Communicating sustainability: lessons from public health

Some lessons from public health for sustainability and climate campaigners.  Our choices are largely not our own — context and norms are far more powerful forces for behavioral change than abstract attitudes.  Most people just stick with the default settings.  We need to change the default settings.

Why climate change is a wicked moral problem

Dave Roberts at Grist picked over a recent Nature paper examining the fact that climate change doesn’t spark moral outrage, the same way terrorist attacks or even oil spills do. and the ways we might try and work around those cognitive issues if we’re going to get sustained political support for dealing with it seriously (original paper here).

In a related vein William Gibson recently commented:

I assume that we live in the first era in human history against which all posterity will have reason to hold a sad and bitter grudge.

Many people responded with things to the effect of “What about slavery?”, referring to past egregious social and economic injustices we’ve inflicted upon each other.  I thought his response was poetic:

The difference between knowing murders were committed in your ancestral home and knowing fools let it burn to the ground. Hence your tent.

Thankfully that Nature paper also included potential cognitive and messaging work arounds, so we can hopefully get people to react, and then respond appropriately.  Now if only we can bring ourselves to use them.

Dust Bowl Scale Drought Unrelated to Climate Change?

A couple of weeks ago Bill McKibben wrote a sarcastic op-ed encouraging people to ignore any possible connection between climate change and the unusually intense tornado season, as well as other extreme weather events.  I thought it was a little hyperbolic — of course people must be considering all this weather news in that light, right?  But maybe he wasn’t being over the top.  This NY Times article about Dust Bowl scale drought across the south and southwest doesn’t mention climate change once.  The omission seemed conspicuous.

Climate of Denial

Understanding American climate change politics by analogy with the World Wrestling Federation.  The Carbon Lobby is the “evil” wrestler, scientists the “good” one, and the media plays referee.  The kind of referee that’s always preoccupied with something outside the ring when the bad guy starts beating the good guy up with a chair.  From Rolling Stone of course.

Can competitive cyclists help the face of bike advocacy?


Tim Johnson, apparently a prominent cyclocross racer, recently got into bike advocacy.  Says he:

Bike advocacy is about as far away from ‘cool’ as one can get.  It’s a world full of recumbents, Day-Glo yellow, helmet mirrors, wool and tweed; the stereotypes that make self-important racers and hardcore enthusiasts cringe.

I’ve often been confused by the question “Are you a serious cyclist?”.  I don’t own a car, and bike virtually everywhere I go.  I’ve spent a year or so cumulatively living on my bike touring.  In eastern Europe, in Mexico.  To my mind, this makes me serious.  But not so in some other minds.  To many it seems that only competition can make one “serious”, and I just don’t understand.  But then, I’ve never watched a SuperBowl either.

Continue reading Can competitive cyclists help the face of bike advocacy?

Corporate Climate Adaptation

The Carbon Disclosure Project is helping industry adapt to climate change.  It’s almost painfully ironic that some of their biggest customers are electrical utilities, mining, and, of course, oil and gas.  75% of the Alaska Pipeline is built on permafrost.  And it’s melting.  And they’re sure not gonna let the PR department keep them from shoring up the footings, just because they don’t believe it’s getting warmer.

Why I Won’t Be Turning Off Any Lights for Earth Hour

A GOOD (Magazine) summary of why Earth Hour is lame.  First, it’s symbolic — turning lights off for an hour has a negligible effect on your (and the globe’s) energy consumption.  Second, the symbolism (which is all it’s got) totally sucks!  Want to be environmentally sound?  Then sit shivering in the dark.  Great.  Widely publicizing an action which is both unnecessary and turns people off (ha!), isn’t gonna win any hearts or minds.  It just reinforces the needlessly “hair shirt” vision of “green” that most people have.

Activate the Future

BMW is running an ad campaign on the future of mobility.  Of course, they call it a “documentary”.  It’s amazing how close they come to imagining a future in which we don’t use cars in cities.  But of course, since they’re a car company, they can’t quite get there.  The fundamental attribute of cities that makes them work — density — is also what makes them incompatible with cars.

Better Bicycle Marketing in Boulder a la Cycle Chic

I’ve been talking to friends and co-conspirators about how best to do bicycle propaganda marketing.  There’s a tendency in Boulder — as well as more broadly in the US — to market transportation cycling on the basis of its environmental, health, economic, and even political benefits.  These benefits are significant, and are part of why I and many others who already ride, do so.  However, I don’t think that means they’re the right way to reach the other 99% of the US population (or even to the other 90% of the Boulder population).  To use this rational, functional framing is to use the marketing techniques of the 19th century, which often assumed consumers to be rational beings, making their purchases on the basis of the relative functional merits of the products on offer.  Some people behave rationally, in some purchases, but since the mid 20th century most corporations (and many governments) have realized that this is not actually the best way to move product.  Ever since Edward Bernays, marketing and public relations has largely been about evoking an emotional response and associating your product with the aspirations of the consumer, regardless of whether those aspirations are attainable or pure fantasy.  Most people with an analytical background are irritated by the idea that logical rhetoric and rational argument are not the best ways to convince people of something.  I’ve seen this issue come up repeatedly with public science communication, especially in the context of climate change.

Irritating or not, this seems to be the way most people work, most of the time.  If we want cycling to become something everyone does, we have to work with people as they are, not as we wish they were.  The benefits of the bicycle will be realized if lots of people decide to ride, regardless of whether they’ve made that decision rationally.

Continue reading Better Bicycle Marketing in Boulder a la Cycle Chic

Links for the week of October 19th, 2010

If you want to follow my shared links in real time instead of as a weekly digest, head over to Delicious. You can search them there easily too.
Continue reading Links for the week of October 19th, 2010