The Conserver Society
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 30 Mar 1978, p. 347-363

Franklin, Dr. Ursula, Speaker
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The Science Council of Canada and how it operates to provide money for research. Major studies of the Council. The origins of the term "conserver society" from a report on resource management. The need for Canada to implement a more conserving resource-management approach. Implications of the conserver society. A discussion of this topic under three basic headings: what are the roots of this problem; why do people talk about these things now; and what is the definition of a conserver society? Recommendations proposed. Why the Council thinks these things are important. An inevitable trend toward the consumer society.
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30 Mar 1978
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Full Text
MARCH 30, 1978
The Conserver Society
CHAIRMAN The President, Peter Hermant


Ladies and gentlemen: The relationship between society and technology is surely one of the most tantalizing areas concerning us today, so much so that the results of our ability as people to deal with that relationship may literally decide whether or not we maintain life as we know it on this planet.

Our guest of honour today, Dr. Ursula Franklin, has devoted her life and academic career to the unravelling of that interaction between man's developing power over materials and his talent to use materials wisely, effectively and efficiently.

Dr. Franklin presently holds the title of Professor of Metallurgy and Materials Science at the University of Toronto. But her background in research has placed her in a position which is unique, because in addition to her duties as a professor at the university she carries a cross-appointment with the Institute for the History of Science and Technology, as well as being a research associate at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Dr. Franklin was educated in Germany and graduated from the Technical University in Berlin with a Ph.D. in Experimental Physics. She came to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow and served as the senior research scientist at the Ontario Research Foundation, working on problems related to industrial metallurgy and industrial processes. Having a long-standing interest in both technology and society and because of her varied scientific background, she was appointed to the Science Council of Canada and chaired its project, code named "The Conserver Society", which reported to the nation in the fall of 1977.

As a Quaker and a pacifist, she would seem to have been the perfect choice to face the challenges presented by the project. She said at that time, "What the Council has come to realize as the focus of the scientific community is that though science, as a purely analytical activity, can exist without society, what cannot exist apart from society is technology, because technology means applying scientific knowledge to a social end."

But technology has also been described by Max Frisch as, "The knack of arranging the world so that we don't have to experience it." And George Grant at McMaster University has written that, "North America is the first continent to be called upon to bring human excellence to birth throughout the whole range of technological society."

So the problems of combining science and human experience are obviously great. In an article in Saturday Night magazine entitled "Ursula Franklin--The Humanist of High Technology", Dr. Franklin explains some of the areas that cause difficulty. "Twenty years ago you could take apart a washing machine or an old car and use the parts," she explains. "Not so today. And the same inflexibility has taken over our institutions. So far there isn't so much as one university or community college in Canada that offers a course in solid waste management."

Dr. Franklin's field is both enormous and important. And if it's true, as according to Ulysses Comtois, a Montreal artist, that "The two big tricks of the twentieth century are technology instead of grace and information instead of virtue," then it may also be true that materials and materialism will one day triumph.

But as Dr. Franklin puts it, "All our experience is in gearing society up. We have no experience at all in gearing one down."

Ladies and gentlemen, it's a pleasure for me to introduce to you Dr. Ursula Franklin, Professor of Metallurgy and Materials Science at the University of Toronto, who will address us under the title, "The Conserver Society".


Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Honourable members and friends in the audience: I feel it a great honour to be here, and I also feel the burden of your expertise, singly and collectively, versus mine. What I hope to do is put to you some of the thoughts that have gone into the Science Council's study, not necessarily for the purpose of converting you to what I believe so much as to show you where, in my opinion, one of the very significant trends of this time is going.

Unfortunately, we all do not know enough to predict what the future will be, but the one thing we do know is that the future is the absolutely inevitable consequence of the present. If we have any views and wishes for the future, the best way to implement them is to think, as clearly as we can, where we are and where the extension of what we do now will get us in in the future.

I should, in the beginning, say something about the Science Council of Canada which is represented here by Dr. Kates. The Science Council is a body to whom the federal government, through the Treasury Board, gives some money. By its Act it was, up to very recently, a body of twenty. Now there are twenty-five people on the Council. The stress is more on technology, rather than science. But the basic thought is that one picks about half of its members from industry and half from the academic profession, and one says to them, "You'd better worry about things ahead in the realm of science and technology. Look at decision making, decisions that the nation has to make, and if one assumes that somebody will make a rational decision (which is a bit of a leap of faith), then look at the problems that you see coming in the near and medium term future. Do we know enough to make a good decision? Is our basic knowledge good enough? Combine that knowledge, put it together, and give us the recommendations." That is roughly the frame of reference of the Science Council. The Council has discharged that mandate fairly extensively in commenting on everything from scientific manpower to northern development and resources, and in my opinion, has done so very honourably and competently. The fact that a good number of its recommendations were not taken up is not necessarily to its discredit.

