SPECIAL REPORT

COSTING THE CLEANUP

PEOPLE WEIGH THE PRICE OF A SAFER ENVIRONMENT

D'ARCY JENISH June 25 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

COSTING THE CLEANUP

PEOPLE WEIGH THE PRICE OF A SAFER ENVIRONMENT

D'ARCY JENISH June 25 1990

COSTING THE CLEANUP

PEOPLE WEIGH THE PRICE OF A SAFER ENVIRONMENT

PORTRAIT OF TWO NATIONS

Michael Wolfe, a 43-year-old human resources director with a Los Angeles-based financial advisory company, says that he drinks bottled rather than tap water and thinks that preserving the environment is more important than protecting jobs. Still, Wolfe says that he would not agree to limitations being placed on the use of automobiles unless there was a vast improvement in public transit. On the other hand, Monik Beauregard, a 25-yearold university student in Montreal, says that she sees no problem with the quality of the air or the drinking water in Montreal. But she says that, in order to relieve urban traffic congestion, motorists should be allowed to drive only on evenor odd-numbered days, depending on the final digit in their licence plates. The opposing views held by Wolfe and Beauregard were among widely varying opinions on environmental questions that emerged from crosscontinent interviews and in the separate Maclean ’s/Decima poll for the Two Nations report. In that poll, the pollution of the environment is cited by one in five Canadian respondents and by almost that many Americans as the most important problem that their countries face. Roughly three out of five people in both countries agree that corporate polluters should be shut down, regardless of the impact on employment. At the same time, substantial majorities express the view that air quality in their areas is good or very good and that the local tap water is at least “fairly safe.” But the poll shows that Americans and Canadians react differently to the idea of personal freedoms being limited in order to curtail pollution.

Fifty per cent of the Canadian respondents say that the use of automobiles should be restricted in order to reduce traffic congestion and to cut back on atmospheric pollution from car exhausts. But only 34 per cent of American poll participants agree with that proposal. According to Allan Gregg, chairman of Torontobased Decima Research, which conducted the poll, Americans are much less likely than Canadians to accept restrictions on personal freedoms because they have a more deeply ingrained belief in civil liberties. Said Gregg: “Lifestyle-curtailment measures that may accompany environmental protectionism in the future are going to be much more difficult to implement in America than they are in Canada.”

Although Americans express reservations about specific measures to reduce pollution, they have become much more concerned about environmental issues, the poll shows. In the current poll, 17 per cent of American participants rate the environment as the most important problem facing the United States, compared with only five per cent in last year’s Two Nations poll. In Canada, the environment is rated the top problem by 20 per cent of the participants, compared with 16 per cent the previous year.

Said Kathryn Dally, a 29-year-old resident of London, Ont., who worked and studied in the United States for eight years before returning to Canada in 1988: “The biggest problem facing Canada is the environment. When I came back home, I was shocked to see the local beach closed because it was polluted.”

Although Canadians and Americans differ on the issue of the environment and personal freedoms, the poll indicates that citizens of the two nations hold strikingly similar attitudes when asked about companies that pollute.

Sixty per cent of the Canadians polled, and 58 per cent of the Americans, say that they would favor shutting down a major local employer that polluted the environment. Support for harsh measures against polluting firms is also reflected in interviews with Canadians and Americans. John Evans, president of the Ottawa-based Trust Companies Association of Canada and a former Liberal member of Parliament, said that “if a mill of whatever kind is upstream of a population and is polluting that river, the health of the people has to take precedence.”

But the poll indicates that, while people on both sides of the border say that they are ready to jeopardize jobs to reduce pollution, Americans are far less willing than Canadians to sacrifice individual freedom for the sake of cleaning up the environment. The poll shows that 62 per cent of American

respondents, but only 49 per cent of Canadian ones, say that they should retain the right to drive anywhere anytime within existing laws.

For many Americans, unrestricted use of an automobile is linked with personal freedom and civil liberties. Texas native Molly Elliott, a Dallas race-car driver who spends six a months a year as an instructor at a race driving school near Belleville, Ont., said, “I think it is necessary to educate people so that they restrain themselves, rather than using outside force and regulations.” Likewise, Montana Gov. Stanley Stephens, a native of Calgary, said that

he would oppose government restric_

tions on driving. Said Stephens: “I think automobiles can be developed to meet tougher environmental standards. We can move forward with technology, expand the economy and look after the environment at the same time.”

Still, many citizens of both countries say that they are prepared to sacrifice freedom of mobility for cleaner air. Larry Berg, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said: “When you are forced to breathe air pollution caused by people who drive, that is a loss of freedom. Riding in a car pool is not.” And Thompson,

Man., lawyer Breta Passler, who also supports limits on the use of motor vehicles, said that driving is a privilege, not a right. Said Passler: “If there were certain restrictions on driving, it would not affect your liberties.” But giving up the automobile for another form of transportation is almost impossible, said Dr. Margaret England, an Edmonton native and endocrinologist who practises in Los Angeles. Added England: “This society will not give many people the time required to ride a bicycle between home and the office. People want you in the car with the car phone to call you now.”

The poll also shows that a majority of Canadians and Americans believe that their local tap water is at least fairly safe to drink. But significant numbers of people in both countries have deep reservations about that, according to the poll. While 50 per cent of the Americans polled express the belief that their drinking water is fairly safe, only 38 per cent say that it is very safe. Similarly, 54 per cent of the Canadian participants say that they have fairly safe tap water, while only 34 per cent deem it very safe. In each country, 11 per cent of the poll respondents say that they believe their water is not at all safe to drink.

Canadians and Americans are far more confident about the quality of their air, the poll results show. Only 12 per cent of Canadian participants say that they think their air is poor or very poor, while 63 per cent express confidence that they are breathing clean or very clean air. In the United States, 13 per cent of the survey participants express deep reservations about air quality, while 59 per cent say

that they believe the air that they breathe is either good or

very good.

In practice, growing fears about the safety of drinking

water have led many people to change their personal habits. England says that she drinks bottled water and most of her patients will not drink the tap water in her office. For her part, said Marie-Claude Deprez, a University of Montreal graduate history student: “I do not like the tap water here. I drink it occasionally, but I also buy mineral water.”

Despite such concerns about environmental problems, some of the people interviewed say that cleanup measures need not disrupt the economy. Dawn Ritchie, for one, a Torontoborn Los Angeles television scriptwriter in her

30s, says that she has become worried about air and water quality since she moved to California in 1986. But she added: “I think a cleanup would create new jobs. Recycling will be a huge moneymaking proposition. I don’t think it will be job loss as much as new job creation in preserving the planet.” Such opinions may encourage political leaders to take sterner measures against pollution. At the same time, the evidence that many people remain concerned over laws that interfere with personal freedoms indicates that governments may be pushed towards cleanup actions that do not fundamentally challenge accepted standards of North American life.

D'ARCY JENISH

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