm which permitted him to encompass a wide variety of assignments "always," said Ramphal, "characterized by originality, wit and creativity. Christian de Laet," continued the Secretary General, "successfully oriented the work of the Commonwealth Science Council toward the more practical tasks of development."

After traversing the world and advising the Commonwealth for over five years, de Laet landed first in Sri Lanka then in India where he contributed to the pioneering work of Ashok Khosla in setting up the Society for Development Alternatives.

He was then invited, in 1983, to carry out a research program on the "rapid rural modernization of the Canadian prairies over the previous 100 years" as Senior Research Associate in the Canadian Plains Research Center thanks, in part, to an IDRC Governing Board grant. Located at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, and serving also as adjunct professor in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, he was able to extend the reach of the university throughout the vast Canadian prairies, while still communicating his stimulating catalytic force to the world beyond.

Development Alternatives

He kept close contact beyond the Himalayas to collaborate with Ashok Khosla in the growth of the Society for Development Alternatives, now one of the premier private development agencies in the world. The experience gained there, truly interdisciplinary and transcultural, provided the key ferment to pair-up environment and development issues in the structuring of avant-garde concepts on development sustainability in practice.

For Christian de Laet, the Indian experience was critical to his achieving a better and more profound understanding of the role of the individual `self' in a globalized world.

At the same time he was pursuing his association with Tony Judge in Brussels at UIA, the Union of International Associations, where he learned first-hand the potential of organizing world knowledge in practical forms. In Christian's view, the breakthroughs achieved in the preparation of the many editions of UIA's Encyclopedia rank as an all-time high `window' to manage the 21st Century successfully. He feels that the UIA relationship thus developed was a keystone in his own apprenticeship in relating the parts and the whole.

From his Saskatchewan base, Christian de Laet was also able to follow earlier work in the restructuring of the Athol Murray College of Notre-Dame and to assist in the setting up of the Saskatchewan Science Center.

Overseas, he also continued to serve on the Expert Panel on Environmental Health of WHO and on the World Conservation Union's Commission on Environmental Strategies and Planning. He remains a member of the International Council of Developmental Law in Bonn and has served the University of Montreal Faculty of Environmental Planning and as Principal for Environmental Systems Design with the Gamma Institute of Montreal.

He has been an advisor to CESO International Services in Sri Lanka and India and remains a CESO volunteer. To balance his multicultural inklings, he acts as the Canadian anchor of the Paris-based INGO "Prospective 2100," with its own broad-sweeping program on how to weather the challenges of the 21st Century.

From Science to Conscience

At the crossroads of his quarter century of environmentalism, Christian de Laet was honoured, in 1990, on Parliament Hill on Canada's National Day, named as the Canadian Environment Achiever for both his national and international work. De Laet is a life fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London, a past-president of the Canadian Association for Futures Studies , a Senior Fellow of the Club of Athens and, more important in his view, he is a persistent mentor of graduate students and a friend of First Nations in both Canada and Australia.

In his speech to the Canadian Association of the Club of Rome, de Laet declared, "It is time to move from science to conscience," adding, "None of us has a private 1-800 line to truth and righteousness." And then he said, "We can't afford to go on being counter-productive, nor even counter-intuitive for any sustainable length of time."

De Laet's conviction that the real work of saving the planet must be the responsibility of each of the world's citizens, has led him to do battle on the front lines of humanity, in the civic trenches of community, hand-to-hand with small groups of people in whatever culture or country he might be found on any given day. While others he advises are busy in boardrooms planning policies and strategic war on a grand scale, de Laet moves from front to front, sharing concerns and finding solutions.

Global Citizen

He is the ultimate `Global Citizen', taking responsibility for the knowledge which he continues to accumulate by constant devotion and concern, seeking truth within himself and in the personal lives and environmental context of all those he encounters and whom he invariably challenges to enjoy the beauty and blessings of this life and to share them with future generations.

One might consider granting the Global Environment Leadership Award for consistent effort in a single cause, or one might take a longer, broader view and honour a lifetime devoted to a diversity of efforts at preserving global sustainability.

Christian de Laet is a mover of many causes, a catalyst among colleagues, a leader whose over- arching vision of potential solutions to environmental problems enlists others to the cause and fires them with optimism and determination.

In his adopted Canada, or in any and all of the world's nations or commons, Christian de Laet exemplifies Leadership for the Global Environment.