When I joined the Council, a number of major studies had been done. As always, towards the end of such studies, a certain number of loose ends are left, as well as a certain communality of problems. It looked very clearly as if a good number of problems, such as resources or the sea or ecology or technical manpower, had somewhere a common denominator, and that was the utilization of both our physical and our intellectual resources. They involve the question of not only what we are doing, but how we are doing it.

The term "conserver society" comes from an earlier report on resource management, in which it was stated that until Canada has greater respect for a much more conserving resource-management approach, it will not be possible to guarantee the supply of essential materials at payable prices in this country, and this will have very severe effects on our industry. So we picked up this theme, to look at the implications of the conserver society.

I want to discuss it basically in three parts. First, what are the roots? Why do people now talk about these things? Next, what is, in our terms, the definition of a conserver society? What are some of the recommendations that we have proposed? And last, why do we think these things are important? Why is this a trend worth noting?

The conserver society as a concept has essentially three roots. Its first, and in a sense, latest root, goes back to the discussions of limits of growth and the publications of the Club of Rome, where it became clearer and clearer that there are limits to a good number of the activities we undertake. There are physical limits, resource limits, financial limits. There is that whole group of events, thoughts, books, knowledge that lead us in the direction of limits. It is quite clear that a continuation of the approach of the late sixties and early seventies, in terms of utilization and throughput of all resources, is no longer possible. There is a finiteness, regardless of ownership, on what is utilizable on this earth.

There is, however, an earlier root. I call that root the ecological consciousness, because there have been people who said, "Even if we could grow without limits, look at what we are doing to the environment. Look at what is happening in the biosphere." There is a limit to human activity, not only because there might not be enough to go around, but because of the severe and often irreversible effects that human intervention has on the ecosystem.

Then there is a third, and even earlier, root. That is the root of human concern. Well before even the ecological movement started, there were thoughtful and intelligent people who said, "Look at what is happening to human beings. Look at our communities. Look at our factories. Look at our social fabric." It seems that rapid urbanization and industrialization has put strains into the social fabric that may break up the community of people living and working together into increasingly antagonistic groups. So the human condition is the first and most profound root of the concept of the conserver society.

All these things, in a sense, are known and have been known. But what is clear now, and I think this is the new insight, is that one absolutely must deal with all these three constraints simultaneously. Every fool can make one thing better by making ten other things worse. The real difficulty that everyone, in this and other countries, finds himself in, is the necessity to simultaneously affect those three constraints: the constraint of the reality of limits, the constraint of the carrying capacity of the biosphere, and the genuine constraint of what people can take.

That is why we must step back and ask why we are doing the things we are doing. Is there not, in this day and age, possibly a better and more intelligent way to achieve what we want to achieve, a prosperous and peaceful human community? Must we continue in the way we have gone, or is it possible and necessary to change gears? Because when you are in the mud, you don't rev up the engine. You change gears. Is there a way in which we can live and work within the constraints, without making things worse and hopefully improving them in a way that takes all of them into account? There is no solution in making the materials constraint better by making the environmental burden worse, or making the human condition better through measures that would eliminate material wealth.

It was then, when we worked with the committee of the Council, which included Mr. Ran Ide, who is the chief executive officer of Ontario TV, Mr. John Pollock, a director of Electrohome, Gabriel Filteau, Dean of Engineering at Laval, it was at that point that we said we had better put down on paper what we mean by a conserver society before we go into a great song and dance to find out about its implications.

So our first task was to define the conserver society, which was jolly difficult. I had always defined this as a process rather than a product. In my interest in technology, I have become very much aware of the distinction between process and product. Very often, perhaps because of our heritage, we focus on the product and say that is desirable, and pay little attention to the process by which is achieved. On the other hand, society very often lives on the process. If you look into ancient technologies, you find out how important the process of doing something was, to the extent that what was being made was often much less important than that process.

I don't know if any of you is familiar with Kurt Mendelsohn's lovely book on the pyramids. Others have also looked at monumentality. They ask, "Why did people make big things when up to then and after that time smaller things would do?" And very often it turns out, as seems to be the case with the pyramids, that these were what we would call winter works programs. There was the need to get a large number of very often foreign people into a culture, to have them together with the main culture, under supervision, and to bring them into the skills of the new community. It looks today as if the building of the pyramids was far more important than the edifices that resulted.

