Using common scents

October 17, 1997|By George F. Will

SAN FRANCISCO -- In this city of histrionic geography and ominous geology, the question about the Big One -- the big earthquake -- is not whether it will come, but when. So people here have enough to worry about without being hectored about their perfume being a public health problem.

However, here you find the nation's highest metropolitan concentration of liberalism. Hence residents are being told that their well-being is menaced from every direction, and they must modify their behavior or the city will no longer be ''sustainable.''

So says ''The Sustainability Plan,'' a report prepared for and endorsed by the city government. It is a wonderful window into the world of environmental worrying, and illustrates the distillation of liberalism to an agenda of bodily health for individuals who are ''educated'' to appropriate social consciousness.

According to the report, a sustainable society meets its needs without sacrificing the ability of future generations ''and non-human forms of life'' to meet theirs.

According to Beryl Magilavy, director of the city's Department of the Environment, who does her bit for a better world by owning neither a car nor television, the report avoids ''the sky-is-falling mode.'' But its cumulative effect is to sound this alarm: Time is running out because everything else is, too.

''Let me explain about that,'' she says, pausing over her vegetarian pasta dish and politely masking her weariness about being again to explain the report's recommendation that residents reduce their ''personal impact on the shared indoor environment by limiting the use of scented personal-care products.''

Some people, she says, are bothered by such scents, so why not include in the report a recommendation of moderation -- the report speaks only of reducing uses -- about what the report calls ''airborne emissions from fragrances''?

Here is why not. The recommendation is symptomatic of contemporary liberalism's aspiration to use the reduction of life's risks as the rationale for minutely monitoring, and improving, behavior and consciousness of individuals.

The report warns that ''our current course of environmental degradation and resource depletion'' jeopardizes ''our fragile ecosystems.''

How fragile? The problem is not just chemicals and other hazards (including that pervasive carcinogen, sunshine?), but also ''everyday activities,'' such as firing up barbecues and fireplaces. ''True sustainability, which implies eliminating garbage collection and land-filling, will require dramatic changes to almost every economic transaction.''

The report envisions lots of new jobs for the boys and girls of the ''caring professions'' in ''educating'' the masses who, without supervision by the caring, will carelessly foul the city and environs.

The report favors ''culturally responsive'' foods. Ms. Magilavy says such foods raise the consumer's consciousness of seasons and natural rhythms. The report encourages food grown locally, which will get people in touch with nature through ''seasonal flavors'' and will minimize trucking.

''Rooftops of new and existing buildings offer a vast amount of potential agriculture space,'' the report notes. It is a marvelous evocation of Soviet life, with its broth of slogans and quotas: ''Initiate a 'fruit tree in every yard' campaign;'' ''Identify appropriate crops, such as apples, for citywide production quotas.''


The report's animus against the internal combustion engine is, of course, strong, as is its endorsement of ''secure bicycle and roller-skate storage at transit stations.''

Just past the exhortation to ''increase public education on the value of calcium in the diet'' and just before the recommendation to ''establish more sex education and self-esteem programs for youths,'' the report calls for a study of ''the nature and causes of stress to San Franciscans.''

Well, one way to reduce that stress would be to burn -- in an environmentally responsible incinerator, of course -- every copy of this report, which says that virtually everything that everybody does is implicated in the impending unsustainability of everything.

Is it not somewhat disproportionate for people living by cheerful choice on the San Andreas fault to fret about the menace of disposable diapers?

''That's true,'' says Ms. Magilavy brightly, ''but we're already here.'' Not for long, if the report is right.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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