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One bitterly cold day last winter, walking from the parking lot toward my clients office, I went past a small group of smokers, huddled together just outside the boundary marked by a Smoke-Free Zone sign. They had formed a rough circle, two women and three men, so they faced each other as they smoked, shoulders hunched, stamping their feet against the cold, not responding to my presence or my nod of greeting, acting very much like what they were: outcasts.
Society does this. We turn people into public pariahs when we decide their personal choices are out of sync with the public good.
We dont go as far as Athenian Greeks did with ostracism — sending offensive people out of the city for 10 years. We just send them to the edge of the parking lot, or the street corner outside the building or the curb outside the bar, where their personal choice can be held to public scorn.
Its interesting to see how this happens, especially if youre in public relations where our efforts are often directed toward changing choices and behavior.
Through our organized communication skill, we get people to choose products, buy services and quit habits. We get behind causes and help to define social acceptability. And we do our part to create social rejection of those who resist conformance.
Smoking bans caught hold because enough people became convinced that passive smoke is a threat — ostensibly to ones health, but beyond that, to ones sensibilities. If you smoke and we dont, the logic seems to say, youre wrong, youve got to change or youre out. The same idea holds in the current focus on obesity. There is a shift in public opinion with the perception that an overweight friend infects us. The fat friend must change or face public scorn. Liberal opinion about the right to be fat is challenged by the resistance to perceived threat. I have been involved in several behavioral change campaigns. One had to do with seat belts. Another, with the wearing of helmets by cyclists.
And a great many have been related to the environment and energy: reduce pollutants, recycle waste, go green and energy efficient. In the course of communicating on these public issues, we celebrate conformers — they get awards and government incentives — and we condemn, penalize or shun non-conformers.
And now the target for social rejection is carbon users. Global warming is a grand cause and public wrath can be nobly directed toward individuals, companies and products deemed to be enemy in the carbon war.
You can expect — indeed, you may already be part of — justified scorn aimed at those who abuse carbon by driving cars, burning coal or using air conditioning.
But hold on. The war on carbon is a different kind of campaign. The ultimate object — namely, carbon-containing fuel — is a critical economic mainstay.
The federal government now spends about $6 billion a year on climate change programs. Thats peanuts. A U.N. study sets a global cost of $200 billion a year to reduce the expected growth in carbon and other heat-trapping emissions and to return them to their current levels by 2030. Our nations share of this would be huge, which portends more taxes on Americans, in addition to whatever our citizens pay directly or indirectly — for example, as the result of passed-on business costs. While its true that stopping some uses of carbon will have some offsets in costs — fuel switches are the common example — the overall shift in the national economy will be tremendous, and ordinary people will feel the pain.
Personal or societal accountability for abusing carbon will be complicated beyond any previous campaign aimed at behavior.
Stopping people from smoking in inhaling zones, driving unbuckled or overeating among friends does not result in a direct individual cost. In fact, it seems like an economic gain, extra points on top of safety and health benefits.
Similarly, industrial pollution abatement costs, while huge, are passed on to business customers, but thats not felt as a direct cost. Energy efficiencies produce trade-offs — the higher cost of the car or refrigerator is mitigated by lower electric or fuel costs. The question is can you create enough conformists or turn non-conformists into pariahs to keep a campaign going for 25 years waiting for a promised ultimate benefit?
The assumed best outcome for social change — namely, stopping global warming — is neither clear nor achievable within the ordinary attention span of modern society.
To alter their behaviors, carbon abusers will have to see the benefit of conforming — were not just talking about no stale smoke smells in the office or at lunch, which was relatively easy and quick to achieve — and well need to easily identify them: the pariahs pushed to the fringe of social acceptance.
It wont be that easy to demonize carbon over the longer term. Well still see ice melting and hurricanes happening. And there will be too many of us to outcast.
— E. Bruce Harrison
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