Until this year, acid rain was rarely front-page material in Canada, though a Parliamentary Special Committee on Acid Rain did solid work both on identifying the sources and proposing remedies. As a newsmaker, however, it was overshadowed by such Canadian staples as the whopping national debt, constitutional wrangles between Ottawa and the provinces, and Quebec’s status within—or edging out of—the federation.

Because America’s industries account for up to 70 percent of the acid rain falling in some regions of Canada, it was assumed to be a matter for Ottawa to tackle with Washington, and Canada’s ambassadors—first Allan Gotlieb and now Derek Burney—spent a lot of their time doing exactly that. (Somewhat less publicized is that Canada’s sulphur dioxide emissions, per capita, are about double those of the U.S.) At home, although significant progress was made in emission reduction and energy conservation, the culpable industries are basic to the national economy; forcing them into uneconomical measures would affect the national standard of living.

All the while, environmentalists were plugging away at their theme: acid rain was killing the fish and eventually it would kill us, too. In the fourth edition of its Acid Rain Primer, the Pollution Probe Foundation reprinted from 11 years ago its report on the death of Nellie Lake, the subject decades before of a work by Canada’s best-known painter, A.Y. Jackson:

Both the artist and the lake are now dead. Jackson died after a long and respected creative career. Nellie Lake died in the youth of its ordinarily anticipated life. Its fish populations slipped away gradually and silently, victims of acidification from rain and snow, polluted by sulphur and nitrogen oxides from smelters and power plants many miles away.

Canada’s David Suzuki has communicated his passion for protecting the environment to listeners and viewers in 82 other countries. Writing in Harrowsmith, David Lees described how Suzuki’s “weekly appearances on CBC’s The Nature of Things have made him as recognizable as [Canadian Prime Minister] Brian Mulroney, and his participation in the 1985 eight-part special series A Planet for the Taking and the 1989 two-hour special Amazonia . . . secured his stature as the environmental conscience of the nation.”

If there is one thing that emerges from the Special Committee’s studies, it is the key role that advances in technology must play in reducing harmful emissions. Yet Lees also refers to Suzuki’s “unconditional rejection of technology and economic growth,” and this brings us to the politics of the matter.

April 1990 saw two events of singular import: clearance, in committee, of blocks to the passage of a Clean Air Act by the United States Congress; and issuance by the Canadian government of a “green plan” intended “to make Canada, by the year 2000, the industrial world’s most environmentally friendly country.”

Before he resigned in May (over a matter unconnected with the environment), the environmental minister, Lucien Bouchard, launched a series of public hearings, the results of which will form the basis of legislation. The political implications were twofold. First, he would disarm both the conservatives who accuse his Progressive Conservative Party of being too progressive, and the professional environmentalists who accuse it of not being progressive enough: all would have their say. Second, by easing “the most environmentally friendly country” toward the top of the political agenda in time for the next federal election in 1992, he would chip away at his party’s present unpopularity.

Canadians are increasingly aware that they are ruled by political elites who ignore majority opinion and listen only to advocacy groups, most of which are funded from taxes. So Bouchard plays the populist. If the people crave majority rule as the antidote to the advocacy groups they see as governing them now, he’ll be glad to accommodate them with a government that listens to the majority.

Or appears to; for experience shows that his hearings will be a second home to the advocacy groups, which are practiced in public speaking and the presentation of papers and which outnumber the rank and file (who are too busy earning a living) and outgun the representatives of business and industry. And the advocates’ thrust is toward government action; not merely Canadian government action, but international action: in short, toward the New International Economic Order.

But government action carried to an extreme, as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, not only devastates the human and physical environments; it does so in the same condition of zero economic growth that environmentalists such as David Suzuki now advocate for the West. Those newly liberated and impoverished peoples in the East seek the intertwining of economic freedom with political freedom that is indispensable to peaceful evolution and the creation of wealth. We, who take political freedom for granted, see our economic freedom increasingly eroded by governments intervening in the marketplace.

If the government’s green plan succeeds in raising the national consciousness, it will have done its work, and it should stop there. Out of enlightened self-interest, individuals, whether singly or in businesses, will respond spontaneously, as they are doing already.

In his book, A Killing Rain, Thomas Pawlick describes measures taken a decade ago by Kidd Creek Mines and Dow Chemical, both in Ontario, to recapture sulphur dioxide emissions, which enabled them “to come close to energy self-sufficiency in many of [their] operations, drastically cutting overhead costs.”

Last year, Adam Zimmerman, chairman of Canada’s leading pulp and paper company, told a Canadian Club audience:

A big modern pulp mill replants all the wood it uses and thus maintains a sustained yield forest. It produces an effluent that is drinkable and virtually undetectable 10 miles downstream, doing no harm along the way, and it may produce about a sugar cube’s worth of dioxin in say 300,000 tons of production.

The government will do well to be guided less by professional advocates than by its own stated aim. An environmentally friendly country will be friendly also to what Friedrich Hayek calls free growth and spontaneous evolution.