By: Peter Denton

The Pallister government’s announcement it would review Manitoba’s cosmetic-pesticide ban sent a groan through the local environmental community.

All the hours spent on a monumentally slow process that began in 2009 led to a report from the Manitoba Roundtable for Sustainable Development in 2011, to the “Tomorrow Now” Green Plan of 2012, to an announcement of a four-point strategy in 2013 and to royal assent to the legislation June 12, 2014 — leading finally to the ban coming into force Jan. 1, 2015 — appears to have been wasted.

Even though the legislation was anemic in comparison to that in other provinces (such as Ontario and Quebec, which had done this years earlier), it was a victory of sorts — not for the eco-lobby, as some would complain, but for good science, common sense and the public interest.

It took five years to implement a ban that looks as if it will be turfed within two years, thanks to a change in our provincial government.

It is hard to believe it really was “change for the better” in the face of announcements such as this one.

The Pallister government will not be the first to be accused of political patronage and cronyism, of taking care of its friends before taking care of the public interest — and in opposition, the Progressive Conservative party certainly levelled enough accusations of its own on that score.

It could, however, be the first to make decisions that were pragmatic rather than partisan, based on scientific evidence and common sense and not on ideological voices in their heads.

But that remains to be seen. People are now wondering whether the Pallister government has the wit or the wisdom to generate the kind of environmental agenda we need to create a sustainable future for our children.

It’s not a political or ideological choice — or it shouldn’t be. We don’t bleed blue or orange — or green, for that matter. The same things will hurt me and my kids as will hurt you and your kids. It’s about time we named and outed the destructive self-interest that permeates our society — and then elected leaders who will act for the common good, instead of just their own.

We already live in an environment markedly different from that of our parents and grandparents, with the astronomical increase of man-made chemicals introduced into the environment after 1950. To make matters worse, we know very little about the environmental effects of most of these chemicals in isolation, much less in combination. (Our own Experimental Lakes Area is one of the few sites in the world to even attempt this kind of study in nature.)

Periodically, at the bottom of the Great Lakes, a “toxic blob” emerges of chemicals that have combined in ways no one could predict and no one knows how to manage. (I wonder how many such blobs are rolling down the Red River at any given time?)

This does not happen by accident, any more than the meteoric global increase in environmentally linked cancers and other diseases since the 1950s is an unfortunate coincidence. It all happens by choice — or by a refusal to choose.

Cosmetic chemicals are like cosmetic surgery — not necessary, but intended to make things look “pretty.” Anyone who thinks we should trade “safe” for “pretty” should take a tour through a pediatric cancer ward and explain the dangers of dandelions to the children and parents who are there.

Anyway, I’m an old guy. My days of manning the barricades and protest marches are probably over.

But there are far more energetic younger people out there who have more at stake and much more to lose if serious and substantial changes are not made to our society.

Demonstrate to them that discussions, consultations and negotiations are a pointless waste of time, that these approaches serve only the interests of those in power and not the public good, and you are sowing a whirlwind of trouble to come.

Regardless of the party in power, as Manitobans we need to work together toward the future we want — or we will certainly inherit the future we fear. In 2016, we have neither the time nor the patience for partisan poses and political pandering on environmental issues.

I can dream this review will produce pesticide legislation that is tougher and more far-reaching, embodying the precautionary principle (making sure we know what effects new chemicals will have before allowing them to be used).

Like most environmentalists, I am an optimist. I believe people and situations can change for the better.

The jury is out right now, however. The question Premier Brian Pallister and his government need to answer is this:

“If decisions about the environment are not going to be based on good science, common sense and concern for the public good, what will they be based on instead?”

Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and is chairman of the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.

This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 29, 2016.