The future of the Earth's environment caused heightened concern in 1988. Drought ravaged vast reaches of North America. Famine returned to parts of Africa. In August, a fire at an industrial waste warehouse in St-Basile-le-Grand, Que., forced 3,500 residents to flee the PCB-laden smoke that infested the Montreal suburb. Some scientists claimed that the droughts, and a summer of heat waves, were vivid warnings of damage caused to the Earth by pollution of the atmosphere—the so-called greenhouse effect. Getting rid of poisonous wastes, and ordinary garbage, became a growing problem in many cities. The results of this year’s Maclean’s/Decima poll indicate that Canadians are beginning to heed the environmental warning signals—to the point that a majority said that they were willing to spend up to $1,000 per household each year to buy safer products.

In 1987, a statistically insignificant 1.6 per cent of respondents to the annual poll cited environmental problems as Canada’s single most important issue. A year later, despite the overriding interest in free trade with the United States, one person in 10 of those polled said that the environment is the most important issue facing the nation.

That result, said Bruce Anderson, vice-president for research analysis of Decima Research Ltd., is significant—given the fact that respondents were questioned during the four days following the Nov. 21 federal election. During the preceding seven-week campaign, politicians had concentrated almost exclusively on the free trade issue—a single-mindedness reflected in the fact that about two in five of the poll respondents picked free trade as the most important issue. Balanced against that, Anderson said, “the numbers are clearly very strong for environment.” He added, “The nature of the growth in environmental concern is such that it is not going to go away for some time.” In fact, the majority of this year’s poll respondents in all income groups, regions and age brackets showed a clear willingness to move beyond mere concern and take steps to ease environmental problems—including spending 50 per cent more on products that are less harmful to the environment. Fully 86 per cent of respondents said that they would spend at least $10 to $20 more per week. Indeed, many poll respondents told Maclean’s in follow-up interviews that individuals have to assume responsibility for solving environmental problems. Said Loletta Peters, 22, a computer sales representative who lives in Rosthern, Sask.: “Consumers are to blame. We are the ones who are making demands for certain products—for our own convenience.”

In this year’s Maclean's/Decima poll, respondents were asked to make a hypothetical choice between continuing to use potentially harmful garbage bags, aerosol spray containers, and Styrofoam and other food packages on the one hand, or to purchase products that were better for the environment but cost 50 per cent more. Almost three out of four, 73 per cent, said that they would buy environmentally safer garbage bags; 77 per cent said that they would be willing to buy packages made from less harmful materials; and 82 per cent said that they would buy less harmful spray containers.

As for how much more they would be willing to pay per week, 13 per cent said nothing, 61 per cent said $10 to $20, 16 per cent said $21 to $40 and nine per cent said more than $40, or more than $2,000 a year.

For her part, Carol-Ann Leschasin was one Maclean’s poll respondent who said that she has already moved toward showing greater personal concern over the environment. The Scarborough, Ont., homemaker and mother of two said that her family has been participating in recycling programs for almost three years. At the same time, she said, they have tried to decrease the amount of chemicals they use for household cleaning chores—and have even cut down on the amount of driving they do because of concern about adding to pollution of the atmosphere. Said Leschasin, 36: “We should take more individual responsibility for the environment—learning what we can do as individuals and doing it.”

Some environmentalists said that the widespread willingness to pay more for a safer environment may have been influenced by a general sense of prosperity. More than four out of five poll respondents also expressed personal satisfaction both with their economic situation and with their future prospects. Said Robert Laughlin, an expert in industrial waste management in Mississauga, Ont.: “Obviously one can afford to be more concerned about other things if you’re not worried about putting food on the table.” At the same time, even 54 per cent of those in the lowest income bracket of the survey—a household income below $10,000 per year—said that they would be willing to spend more than $500 a year more to buy less environmentally harmful products.

As manager of the Canadian Waste Materials Exchange, a project funded by Environment Canada, six provinces and private industry, Laughlin is very much a hands-on environmentalist. Under that program, companies that generate industrial waste are matched with other industries that use the waste in other processes. Laughlin said that, while active concern over the environment may ebb and flow with changing economic circumstances, the overwhelmingly positive responses in the Maclean’s/Decima Poll indicate that environmental concern may now be so deeply rooted among Canadians that it transcends economic factors. One indication of that, Laughlin said, was that the majority of respondents (77 per cent) said that they would be willing to pay 50 per cent more for safer products—an extremely high price increase. “You went out with a pessimistic question,” he said, “and you got an optimistic answer.”

But even as Canadians have become more environmentally concerned, a substantial number also appear to be pessimistic over the future of factors that are largely beyond their direct control. When asked whether they believed that people would still be able to drink tap water by the year 2001, more than two in five—44 per cent of respondents—answered no. The most pessimistic respondents were in Quebec (58 per cent), followed by New Brunswick (49 per cent) and Ontario (46 per cent). And in follow-up interviews, some of those polled agreed that future prospects for the environment were bleak. “I think that pollution will get worse in the near future,” said Shawn Tyler, 31, a professional firefighter in Hamilton. “I hope that in 10 to 20 years we will be backed into a corner and we’ll have to do something about it.”

For the most part, environmental experts said that they were heartened by the poll results. Colin Isaacs, executive director of the Toronto-based Pollution Probe Foundation, called the numbers “extremely encouraging.” He added, “There is today a very strong realization that environmental problems are serious, that they are substantially caused by human activity and that it is humans who have the opportunity to change that activity and be much less damaging to the environment.” And Laughlin said that the results signal an end to the confrontational approach that previously characterized environmental issues. “In the late 1960s and 1970s, it was an us-versus-them stance—a ‘big bad industry doing it to us’ attitude,” he said. “These results are a recognition that we together have to solve this difficulty that we have gotten ourselves into.”

