In the days of first settlement, towns like mine tried to deal with household waste by passing an ordinance requiring people to remove garbage from their properties at least twice a year. The law was impossible to enforce and a flat failure. The authorities gave up and nothing more was done about garbage in our township until 1990. For well over a century, every farm had its own dump and mother kept an eternal flame going in an oil drum 50 feet from the kitchen door.
Then suddenly our reeve announced garbage pickup would occur every Thursday. It was all part of a high-pitched campaign to Clean Up the Environment and it included a search for a mega-garbage dump site somewhere in the county. Millions of dollars went into the quest but after a decade our leaders gave up on that, too. The swamp they had chosen turned out to host a trifecta of disqualifying features including native burial grounds, the most pristine ground source water in the western hemisphere and habitat for some kind of endangered skink. The county decided to work with the old township dumps and launched a new campaign to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. They gave us blue, grey and green plastic bins, set a one-bag limit and four Toxic Tuesdays a year for dropping off paint cans and household cleaners. They mailed us a five-pound recycling manual that read like the fine print on a travel insurance policy. Then they allocated all the money earmarked for the mega-dump to bring the old dumps up to a new provincial standard. Not surprisingly, a lot of people (like the reeve’s mother and my own wife) fired up their oil drums again.
But, lo and behold, the new three-Rs campaign worked. After a few years, county staff informed us that the old township dumpsites would now last us for a very long time and no mega-dump would be required. It looked as if I would have to revise my theory that governments always achieve the exact opposite of what they set out to do. This was upsetting because none of us like to change our minds about anything and I was already getting to the age when an adult male who is proved wrong goes into a sulk and starts thinking of running for office. Fortunately, all I had to do was add a brief corollary to the old theory. If a government program appears to be working, it is because it is quietly sucking the life out of some other useful service and you just haven’t noticed.
My kids were in public school at the time and I began to realize that Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic had been abandoned and replaced by Recycling and Endangered Species. At the end of every school day, the bus dropped off four little garbage policemen to scold their parents about waste management. They did this verbally because they had no writing skills to speak of and whatever time we might have saved thanks to garbage pickup was spent teaching each of the children to read and write. Our new garbage police force is volunteer, unpaid, eternally vigilant and apparently with us for life. My children as adults may not be able to count past their own fingers but they have a university level understanding of their ecological footprint.
It is an unfortunate truth that reform is never going to be a good thing for everybody. I once attended a lecture at the University of Toronto given by one of my heroes, the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. I remember being a little alarmed when I realized the great man was not a big fan of free markets. He was basically saying that any kind of reform means refusing to let people have what they want, because higher minds have decided it isn’t good for them. This is where the divide between the liberal left and the conservative right begins. In these weeks, as we watch the deepening political impasse south of the border, we should remember that collective action rarely suits everybody. The peaceful answer to our problems is always going to end up as a compromise, somewhere in the middle, which is a place that leaves all of us feeling ill-used. That is the human condition.
If you’ve read this far, please remember to use this page as a bird cage-liner before you stick it into the stove.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.