Environmental Studies Association of Canada (ESAC) was formed in 1993 with the aim of the encouraging research, publication, teaching and general development of environmental studies. ESAC would thereafter become one of the ‘Learned Societies’ which convened at the annual Learned Societies Conference (what today is the annual ‘Congress of the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences’). During the 1993 Learned Societies Conference there were 37 sessions on the environment distributed across several different disciplines and held by several different Learned Societies. Many people had considered the prospect of a learned society or equivalent in Environmental Studies before then. After the 1993 Learned Societies Conference, however, the need for a research and education association dedicated to Environmental Studies was seen to be crucial by a group of sociology, philosophy, and environmental studies graduate students at York University.
The group first began meeting in late June of 1993, and within a year, ESAC had been incorporated and had held its first meetings at the Learned Societies Conference held in Calgary in 1994. All of this was possible because of a great deal of volunteer labour on the part of the interim Board of Directors, as well as the in-kind and financial support of York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies and Graduate Environmental Studies Students’ Association. Within the next year, Alternatives was chosen as the official journal of ESAC and it published the first ESAC theme issue, and the University of Waterloo became the home of ESAC.
One issue during the founding of ESAC concerned the relative weight to be accorded to activist vs. academic interpretations of environmental studies. Some people argued that environmental studies, as a field, is inherently more activist in orientation than most, and thus a Learned Society in environmental studies should include an advocacy component to its activities. Other people insisted that a Learned Society is a purely academic institution, and that most opportunities for activism take place outside the framework of a Learned Society. It was pointed out that even activist members of a Learned Society would likely welcome the opportunity to engage in related scholarly activities.
Another point of debate was the appropriate characterization of the term “environmental studies”. Opinions ranged from those of the proponents of a “critical” prescriptive environmentalism — which includes deep ecology and social ecology — to those of the proponents of something less apparently prescriptive. In the end, it was the hope of the founders that potential members from any discipline, area, perspective, or background would feel welcome in ESAC, and that it would be a pluralistic enterprise. These are debates and discussions which are perennially featured at ESAC’s Annual Conference.