ANOTHER VIEW

The ball sits in Ottawa’s court

On environmental questions, politicians have to risk being unpopular with the private sector—and with the people

CHARLES GORDON October 16 1989
ANOTHER VIEW

The ball sits in Ottawa’s court

On environmental questions, politicians have to risk being unpopular with the private sector—and with the people

CHARLES GORDON October 16 1989

The ball sits in Ottawa’s court

On environmental questions, politicians have to risk being unpopular with the private sector—and with the people

ANOTHER VIEW

BY CHARLES GORDON

Politicians are going to have to act on the environment whether they like it or not. There is something in the air—besides CFCs, carbon dioxide and acid rain, that is. Canadians are worried. They have seen yellow skies, felt greenhouse effect heat. Business is showing signs of recognizing that people are worried. It is up to the politicians now. Do they have the heart for it?

The thought is occasioned by a newspaper supplement, produced by Southam Inc. and carried by 14 of its 15 papers on Oct. 7—24 pages, printed on recycled paper, two million copies in all and, most remarkably, ad-free. The fact that such a profit-oriented outfit would go ahead with such a costly undertaking shows growing corporate awareness of the environment, and growing corporate awareness of the environment shows, in turn, corporate awareness of the marketplace mood—it is being assumed that corporations do not do things entirely out of the goodness of their hearts.

The Southam section, while not entirely pessimistic about the future of our planet, does not stint on the gory details. A sampling:

• There are twice as many passenger vehicles in Canada as there were 20 years ago.

• The world’s population, now more than five billion, will grow by another billion in 11 years. Meanwhile, every 14 seconds, a hectare of arable land disappears.

• An estimated 275,000 tons of disposable diapers are thrown out in Canada every year.

• Two-thirds of the world’s rain forest has disappeared since the Industrial Revolution.

• China, which now has a refrigerator in only one of 10 homes, plans to have one in every home by the year 2000. That means that, in the absence of affordable alternatives, China will be manufacturing as many chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the United States, the leading producer, does now.

• Eighty countries are experiencing water

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

shortages. A Canadian family with four shower-taking children uses more water in its first hour of one day than the average family in Bangladesh uses in a month.

• Between 1940 and 1980, the world’s water use doubled. It is expected to double again by the year 2000.

But all is not gloom. Southam quotes several business leaders who think that doing their environmental duty is also good business. “We recognize that protection of the environment has become a central issue with consumers,” says Don Carrothers, general manager of the Bristol-Myers manufacturing plants in Canada. “I don’t think our shareholders will tolerate poor environmental performance,” says Jim Spence, president of CIL Inc.

And of course there is the celebrated Green campaign of the Loblaws stores, which, as well as presenting shoppers with such products as the President’s Choice Green Maxi-Pad, and as well as causing dissension among various environmental groups, demonstrates a belief that there is money to be made in environmentally sensitive marketing.

It is true that some executives are skeptical. Martin O’Brian, president of Boise Cascade Canada Ltd., told Southam that he is quite

prepared to manufacture unbleached toilet paper, which would be environmentally correct—and brown—if the public demands it. He does not think the public will, but he may be wrong.

An Angus Reid poll, taken in conjunction with the Southam study, shows the degree to which public consciousness of the environment has grown. One Canadian in three now sees the environment as the most important national issue. A year ago, it was one in 10, and a year and a half ago, before the intense heat and yellow skies of the summer of 1988 in Central Canada, it was one in 20. Reid found that Canadians want tougher government action against polluters, even if jobs are lost and even if the cost is higher prices and higher taxes.

The challenge to the politicians is clear. Are they up to it? There are certain conceptual difficulties. Here is the environment minister, Lucien Bouchard. Asked by Southam News if he recycles bottles, cans and newspapers, he gives what may be an all-too-typical politician’s response: “Well, I’m not living a real life,” he said. “I travel a lot and I live in an apartment in Ottawa. They must be recycling. They must be sorting out garbage.”

Politicians are not the only people not living real lives. Most Canadians, lulled by affluence and scenery, have thought next to nothing about the environment until recently. Some of us, the Southam study found, think we are recycling when all we do is take the empties back. But politicians, at every level, undoubtedly live lives that are a lot less real than most. They are used to city apartments, airplanes, limousines idling outside hotels while they speak. A politician never steps onto a subway or city bus unless there is a camera crew with him. A politician when he thinks of trees is probably thinking of jobs.

Yet the politician—one of the few world species that seem unthreatened—will have to lead us away from the impending environmental nightmare. The decisions so far have been easy ones—like telling oil companies to take the lead out. Now, the politician is going to have to take harder ones, the political equivalent of brown toilet paper. He will have to make a nuisance of himself—suggesting that the plastic rings holding together the six cans of beer might be dispensed with; daring to propose an end, for the sake of birds, fish and turtles, to the festive practice of letting loose thousands of balloons into the air to commemorate this or that.

Beyond being a nuisance, the politician will have to risk being unpopular with the private sector, the source of much of his campaign funding. And he will have to risk—most dangerously of all—unpopularity with the people. That moment will come when he moves against cars, still the greatest source of the world’s air pollution.

The freedom of the open road is doomed. Politicians will be scared silly to say it, and the people won’t like it all that much either. But they will have to lead the government, as they do on all important matters anyway, and remind the politicians that doing the right thing isn’t always so bad.