Tribute To A Profound Founder

by Ashok Khosla

It was soon after the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm, which placed the topic of environment squarely on the international agenda, that I met Christian de Laet. We ran into each other in some nameless, faceless airport in Europe – or was it Japan? -- but the recognition was mutual and instantaneous and the partnership that was born in those electrifying moments was life-long and hugely fruitful.

Over the following 35 years, we shared whole worlds and many lifetimes together. His and his wife Susan’s homes in Montreal and London were mine and my family’s homes in Delhi and Nairobi were his and Susan’s. His professional interests and offices became mine and mine were soon appropriated by him.

After spending many years in academic and public service, both of us found ourselves in the mid-1970s working in international agencies; he in London at the Commonwealth Secretariat and I in Nairobi at the United Nations Environment Programme. Given the deep urge to help make the world a fairer, more sustainable place for all that drove both of us, and our frequent meetings in the conference centres, hotels and airports of the world, it was only natural that the nature and purpose of our assignments would rapidly converge. The science programme of the Commonwealth and the development activities of UNEP began to look quite similar.

Within a few years, we both realized that the future of humankind needed other kinds of technologies than those that dominated the economies of the world, new kinds of institutions and indeed fundamentally different approaches to development. This led to a mutual “liberation” pact between us: to leave our international assignments and join together to set up what became the first social enterprise dedicated to sustainable development.

Thus was Development Alternatives born. In 1983, we converged more or less on the same day in Delhi, where Christian and his wonderful and most patient wife Susan stayed with us. He essentially designed for the good part of a year the innovation systems of the new organization and set it into motion. Christian, with his usual foresight, had picked up and airfreighted several technologies from Europe and elsewhere that had potential application in the villages of India – handmade recycled paper equipment, compressed earth block making machines, calcium carbide lamps, solar water heating devices and many others. These prototypes helped jump-start the adaptation/innovation of similar technologies by DA’s new R&D facility. The saga of getting these prototypes through the customs, which had a very different mindset in those days, could be the subject of another article.

Subsequently, Christian and Susan returned to their homes in Montreal and Knowlton, and started DA Canada, whose job, like that of DA India, was to find ways to make the future of his own country also sustainable. His first and perhaps most exciting project, carried out as a Professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, was to study how the early settlers in mid-Canada worked (primarily, it turned out, through their women) with the native communities to learn how to live in harmony with the local environmental resource base.

Christian was a most thoughtful, highly engaged partner. He always provided insights and connections that were different, unexpected and often startling. His feel for the relationships between people, nature and technology was deeper and more original than that of anyone else that I have worked with or known. His ability to find insightful links between seemingly separate issues, to establish illuminating relationships among completely different concepts and to meaningfully connect people, institutions and even solutions that appear to most others as being unconnectable was truly astonishing. Indeed, his own neural system seemed to be wired up differently from that of the rest of us. Even at the age of 80, and after much illness in his later years, he still could out-think yet in-clude all those around him.

Although Christian had major commitments with a wide range of organisations and initiatives, including the Union of International Associations, the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome and various universities, his primary commitment was to the Development Alternatives concept, which he felt was the kind of institutional arrangement that had the best chance of bringing about sustainable development worldwide.

My colleagues and I owe much to him; the future of civilization owes him even more.