Rejecting the Free Pass

There’s an elephant in the room. We know global warming is snowballing towards us, but once we’ve changed our lightbulbs and adjusted our thermostats and bought our high milage cars, we’ve done our part, right? Not quite. In Adbusters 72, Kalle Lasn puts it this way:

[Thomas Friedman says we need] a president “who is tough enough to level with the American people about the profound economic, geopolitical and climate threats posed by our addiction to oil — and to offer a real plan to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.” He then went on to say: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are — including car culture.”

That pretty well sums up the way most of us in the affluent West feel about global warming: we’re ready to make small sacrifices, change our light bulbs, our cars and even our leaders, but our culture — the American way of life — is not negotiable. That’s too bad, because our consumer culture is the primary cause of our ecological crisis.

But it’s not just environmental issues — it’s social issues, too. Take Product Red. Buy a Red-branded iPod and some of the purchase price goes to fight AIDS in Africa. When you buy it, though, you’re saying: I’m only willing to give a $10 donation if I can invest $190 in a gadget for myself. 5% for them, 95% for me. Why not give the whole $200 to a cause and listen to the radio? Our consumer mindset won’t let us.

The fear, of course, is that once we’ve bought the Red iPod, the Red Razr, the hybrid car, that we feel we’ve done enough, won our free pass, and leave the rest of the work to someone else. But is that what really happens? Could these products be a first step rather than the only step — the activism gateway drug? Focus group findings reported in this Sunday’s Times suggests they just might:

We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak. They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.

But the question I’ve heard over and over is: What else can I do? Consumption is so central to our culture, it seems the only way to engage these big problems is at the cash register. How do we move beyond that mindset? How can we ask people to make much bigger sacrifices for the good of the environment, for the good of people we’ve never met. How do we embrace fundamental change on a large scale?

As usual, the answer is that activists each have to figure out how we can best contribute and work hard. For my part, I think technology can play a role. The gap between causes and effects is often too wide for human brains to comprehend. Can technology help us close that mental gap? Can technology help people make the hard choices? Can the “architecture of participation” hive mind so heralded by the web 2.0 crowd be harnessed to this end in a deep and wide way? I think so. And, with everyone touting the new web and the ways it brings people and resources together in new and empowering ways, I can’t think of a better time to put it to this test. It’s the most important test of our generation.

We last wrote about using technology to encourage activism in Karma 2.0.

image grabbed from medicins sans frontier’s fantastic human ball

2 Responses to “Rejecting the Free Pass”


  1. 1 Aparna Pappu

    I think one of the reasons for rampant consumerism is suburban living. Since we moved from the city I have realized that not having the whole spectrum of life played out in front of you on the streets every day can leave room for feeling empty, disconnected from ‘everyone else’. One way to make yourself believe that you are doing something, that you are connected to other people is through buying. You go to the mall/shop/whatever. You buy your trinket/lawn mower/shelf/tv as seen in a magazine/tv etc and feel like you are participating in ‘life’.
    Instead of seeing a play. listening to music. going for a walk and seeing real live people.
    When you live in the city
    a) your apartment is too small for too much consumerism
    b) flippancy aside i do believe that actually seeing the homeless guy on the corner, seeing people from all income levels (the super, the guy yelling jesus on the street corner, the guy selling bootlegged dvds) makes you realize how fortunate you are to have as much as you do. maybe on a subconscious level. theater, art plays a vital role in feeling your smallness too.
    so if we can get technology to make you realize your incredible smallness in this world maybe you can realize that buying that 52 inch tv is NOT going to make you feel any better its just going to postpone the inevitable.
    i would love to see a game that visualizes (like the brilliant human ball clip) the impact of a single person not recycling/reusing for instance. lets say you throw something out. neighbour sees it and says well if he’s not bothering. and so on and on. maybe that will make people realize that every little action has its consequences and everything is interconnected.
    no idea. random early morning ranting.
    PS was fully expecting to see commentary on the NYTimes sunday article on the amount of time gamers spend dressing their avatars – what do you make of that?

  2. 2 Jason

    Interesting point on seeing the whole spectrum of life play out. Certainly, seeing everything as connected is essential to feeling that you can and should attempt to impact that balance.

    It would be great to see a game that highlights the strength of collective action and the breakdowns that happen when folks turn off because they don’t see anyone else bothering. I know the SimCity games (and their ilk) have a good deal about garbage collecting but I wonder if other games have gone further. And I certainly agree that interactive entertainment can play a powerful role in helping folks reflect on their actions. A Force More Powerful is a game that teaches about about methods for non-violent social change — turning popular opinion, and the like. Maybe some of the ideas there could be adapted.

    Another place technology (social software, in particular) could help is by enabling and encouraging activism. One way to do this is by helping folks find causes that they can connect with and using social incentives (connections with others who have similar interests) to encourage their continued participation and pull in new folks as well. Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing.

    Thanks for the pointer on the game dress-up article in the Times. Entertaining stuff. In-game ads and product placement is one of those things that folks have been expecting to take off revenue-wise for some time but it hasn’t happened yet. Still, the fashion marketing professor’s point that kids’ real life choices may ultimately mirror choices they make in a game is an interesting one. I imagine there can be some good in that if parents take the opportunity to teach their kids about the consequences of certain choices.

    Personally, I’m more interested in online worlds where players can make items and sell (or give) them to each other. I find it endlessly entertaining when the little guy can design clothes and items that are more popular than what those high-end designers create. Something about sticking it to The Man, I guess. :-)

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