Climate change and behavior modification: the uses and limits of shaming

One response to climate change involves trying to modify human behavior.  This can occur at the most macro levels, such as coaxing multiple nations into reducing their carbon output.  It can also occur through media and pop culture.  Since we’re in early days on this front, many approaches are available.

Interesting case in point: shaming people into greener behavior.

Rather than appealing to reason, or convincing folks that anti-carbon practices will empower or otherwise make their lives better, shame is all about negative self-worth.  It can tap into deep religious and psychological wellsprings, from sin and guilt to recrimination.  Shame is a profound motivator.

For example, this video encourages viewers to shun plastic water bottles:

(Yes, it’s a riff on a notorious Game of Thrones scene.)

Elsewhere, airlines are apparently shaming people into buying fewer tickets.  KLM, for example, gently reminds would-be fliers to consider other modes of transport:

Explore other travel options

In some cases, railway or other modes of transportation can be more sustainable than flying, especially for short distances such as within Europe. Do you know that flying from Amsterdam to Brussels takes longer than going by train?​

Added to that is a note about carrying too much stuff:

Notice the greenery off on the right.  Perhaps there’s some some anti-consumerism messaging here, too.

There is now a neologism specifically about this kind of tactic. “The Swedes even have a word for it: flygskam, which translates as ‘flight shame’.”  Or maybe “air shame.”  (Hashtag) The BBC adds another twist of the shame knife: “Too busy to take the train? Att smygflyga (‘flying in secret’) may result.” There’s more, too.  The flipside of flygskam is tågskryt, or “train bragging.”

The examples above can be thought of as targeting ordinary people.  At least one shame campaign has ramped up to target celebrities:

Swedish Instagram account dubbed “Aningslösa influencers” (meaning, literally, clueless influencers), “has been shaming social media profiles and influencers for promoting trips to far-flung destinations, racking up more than 60,000 followers.”

Obviously airlines shame themselves and their would-be customers from self-defense.  Owning anti-carbon language, powerfully expressed through shame, is a way of preempting protests and, possibly, new regulation.

What kind of impact with flygskam-ish rhetoric have?  How far will it go?

We could see more of it if policy and legal sanctions fail to alter human behavior.  Jennifer Jacquet argues that

[s]haming allows citizens to express criticism and social sanctions, attempting to change behavior through social pressure, often because the formal legal system is not holding transgressors accountable.

In other words, if enough of us find governments not doing enough on climate change, we might find shame a useful option.  At the very least feeling of carbon shame can provoke conversations and, thereby, maybe, change.

We can imagine shame campaigns ramping up.  I’m struck by the Aningslösa influencers move, and can envision all kinds of celebrities mocked for jet-setting, car idling, and even running heat, lights, and ac in their homes.  Democratically, we should expect more of the same leveled at everyone else.  In turn, people may signal their anti-carbon practices in order to ward off the possibility of shamewalking.

Carbon shame has its limits, including cultural ones.  Mercedes Hutton thinks China is likely to expand its air travel infrastructure, rather than contract it. A recent Washington Post column suggested that air-shaming is a European thing.  Americans will resist, because we don’t have sufficient rail, and we also love driving.  That sounds plausible to me, at least in the near term.

It might trigger cultural opposition.  There are signs of this in the US, with people proudly burning fuel in Hummers, or rolling coal (rigging vehicle exhaust to gout forth excessive smoke, indicating extra carbon burning).  Some may be actively opposed to climate change activism for various reasons; others could resist shame tactics because they react badly to them.  Back and forth: people could drive further down this road, leading to a tit for tat escalation.  Meanwhile, the religious support for shame might become less effective in secularizing societies; generally, it may be more effective with older people.

Moreover, these shame campaigns are about promoting companies and targeting individuals, which may be exactly backwards.  Even in the aggregate, individual choices may have a tiny impact on global climate change.  In this view shaming people for flying instead of training, buying plastic bottled water instead of refilling a container is not only a bad tactic, but ineffectual.  Could we turn the finger around, and see mass movements shaming the large enterprises that burn carbon at scale?

(thanks to Jim Burke for conversation and links)

*Note: this post is only about one sliver of one aspect of climate change.  I’m struggling now to work through climate change literature in order to frame out its possible impact on higher education and technology.  That’s an enormously deep and complex topic.  More to come.


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7 Responses to Climate change and behavior modification: the uses and limits of shaming

  1. Jim Parker says:

    Can you shame someone into being more responsible in terms of using less energy, recycling, and even social problems like racism when they don’t believe those things exits?

  2. Warren Blyth says:

    “… mass movements shaming the large enterprises that burn carbon at scale”
    is there evidence that shaming large enterprises works?

    I have the sense that shaming individuals works because individual humans want to be part of the human group. But I have no sense that large enterprises work this way (they are virtual persons, not humans).

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point, Warren. Enterprises can work without love, as per Machiavelli… until people stop doing business with them.

  3. Re. your deep dive into higher ed impact, check out University of BC’s Twelve Years to Avoid Catastrophe in particular, Seth Wynes case study on reducing business-related air travel at UBC – looking at institution-level changes that could make a big difference on carbon emissions – if only all institutions and businesses would all investigate alternatives. Yukon College and government were doing this through videoconferencing for education, events and meetings 18 years ago!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good catch, Sylvia!

      Thing is, we’re getting into vexed research territory as we try to figure out carbon costs. Not everyone agreed on what counts.

  4. sibyledu says:

    I wonder whether these various communications are truly intended to shame others. I suspect that they could be more about offering opportunities for the non-flyers to assert, and seek, validation for their virtuous train travel (or what have you). It’s one thing to say “I used the train to get to this conference! RT if you did too!” and another to say “Everyone who used a plane to get to this conference is a planet-hating monster!” Not only does the latter message run the risk of negative replies (and other, more aggressive counter-responses) from plane users, but it also deprives the “shamers” of the opportunity to receive plaudits for having acted virtuously.

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