Review of O’Connor, The First Green Wave

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Reviewed by Henry Trim

Ryan O’Connor, The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015), 231 pp, ISBN: 9780774828086; 9780774828093.

Ryan O’Connor’s The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario is an excellent resource for anyone interested in Canadian environmentalism or indeed in the provincial politics of Ontario in the 1970s. Part of UBC Press’ Nature History Society series, this book provides a well-researched and highly detailed account of the rise of environmental activism in Ontario and to a lesser degree in Canada. Interested readers will be impressed by O’Connor’s extensive use of archival and oral history as well as the depth the many interviews he draws upon lend to his study of Canadian environmentalism.

The First Green Wave focuses on the “first wave” of environmentalism in Canada, which in O’Connor’s view lasted roughly from 1969 to 1980. He asserts this first wave had distinct patterns in Canada which distinguish it from American environmentalism. It saw the foundation of Canada’s first environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) and the success of their efforts to make environmental issues an accepted part of Canadian politics. In O’Connor’s telling these groups were characterized by concern over pollution, be it smog or toxic effluent, and motivated by an ecological view of the world. He illustrates how these ENGOs acted within overlapping national, regional, and local political systems to build the municipal and provincial partnerships that allowed them to launch environmental politics into the Canadian mainstream. O’Connor also avoids environmental scholars’ penchant for declensionist narratives by highlighting ENGOs’ successes – recycling – as well as their missteps. To examine the history of these pioneers of Canadian environmentalism O’Connor turns to Pollution Probe and the city of Toronto. Analysis of Pollution Probe and other closely related ENGOs in southern Ontario allows O’Connor to examine topics important to environmental historians namely: connections between local and environmental politics, relationships between the counterculture and environmental movements, and, to a lesser extent, environmentalists’ interaction with the corporate sector.

O’Connor argues convincingly that environmental politics are inseparable from local politics. He shows that while the American influences of Silent Spring and Earth Day impacted Canadians, pollution could be regarded as an American phenomenon until events in Canada demonstrated otherwise. Pollution Probe, the ENGO at the center of this narrative, emerged at the University of Toronto in response to an air pollution scare in southern Ontario. To emphasize the importance of local politics O’Connor draws on the many interviews he conducted to provide a highly textured picture of how environmentalism emerged and grew in the context of Toronto’s municipal power struggles and the growing recognition among Ontarians of the environmental impacts of the province’s industry. The First Green Wave is at its best in its graphic recounting of Pollution Probe’s guerrilla theatre funeral for the Don River or Probe co-founder Tony Barrett’s penchant for marching up to Bay Street CEO’s wearing a plastic army helmet. O’Connor’s effective use of such detail makes The First Green Wave engaging reading and underlines how pioneering environmental groups, such as Pollution Probe, drew upon their local political, economic, and social ecosystems for both support and direction.

The First Green Wave’s treatment of the connections between the counterculture and the environmental movement is important, albeit slightly less compelling. O’Connor usefully highlights the complex relationship between the countercultural and the environmental movements. He shows how the University of Toronto students who made up Pollution Probe drew upon student activism and engaged in guerrilla theatre, but differentiated themselves from hippie students by relying on science and cultivating ties with Toronto’s business and political elites through members, such as Barrett, who had attended that bastion of privilege, Upper Canada College. O’Connor argues that tense, but reciprocal relationship between environmental and countercultural activism is important for the study of environmental politics. In underlining this nuanced relationship, however, he seems to equate the Canadian counterculture with long-haired radicals who rejected scientific knowledge for the good vibrations of yogic enlightenment. This may have been a common perception, but as recent scholarship suggests the Canadian counterculture was far more diverse and in some cases embraced science and technology.[i] A more careful treatment of recent scholarship might have provided a more nuanced picture of countercultural activism in Canada.

O’Connor sprinkles brief thoughts about corporate sponsorship of environmental causes throughout the book, giving the reader flashes of a fascinating discussion about the tense relationship between Pollution Probe and Ontario’s corporate sector. Unfortunately, this discussion remains largely submerged under the overarching political narrative. This is disappointing. O’Connor asserts that Pollution Probe succeeded because of its ability to draw support from Toronto’s business community and he highlights how close the relationship sometimes became. Pollution Probe even briefly agreed to sponsor Loblaws’ (a large chain of grocery stores) Green Line of supposedly environmentally responsible products. O’Connor quickly notes the group ended the deal due to an internal disagreement over the ethics of sponsoring disposable diapers as green. This brief statement coupled with similarly brief treatments of Pollution Probe’s split with its sister organization, Energy Probe, over the latter’s free market views leave the reader wishing the relationship between the business community and ENGOs had been interrogated in greater detail. At the very least a more extensive treatment of Pollution Probe’s brush with sponsorship could have provided a fascinating look into how Canadian environmental groups viewed green consumerism and contributed to our knowledge of Canada’s “light green” society.[ii]

Despite these minor problems The First Green Wave remains an important contribution to Canadian environmental history. By capturing in fascinating detail both the struggles and successes of pioneering environmentalists at Pollution Probe and other ENGOs, O’Connor preserves and illuminates a key moment in Canadian environmentalism. O’Connor’s focus on the local politics of Toronto and southern Ontario also provides scholars with a foundation for examining a strain of national and regional environmentalism which stands in sharp contrast to the internationalism of Greenpeace.

Editor’s Note: Listen to our full interview with Ryan O’Connor about The First Green Wave here.

Notes

[i] See Colin Coates, ed. The Canadian Countercultures and the Environment (University of Calgary Press, 2016).

[ii] Michael Bess, The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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Henry Trim

Hank Trim is an economist with the Circular Bioeconomy and Supply Chain Economics team in the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada. He welcomes questions from readers at henry.trim@canada.ca.

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