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Cleaner Greener Smarter: A Prescription for Stronger Canadian Environmental Laws and Policies

By David R. Boyd

Review By Deborah Curran

July 29, 2016

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017  | p. 201-203

The World Health Organization released an update to the Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database on 12 May 2016, finding that more than 80 percent of people who live in major cities around the world are exposed to air pollution that puts their health at risk. Cities with the lowest-income populations are the most affected, with poor air quality increasing the risks and number of people affected by stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory illnesses.

Health as an environmental issue and the need to overcome the “balkanization of information and expertise” in favour of law reform is what David Boyd’s latest book seeks to explain (13). At its core, Cleaner Greener Healthier addresses four questions: (1) What are the most serious environmental health problems in Canada? (2) What are the economic costs of these problems? (3) Compared with other wealthy countries, are Canada’s current laws, policies, and programs adequate for reducing or minimizing the environmental burden of disease and death? (4) What kinds of interventions might be introduced to reduce environmental risks, costs, and inequities in Canada? (13).

Boyd cleverly organizes the book into three parts styled after the stages of medical intervention: examination, diagnosis, and prescription. Part 1, the examination, details environmental health problems in Canada, focusing on the human health impacts of environmental hazards such as toxics, quantifying the magnitude of the impacts and their economic costs, and exploring environmental justice — the differential impacts of environmental harm on poorer, racialized communities — to reach conclusions about the environmental burden of disease in Canada. Part 2, the diagnosis, examines Canadian laws and policies for a variety of topics and compares how well they protect environmental health compared to other industrialized nations, concluding with reasons why Canada performs poorly in addressing health risks. Finally, Part 3, the prescription, contains recommendations for environmental health law and policy in Canada, drawing on the best practices internationally and incorporating discussion of the economic benefits of upping the regulatory ante.

Cleaner Greener Healthier is a natural extension of Boyd’s work over the past fifteen years, which can be characterized as comprehensive and well researched book-length exposés of environmental law with a particular focus on environmental rights. With Unnatural Law (2003), Boyd began his well-received writing career with a sweeping critique of Canada’s environmental law and detailed law reform proposals. He followed up with The Environmental Rights Revolution and The Right to a Healthy Environment (both 2012) that document the right to a healthy environment in national constitutions across the globe and consider how global lessons of environmental health might be applied in jurisdictions across Canada. Amongst these law reform-oriented tomes, Boyd sprinkled health-related books — David Suzuki’s Green Guide (2008, with David Suzuki) and Dodging the Toxic Bullet (2010) — on avoiding toxics and living the green life. Boyd has consolidated all of these interests into Cleaner Greener Healthier to focus on law reform for human and environmental health.

Although public health, the environment, and social determinants of health receive considerable attention within the health and sciences fields, few writers and academics are attempting to link environmental quality, health, and law. Notable exceptions are Dayna Scott’s 2015 edited collection Our Chemical Selves: Gender, Toxics and Environmental Health, which takes a more applied theoretical approach with a feminist lens. Cleaner Greener Healthier, with its attention to political, economic, and social factors and a chapter on environmental justice, falls somewhere between Scott’s book and explanatory texts on the emerging field of environmental health law.

My minor critiques include inconsistent detail. Some topics receive in-depth treatment, including human symptoms of harm, while others receive a general overview. Boyd also takes some liberties by intermingling peer-reviewed sources with reports generated by environmental organizations. More broadly, his focus on law reform is largely levied at federal and provincial governments. While it is these levels of government that assert primary jurisdiction over most of the issues addressed in the book and would, thus, be efficient actors, this centrist approach undersells the attention that municipalities are giving to environmental issues. Indeed, although coming on the heels of this book, a national “right to a healthy environment” campaign in 2014 that saw local governments as the largest adopters (the current count being 137). Irrespective of jurisdiction, and given the largely absent federal role in environmental protection over the past twenty years, local communities are spearheading notable environmental quality programs that have the potential to overcome political and economic inertia by directing attention to environmental harm beyond simple zoning decisions. They can also generate the community support for federal law reform. Finally, as touched on in Chapter 9, if we want to understand why we have not achieved the longstanding law reforms urged by Boyd, other writers, such as Michael M’Gonigle and Louise Takeda in their article “The Liberal Limits of Environmental Law,” dig more deeply into the political economy of environmental law and why comprehensive law reform fails to materialize.

Ultimately, for BC readers, Boyd does not disappoint in delivering another sweeping, well-researched, interdisciplinary overview of the difficult challenge of linking environmental regulation to health in Canada. He makes a compelling case for law reform, and along the way documents emerging and less well-known areas of environmental harm, such as intergenerational health impacts and the mental health benefits of nature. His plain language and clear definitions of technical terms make the book accessible to many disciplines and, in typical Boyd style, to the public. Cleaner Greener Healthier inhabits the fruitful common ground between well-substantiated research and public appeal.


Boyd, David R. 2010. Dodging the Toxic Bullet: How to Protect Yourself from Everyday Environmental Health Hazards. Madeira Park, BC: Douglas & McIntyre/David Suzuki Foundation.

Boyd, David R. 2012. The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights and the Environment. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Boyd, David R. 2012. The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada’s Constitution. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Boyd, David R. 2003. Unnatural Law: Rethinking Canadian Environmental Law and Policy. Vancouver: UBC Press.

M’Gonigle, Michael & Louise Takeda. 2013. “The Liberal Limits of Environmental Law: A Green Legal Critique.” Pace Environmental Law Review 30(3): 1005-1115.

Scott, Dayna Nadine (ed.). 2015. Our Chemical Selves: Gender, Toxics and Environmental Health. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Suzuki, David & David R. Boyd. 2008. David Suzuki’s Green Guide. Madeira Park, BC: Douglas & McIntyre/David Suzuki Foundation.

Cleaner Greener Smarter: A Prescription for Stronger Canadian Environmental Laws and Policies
David R. Boyd
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015. 398 pages. $34.95 paper.