Indeed, that sense of solving problems together is evident throughout the poll results in all breakdowns, including sex, age, income and province. Men and women, for example, showed themselves almost equally willing to spend more for environmentally safer products. Of the male respondents, 73 per cent said that they would pay more for better garbage bags, compared with 72 per cent of women. Almost 78 per cent of female respondents said yes to better food containers; 75 per cent of men. For nonaerosol containers, 80 per cent of men said that they would be willing to pay more, compared with 84 per cent of women.

There were differences between men and women on the matter of how much more to spend to protect the environment: 19.1 per cent of male respondents said that they would pay between $21 and $40 a week more for environmentally sounder products—compared with 13.6 per cent of women. As for paying more than $40 a week for safer products, 11.3 per cent of men said yes, compared with only 6.1 per cent of women.

In the responses to questions dealing with specific products, there were also no significant differences among the various age groups. But when respondents were asked to specify how much more per week they would be willing to spend in total on environmentally safer household products, those 44 years of age and younger showed a slightly greater willingness to spend more than older respondents. In the 40 to 44 age category, for example, 91 per cent said that they would spend at least $10 to $20 more per week, compared with 83 per cent in the 50 to 54 age grouping. But that slightly greater enthusiasm among younger Canadians for environmental issues is, according to Decima’s Anderson, understandable. “The leading edge of concern about environmental issues today appears to be the baby boom generation,” he said. “You can make the case that that segment of the population has a certain rooting in social activism that may have been dormant as people pursued career objectives.”

At the same time, the concern over the environment also appeared to transcend differences in income. Indeed, although people with low annual household incomes were understandably less inclined than wealthier respondents to say that they would spend more for environmentally safer products, a surprising majority of them still responded enthusiastically. For one thing, 75 per cent of respondents whose annual household income was $45,000 or more—the highest bracket—said that they would buy environmentally safer but more expensive garbage bags. In comparison, a still substantial 65 per cent of respondents in households with income less than $10,000 a year said that they would buy environmentally sounder garbage bags.

In fact, fully 71 per cent of those in the lowest income bracket said that they would be willing to spend at least $10 to $20 more per week on environmentally safe household products. “The question is not if we should be doing more as individuals, it is more how much we can do,” Anderson said. “There seems to be a pretty strong willingness across the board.” Added poll respondent Margaret Beatson, an unemployed single mother in Windsor, Ont.: “I don’t think society as a whole is doing enough about the environment and pollution. As far as products which are harmful to the environment, I don’t use them. I have switched to stick deodorant, for example.”

There were some variations in the responses among people with different education backgrounds. Although the majority of respondents with only an elementary-school education still responded positively to the poll questions, they were somewhat less inclined than those with higher education to say that they would spend more for better products. For example, 72 per cent of those who did not go to high school said that they would be willing to buy more expensive, nonaerosol spray cans, compared with 86 per cent of respondents with some university education and 89 per cent of those still in school. And 66 per cent of those with an elementary-school education still said that they would spend at least $10 to $20 more per week on safer household products—compared with 92 per cent of respondents still in school.

Slight differences in attitudes also were evident between urban and rural Canadians. In all, 75 per cent of urban respondents expressed a willingness to buy environmentally safer, more expensive garbage bags—compared with 69 per cent of rural respondents. And respondents from provinces with sparse populations also showed slightly less enthusiasm for safer environmental measures than those from more heavily urbanized provinces. Said Pollution Probe’s Isaacs: “People in the urban parts of Canada clearly see the problems much more closely. Environmental problems are there just about every day—and they are highly visible.”

At the same time, political affiliation appeared to color the responses. For one thing, people who claimed to identify with the New Democratic Party generally appeared to be more conscious of environmental concerns. When asked about the most important issue facing the country, 18 per cent of respondents describing themselves as NDP supporters identified environmental problems, compared with nine per cent of Liberal supporters and seven per cent of those who said that they identified with the Conservative party. And NDP supporters also seemed to hold out less hope for the future of the environment. When asked whether people would still be able to drink tap water by the beginning of the next century, 51 per cent of those who identified with the NDP said no—compared with 44 per cent of Liberals and 39 per cent of Tory supporters.

NDP supporters also appeared more willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the environment. For one thing, 80 per cent of them said that they would buy more expensive garbage bags, compared with 73 per cent of Liberal supporters and 70 per cent of Tories. As well, 82 per cent of those who identified with the NDP said that they would buy better food containers, compared with 78 per cent of Liberal supporters and 77 per cent for the Conservatives. In Rosthern, Peters said, “The NDP seems to take more of a stand on the environment and pollution than the other parties.” Still, Peters, who told Maclean’s that she “generally” supports the New Democrats, said that she was not convinced of the party’s ability to solve environmental problems if it came to power. “A lot of the time they can make those statements because it really doesn’t carry too much weight,” she said. “They can say a lot of things, and no one else will really listen.”

Other poll respondents clearly shared that view. “The NDP says that it is very concerned, but I don’t know if it will necessarily achieve the goals that it says it will,” said Jane Price, a teacher who is now doing graduate work at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. “I don’t know if I think that any one party is more concerned than the other.” For his part, Isaacs said: “During this past election campaign, every one of the parties, in my judgment, got pretty close to a failing grade when it came to the environment. They talked about it—but they didn’t make promises dealing with the breadth of the problem.” Indeed, the results of this year’s Maclean’s/Decima poll indicate not only a growing appreciation of environmental issues among Canadians, but also the clear understanding that concern over the environment begins in the home.