27 April 2006

Environmental Defense Ads v. Daisy

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Thank you, Environmental Defense, for making these ads and for making them so easy to share. I want to make it clear that I don't think the ads are incorrect, or that Environmental Defense is wrong. It's just that the world is different than the world these ads are addressing. I would like to compare ED's ads to LBJ's famous Daisy Ad.

The rhetoric of all three ads is similar: we are responsible for our children. The fear (horror, really) of these ads is that we as a people will be stupid enough to allow these shining faces to be obliterated or face certain catastrophe. And all three ads are equally effective on the horror-meter. I like the fact that ED's ads are focusing on children's faces and not glaciers. This is localizing and making climate change relevant to what's in front of you. And I like that they don't try to explain climate change. You don't need to explain climate change any more than you need to explain nuclear fusion, or for that matter how your computer works. Its the results that matter--we live in a culture accustomed to trusting science. It has been bugging the crap out of me for years that Big Oil Power shifted the focus onto how climate change works in order to obfuscate the situation.

The problem I have is with the culture that is consuming these ads, and their respective contexts. LBJ's Daisy Ad had a forceful leader (well, kind of) behind it. The whole reason the Daisy ad works so well is because LBJ is the inferred Daddy who will take the little girl and keep her safe because he is big and strong and in control and sane and will not use the bomb. It's a closed circuit. Without a closed circuit like this, what does the horror do?

Environmental Defense's ads are not grounded in a larger leadership, and so are, IMO, existentially dangerous. I am left wondering what I, viewer, is supposed to do about all this. Turn off my lights? Use flourescent bulbs? Make my errands more efficient? The scale feels all wrong, and the scale shift is too abrupt. There is something so strange about being told that the world of my children will be apocalyptic if I don't spend five minutes thinking about my energy consumption every day. It's so small, so easy not to do. And it is too weird because you look around and see everybody else not doing it. Why should I feel guilty about driving when the roads are clogged anyway? My truck makes very little difference in the big scheme of things.

The problem with these ads is that they function in a world without any leadership. There is no LBJ who will protect us from hurricanes and malaria and warmongering. For that matter, there isn't even a company bus shuttling folks from the exurbs using natural gas or electricity. I see the logic behind showing folks that their consumption matters, and FWIW, I turn off my lights and drive as little as possible. But where's the support? Where's the enforcement? Where's the structure that makes all these personal choices part of a larger whole?

Children model behaviors that adults do, and adults model behaviors that their leaders and community members do. We are not particularly autonomous--we are social creatures. Unfortunately we live in a culture that thinks otherwise. We are doing all this bowling alone and can do everything from home and increasingly turn inward. This is a very powerless position to be in.

What if every single ad campaign was strapped to a larger community action? What if rich people were asked to donate scads of cash and solar power companies were asked to do demos and promote themselves and do in-kind donations? What if ads like these were local, and harnessed to specific action-based programs that provide community-based structure?

Let me be specific:

Say Environmental Defense goes to Salinas California, which is an exurb of San Jose and farming community. And after a small, inexpensive grassroots team defines the specific CO2 problems of Salinas: no good public transportation options to San Jose, maybe, no infrastructure for carpooling and lots of people leaving lots of lights on because of crime. Then lots of money can flow into Salinas to fix these problems grassroots style. Ads like Train and Tick can be harnessed to commuter busses and the creation of a carpooling message board. Maybe there's an inexpensive solar-powered light that can be given away or sold very cheaply in the neighborhoods that have crime problems. Or motion-sensors! Motion sensors cost nothing, and volunteers could go door to door giving them away and helping install them!

Net result: One community gets to be virtuous in a way that makes some sense. CO2 emissions go down. Awareness is raised, and fear is used in a way that is existentially fair. This structure of solutions is strong and provides moral support. It is easy to shame the folks who refuse to carpool in a community where there is lots of public support for transportation alternatives. Shame and fear both stop being bullshit tactics and start actually working when there is an armature in place.

I don't advocate whining about the Bush administration. I do advocate providing a strong, active counterpoint that does more than throw scares into people.


Anonymous jec said...

I'll write more later, but wanted to say that the leadership vaccum is a huge problem. I'm not sure I agree that it is dangerous to present the "scary" side of global warming in the absence of leadership.

Also, right now a top recommended diary on DailyKos addresses a teenager's reactions to the Gore movie and the reaction to that reaction by the parent. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/4/27/111948/404

I'm sure that with Gore's movie coming out, there will be a LOT more talk about fear and global warming!

27 April, 2006 12:10  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

That's an interesting story on dailykos. I certainly hope I am wrong, or at least exaggerating, and "litigatormom" is perhaps more mainstream than my image of the mainstream is. Then again, she's from Manhattan and her cheeky little daughter seems to go to an exclusive prep school.

Dangerous may be a weird word for me to use. I think it will backfire--I think it's strategically dangerous. I don't think people will explode or hate environmentalists forever if the scare tactics continue at the rate they are right now.

I do think that just scaring people in the absence of leadership is a total dry hump. So you get scared. Then what do you do? How do you stay engaged?

For that matter, what exactly is the problem? The dominant climate change paradigm focuses on education, and I assume that the thinkers are following this logic train:

if only people knew how bad it is, then they would rise up and do something about it.

This is totally logical and exactly how democracy works. Problem: have you seen GW's approval rating lately? And how many people think Iran is a good idea now that Iraq is obviously a lying quagmire deathsham?

And those Iraq war protests have accomplished what?

And W care about the opinions of his constituents how much? Demo-what?

There seems to be some kind of breakdown, and instead of incorporating that breakdown into figuring out the climate change problem it's easier to assume that we still have a representative government.

This is all about leadership, and I know that I am beating a dead horse. It's just that without providing leadership, stoking fear just makes for fighting and not listening...

...unless your goal is to preach to the choir. Fearmongering is an excellent strategy for whooping up your base.

The thing about litigatormom is that she is already a liberal democrat living in a strongly blue blue city. For that matter, even if she's stinking rich she probably drives far less than the average American, lives in a small apartment, and therefore has a much lower carbon footprint, so she's probably already part of the solution more than she's part of the problem.

Does the movement need her guilt? If so, why?

27 April, 2006 18:52  
Anonymous jec said...

Well, what you say is true. I guess we do go on acting as if we have a representational government. We're at such a weird point in our history, and in the history of American politics, that I don't think anyone knows how to act about anything.

Maybe fear isn't the answer, but I'm glad that people are at least trying to change minds and attitudes. I mean, given what we've experienced over the last 5 years and how little what we do seems to matter in any way, it's amazing to me that we even bother.

27 April, 2006 23:18  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Exactly. Humans are amazing.

(FWIW, I am an optimist, it's just that it's not looking good objectively)

28 April, 2006 07:20  

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