This year, Earth week in Ontario was marked by three small steps in the long battle to keep from destroying our own world. Each of the three had as much cultural as legal significance.
Last summer, this blog got coast-to-coast publicity for our call for action on clothesline bans. Clothesline bans are often part of the restrictive covenants in subdivisions and condominiums, intended to avoid the lower-class stigma of flapping unmentionables. Now that Ontario will finally will use its grandly titled Energy Conservation Leadership Act to invalidate clothesline bans in subdivisions, everyone with a yard is now free to string a clothesline. For those in condominiums, however, the bans remain in place, partly because laundry on balconies is so visible, and partly because of the potential for safety concerns. The government says it is still “consulting”.
This partial end to clothesline bans is more of a symbolic change than a real one; despite a great deal of searching, no one found would-be clothesline users who had been barred by law from their right to dry. But the symbol is important. It will take a significant change of customs and preferences for those who use clotheslines to be seen as social leaders, not those who cannot afford better. More generally, will energy waste lose its social cachet and become something only the immoral and uncaring do?
An equally wrenching change for the psyche has now arrived for the lawn. A biological desert, water hog, monoculture and chemical magnet, the lawn remains a powerful symbol of prosperity, if also of conformity. Subdivision covenants, municipal bylaws, and even a provincial statute all require homeowners to maintain their lawns and to control “weeds”. Many homeowners pride themselves, and judge their neighbors, on the uniformity of their green carpet. For the last 50 years, lawn care has typically relied heavily on the regular use of both fertilizers and pesticides, much of which runs off into our water supply.
Now, 10 years after the Town of Hudson adopted a precedent-setting ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides, and five years after the City of Toronto successfully defended such a bylaw of its own, Ontario is following Quebec and making the ban provincewide. Well, almost provincewide: farmers and golf courses will be exempt. Major retailers, such as Home Depot, have announced that they will stop carrying lawn pesticides in their stores across the country.
What will lawn owners do? Some will hand dig goldenrod and dandelions, or pay their children to do so. Others will buy bootleg or gray market pesticides. Some will get rid of their lawns, converting them to thyme and spurge or to pavement. Yet others will let their lawns get weedy, happy to blame the government for their drop in lawn maintenance standards. For many, the change in their accustomed green carpet will be an uncomfortable cultural shift.
The third cultural discomfort of the week came from the federal government’s announcement that it may regulate bisphenol A as a potentially toxic substance. bisphenol A is widely used, for example in hard plastic water bottles, in the lining of tin cans, in flooring.
10 years ago, Charles Caccia’s Parliamentary committee insisted that the reauthorized Canadian Environmental Protection Act require the federal government to assess the safety of the 24,000 chemical substances already in general use, and not just new chemicals (as it had done since 1994). Parliament gave the Ministers of environment and health seven years to screen the 24,000 substances and to decide which ones required action. At the end of the seven years, approximately 400 substances had been identified as requiring further study; the detailed investigation of Bisphenol A which has just concluded is one result of that process.
The investigation showed that infants and toddlers are exposed to potentially hazardous levels of bisphenol A from baby bottles and tinned baby food. In addition, bisphenol A is persistent and widespread in the environment and highly toxic to aquatic and other organisms. Half a million kg of bisphenol A were imported into Canada in 2006, for a bewildering variety of food, medical, industrial and other uses. For years, the plastics industry has persuaded governments around the world to declare Bisphenol A safe; Canada is the first to decide it poses a health risk. (This is very unusual; Canada almost always takes the lead in from either Europe or the US.)
The federal government review all of bisphenol A is now open for two months of public comment. After that time, the government will likely focus on preventing releases of bisphenol A into infant formula from epoxy resin lined cans and polycarbonate plastic baby bottles. However, many consumers are turning away from polycarbonate food containers for people of all ages, and retailers are rushing to accommodate them.
More clotheslines, fewer pesticides, and glass baby bottles are trivial changes in our habits and aspirations, and will have only trivial impacts on our ecological footprints. But each of the three calls for some visible change in the status symbols of our comfortable lives. May they be a harbinger of things to come.