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Trevor Hancock: We can't afford to miss the shift from a consumer to a conserver society

The agenda for such a transformation has been known for at least half a century, but in spite of the evidence, we have not done so
People make their way around the Rideau Centre shopping centre on Boxing Day in Ottawa, on Dec. 26, 2022. Trevor Hancock argues that we need to move from a consumer to a conserver society. Spencer Colby, The Canadian Press

My recent columns have emphasised that we urgently need a rapid transformation of the major systems that make up society and underpin today’s dominant culture.

Not only will this transformation protect the Earth systems we depend upon for our wellbeing, indeed our very survival, it will lead to improved ­wellbeing and quality of life.

Those systems include not only the obvious issues of energy use, consumption of materials, production of wastes and pollutants, food production, housing and urban development, protection and restoration of nature and so on, but also the economic, legal and political systems and the social norms and cultural values that underpin society.

It is both encouraging and disturbing that the agenda for such a transformation has been known for at least half a century. Encouraging because we know what we need to do; disturbing because in spite of the evidence, we have not done so.

More than half a century ago, the Club of Rome warned of the limits to growth in its report of that name. Following up on these ideas, the Science Council of Canada’s Committee on the Implications of a Conserver Society produced a report called Canada as a Conserver Society in 1977.

Their report mapped out “the transition from a ­consumer society preoccupied with resource ­exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more ­constructive endeavours.”

While the report focused on resource ­uncertainties and the need for new technologies and made ­recommendations in the areas of transportation, ­shelter and community, renewable energy sources and ­materials conservation, the authors recognized the needed changes were more profound.

As the chairperson noted in her letter of transmittal to the chair of the Science Council, while science and technology are important, “the choice comes down to a matter of social preferences, and its implementation often waits on political will.”

That chairperson was Prof. Ursula Franklin, a ­distinguished physicist and humanitarian at the ­University of Toronto. It is worth repeating at length here some of what she had to say in her letter, beginning with this: “The need to come to terms with resource scarcity, environmental pollution and the associated social questions is … recognized throughout the world, often much more keenly than in our country.”

She went on to write: “It is now understood that in many fields the continuing expansion of current ­practices will not be possible in the future,” adding that “to suggest that moving toward a Conserver Society means regression, or moving ‘back to the woods,’ is totally misguided.”

But unfortunately, she noted, “the awareness and the willingness which I sense at the grassroots seem to find at best a reluctant political expression. It may be that this apparent inertia is due to the lingering of the old illusion that Canadians, as a small ­population ­possessing immense natural resources, have only to sit back and let the world take its course, to enjoy ­perpetual prosperity.”

Sadly, that view is still around 50 years later, as a recent article by Gwyn Morgan so clearly illustrated.

Franklin concluded: “I can only hope that this study will help to destroy that mirage and free ­Canadians for action. Not only are we not as rich as we have grown to think, but our complacency and ­indecision could cause us to miss participating in the most stimulating and rewarding global tasks of the next decade. Not to respond now could mean losing ­control over the design of our future. As I hand over this Report, I can only pray that its insights will be used and that it may become, in the hands of many Canadians, a tool for the good of all.”

Well, it didn’t happen. Franklin and the committee were right, but the political will was missing, as the political and corporate elite was still wedded to growth and economic expansion.

Within a few years, the environmentally destructive and inhumane ideology of neo-liberalism, ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, had become mainstream orthodoxy, bringing us to the current ­polycrisis.

Fifty years ago, we missed the opportunity to begin the gradual transition from a consumer to a ­conserver society. Now the need for a rapid and major ­transformation is urgent; we cannot miss it again.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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