These days, we see warning labels everywhere. These messages tell us to stay away, use extreme caution, or keep things out of the reach of children. But what impact do they really have on our actions? Could a warning label convince of that something we use every day is a life-threatening danger?
A new Canada-based non-profit is convinced that they could. The organization, called “Our Horizon”, is currently raising money to organize support behind a labeling campaign–not for GMOs or toxic chemicals, but for gas pumps.
The organization’s founder, Toronto environmentalist Rob Shirkey, feels that it’s too easy for today’s consumers to disassociate tar sands and oil spills from the other side of the equation–our endless demand for affordable gasoline. Shirkey thinks warning labels on the gas pumps themselves “could activate guilty consciences and give people a nudge to make more environmentally friendly choices, whether that means buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle, choosing to take public transit, cycling or petitioning governments and industry for environmental initiatives,” reports Good News Toronto.
We recently caught up with Shirkey to find out more about his grassroots campaign, and what concerned citizens can do to help.
We have several unique campaigns but this is our first one. As a small organization, we don’t have the capacity to run the others just yet. Part of the inspiration was based on the idea that senior levels of government weren’t doing enough on climate change. I asked myself, “What can cities do?” and came up with a variety of ideas (I’m a lawyer with a background in municipal law). The idea is that municipalities can use their licensing powers to require gasoline retailers to place these labels on their gas pumps.
There also appeared to be many environmental organizations that were fixated on pipelines, tar sands, etc. but few actually seem to ask the question “What do we use this stuff for?” You can’t stop a pipeline or stop oil extraction without addressing the demand-side of the equation.
2. What proof is there that labels of this sort will actually deter people from driving?
A meta-study on the effectiveness of tobacco warning labels (the most comprehensive study on the subject) concluded: “There is clear evidence that tobacco package health warnings increase consumers’ knowledge about the health consequences of tobacco use and contribute to changing consumer’s attitudes towards tobacco use as well as changing consumers’ behavior. They are also a critical element of an effective tobacco control policy.”
But we like to de-emphasize the link to tobacco and focus on why the labels are particularly compelling in the context of climate change.
Climate change is also a problem of diffusion of responsibility. As individuals, our contributions to the problem are small, but collectively, our actions are altering the chemistry of our planet. Psychologists know that when responsibility for something is diffuse, we fail to act. The labels locate responsibility. The placement of the image on the nozzle takes a problem of diffuse origins and locates responsibility right in the palm of your hand.
>>Keep Reading for more with Rob Shirkey of OurHorizon.org!
You can see some samples on our homepage at: Ourhorizon.org. Ultimately, these are just mock-ups. We’re mostly advocating for the concept and letting muncipalities know that if they don’t like ours, they can make their own.
4. Have any municipalities passed the label law yet? Or are any considering it?
A community in British Columbia already voted on our idea. It lost 4 to 3. Had one councillor voted differently, we would have already instigated a global precedent. Apparently what happened is a citizen heard a radio interview we did in Vancouver and brought the idea forward to his council on his own. I remember learning about the outcome after the fact and thinking to myself that we need to pack city and town halls with youth. It’s their future that we’re deciding so their voices need to be in the room.
We actually had councillors ready to move the idea in Toronto but we decided to delay the vote. We turned our focus to doing workshops in schools where youth express their climate change concerns by creating their own warning labels. They find the experience cathartic and are excited to know that I take their creations to city hall to show councillors. For every workshop we do, there are always a handful of enthusiastic youth who commit to taking the microphone at City Hall to share their concerns directly with councillors when we move our idea forward.
We have received communications of interest from councillors all across Canada. There are about a dozen municipalities in southern Ontario that are waiting for me to finish a legal report on the matter before they begin to actively consider it.
5. Do you have plans to take the campaign outside Canada?
When I started to tweet out the concept months ago, people from all over the world tweeted back at me remarking that that’s exactly what they do with their cigarette packaging. They would then ask what they could do to get them in their countries. There are approximately 50 countries in the world that already have picture-based warning labels on their tobacco packages. The way I see it, these are 50 markets that have been cognitively primed to adopt our idea.
With our upcoming cross-Canada tour, I see communities from coast-to-coast passing our idea into law. These will set precedents for the world to follow – and our plan is to help facilitate that. For our campaign, we’ve developed a database with the email address of every single municipal councillor in all of Canada; that’s over 25,000 contacts in 4,000 cities and towns from coast-to-coast. Our website lets any citizen easily send an email to their councillors just by inputting their information and clicking send. To my knowledge, this is the largest e-advocacy campaign in Canadian history.
We’ve already started to crowd-source the development of a global database. My goal is this: I want the email address of every single elected representative on the planet. After a few communities in Canada pass our idea into law, I want citizens all over the world to begin to advocate for this idea in their own communities. Our objective is to change the world.
If you believe in this idea, and would like to see warning labels on gas pumps throughout Canada and the world, check out Our Horizon’s crowdfunding campaign here.
Images via Our Horizon