What if a Simple Sticker Could Change the World? Interview by The WILD Magazine

August 23, 20130 Comments

Below is a candid interview with Rob Shirkey, Executive Director of Our Horizon by Blaine Skrainka, Senior Editor of New York-based The Wild Magazine. The interview was published at The WILD Magazine on August 20, 2013. Unfortunately, The WILD Magazine’s website is not accessible from Canada, so the interview has been reproduced here.

“What if a Simple Sticker Could Change the World?” The WILD Magazine, August 20, 2013.

Skrainka: Climate change can at times seem like an insurmountable problem, especially when governments and multinational corporate leaders so often fail to even acknowledge the threat. Robert Shirkey thinks he can disrupt this status quo with a ground-level informational campaign that will ultimately result in a market transformation. His idea: adding warning labels — not dissimilar to those found on tobacco products — to gasoline nozzles. The images include a mix of wildlife and young people, all of whom stand to lose from the global effects of climate change.

I stumbled upon the project after a Twitter shout out from leading climate advocate Bill McKibben; I often follow his lead when it comes to grassroots activism given the success of his own 350.org. So I clicked the link and watched the Indiegogo video. Shirkey’s Face The Change campaign initially struck me as another naive and quixotic attempt to shake the unshakeable, namely the fossil fuel industry and consumer demand for their energy products. But what Robert Shirkey has to say is worth considering.

Skrainka: How does the climate change movement compare to bygone fights against the tobacco industry?

Shirkey: There are lots of parallels. A lot of the same tactics that were used by cigarette companies to create doubt about the health impacts of smoking have been employed by those who argue against climate science. In some instances, it’s even the same people sowing doubt.

A key difference is that politicians used to have a little more backbone. In 1962, President Kennedy created an advisory committee to review the scientific literature on smoking. Their report came back two years later and concluded that “cigarette smoking is a health hazard of sufficient importance in the United States to warrant appropriate remedial action.” Less than a year later, Congress passed a law requiring health warning labels on cigarette packages. The innovation spread all over the world. In 2001, Canada became the first country to introduce picture-based warning labels and these too spread all over the world. Studies show that these labels have had a real impact on changing attitudes and behaviour towards smoking.

We’ve known for some time that our use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change and is already causing a whole host of problems. The science is in and it is conclusive. Where is our leadership? Why don’t governments step up to protect us?

Skrainka: As an activist, why did you choose to seek change locally as opposed to on the federal or international level?

Shirkey: There’s a story I like to tell about the town of Hudson in Quebec. In 1991, three brave councillors in this small community of 5,000 people voted to pass a by-law restricting the use of cosmetic pesticides. They did this in the face of significant pressure and threats of litigation from industry. The vote quickly spread all across Canada. Today, the majority of Canadians benefit from a law that can be traced back to the decision of these three representatives

Years later, the Mayor of Hudson was interviewed about that vote and said “We started to petition the government to find out if they were doing anything [about cosmetic pesticides] and if they were concerned. The federal government was absolutely useless. I mean totally useless.”

I don’t want to alienate potential supporters at senior levels of government, but that quote sums up my feelings. The starting point for our campaigns is 1) Senior levels of government are useless, 2) So what can cities do?

My federal government practically goes door-to-door selling oil. Some people say we need a change in leadership, but I’m not confident that senior levels of government are capable of meaningful reform. I place my hope in cities. And I’m excited about empowering citizens and communities to take unprecedented leadership on one of our greatest challenges.

Skrainka: If your campaign is successful, what would that look like?

Shirkey: There’s actually a lot of interesting theory behind our idea. To fully understand their potential impact, you need to look a little bit at how we ended up in this mess.

Climate change is a problem of no feedback. There is a delay between cause and effect. We get little feedback from our actions today so there is no signal to change our behaviour. The labels address this by creating feedback. The image and the text on the warning label bring far away consequences – like famine, extinction of species and extreme weather – into the here and now.

Climate change is also a problem of diffusion of responsibility. As individuals, our contributions to the problem are small, but collectively, our actions are altering the chemistry of our planet. Psychologists know that when responsibility for something is diffuse, we fail to act. The placement of the warning label on the gas pump nozzle takes a problem of diffuse origins and, quite literally, locates responsibility right in the palms of our hands.

Finally, climate change is a problem of externalities. It’s a market failure. We need to internalize the harms of fossil fuel use and have them reflected in the price of the product but certain values are harder to communicate via price than others. For example, how do we price the extinction of a species? And what is the dollar value of human suffering and death?

Our dominant economic paradigm is founded on a view that humans are rational, wealth-maximizing beings who respond like automatons to price signals. If that’s our worldview, then we’ll try to capture these values by shoe-horning them into pricing mechanisms. But I believe we are more than that. I believe that, at our core, we are moral, loving, empathetic beings who care about the well-being of others and all life on earth. While we need a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime, our labels engage our sense of humanity in a way that a price increase never will. They have the potential to take us from whining about increases to the price of gas to demanding that businesses and governments do more to address climate change.

The labels are disruptive of the status quo. They take an activity that has been normal for our entire lives and problematize it. The labels will cause some individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but, more importantly, they will create a shift in our collective demand that will facilitate meaningful action on climate change. Politicians will have more popular support to pass climate change legislation, invest in public transit and build bike lanes. Businesses will innovate by building efficient vehicles to meet the needs of a shifting market.

Success is nothing short of a market transformation. Pretty ambitious for a little sticker, eh?

