Sunday, October 02, 2005

The problem with marketing

The New York Times Magazine has a fairly interesting article today, arguing that resource conservation, especially energy conservation, will never succeed until it becomes "fashionable". The article contains a variety of quotes from various marketers and advertisers about the fact that conservation is currently just too uncool. Among other policies, the article suggests that environmentalists should move away from un-hip conservationists like Jimmy Carter and Ed Begley Jr. and lavish its attention (and presumably dollars) on people like Michael Stipe and Mos Def.

Personally, I think that's a load of crap. I agree that very few people will adopt energy conservation measures out of a sense of altruism. Shit, most people won't even do so out of a sense of duty to their offspring. If that's the case, is it really reasonable to expect "fashion" to be any more powerful a motivator than familial ties? I don't know.

I do know that even if it is, fashion is not the key to the sort of sustainable, systemic change that is necessary to provide the sort of environmental, economic and social benefits the article hints at. Consider the example of the 1970s. The early 1970s were, by any measure, the heyday of the environmental movement. We saw such landmark laws as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species movement come to fruition. As the article notes, these laws were driven by popular support and the clearly fashionable idea that protecting the environment was a good thing. Just a few years later, during the oil shocks of the mid-1970s, people even began to reject icons of the American car culture like the Nova SS muscle car in favor of smaller, fuel-sipping Japanese imports. These sorts of changes, driven either by fashion or by economics seemed to be lasting.

Fast-forward 30 years and consider the environmental landscape now. You've got a hairy-backed whore for the development mean Richard Pombo, trying to "improve" the Endangered Species Act. Average fuel economy of cars purchased and driven in the United States has been declining since 1988 and the nation's administrative agencies and Senate refuse to improve or increase our national Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The President, meanwhile, has spent the last five years trying to gut the Clean Air Act.

If the fashionable environmentalism of the early- and mid-1970s had been truly sustainable, would we be in this situation? I don't think so. Fashion, be it political or be it sartorial, is ephemeral at best and hardly the basis for a sound national policy. Admittedly, fashion can get people motivated, but I think the track record for America's environmental laws suggests that it cannot sustain them. What's the answer then?

I don't really know. I'd like to think it's education and appeals to reason, but I don't think so. I know far too many smart, liberal people who view the environment as a useful political cudgel but not as the fundamental underpinning of our economy and society (and for that matter, lives) that it actually is. And perhaps that is where the problem lies. The "environment" is just too big an idea. For that matter, so is "ecosystem". These words are abstractions representing systems that are so complex as to be impossible to fully understand. Asking someone to sustain an interest in "protecting the environment" is like asking someone to "define life". Most people are wiling to give it a go, but after a while they'll get bogged down and lose interest. Make it fashionable and they might try a little longer, but it won't last.

So what can we conclude from all this? Perhaps this: We're Doomed.

Isn't that cheery?