How foreign health fears affect us

D Miller 2

What is one to make of it?

A recent Angus Reid poll reported that only 6 per cent of the people in Ontario said the environment should receive the greatest attention from Ontario’s leaders. Topping the poll were health care (56 per cent), education (48 per cent), and jobs (30 per cent).

On the other hand, as I mentioned last week, Environics International Ltd. of Toronto has found that 36 per cent of Canadians have a « great deal’’ of concern about environmental problems — a very high percentage to express such an acute degree of concern. And 73 per cent favour protecting the environment even at the risk of slowing down the economy.

At first blush these results seem contradictory. But if you separate « top-of-mind’’ concerns from those that are smouldering below the surface, the results are consistent.

Top-of-mind concerns are those where people sense an immediate crisis. This is what the Angus Reid poll was recording.

Governments that rely on these polls to determine their policies are reactive. They are constantly fighting brush fires.

The concerns that are smouldering below the surface, those identified in the Environics poll, are tomorrow’s brush fires. What the high percentages show is that people are approaching what Doug Miller, president of Environics International, calls « breach of trust’’ — the point at which people decide that the government has let them down. When they arrive at that point, they show up in top-of-mind, Angus Reid polls, in large numbers.

« People expect continuous progress over the years,’’ Miller says. « They don’t expect siss-boom-bah (kinds of action). However, when issues become top-of-mind, siss-boom-bah is what they demand.”

What the Environics poll reports is that Canadians see little or no progress on environmental issues, and they are increasingly worried.

The fascinating aspect of the Environics poll is that Canadians are not alone. Their concerns are shared worldwide. « It surprised us,’’ says Miller. The poll was conducted in 30 countries, accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population.

Most intriguing of all was what happened when Miller prepared a graph that shows where people of each country stand in relation to those in other counties. It identified a clear division between the industrialized world and the lesser developed world.

According to this analysis, people in Asia (excluding Japan), Latin America, and Eastern Europe have top-of-the-mind concerns about the environment, and want major, remedial action taken right away. Concerns of those in the West are still smouldering.

As a result, says Miller, and in a switch from the past, leadership on environmental issues is going to come from the lesser developed countries. Their governments will be pushed by citizens to take decisive steps to combat pollution.

Any transnational company wanting to sell in these countries had better be listening, he adds. Any western government wanting to promote its wares — as Team Canada has been doing — had better pay attention.

« This is not an environmental wave’’ that has hit these areas. « It’s a health wave,’’ Miller says.

The West hasn’t made the connection between environmental degradation and poor health sufficiently to make it a top-of-the-mind concern. But in lesser developed countries, people have.

« But change in China?’’ I say. China, whose autocratic government is damming the Yangtze River and destroying its gorges?  China that is relying on low-grade coal to fuel its industries?

Miller nods. In the last year and a half, China has shut down 400 to 1,000 pulp mills in an effort to combat pollution, he says. The mills were mostly Mom-and-Pop operations with two to five employees. It’s an indication of what’s to come. The government will be struggling to keep up with what its people demand. As will be the case in India, Korea, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and Russia.

And so we have a choice, it seems to me. Prepare for change at home and abroad, and take advantage of it. Or be forced to react.

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