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The residents of Toronto have every reason to stand proud today. Our elected representatives have no idea how to solve our traffic problems or fix our waterfront. But no one could be more committed to saving the planet. The other day, in a landmark vote, they decided to abolish the evil scourge of plastic bags.

Actually, they didn't really plan to do this. It was a spontaneous act of revenge against Mayor Rob Ford, who wanted to get rid of the five-cent plastic-bag tax that was imposed three years ago. Lots of city councillors detest the Mayor, and vice-versa. So instead of voting to abolish the plastic-bag tax, they voted to abolish plastic bags instead. It's really impossible to appreciate the lunacy of Toronto's politics unless you live here.

Personally, I don't feel strongly about plastic bags. Since the plastic-bag tax came into effect, I have accumulated a large and colourful collection of cloth bags that have completely taken over our front-hall closet. Sometimes I even remember to take them with me when I go shopping. What I can tell you is that despite what the folks at the Environmental Defence claim, banning plastic bags will do exactly nothing to save the planet. Plastic bags take up less than 1 per cent of landfill space. Because they take very little energy to produce and are reused a lot, they are more environmentally friendly than either cloth or paper. (There's a ton of research on this. Honest.) They are also indispensable for collecting dog poo.

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A plastic-bag ban does, however, accomplish many other fine and noble things. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Like recycling, it enforces virtuous behaviour (or so we'd like to think). It is the modern equivalent of declaring ourselves a nuclear-free zone, only better, because it requires deeds as well as declarations. Also, it sets a good example for the less enlightened members of society, who don't always understand what's best for them or for the planet.

The imposition of virtue by the classes on the masses is nothing new, of course. The upper orders have been trying to improve the lower orders since Carrie Nation took an axe to speakeasies, and long before. Only our ideas of sin and vice have changed. The old vices were hard liquor and irreligiousness. The new vices are plastic bags and fast food. If Carrie Nation were around today, she wouldn't be crusading against the Demon Rum. She'd be crusading against the Big Gulp.

Today's version of Carrie Nation is Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York, who has been using the power of his office to preach the gospel of food temperance. He has already banned trans-fats and forced restaurants to post calorie counts. Now he's pushing for a ban on big-sized sugary drinks. Mr. Bloomberg himself is clearly a model of self-restraint in the weight department. He obviously knows how to control his appetites, and he feels obliged to help the lower orders control theirs. "We're not taking away anyone's right to do things," he said the other day. "We're simply forcing you to understand."

Most upper-class New Yorkers are applauding Mr. Bloomberg's latest move, even though they all acknowledge that banning sugary drinks won't do an ounce of good to stem the tide of obesity. In fact, the scientific evidence is clear that sugary drinks are not the cause of the obesity epidemic. So why do they approve of such a useless gesture? Because they like the message. The message is that slurping down a 40-ounce-sized Coke is underclass behaviour. No self-respecting person would be caught dead doing it. A Starbucks venti Strawberries & Crème frappuccino has almost as many calories, but that's beside the point. Starbucks patrons, unlike Big Gulp slurpers, do not need reform, because they are not fat.

Here in Canada, the hysteria over obesity is mostly aimed at children. Ontario has a new School Food and Beverage Policy that prohibits the sale of "unhealthy" foods, like gum, coffee (!) and ice cream. Actually, I approve of not feeding school kids crap. The trouble is that provincial politicians and school officials are behaving as if every grain of sugar were a radioactive substance. Nova Scotia, for example, has decreed that foods "of minimal nutritional value," including hot dogs, corn dogs, doughnuts, cakes, cupcakes and pies, can no longer be served at fundraisers. The prohibition touched off a major dispute over a time-honoured fundraising method called the "cake walk," in which delicious home-baked calorie-laden cakes are raffled off to raise money.

In the face of popular outrage, Nova Scotia's education minister was forced to back down on the cake walk question. She did this by declaring that cake walks aren't really fundraisers, so therefore they are still allowed. But other officials are unswayed. The Health Minister of PEI has compared cake walks and bake sales to letting kids ride around without bike helmets.

Every age invents its own version of Puritanism, I guess. In the olden days, grownups tried to instill the fear of God in children so that they would grow up to be good. Now they try to instill in them the fear being fat. I don't think it's going to work. But so long as we believe in sin, the missionary spirit will remain alive and well.

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As for plastic bags, my advice is to hoard them while you can. Who knows? You might just save a tree.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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