Clean air is not just another commodity
But are Canadians willing to alter their lifestyles?
The produce department of my local supermarket, a Loblaws' Real Canadian Super Store, is a veritable United Nations of fruit and vegetables. It carries kiwis from China. Oranges from Chile. Grapes from Italy. Lemons from Argentina. Blackberries from Guatemala. Apples from New Zealand. Asparagus from Peru. Peppers from the Dominican Republic. Avocados from Mexico. Dozens of items from the United States, and the list goes on.
I mention this because there has been a tremendous hue and cry in recent weeks from Canadians concerned with global warming and the state of the environment, all in response to the federal government's proposed Clean Air Act.
Opposition politicians, media pundits, environmentalists and ordinary citizens have denounced this piece of legislation and demanded that the government do more to save our planet from imminent catastrophe.
The Tory bill proposes to establish short-, medium- and long-term targets for reducing air pollution, but it sets only one firm goal - an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 45 to 65 per cent from 2003 levels by 2050.
Canadians, it seems, expect much more. In late October, NDP Leader Jack Layton threatened to bring down the government over the issue until the Tories agreed to let the opposition parties have a go at re-writing the legislation.
One environmental group, Friends of the Earth Canada, is trying to launch a legal action against the government for abandoning the Kyoto Protocol.
What everyone seems to want is hard caps on industrial emissions, shorter deadlines for reaching these targets and stiff penalties for companies that fail to comply.
In short, Canadians expect that government will force industry to solve our environmental problems.
In all that has been said and written on this issue, I have not seen anyone, especially anyone in political life or in the environmental movement, suggest that individual Canadians should contribute something to saving the planet.
And there is a good reason for that. To put the onus on the individual means altering lifestyles, and in a secular society based on consumerism, nothing is more sacred than lifestyle.
How many weekend shoppers are willing to pass on fruit and vegetables from every part of the earth because we are burning huge volumes of fossil fuel in order to transport fresh produce to our supermarkets by truck, by train, by ship and by air?
How many urban office workers, who are dressed for the nine o'clock meeting rather than the winter weather, are willing to park their vehicles and stand in line for their Tim Hortons' in the morning rather than using the drive-thru?
How many motorists are willing to give up their SUVs, their vans or even their comfortable mid-sized cars for a compact or sub-compact vehicles just because it's better for the environment?
How many commuters are prepared to leave their vehicles at home and take the bus, the subway or the LRT in order to reduce the greenhouse gases they are producing?
How many suburbanites are willing to give up their monster homes for smaller dwellings that require less heat in the winter and less air conditioning in the summer?
Who would do without air conditioning except on the hottest days, when the temperature hits the low 30sÂ°C and the humidex is over 90 per cent?
Or who would give up the convenience of a dryer to use an outdoor clothesline in order to cut down on their power consumption?
Undoubtedly, industries produce most of the greenhouse gases, but they do so while turning out the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we consume and the electricity we require to light our homes and keep them cool in the summer.
Individual Canadians could do many things to make the planet a better place for their children and grandchildren. But it would require real change - altering our diets, driving smaller cars, driving less and tolerating the summer's heat to cite a few examples.
Judging by our recent debate over the Clean Air Act, ordinary Canadians have no stomach for such change. They would rather that business and industry make the real changes necessary to make a difference.
For all the passionate rhetoric, Canadians seem to think that clean air is just another consumer good, which we demand and industry will deliver.
(D'Arcy Jenish can be reached at email@example.com)