Chicago Green Jobs

Is Austerity The Answer?
September 18, 2009, 6:52 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Want to see strong climate change legislation enacted? Look to the health care reform debate for a map to all the obstructions ahead. Corporate money shaping the debate? Check. Regional interests trumping national interests? Check. Public debate centering on emotion rather than logic? Absolutely. Hell, 39% of the country believes that government should keep out of Medicare, which is and always has been a government-run program.

If You Can’t Beat’em, Join’em

This is not an appeal to reason

This is not an appeal to reason

Since rational debate is a lost cause, there’s a lively debate over the best way to make a compelling emotional appeal for strong climate change legislation.  Ann Danylkiw of  World Coloured Glasses has an interesting post up on the role of the media in convincing people to change their behavior in service of the greater good. Ann interviewed a psychologist and an economist on this subject, and she synthesizes their ideas here:

Taking a step back, during and before both world wars propaganda campaigns were waged by governments to aid the war effort. More specifically, during World War II, the British government needed the British population to behave in a certain way: austere behavior in the buying and use of goods. Austerity, green-economic experts like Andrew Simms believe, needs to be revived to make the public transition to the mentality necessary to adapt to climate change and continue to survive on this planet.

It’s an appealing idea, isn’t it? Who doesn’t love those great “Keep Calm and Carry On” propaganda posters from the World War II era! Unfortunately for graphic designers everywhere, that approach will not work to convince the public of the necessity of changing our behavior around climate change. Let’s drill down into that British Austerity example to see why.

Austerity Propaganda: Making a Virtue of Necessity

Well, have you?

Well, have you?

The British austerity propaganda campaigns were designed to make a virtue of necessity, not to convince people to voluntarily change their behavior. In 1939 on the eve of war, Great Britain was only 30% self sufficient in terms of food production.  The Germans had very nearly starved them out in World War I by attacking their supply ships, so this time the government had the political capital to institute a strict food rationing plan early in January of 1940.  Eventually the list of rationed products covered most of the necessities of life: bread, eggs, meat, milk, bread, preserves, sugar, clothes, soap, petrol, and, above all, bacon.

The austerity propaganda campaign worked for two reasons:

1. Rationing was mandatory, not a personal choice. Rationing was a government program that touched every single citizen – pregnant women even got ration books for their unborn children.

2. Rationing was a response to a clear and present national security threat. No one liked it, but everyone understood that rationing food was a specific, high impact action they could take to help win the war.

For better or for worse, the context in which we are attempting to pull off effective climate change legislation is absolutely nothing like World War II era Great Britain. Not only are there no mandatory actions people must take to combat climate change, there are strong pressures against taking voluntary action. How many times has someone attempted to pop your do-gooder balloon by pointing out that no matter how low you set your thermostat the impact you have will be overpowered by the new coal-fired power plants shooting up in China? Climate change as a national security threat is a bit more promising; the pentagon has begun running war games based on climate change scenarios.  Alas, even those scenarios are still too remote. Running out of food and being overrun by the Kaiser is much more compelling than the prospect of paying slightly higher taxes to intervene in water wars in Africa.

Dig For Plenty

Plenty: I'm for it!

Plenty: I'm for it!

So if an austerity campaign won’t work, what will? Opulence, of course! Effective messaging emphasizes how much people gain from acting responsibly. The gain can be personal: losing weight, saving money, enjoying a better work/life balance. It can also be abstract: pride in American ingenuity and leadership.

Ultimately, the most compelling way to give people a stake in climate legislation is to show that there will be more winners than losers.  No messaging campaign can succeed without practical investment in developing green industries that will create good local jobs. Alas for the ouster of Van Jones! But we must Keep Calm and Carry On developing strong jobs and communicating about them effectively.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Not a bad response. But you’re missing the point. We’re in the fix we’re in because we have over consumed the resources of this planet. We have consumed too much and in a wasteful manner. The future is not only about consuming sustainably and sustainable products, but about consuming less as well.

We need to create green jobs, absolutely. But those jobs need to be high value, well trained professions. Those jobs need to be knowledge based not entirely industry based. Other wise the BICS countries will win the “green” race to sustainable technology like solar, wind, and energy. The US is already behind China.

I’m sorry, but you’ve Missed the Bear.

Comment by Ann Danylkiw

Thanks for responding – I really enjoy your blog!

We are engaged in a battle of point-missing at the moment. There are two separate issues here: the fix our planet is in and the practical solutions for getting us to a more sustainable way of life.

I agree that our current path is unsustainable. Your interview subjects proposed a specific solution: instituting a government-run propaganda campaign to promote the value of austerity. My post is an explanation of why this idea is doomed to failure.

We are past the time when preaching to the choir is an acceptable substitute for action. Our challenge today is to get as many people as possible to see the possibility for a richer life inherent in living more sustainably. A messaging strategy dependent on convincing people to voluntarily do without creature comforts will not be as successful as one built around building a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Look at the difference between Jimmy Carter’s “Save oil, wear a sweater” moment and the launch of Michelle Obama’s White House Farmer’s Market. One message is about austerity and one is about healthy living. While both have their detractors, Carter’s sweater message is remembered as a “let them eat cake” moment while Obama is supporting a revival of interest in taking action to link personal health to the health of the planet and the community.

The ultimate goal is to generate action across industry, government, and individuals to usher in a more sustainable future. In order to be successful we’re going to have to figure out how to connect with people where they are, not where we wish they were.

Comment by Kate Eyler-Werve

Maybe one way to combine these ideas is to point out the waste inherent in the overprocessing of food, which leads to obesity and health problems. This can be connected to the health care crisis, since something like 60% of medical treatment is for chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart problems and stroke, all of which are aggravated by lousy diet and lack of exercise.

Comment by masaccio

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