I very much wanted to define the conserver society as a process. It is a different method of decision making in which, in fact, other things beside the product are taken into account.

That didn't carry in my committee, and probably quite rightly so. They were more conscious than I of the need to produce a publishable document. And so I would like to read to you what our definition of the conserver society is, a definition which has served us well and which I don't think, at this point, I wish to change.

The concept of a conserver society arises from the deep concern for the future and the realization that decisions taken today, in areas such as energy and resources, may have irreversible and possibly destructive impact in the medium and long term. The necessity for a conserver society follows from our perception of the world as a finite host to humanity and from our recognition of increasing global interdependence. A conserver society is therefore on principle against waste and pollution. It is therefore a society which promotes the economy of design in all systems, doing more with less. It favours reuse and recycling, and whenever possible, reduction at source. It questions the ever-growing per capita demand for consumer goods artificially encouraged by marketing techniques. It recognizes that the diversity of solutions in many systems, such as energy and transportation for instance, might, in effect, increase the economy's overall stability and resilience. In a conserver society, the pricing mechanism should reflect not just private cost, but as much as possible the total cost of a product to society, including energy and materials, ecological impact and social considerations. This will permit the market system to allocate resources in a manner that more clearly reflects the social needs, both immediate and in the long term.

In many ways that sounds like nothing particularly revolutionary, but it is important because it means, essentially, that it is another way of choosing and costing. In addition, I sometimes say we have to keep three sets of books: the customary dollars and cents books have to be supplemented with some energy accounting. That is a book in which energy is the currency of the material world, and one looks not only at whether one should choose aluminum or steel or plastic from a cost point of view but one considers how much energy goes into making products and how much energy is used by employing them.

We have much better ability to do that energy accounting today than we had even three years ago when we started with this study. A good deal of methodology has now been worked out. You can now go into the library and look these figures up.

We are not so far advanced in our cost-benefit analysis for society. What happens to people? Our social accounting is very inadequate. I think our best intellectual effort in the next decade might well go into finding ways of getting a better assessment of the social and human parameters, so that when we make decisions in a conserver society, these things which in the past were considered to be externalities will become central.

Probably almost the best example is the pricing and costing of energy. I will talk about that later, but first I want to say that the amunition against waste is not just one of "Don't throw out something that somebody else could use." The last few years have shown, in a worldwide intellectual effort of analysis, where really all that energy that we use goes, to what extent we have supplanted labour and people by energy. And that does not just mean ditch diggers or wrappers. When I looked at this I was amazed to see to what extent the possibility to waste, either material or energy, has really cut into those jobs that we consider intelligent jobs.

Imagine you are an architect. Somebody commissions a building or apartment from you. It is then built, in Windsor, in Whitehorse, maybe in Halifax. Over the century, there has been a tendency to over design, because energy was cheap. The unit will take too much heating in Whitehorse, too much cooling in Windsor, and the wind will whistle through in Halifax. But if you were designing a unit just for Whitehorse, you would probably design it as it should be for Whitehorse.

Those of you who operate equipment, think about what you have, including all the power in your cars. Things are vastly over designed, and not just because of the deliberate wish to waste, but because of the deliberate wish to do the design only once, and then replicate the unit. And that is where my students are put out of a job. They ought to be working in Windsor, to help design a building or modify a plan for that particular site with their specific knowledge. But the cheapness of things that we could waste has lulled us into the habit of replacing judgement and intelligence with cheap materials and energy.

That becomes particularly evident when we look at the energy consumption of other countries. Then you find that Sweden, having the same sort of climate, the same demands of industry, has only 50 per cent of the per capita energy consumption of Canada. I grant you the case of the transportation sector, which is very much vaster in this country. But even if you take that out, there is a great deal of extra energy used in Canada, often to produce things that are not as good, not as well designed and not as competitive as those of Swedish industry.

If you look at this in detail, and there is an excellent book called How the Industrial Nations Use their Energy, you find out how much more intelligently things can be done. And that is just one of the profound burdens of these considerations that are not just mine but go on around the world. Because the materials were there and one could dump the garbage somewhere, because energy was there and it was cheap, we came into the habit of externalizing the costs and saving ourselves the judgement needed to do a job as appropriately as possible for the situation in which one finds oneself.

