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Being Green is Growing

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Those who know me might be surprised to learn that I sometimes think of myself as Mike Holmes, the beefy embodiment of home renovation prowess. Though I acknowledge that I've never owned a pair of overalls, and that we -- how shall I put this? -- have dissimilar builds (if we were dogs, he'd be a St. Bernard and I'd be an Afghan), we share a certain commitment to fixing things. Different things. Lots of things.

Where his tools of choice are wrenches and band saws and nail guns, mine are more like press releases, blog posts and pithy research reports. Yup, in this screwed up 21st-century world the environmentalist is essentially a handyman (or, because environmentalism is really a women's movement, a handywoman), trying to tweak, remodel and renovate humanity's affairs to ensure the planet remains habitable.

Over the past few weeks, as the federal government has served notice that it intends to short-circuit environmental assessment, build damaging new oil projects come hell or high-water, and bulldoze any environmental groups that dare stand in the way, I've noticed an increasing number of media pundits talking about how environmentalism has fallen on hard times, or has lost its way.

Whenever I hear things like this, I think of Gandhi's sage words: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

This very path is how women got the vote and how gays got to marry. And it's the path that environmentalism is on, too. So saying that environmentalism is "on the defensive" is just silly. Try throwing something recyclable into the garbage in front of a child if you don't believe me.

"Environmentalism" is not just something that happens in Ottawa, through the good grace of parliament. It is an attitudinal shift that is well advanced, and accelerating.

Forget politics for a moment and look at markets. Public transit ridership reaches new highs, year after year. Look at the skylines of our cities and see for yourself that more people want transport options like transit, cycling and walking. Visit a dealership and ask if fuel efficiency is driving new car purchases, with more hybrids and electric cars for sale than ever. Or head for the grocery aisle to see more organics, or the cosmetics counter to see fewer things that are toxic.

That's just the half of it, too. Funny, for a cause that's withering, how businesses (so often called the "real world" by our detractors) keep looking for ways to do more.

Industries are getting with it and launching green certification initiatives for their products like never before. Forest companies, long at loggerheads with environmentalists have, to a large extent, made their practices more sustainable through a sincere engagement with their critics. Even the sand and gravel industry -- we're talking Bedrock quarry and Fred Flintstone here -- is entering the 21st century with an eye to making its operations more sustainable. Of Canada's largest companies, only 26 per cent published sustainability reports ten years ago, today over 80 per cent of these top companies are committed to some form of sustainability reporting.

Who's responding to this? Not a remote federal government, but the level of government closest to real people: municipalities. Towns and cities are embracing more sustainable land use as job number one: from Vancouver's boast of being the greenest city in the world, to the Greater Toronto Area's all-consuming public transit debate, to Halifax's recent upgrades to sewage infrastructure, to Calgary's new anti-sprawl mayor.

Provinces are doing a ton too. Ontario, Nova Scotia and B.C. are serious about installing solar panels and windmills. Most provinces -- including Manitoba, of eagle-sized mosquito fame -- have already, or will shortly, adopt restrictions on lawn pesticides resulting in measurable health benefits.

Even the federal government continues to make progress in some areas. From an environmental point of view much is going right across the country.

Is everything rosy? Of course not. Clearly, at the federal level, we are stuck at the moment with the oil industry driving the energy agenda. But this is a specific problem. And it needs some clear thinking and focus to be solved.

The second reason I bristle at the "environmentalism is failing" meme is that if people didn't want to do more, would the oil industry and its surrogates and its allies in the federal government really be going to all this trouble to stifle green groups' voices? I don't think so.

So back to Gandhi's wise words: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Seems to me that, with respect to the issues swirling around tar sands and pipelines in this country we're firmly in Stage 3 of this process.

A win for the environment and the health of Canadians is surely just around the corner.