George Washington Bridge – Chester Higgins, US EPA

George Washington Bridge – Chester Higgins, US EPA

Despite the obvious need to act, moving Canada toward sustainability sometimes seems a hopeless task. One way to combat a sustainability funk is to write a blues song. Another is to think about the environmental ideas that have already changed the way we live.

When we began Alternatives in 1971, curbside recycling was assumed to be pretty close to impossible. People would not sort their garbage; that was just asking too much. Surprise: Humans adapt and can do so pretty quickly and comprehensively. Environmental thinking can change behavior and most people will understand why they have to change. Sometimes the change will require legislation, regulation and enforcement, but sometimes we do not even need new laws, just information, motivation and opportunities.

The power of legislated change came home to me recently when I viewed a series of pictures taken in multiple locations prior to the passage of the US Clean Air Act of 1963. The George Washington Bridge was completely obscured by smog. Major polluters there and here would not have acted to improve air quality without legislation.

Sometimes legislated change requires broader public understanding as well as legislation, as was the case with exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke. Few believed that we could rid restaurants, buses, airplanes, shopping malls and offices of smoking. But we have, nearly globally.

Sometimes government must be convinced not so much to stop polluters, but just to not do something stupid itself. 

Sometimes government must be convinced not so much to stop polluters, but just to not do something stupid itself. This was the case in the 1970s regarding the “urgently needed” but cancelled second Toronto airport and the never-completed Spadina Expressway. Toronto seems to have survived without them.

Sometimes sustainability actions get underway “on their own” in direct response to environmental debate and mostly small, pioneering entrepreneurs. That seems to be happening now with regard to both food and energy.

From the mid-1970s, following earlier publications like Organic Farming and Gardening and the hippie bible Mother Earth News, Alternatives Journal wrote extensively about the perils of industrial agriculture. Forty years later – though seemingly suddenly – organic and local agriculture have boomed, farmers’ markets have proliferated and Whole Foods and the like have blossomed. Once, only detectives could find organic produce; now it is everywhere. Even pets can dine on local, organic fare. The role of government in this shift has been modest. It is simply what people want to eat.

Regarding energy, Amory Lovins published his ground-breaking essay on the soft energy path in 1976. Alternatives featured province-by-province Canadian soft-path studies soon thereafter. Energy efficiency improved and solar energy research was encouraged when fossil fuel prices rose in 1979, but those efforts disappeared when energy prices fell
post-1985.

Many 1970s environmentalist dreams are becoming reality.

Quietly, however, solar and wind technologies continued to improve and costs continued to decline. Now, much of the world is installing wind and solar power – and at a spectacular rate. East African villagers, living off-grid and away from wired phone systems, recharge cell phones and light living spaces using solar panels. Denmark, Germany and other countries are, on some days, producing most of their electricity through renewable sources and Ontario is building wind turbines quickly. Renewable energy was slow to get going, but its time has finally come. Many 1970s environmentalist dreams are becoming reality.

There is, of course, much more to do. Canada will not become sustainable without reconfiguring cities and transportation systems, effectively protecting habitat (including fisheries), capping tar sands expansion, phasing out coal and reversing the madness of importing heavy or easy-to-produce things like cement and garlic from the other side of the world. But given what we have already done, we can change those things, too. 

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