I love Toronto because my drug of choice is legal here. I'm talking about that air-borne narcotic, nitrogen dioxide - or "smog" as we call it in the street. And there's a good steady supply of it. In fact, we're the number-four purveyor in the world. I've always taken it for granted, but this summer suddenly we're in a drought - only four days of smog alert so far. My need for a fix got so bad, I had to spend a day hovering over my home pollution-creation unit - my gas mower.
That was when I called Toronto public health. At first they were reassuring. No, they told me, nitrogen dioxide and ozone are not really decreasing. In fact, both have actually increased over the past 20 years. The problem is the weather, the winds and the cool temperatures. It's one thing for the coal-fired generating stations and cars to create the smog, but it's another for it to be delivered. All I had to do was be patient, wait for the air currents to change direction and I would be high as a kite again.
That was soothing, but then I heard about last month's smog summit. Surely, I thought to myself, with deepening dread, a cross-section of experts, officials and concerned groups from all levels of government would quickly come up with a plan that would cut the supply completely.
My greatest terror was the much-ballyhooed five-point plan showcased at the summit by the McGuinty government. They intended, it was said, to enact "tough new laws," including, worst of all, the shutting down of our local coal-fired generators by 2006.
I was in a panic until I read an assessment of the plan written by Keith Stewart of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. Relief came with the words "emissions trading," a plan the McGuinty government borrowed from the U.S. that essentially gives corporations polluting rights.
Eligible companies get a fouling quota, and when they don't use it all up they can trade or sell the remainder to another corporation. The best news of all for those with a smog habit is that this, as of now, includes those local coal-fired generators. So even if they do close them down, the resulting unfilled quota can then be sold to other more polluting corporations that will make up the difference. Total pollution reduction: zero.
Stewart says there's a special phrase for those areas that get the resulting bumped-up pollution counts: "sacrifice zones." They're easy to find in the U.S., he says - they mysteriously coincide with poor black communities. I relax even more when Stewart points out that all the proposed tough new rules would amount to very little if there's no staff to prosecute, and cutbacks in the Ministry of the Environment have seen to that.
But the smog addict's life can be up and down. My next high-anxiety flare-up came with last week's public health report, Air Pollution Burden Of Illness In Toronto. It cited a horrifying statistic that, if it reached the wider public, would likely, I thought cause a massive revolt. This year, the report states, 6,000 people will be hospitalized and 1,700 will die of premature deaths directly related to smog.
I pictured a massive uprising: cars abandoned, smokestacks stormed like Bastilles, corporate emissions traders dragged out and put on trial like Saddam for wilfully, knowingly gassing their own people. Where would I get my smog fix then? New York? Los Angeles? What kind of life is that - living in a dangerous gun culture, without health care?
I could have saved my shivers. As we saw, there was no uprising, just business as usual, the retrofitting of a few public buildings, talk of anti-idling campaigns, etc. Pretty small stuff really. Stop being such a Paranoia Jones, I told myself.
It was Olivia Chow who finally said the most to ease my distress. She explained that the only way to really curtail smog in Toronto is to control urban sprawl. The more the city stretches out, the more cars must be driven, the more there will be smog. And the only thing to stop urban sprawl is a very rare commodity known as "political will."
Phew! I was really starting to calm down now. Who's afraid of political will? We're talking about the country where the most volatile election in recent history had the smallest turnout in 20 years. Hooray. My smog supply, was not only safe for the foreseeable future, but virtually guaranteed. Forward ho! Put the hammer to the floor and spread the wealth.
I took a deep breath of relief and let it out with a sigh containing half a million shining cadmium particles.