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  • Property, Technology, and Environmental Policy:The Politics of Acid Rain in Ontario, 1978–1985
  • Owen Temby (bio) and Ryan O’Connor (bio)

Acid rain emerged as a salient political issue in Ontario during the late 1970s in the wake of multiple scientific studies and media reports of its damaging effects on emblematic tourist areas in the province. In the popular “cottage country” Muskoka and Halliburton regions near Toronto, the rapid deterioration of the area’s many lakes had alarmed local property owners and businesses, and the studies and reports pointed to the culprits—notably Ontario’s nickel-copper ore smelting and power-generation industries. Politicians learned they would sidestep the problem at their peril during the summer of 1978, when a rescinded control order on the International Nickel Company of Canada (Inco), the province’s largest emitter of acid rain precursors, unleashed a public backlash raising the prospect of a nonconfidence motion against the government and leading to the replacement of the newly appointed environmental minister. With acid rain now on the policymaking agenda, a succession of events occurred that were significant enough for several academic observers to assert that Canada had at the time entered a new era of environmental mobilization.1

The case of acid rain in Ontario has been used in the public policy literature as an example of the second “wave” or “generation” of environmental [End Page 636] policymaking in Canada. As with environmental policy in the United States, the prominent scholarly understanding is that an environmental movement in the late 1960s brought about substantial changes in the way that environmental issues are governed.2 In Canada, a number of environmental policy developments—most notably acid rain precursors reductions and an elimination of stratospheric ozone-depleting substances—during the 1980s have been interpreted as an ecological reawakening of sorts.3 Yet an examination of the history of air pollution governance in both Canada and the United States suggests that the acid rain case was a continuation of a persistent pattern occurring in North America since the 1910s or earlier. This observation is itself not novel, as several historical studies have identified aggressive air pollution abatement efforts in urban areas during the course of the entire twentieth century.4 However, the specific regularities and discontinuities in air pollution governance have been rarely spelled out and, even then, incompletely. Those that have examined long-term trends have underscored the role of locally oriented propertied interests in lobbying for and formulating clear air policy in order to facilitate continued economic growth and the associated increase in land values.5 Generally, albeit with exceptions, such propertied interests have taken the specific form of influential local elites. These studies and others have also identified the centrality of ecological modernization to this process since the use of technology rather than changes in natural resource processing and consumption enable economic activity to avoid substantial disruption.6

Our analysis in this article seeks to enrich the empirical record of the history of North American air pollution governance by reaffirming the role of locally oriented (and primarily elite) propertied interests and also the form this policy takes. In doing so, we underscore one manner in which policy-making had ostensibly changed with the acid rain case; namely, sufficiently inexpensive and reliable technology existed for a solution that satisfied all parties. Thus, we argue that what appeared as a new era of environmental policymaking was, at least partly, the result of the implementation of technology (i.e., ecological modernization), enabling the resolution of the problem in a way consistent with the unfettered continuation of existing economic activity. While this has already been shown to be true in the case of the global replacement of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons with other chemicals, we outline a similar process with the abatement of acid rain precursors.7

To show that elite propertied interests were central to agenda setting and policy formulation in the acid rain case, we illustrate the importance of the [End Page 637] region’s two large urban newspapers and a broad coalition of actors in which elite property played a dominant role. These newspapers and the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain (CCAR) lobbied for specific abatement policy...


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