Guilt Trip

Can Warning Labels on Gas Pumps Change Our Earth-Destroying Ways?

City Council member Mike O’Brien thinks so.

By Matthew Halverson December 7, 2015 Published in the December 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Pete Ryan

Be honest: Do you ever think about the fact that with every trip to the gas station you’re bringing the planet that much closer to environmental apocalypse? No? Well, Mike O’Brien would like to offer you a gentle reminder. This fall, the über-green city council member proposed placing labels on gas pumps to warn drivers they’re contributing to climate change. He swears he’s not trying to shame you into being more environmentally conscious, though. “We just want to remind you, ‘This one option you’re choosing today—pumping gas in your car—has some implications,’” he says.

O’Brien might not see it as shaming, but that’s just because here in the Northwest we employ our own unique brand of it: We’re not blunt enough to tell you outright that you’re doing something wrong, but we’re also too opinionated to keep our mouth shut. A chef runs to Facebook to air out customers who have the nerve to request soda at his farm-to-table restaurant. Homeowners react to a car parked in front of their house for too long by sticking a note under the windshield, citing the city’s abandoned car ordinance. The city itself places a red tag on your trash can if you don’t follow its composting rules to the letter. It’s passive aggression mixed with know-it-all-ism and sprinkled with a dash of “I’m just sayin’. ”

The question, though, is does it work? Can shame be a motivator for change? Jennifer Jacquet believes it can—provided it’s used correctly. In her book Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool, the New York University assistant professor of environmental studies argues for calling out the most egregious ecological sinners by directing opprobrium up the supply chain. “Shame scales,” she says. “Singling out you, the individual, is much less effective than singling out Chevron or Exxon Mobile.” Add to that the ease with which any one of us can mount a shame campaign against reputation-sensitive corporations in the social media age, and you’ve got a sling that can take down the biggest Goliath.

Where things get trickier is when large institutions pick on the little guy. “People don’t like experiencing negative emotions,” says Brian Lickel, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In December 2014, Lickel and four colleagues published the results of two studies examining the power of shame. And while they found that the emotion can be a strong motivator for self-improvement, it remains to be seen whether those who feel it actually follow through. The key to shaming someone into action, it seems, is offering an avenue for making that change. “We don’t have any good evidence right now that just making people feel bad about something does a lot to change their behavior,” he says. “If I’m feeling guilty and ashamed and it doesn’t seem like there’s anything I can do about it, that will translate into either trying to ignore it or feelings of resentment.”

Rob Shirkey understands that balance. He’s the executive director of Our Horizon, the Toronto-based nonprofit that came up with the idea for the gas pump labels that O’Brien wants to institute here. Since beginning the educational campaign in early 2013, he’s seen people favorably liken the labels to those found on cigarette packages. And at first glance, it’s easy to see why: Shirkey’s organization has produced a handful of samples, and most include some variation of “Warning: Use of this fuel product contributes to climate change, which may put up to 30 percent of species at a likely risk of extinction.” But it’s a comparison that he admits isn’t entirely fair. “People say, ‘We can quit smoking if we want to, but [gas] is a hard thing to quit,’” Shirkey says. “But if it prompts the end user to say, ‘What am I supposed to do? What are my options?’ that creates more space for change.” 

It could be a while before you’ll see the labels in Seattle. O’Brien is following the lead of a couple California cities, which in turn are tracking a few First Amendment cases in U.S. appeals court. And even if he succeeds in slapping one on every pump in the city, it’s hard to say how effective they’ll be. For one thing, we’re already a pretty environmentally conscious town; he could just be preaching to the converted. And UMass’s Lickel points out that as a means of influencing change, the labels are a “weak intervention.” Whether it actually qualifies as shame, though, is another matter. “There’s this temptation to call everything shame right now,” Jacquet says. “This isn’t targeting you specifically; it’s anyone who’s filling their gas tank. So if that activates shame or guilt in you, it might say more about your position on the issue.”

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