Scarlet Letters, Invisible Badges, and Green Peer Pressure

by Kim   |   October 7, 2009

A few months ago, Yale's 360 magazine had an article about Using Peer Pressure as a Tool to Promote Greener Choices. Think about election day and those "I Voted" stickers that get passed out...they create a general feeling of an event, a confirmation that everyone else is going to the polls so you should, too. What if individual action against climate change could get the same social visibility? I'm not talking about the environmental equivalent of a scarlet "A" for people with big carbon footprints (though driving a Hummer sort of counts). I'm referring to some of the citations mentioned in the article, like neighborhood-wide actions encouraging people to jump on the bandwagon for a weatherization program--that enrolled almost everyone in the neighborhood.

Right now there is still the illusion that our private choices are actually private; that the food we eat, the car we drive, and the stuff we throw out is a matter between ourselves and how strong our environmental conscience is. As if a carbon footprint belonged in the realm of faith, or climate change refuters were conscientious objectors. Since our environmental impact affects the world, why can't we acknowledge that public stake? After all, that's the prevailing psychology:

"People don't just want to conserve energy," says Arizona State University psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, "they want to be acknowledged for conserving energy."

Reusable bags kind of count: whether they are emblazoned with logos that say, "I used to be a plastic bag" or come in the more humble scuffed tote bag variety, they're a way of proclaiming "I'm green and I'm proud!" As the Yale article mentions, much of living greener is about what you don't do: not buying a bunch of extra stuff, not letting energy seep out of your home, not flying for business when you can have a web conference instead. It's sometimes hard to see the cachet of "not," or to feel the effects of restraint as much as you do when paying a little more for a green product. The creators of the nifty site made a place where you can tell other people about your decision to add memory to your computer instead of getting a new one.

The problem is, our desire for novelty and the uncanny efficiency of greenwashing ensure that any green "G" signaling a green lifestyle will be quickly co-opted and then cease to lose its meaning because everyone's moved on. Remember those yellow rubber bracelets popularized by Lance Armstrong a few years ago? There was an incredible rush to acquire one because it really meant something in popular culture; then other organizations started making their own, and gradually it became just another tcotchke. Rob Walker, author of the Unconsumption blog, has some interesting things to say about how our modern branded culture is moving us away from buying a ton of stuff to get the brand and towards trafficking in the brand itself. He says, ""these new 'invisible badges' will still have meaning, because the story we used to tell “the Joneses” with our stuff becomes the story we tell ourselves."

Sometimes it's hard to describe New Dream's mission because we don't just want to talk about the dos and the don'ts in life: the water-saving showerhead you installed and old coat you mended to avoid buying a new one, although those are both important. We want to talk about the extra space there is in life after you strike the right balance of do's and don'ts. A field where more of "more of what matters" can spring up from dormant seeds when we're not so driven. The kind of stuff that doesn't easily fit into a "ten easy steps" model, but which needs to be elicited and cultivated somehow because developing meaningful ties with a community is just as important as driving less and eating more sustainably. We're interested in what other New Dreamers do to cultivate those spaces where things that cannot be bought in a store may be found.