Making Stuff Cool, Making Stuff Uncool: Why Cultural Change Is Key

james dean smoking photo
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James Dean makes smoking look cool.
The Big Cheese behind TreeHugger, Graham Hill, hit the Arctic as part of Cape Farewell's 2008 Disko Bay expedition to witness the direct environmental effects of climate change. In a science research boat, he traveled alongside over 40 artists, scientists and rock stars.

Humans are driven by incentives. For the most part, we do things because there's something in it for us. This may be money, food, entertainment or even the feeling of having helped someone. In terms of the incentives that drive people to go green, some of the main ones that we hear about are ones such as saving money, maintaining your health and improving national security.

There's one incentive that doesn't get talked about as much but that I believe is very powerful...It's the positive and negative pressures that come from social norms. How cool and uncool you think your behaviors will appear to people is generally a huge influence on how you behave.

An un-cool outfit, an odd smell emanating from you or a small stutter are things we do our best to avoid. Public speaking? Often one of the things people are most scared of. Why? Because there's the possibility of making a fool of yourself. Most of us care a great deal about what other people think of us.

In the 70s, it was common to see people throwing garbage out of their car windows while driving down the highway. Now it's unheard of. How did we get to this point? Public service announcements, fines and a public coming to terms with what it knew all along...littering was just plain wrong. As a species, we're evolving...women's rights, civil rights, animal rights...we're slowly evolving.

All this to say that making stuff cool and uncool is critical in combating climate change. Littering is no longer cool. Hummers and SUVs in the city decidedly less so. Perhaps McMansions are next? Our social norms are evolving and the quicker we can help them do so, the better.

The expedition I am on (Cape Farewell 2008) has as its main goal to help accelerate this cultural change. Visual artists, photographers, writers and musicians' work helps to determine what we think is cool and un-cool. David and his team are helping to get these artists to feel/know climate change on an intimate level such that they ideally will incorporate it into their work and as such help us shift as a culture.

It's longer term and it's a little more abstract and it's for these reasons that I think it's important. We need all hands on deck. We need different people attacking this problem from different angles, on different time-frames, for different audiences.

Team Cape Farewell...onwards and upwards!