As recently as my elementary school days, we were taught an ecological model that put predators at the top and plankton at the bottom - quite old-fashioned these days, when nature is understood as a web within which life thrives horizontally, not hierarchically.
Appropriate, then, that municipalities are joining together to commit to climate-friendly policies although their federal counterparts won't.
The mayor's just-released Change Is In The Air: Toronto's Commitment To An Environmentally Sustainable Future is a modest first step and seeks elaboration through consultation. But it touches on the core of urban living.
After all, if you make something sustainable as your first step, it's more likely to help you with the second. The Transit City plan will reduce emissions - and gridlock. Smart density and green buildings will also strengthen neighbourhoods. And the best way to ease stress on the global ecology is to build a strong local economy.
The report calls for the expansion of initiatives like the Better Buildings Partnership, an energy-efficiency project that facilitates retrofits and redesigns of commercial and industrial buildings. And the document pushes LED traffic signals and the phasing out of incandescent lighting in all city buildings.
The report proposes expanding deep lake water cooling to meet 90 per cent of needs in the downtown core by 2020, retrofitting 50 per cent of homes and small businesses for energy efficiency in the same interval and enacting mandatory green building standards.
But some of this is clearly out of city bounds. Residential energy use accounts for a quarter of Toronto's local emissions, but only senior governments have the wherewithal for expansive retrofits. As for building standards, the province will have to relax its grip on the building code.
And any possible commitment to the strong, truly local economy talked about in the report (balm for ears tired of tourism toadying and global finance genuflecting) would best be served by using taxes to subsidize the growth of local clean businesses - powers that are prohibited by the province.
But first, council has to reimagine itself as a teaching body. There's been talk of using the city's new powers for licensing and regressive taxes (road tolls) to help drive policy, and in discussing the plan, members of the executive have floated phasing out leaf blowers and lawn mowers.
It's education, not regulation, that will green the day. Otherwise, people will just ignore the law, new revenue will be thrown in the bylaw enforcement hole, and it'll all be repealed when the left is ousted by grumpy suburbanites.
Don't believe me? Ask Scarborough-Agincourt councillor Norm Kelly. "I see no consensus on the warming climate, or the causes," he said at last Monday's (March 26) executive meeting, wondering aloud if the projections city staff have used were interpreted by real scientists. No, Norm. They just went around asking people, "Warm today, isn't it?"
Kelly's funny. Less funny is the fact that someone voted for him - 10,481 someones, actually. And perhaps an equal number would be sympathetic to the plight of the leaf blower and gas mower.
"When you've got 50-to-100-foot lots, you aren't going to use a push mower," said Etobicoke councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby. "It's the same with leaf blowers. Phase them out in May, June and July, when no one's using them."
While we're at it, let's ban using air conditioners in February. And disallow road travel by means of Batmobile.
Still, Lindsay Luby made a salient point: "Toronto is urban and suburban. One size doesn't fit all." The Scarborough Civic Action Network just released a study showing that the majority of Scarborough residents don't vote; maybe they will if we start taking away their stuff.
Rather, the gas engine lawn debate could open up some crucial discussions on how to harmonize Toronto's dense quiltwork core and the outlying areas where, as climate wonk Ralph Torrie once put it, "you need to move tons of steel and plastic around just to get a jug of milk."
As it is, most suburbanites need to drive; any talk of tolls or other punitive measures has to take this into account.
And we'll have to deal with the fact that creating sustainability isn't just a design issue. Reductions in emissions from retrofits, the projections say, can only cut electricity use by 50 per cent in commercial buildings and 5 per cent at industrial sites. It then becomes a question of consumption.
The most inspiring thing to come of all this might be that to get to a breathable city we'll have to pass through a more democratic city, where all our habits of daily life are on the table. And, in the spirit of earth's complexity, maybe we'll remember a new favourite slogan: "Speak to learn, not to teach."