Our carbon habit is deeply ingrained, not only by established patterns of automobile use, but also by oceans of advertising that have told us that self-realization and social approval can be achieved by driving a new Lexus, Lincoln, or other new car. We have internalized the message that gasoline and electricity multiply our personal power and pleasure, and that our ability to afford them is the only legitimate restraint on their use.
We perceive our discretionary CO2-emitting activities through the narrow prism of our personal utility, heedless of their environmental effect. Commuting 70 miles a day in a big SUV? I need a comfortable car because I drive a lot. Flying from LA to New York for the weekend to catch a couple of shows? I just love theater.
How can we break through our established patterns of behavior and consciousness with respect to carbon use? An important psychological starting point for a breakthrough is assigning social stigma to excess carbon use. The decades-long battle against smoking is instructive. The anti-smoking movement gained enormous traction when smokers became resented and stigmatized by persons concerned about the environmental impact of second-hand smoke.
Stigmatizing excess personal carbon use to promote green alternatives is a four-step process. The first step is well underway—educating the public about global warming, so that people clearly understand the harms caused by CO2 emissions. According to recent surveys, about 70% of Americans understand that the planet is warming.
The second step is to provide the conceptual tools people need to understand their personal CO2 emissions. Few people know that burning a gallon of gas releases about 20 pounds of CO2 into the air, that one mile in an airplane equals about 1/2 pound of CO2 emitted, that one kilowatt hour equals 1.3 pounds of CO2, and that the average American emits more than 17 metric tons of CO2 per year. Without this knowledge, people have no tools to judge how much carbon they and others are using, how their usage fits into the overall problem, and what steps they can take to best reduce their footprint. Only a few under-promoted carbon calculators provide this information. Virtually no “push” advertising reaches consumers not looking for this information.
Here, there is a major opportunity for government and the private sector. For example, electric companies could be required to state on the monthly bill the CO2 emissions attributable to the electricity sold to the consumer. Gas pumps could be required to bear a sticker with the 1 gallon of gas = 20 pounds of CO2 equation. Airplane tickets could be mandated to specify the CO2 attributable to the flight. Schools could require students to do an energy/CO2 emissions analysis of their own household.
The third step is to stigmatize unnecessary carbon use. To sell mouthwash, Listerine invented “halitosis” and made it a socially unacceptable condition. We need Don Drapers to render excess carbon usage into an unattractive condition, a reason to be looked down upon, a filthy “ring around the collar” that begs for a solution. An effective stigmatization campaign will deftly taint our bad carbon habit, and suggest that those who spew carbon unnecessarily are making a dirty mess, uncool, unattractive, and “spoiling it for the rest of us.”
No high-profile effort has been directed towards stigmatization, despite the success of stigmatizing smokers, homophobes, and others who threaten public health and well-being. Because of its politically sensitive nature, carbon stigmatizing is probably best handled outside of government. Foundations, private funders, and media content generators should be encouraged to invest in these efforts, and to develop recognizable “carbon hog” villains that develop wide popular recognition and currency.
The final step is to promote green alternatives to carbon-intensive activity as an alternative to stigmatized CO2 use. A lot of work is already being done to promote green technologies and practices, but for many consumers there is little incentive to make the switch to solar panels, electric cars, the bus, etc., because they are (at least initially) more expensive and/or inconvenient than the status quo. Selling these alternatives to consumers not having a social incentive to purchase them is akin to marketing mouthwash to people ignorant of halitosis—they just don’t see the point.
Legions of engineers, economists, and politicians have been working with limited success to reduce global CO2 emissions. It is time that would-be Don Drapers and other architects of consumer consciousness join the fight by stigmatizing excess carbon usage. Carbon stigma will shift consumer preferences considerably, with political preferences following closely behind.