There are many examples. There are buildings in this city that have no light switches: the whole building is either fully lit or fully dark. There are other buildings in Toronto where one can only turn off the lights per floor. Of course, it was cheaper not to install switches, but the idea that you could make a building in which you can only turn all the lights off or all the lights on, or an apartment building with no way to moderate the heat in individual apartments--that is the sort of thing that ought never to have happened and must be corrected very quickly.

In a study in Edmonton, two identical apartment buildings were monitored. In one of them, the tenant paid the rent and paid his hydro separately. In the other, the hydro charge was part of the rent. There was a 40 per cent difference in the use of electricity in these identical buildings. When consumers can see that the intelligent use of energy saves them money, they will act intelligently.

One of the big battles has been the rate structure of hydro in this province: you still pay the largest unit price for the early units of your consumption, and if you use more, you pay less. Recently, the province of Quebec has introduced an inverted rate structure. Not very steeply inverted, but enough so that the consumer benefits from being frugal and you pay more as you use more. That is a common system in Europe, as is the lower pricing of off-peak electricity. We have not taken these reasonably intelligent measures. If you look at the cost of electricity, including the cost of installation, borrowing, financing, you can see how expensive every new kilowatt hour will be, and how much more intelligent it would be to put the money into conservation and better practices.

I will give you one last example, from my own field. Up at Noranda in Northern Quebec is one of the traditional copper smelters, a place where I sometimes go to visit or consult. Until the year before last they fired that colossal smelter with oil. In addition to that, because Noranda is a pretty cold place, for a large part of the year you had to put steam around the oil pipes, otherwise the oil freezes. So not only do you use oil, but in addition to that you use energy to make steam to keep the oil flowing. Perfectly responsible people designed that fairly recently, with no thought that it might be a hare-brained scheme to put a steam jacket around an oil pipe. But that happened.

I spoke to Mr. Hermant at luncheon about the glimpses we get in our department from Japanese industry. Because of their expertise, we very frequently get visiting Japanese industrial engineers. When you look at the process of copper making in Japan, you find that research has gone into it to the point where the whole process is automated, is computerized, in which not one BTU more is expended than necessary. Analysis is carried out so that the best possible conditions are used. There is constant feedback through the computer system. But when you go into one of our mills, you still find old foremen who look at something and say, "Now!" And then you cast.

Of course, that is not the optimal condition. And as energy becomes expensive, it becomes more and more difficult for Canadian producers to keep their competitive position. They come to us in the Metallurgy Department and say, "Can you computerize our process?" But they don't even have the base data. They have never bothered to find out what in fact goes in and out. The metabolism of their furnace is totally unknown. It is as if you took a very sick person into a hospital and said, "Operate!" when nobody knows what is wrong with him, nobody has done an X-ray, nobody has done any blood work.

It is in this area that many things are now catching up with us. It is there that a great deal of activity is necessary. When I speak about these things, I often hear the comment that conservation and that whole approach of doing only what needs to be done will cost us both labour and profit. It is in fact just the other way around. The cost of labour and profit and work is a continuation of the things that we have been led to do because of the immense richness of this country. Often we read that Canada is blessed with immense natural resources. Canada is blessed with cheap power. Sometimes I think it may not have been so much of a blessing. It is like the rich man's son who never learns to work. We have been blessed with riches, but I am not sure that we have been the most intelligent stewards. The time to do something about it is now.

There are many things going on, and we can and must look at the things happening in other jurisdictions. One of my most delightful experiences in the course of preparing this report has been to read the international literature. Far from expectations, the realization of limits, the realization that certain things could not be done the way they had been done in the past did not produce gloom or inactivity. On the contrary, it was as if a fresh breeze came through a suddenly opened window. The innovativeness, the sophistication, the degree of intelligence that was suddenly brought to problems is amazing. Things that were sloughed off in the past as not worth doing, things that looked too theoretical, have suddenly come out. From the most sophisticated, such as the large, beautifully computerized tracking mirrors to trap solar energy in Australia, that follow the movement of the sun to focus its very intense rays into liquefied ammonia, producing hydrogen and nitrogen directly from the solar energy stored in that chemical form, to the reasonably mundane problem of redesigning the wood stove, there has been an immense amount of activity and much of it most creative and most useful. However, not many of these things have taken place in this country. If I could leave anything with you in terms of thought, it is that the rest of the world is gearing up for a different future, a future where this sort of vast throughput of cheap material is passe. That doesn't go anywhere anymore and the rest of the world has learned the lesson.

Both processes and devices are beginning to come out now that will find their way into Canada. It would be a very great pity if this again should all be imported technology, if again things as finished products are brought in because we couldn't make up our minds in Canada about the seriousness of the problem, because we appointed another commission on the subject and waited around till somebody else got to work and did the job, for instance, of producing a gas burner that makes much more efficient use of energy than the ones we have now.