Skrainka: Let’s say you succeed — will the time and effort be worthwhile given the inaction on climate change in the developed world, especially the United States, the number two carbon emitter in the world?

Shirkey: Yes. Because we’re taking our idea global.

When I started to tweet out the concept months ago, people from all over the world tweeted back at me remarking that that’s exactly what they do with their cigarette packaging. They would then ask what they could do to get them in their countries. There are approximately 50 countries in the world that already have picture-based warning labels on their tobacco packages. The way I see it, these are 50 markets that have been cognitively primed to adopt our idea.

With our upcoming cross-Canada tour, I see communities from coast-to-coast passing our idea into law. These will set precedents for the world to follow – and our plan is to help facilitate that.

For our campaign, we’ve developed a database with the email address of every single municipal councillor in all of Canada; that’s over 25,000 contacts in 4,000 cities and towns from coast-to-coast. Our website lets any citizen easily send an email to their councillors just by inputting their information and clicking send. To my knowledge, this is the largest e-advocacy campaign in Canadian history.

We’ve already started to crowd-source the development of a global database. My goal is this: I want the email address of every single elected representative on the planet. After a few communities in Canada pass our idea into law, I want citizens all over the world to begin to advocate for this idea in their own communities. Our objective is to change the world.

Skrainka: Some of your warning labels feature animals in their native habitats. Why did you decide to include that aspect of environmentalism, instead of going all in on making a human rights/social justice argument?

Shirkey: We tried to balance this with our mock-ups. Our original print run had two human-focused labels and two animal-focused labels. Studies from the tobacco realm show that the more relatable and more graphic the images, the better. So, it could be that human rights and social justice focused labels might be more effective.

Whether our approach is the right one, the thinking was strategic. Our concept alone will be challenging for many, so we figured we would come in with gentler images that were likely to face less resistance. Then, much like was the experience with tobacco packages, we anticipate municipalities will consider amping the imagery.

In any event, at the end of the day, we’re not actually advocating for the use of any particular images. We just had to create some mock-ups so that we wouldn’t be communicating the idea in the abstract. It makes the idea that much more real to be able to give a city councillor a gas pump nozzle to hold with a warning label on it and say “this is what it might look like.”

Skrainka: Your strategy is largely centered around organizing young people and encouraging them to attend city council meetings, and your Indiegogo video features scenes from classrooms. Why do you find the imagery of youth important and strategically effective?

Shirkey: A community in British Columbia already voted on our idea. It lost 4 to 3. Had one councillor voted differently, we would have already instigated a global precedent. Apparently what happened is a citizen heard a radio interview we did in Vancouver and brought the idea forward to his council on his own. I remember learning about the outcome after the fact and thinking to myself that we need to pack city and town halls with youth. It’s their future that we’re deciding so their voices need to be in the room.

We actually had councillors ready to move the idea in Toronto but we decided to delay the vote. We turned our focus to doing workshops in schools where youth express their climate change concerns by creating their own warning labels. They find the experience cathartic and are excited to know that I take their creations to city hall to show councillors. For every workshop we do, there are always a handful of enthusiastic youth who commit to taking the microphone at City Hall to share their concerns directly with councillors when we move our idea forward.

The thinking is this: if you’re going to vote against this by-law, you’re going to have to do it right after hearing from a succession of young people all speaking for their future.

Skrainka: What is your biggest frustration when seeking action on climate change?

Shirkey: I think our biggest weakness is a collective failure of imagination. We look at our world and think this is the way things are, this is the way things have always been, and this is the way things will always be. It’s really hard to challenge the status quo.

The Ford Model T came off the assembly line in 1908 and got between 13-21 miles per gallon. Fast forward more than a century later and cars today still get the same mileage or marginally better. When it comes to fuel economy, the auto sector has stagnated. The amazing this is that Shell hosts an Eco-Marathon every year that challenges high school and university students to build fuel-efficient vehicles. This year’s European winner in the gasoline prototype category got roughly 7,000 miles per gallon. It’s amazing.

While these vehicles are at the extreme end of efficiency, they do prompt the question, “Why can’t we do better?” Why don’t we have a car that gets 500 or 1000 mpg? And why aren’t we investing in public transit? There are much more energy efficient ways of moving people and goods and it isn’t a lack of technology that’s preventing their adoption, it’s a failure of imagination. Beyond the transportation sector, we are capable of using our resources more efficiently and re-inventing how we power our homes and businesses; we just have to be challenged to do better.

Skrainka: Do you remain optimistic that we will see meaningful change?

Shirkey: Yes. I wouldn’t have quit my law practice and liquidated my investment account to put towards this project if I weren’t optimistic.

There is a First Nations proverb that goes “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” This really resonates for me. My grandfather died, my father died, I know I’m next. A lot of my friends are having kids now and I truly appreciate that our time here is limited. I understand that the decisions we make today will shape their future and the future for generations to come. It’s incumbent on us to make this world a better place and I believe we can.

Here’s a big secret: the world is malleable and no one is in charge. All of us actually have the power to shape this place. If you have an idea to make our world a better place, run with it. No idea is too small and no idea is too big.

Skrainka: What is your WILD Wish?

Shirkey: That someone reads this article and cuts us a big fat check. You can also visit our crowdfund to contribute to our cause at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/face-the-change

PS: This is only our first campaign. As crazy as it sounds, we’re actually sitting on another innovative idea that not an organization is pursuing in Canada. Sneak peek: It’s a demand-side approach to energy reduction in buildings, it doesn’t involve stickers, and I think it’ll transform the entire sector.

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