For all the historical attention garnered by environmentalist campaigns to save endangered species, natural resources, or wild places, it is important to recall that the “first wave” of postwar environmentalism in North America was predominantly urban in makeup and orientation. Issues such as water pollution, factory smoke, and solid waste disposal in rapidly growing cities were among the first environmental concerns around which Canadians mobilized. Yet the urban character of postwar Canadian environmentalism has been largely overlooked—that is, until Ryan O’Connor’s The First Green Wave. Though focused principally on the rise and decline of Toronto-based Pollution Probe, O’Connor’s important book provides insight into the history of the Canadian environmental movement and the wider context of urban social movements in Canada’s cities.
As implied by its name, Pollution Probe (along with other, shorter-lived groups) sprang into existence in response to the rapidly growing concern around urban air pollution—in a McLuhanesque twist, almost directly in response to a controversial CBC documentary The Air of Death, aired in 1967. In his first two chapters, O’Connor chronicles the group’s emergence and early anti-pollution initiatives in late 1960s and early 1970s, illustrating its close connection to the University of Toronto, particularly the Department of Zoology and the group’s main benefactor, Dr. Donald Chant. Though significantly campus-based, the group developed contacts in the wider Toronto community, including among business leaders, and cultivated a middle-of-the-road environmental politics reflecting its largely white, middle-class membership. Even if the group lacked the colourful characters of Greenpeace’s “mystics and mechanics,” the book’s inclusion throughout of interviews from many early “Probers” provides interesting insight into the personalities and politics of the organization.
Pollution Probe grew rapidly through the early 1970s, as pollution and waste issues came to dominate this first wave of mass environmental concern. The middle chapters of O’Connor’s book trace this rise, and the variety of issues animating Probers, from restoring the polluted Don River, to early recycling initiatives, to environmental education projects. These chapters also highlight the early efforts to cope with this growth through changing organizational structures, fundraising efforts, and public relations campaigns, all aimed at solidifying Pollution Probe as an organization while undertaking pioneering environmental projects. The seeds of the Probe movement spread rapidly across Ontario and beyond, sprouting as local chapters in other cities and germinating other environmental organizations, most notably the Canadian Environmental Law Association. Even though most of these seedlings eventually withered, as O’Connor shows, the main plant survived amidst shifting public attention to pollution and environmental issues in the 1970s.
The final chapters document Pollution Probe’s further branching into energy and resources questions (spawning the partner project, Energy Probe), and the group’s attempts to remain relevant amidst the nadir of environmental concern in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But survive it did, even as it risked being eclipsed by economic concerns or the brash, direct-action tactics of its fellow Canadian ENGO, Greenpeace. O’Connor credits the group’s ability to remain responsive to changing issues, to collaborate with business and government, and to retain an image of sober, scientific credibility for its longevity and it influence in the environmentalist community and in wider Ontario society.
While these factors were no doubt important to Pollution Probe’s survival, less examined (though implicit throughout) is the group’s strong connection to community issues specific to Toronto—notwithstanding some successes in spreading beyond this local base, it seems to me that Pollution Probe’s story is a substantially local and urban one. More reflection on the importance of place in shaping environmental concern and action might have provided some interesting fodder for contrast with the highly expansive and mediated environmental politics of groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. It would also potentially provide insight into the rise of locally oriented urban environmental groups like Probe, Vancouver’s Society for Pollution and Environmental Control, and others in Canada during this period, whose activities and initiatives have dramatically reshaped the urban landscape (from parks to watersheds to the ubiquitous curbside blue boxes) and provided (as O’Connor notes) the seedbed for the many urban environmental initiatives that continue to proliferate today.
Nevertheless, The First Green Wave is a useful contribution to the history of Canadian environmental politics. In addition to its focus on Pollution Probe, along the way it documents the emergence of important environmental developments such as the growing anti-nuclear power movement, the birth of curbside recycling in Canada, and the emergence of a sophisticated environmental policy lobby. It will remain an important reference on these issues and this era for environmental historians and others interested in the evolution of postwar Canadian society.