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  • The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario by Ryan O’Connor
  • Hereward Longley
Ryan O’Connor, The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2015)

While the Canadian environmental movement is often popularly conceived as an offshoot of its US counterpart that emerged in the 1970s, Ryan O’Connor argues that it actually emerged in the 1960s as a domestic response to industrial pollution. Focusing on the environmental non-governmental organization (engo) Pollution Probe, The First Green Wave follows the development of the early environmental movement in Toronto. O’Connor’s book provides an important corrective to both public and academic historical perspectives of the Canadian environmental movement and provides a valuable set of historical case studies for the modern environmental movement.

O’Connor differentiates between the origins of the Canadian and American environmental movements. Whereas the US environmental movement evolved from a confluence of existing conservation groups in the 1950s with ecological values to form national activist groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, O’Connor shows that in Canada engos were regional and spontaneous, differentiated from conservation groups, and without the substantial funding enjoyed by their US counterparts. The Ontario environmental movement did not begin with Rachel Carson’s Silent [End Page 241] Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962) nor with Earth Day, writes O’Connor, but rather as a response to industrial air pollution exposed in the 1967 cbc documentary The Air of Death. The shock of this documentary and the ensuing controversy inspired the creation of Group Action to Stop Pollution (gasp) in 1967 and Pollution Probe in 1969.

Although gasp was formed first, after an initial spike of interest it languished and ceased to operate in 1970. Pollution Probe, however, had the institutional support of the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto, which gave it the space and resources to thrive. O’Connor argues that through 1970 and 1971 Pollution Probe formed the leadership foundation of the Toronto environmental community, most notably fostering the creation of the Canadian Environmental Law Association (cela). Between 1972 and 1974 Pollution Probe reached its zenith. They centralized, adopted a hierarchical team model, and branched out into urban development and energy issues. However, the onset of the OPEC energy crisis in 1973 hamstrung Probe’s ambitions as funding rapidly collapsed and staff had to be let go. This was an especially tough time for the environmental movement, writes O’Connor, as austerity and energy issues came to dominate the engo agenda, and Pollution Probe was surpassed by and split from its subsidiary, Energy Probe, and was challenged by the increasing influence of other engos like Greenpeace and the Is Five Foundation (iff). Though in the 1980s Pollution Probe had a resurgence with its work on the Love Canal case, waste, and public health issues, the emergence of bigger national organizations such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club of Canada, and the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, which O’Connor identifies as the second wave of environmentalism, forced Pollution Probe to limit itself to smaller, more manageable domestic issues from the 1980s forward.

Perhaps the most important theme in The First Green Wave is that engos have a significant effect on society, business, and government, although success relative to a group’s ambitions is rarely immediate or complete. For instance, many of Pollution Probe’s early efforts to get the Toronto and Ontario governments to fund a mechanized solid waste recycling plant were rejected, mechanized recycling plants were approved in the late 1970s, recycling eventually became standard practice nation wide, and their motto “reduce, reuse, recycle” has become synonymous with recycling. (112) In 1972, cela brought legal challenges against the Ontario Government and the Lake Ontario Cement Company over extraction of sand from Sandbanks Provincial Park in Prince Edward County, Ontario. The two sets of charges were both thrown out and cela was held liable for court costs. However, the attraction of public attention, O’Connor argues, impelled the provincial government to halt extraction and cancel the lease in 1973. cela was widely...


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pp. 241-243
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