Because my name was on the report, I have been visited by inventors. There are inventors and inventors, as you know, but some of them are pretty smart types. I know of a very experienced Canadian who just yesterday left for Turin to sell his invention on gas utilization which combines the properties of the catalytic converter with a very substantial fuel saving. Nobody in Canada, and I have seen the endless correspondence, paid any attention to this at all. It was then tested objectively by the armed forces of another country. They ran cars and trucks for a year with that device and it is now being sold to Fiat.

It makes me extraordinarily sad to see that. That would have been a beautiful technology to have here, and this man has made every conceivable effort to get this under a Canadian production license. The Canadian forces didn't even want to install thirty of these devices in their trucks to try them out--at his expense. So there are a lot of places where we have to pull up our socks, because another look at resources, at energy and at human relations is coming. The question is, where will we be?

Let me as a last example, say something to you about recycling. If we are serious about recycling, we should take the connotation of litter and being good Boy Scouts out of it and look at the post-consumer waste as a resource, as something from which we can make things. Then we put ourselves at the point where this country was when the mining industry developed, and say that recycling is a second-generation mining industry. What do you do then? You survey--and you must remember what an impact the geological survey had on the development of this country. You assay. And you map.

There is no such survey in Canada. Assume you were to win the great Wintario prize, and you wanted to go into business doing something that is intelligent not only from a business but from a societal point of view. Suppose you decide you want to use plastic scrap to make things. Lots of things can be made from second-generation plastic, such as buttons or chair backs. You know that the stuff you want are the rejects from factories, post-manufacturing scraps. And you decide you want to have a factory somewhere in the country, a small place, a clean place, where local people can get jobs. Where should you go?

Only the province of Ontario has mapped the occurrence of post-manufacturing plastic scrap. In Ontario, you could go to the Department of Industry and they could show you on the map where manufacturers accumulate plastic waste. You would say, those places are my mines, I want to deal with them. So you would probably locate somewhere in the Kitchener area.

Nowhere else in this country does such a map exist, and for no other commodity does such a map exist. But until we can look at waste in that conserving sense, we have to do the same groundwork that this country has cheerfully done for its mining industry.

The Chairman mentioned something that I had said on another occasion. There is no university that teaches solid waste management. That isn't quite true any more. There is now one community college. But there is nobody yet who teaches the assaying of that resource, so that you can look at it and say what it is useful for. When you find an ore body, you can't do everything with it. You need a careful assay. What are the impurities? Can you use the ore for this process? Or for that?

We have done nothing of this sort with waste. If we are serious about it, we had better do it, and we need to train people to be competent to do it, because otherwise when we really need to do it we will have to import labour from abroad to handle it. We will need it. It can either be a left-handed, second-rate effort, done too little and too late, where we import both labour and technology. Or it can be a conscious decision, a decision made now to say that this is what we want, this is what we need and this is what we must do as an investment.

We have a large population of young people, all of them well schooled and not all of them employed in things that are suited to their level of education. Here is a field. And the same is true for new energy sources and a great many other things. So it goes, also, for government, as consumer and employer. We meet the government frequently as regulator, and tend to forget that the government is a very large employer and a very large consumer. The government sets standards, be they standards of durability, or standards of performance.

For instance, in building standards and codes, you can either specify the content of materials, or you can specify what the performance should be. If you go to performance standards, which this country has not yet done, then you have a good deal more freedom for those who make the material to make something useful with whatever is at hand, to switch suppliers, to switch sources. One such move, from the government as a large purchaser, would give a secure market for those who want to go into these new conserver areas.

All these are things which we should think about seriously. In my opinion, there is an inevitable trend toward the consumer society. The question is, are we getting there for our own benefit, by our own intelligence, under our own steam? Or will we end up being reluctantly dragged into it as a third cousin, and have no pleasure, no challenge, and in the end, very little gain?

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Dr. Harold V. Cranfield, F.R.C.P.(C), a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Conserver Society

The Science Council of Canada and how it operates to provide money for research. Major studies of the Council. The origins of the term "conserver society" from a report on resource management. The need for Canada to implement a more conserving resource-management approach. Implications of the conserver society. A discussion of this topic under three basic headings: what are the roots of this problem; why do people talk about these things now; and what is the definition of a conserver society? Recommendations proposed. Why the Council thinks these things are important. An inevitable trend toward the consumer society.