Here in Canada la verditude is fast becoming a new and very silly religion. It always strikes us with something like a political shock when we arrive for the summer and suddenly remember that the garbage police will be looking out for what we throw away, and what we throw it away in. Trash goes in clear bags, period. Cardboard and plastic go in one see-through blue bag; cans and glass go in another. Vegetable parings, eggshells, coffee grounds, crusts of bread, and all things edible except for meat and cheese, don't go anywhere. Or rather they go into your compulsory compost heap in the backyard.
Now I don't mind all this, though I do think that the clear bag is a bit unnerving, when you think of the papers and personal materials you might be throwing away. If you leave aside the whole global warming apocalyptic -- "Woe to the inhabitants of earth!" -- I'll put up with the Canadian habit of cleaning up after themselves. But what's going on here is exactly what C. S. Lewis describes in The Screwtape Letters as a neat diabolical trick. The devils, says Screwtape, distract their foolish charges, persuading them to worry about sins they don't commit, and thereby to overlook the sins they do. So you'll hardly ever see a Canadian tossing trash out of his car window; and you won't see garbage blowing about the front yard; and you will see plenty of bicyclists in the cities. But in another sense the Canadians are perfectly slovenly and selfish polluters, just as bad as are their American cousins.
The whole Green argument hinges upon the fact that the environment -- literally, all that stuff around us -- is a commons, belonging to no one in particular. We all have to breathe the same air, drink the same water, eat more or less the same food. You can't dump battery acid into the swamp in your backyard without its finding its way somewhere else, maybe into my well. You can't run your dead car over the ledge into the harbor, without its leaching chemicals and rust into the water, and without our having to look at the eyesore.
But water and air aren't the only commons. Language and manners are, too. A couple of days ago I was in Halifax with my son, and we stopped at a small fish-and-chips place -- where any kids might stop. There in a basket were issues of the latest Halifax Metro, the local arts and entertainment paper. "Take a copy home for your wife," a friend of mine said, so I did. When I opened it, though, I saw what was apparently a regular feature, called "Savage Love," an advice column written by somebody named Savage, who referred to married men and women as "breeders," and who strewed his nasty and angry reponses with language that would not be fit for the boys' bathroom wall in a high school, and that, if I carved it on a tree in a playground, would get me arrested. I had never seen anything like it. I deposited it in our recycling bin.
Set aside the question of pornography. What about the pollution? Every such article helps to coarsen the culture. It helps to introduce into the minds of young and old that there's nothing holy about the body, that no reverence is due to the act of love between man and woman, that marriage is a formality for people whose tastes run that way, that sex is a matter of raw lust, that "father" and "mother" are no more than breeders, and so on. Does the man have the right to write articles like that? Yes -- but that doesn't mean that the Metro has to pay him to do it, or that the little family restaurant has to carry the rag, or that the Haligonians (yes, that is what they are) have to read it, or have to put up with it in silence.
I am thinking that my first, non-theological response to anybody who asks me why I do not support the latest chapter in extending sexual license, will be "Because I do not want to live next to an open sewer." Sure, I don't have to watch network television, and I don't have to subscribe to the local rag. But I have to live in a world in which filth is no big deal. Sure, I don't have to dump my garbage into the street. But I have to live in a world in which everybody else does. Nor am I talking here about laws to prevent that pollution. Customs and manners were sufficient to keep things reasonably clean, not so long ago. Ah, but I forget -- here in Nanada, the Supreme Court now has decided that there is not only a right to pollute, but that complaining about it may be characterized as hate speech. Talk about Granny washing your mouth out with soap.