Legislate, or Build a Movement?

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My city has now banned commercial fertilizers containing phosphorus. This is because my city is actually a collection of smaller communities as well as the city, and the whole incorporates a huge number of lakes and streams, many of which are suffering from blue-green algae blooms. They’ve been asking for a couple of years now for people to not use phosphorus fertilizers on their yards but people still do it. I’m glad the ban was passed. It is a small step, and will not solve the problem of blue-green algae but will hopefully help.In trying to raise awareness of the issue (and get the bylaw passed) one of the community groups has been selling little signs you can put in your yard to say that you’re proudly not fertilizing your lawn to help save our waterways. I’ve thought about getting one, but didn’t. In some ways, I don’t want to antagonize the neighbors. Also, while I don’t care how green our lawn is or not (and it is doing fine) I have had moments of thinking, I don’t want to advertise our lawn isn’t fertilized because I don’t want people to judge what unfertilized lawns look like based on ours. So for both those reasons, I didn’t bother getting a little sign.

But I was thinking today about the issue of neighbours, and of how I didn’t feel comfortable bringing the topic of the fertilizer up with the neighbours down a few doors down whom hires people to fertilize their lawn. I don’t know if their fertilizer contains phosophorus or not, and I didn’t get up the courage to ask, though I wanted to. So I’m happy to have the city do it. The bylaw takes away the need to discuss things with my neighbour. In some ways that troubles me. In some ways, we regulate things because we lack the mechanisms to really persuade or educate people.

The alternative to legislating things could be to have people more actively talking about things. What if more people did approach their neighbours, the strangers on the street and others to convince them not to use phosophorus fertilizers? Would that have worked? Or would those people just be seen as busy bodies? Doesn’t having the decision come through the city council suggest it has at least been studied properly?

I know there are lots of people out there who say we shouldn’t have more laws. We should have less regulation, more freedom, etc. The sentiment isn’t as strong in Canada as in the United States, but it is growing here (perhaps partly because of the internet). Does this bylaw infringe on people’s freedom? I don’t think it does significantly, but what fascinates me right now is this thought of two alternatives: do we try to persuade people something or do we legislate it? I wonder if there was more emphasis on persuading people before hand, then maybe people wouldn’t feel as much like laws were infringing on their freedom.I read a great article today in the Spring 2011 issue of Our Schools, Our Selves. The article is available online on page 16 of the pdf file. It is by Ashley Burczak and it is titled “It’s Not My Job to Educate You: How anti-oppression activists are failing to build a movement.” It starts off talking about how the American conservatives are doing a much better job at forming community than the left are. They are sponsoring young leaders, they are forming coalitions, and they are putting money into promoting their ideals and the rest of us aren’t doing it. It’s a bit alarming to me to read her description. She mentions forming a student group called Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), and having a right-wing organization give a student $4000 fellowship to be active against her organization. It makes me think again at all those crazy commenters on online newspapers… I can’t help wondering how many of them are paid. Anyway, in her article she suggests that the reason anti-oppression organizers don’t engage others better is that they are in pain. “We’ve learned from hard experience that any interactions with another person – even those we love most, even those who claim to be our allies – can become a gut-wrenching fight to assert our humanity. The vigilance is exhausting.” (She seems to be saying that right-wing activists have it easier, possibly because of their situation of privilege. I suspect the upper-echelon do have it easier because of that, but I suspect as well that there is a huge number of less well off right wing people who do constantly feel attacked.)

I know pain is one reason I don’t speak out more about things, but I also know it isn’t the only reason. I’m worried about making the wrong impression, on pushing people away instead of encouraging them. I want to get along with people – something I’ve never been great at – and I don’t want to say the wrong things. And it isn’t my business what other people do, is it?Then I’m worried also about being wrong. What if the information I have is inaccurate? I know there is a lot of inaccurate information in the world, and I know that I no longer believe a lot of things I used to believe. What if I speak out for something only to realize a few years later, that I was totally wrong on that issue? I don’t want to have more mistakes piling up.

Yet at the same time, how can I keep quiet about thing after thing?

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