9 January 2010

raising awareness

Lately, I've been thinking hard about consumerism. Thinking hard about the choices we make; about all the things we do and buy which are not presented as choices. I've been thinking about the divide between what people think, and their self-identity, and what they actually do.

This post on lifestyle activism made me laugh. And this post about the latest status update meme made me laugh too. But it makes me sad that people think they are doing good while actually they are doing nothing.

Raising awareness
. What does that mean? How does that translate into change? Well, most of the time it doesn't. You can set your facebook status to say anything you want. Saying 'bad palm oil' on facebook won't get it banned - it may make you feel warm and fuzzy for 'doing good', but actually no good has been done. Telling everyone the colour of your bra may make them think about breast cancer - but just thinking about it is useless. Raising awareness is liberal hippie bullshit unless it is backed up by meaningful action.

There are two sides to this in my head. One is 'good' people, who make consumer choices which are not just detrimental, but directly causing pain, suffering and death. People don't think, "I want to kill an orangutan today, and help contribute to the extinction of the species." They think "hmm, might go buy a broom handle. And while I'm at it, I'll pick up a packet of biscuits as well." 80% of the plywood in the USA comes from old growth forest, orangutan habitat. But we don't think of orangutans when we buy it. We don't want to destroy the forest or send hundreds, thousands of species to extinction. We just want to build a bookshelf.

So yes, I'd like people's awareness raised, because our society is set up so that we don't have to think about the consequences of our consumer choices, don't have to think of what happens around the world to get our cheap and easy products on the shelf. We have little or no knowledge of how or where our goods are produced. It's the privilege of ignorance. But there's little point 'raising awareness' if it isn't going to translate into action.

Because the other side of the coin is those who seem to think that mindpower will somehow fix things. This is the 'if I think pure thoughts the energy of the earth will be raised and change will happen" attitude. Yeah, hippie bullshit. One of my mates asked me what was needed to save the orangutans. I said, "Money. You're a musician - set up a benefit gig. Raise funds. Busk. We need money to pay the forest patrols, money to buy land for habitat, money to pay for food and medication. WE NEED MONEY."

So what did she do? Set up a facebook event, for people to change their status to 'save the orangutan, ban palm oil'. And somehow, she managed to tell herself that it would make a difference, that she was doing something for the orangutans.


Michelle Desilets said...

Brilliant, hard-hitting, and absolutely spot on.

Anyone interested in the palm oil issue and orangutans and forests should read this and consider it. And then, if they haven't already, take the next step and DO something about it.

I use Facebook and Twitter predominantly to raise awareness, and invite my friends to join groups that embrace a statement or conviction. But to be honest, I do it with the hope that perhaps a percentage of these people will actually do something constructive with this information. Write to manufacturers and retailers and ask them to commit to sourcing only Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Do something to raise some funds and donate them to a responsible organisation who is working on the ground to make a difference, such as Orangutan Land Trust or Borneo Orangutan Survival. They CANNOT do their work without funds.

Here's an idea you can do instantly: It's Saturday Night tonight. Stay in, skip the pub, and donate the money you would have spent on drinks to the orangutans.

Michelle Desilets
Executive Director
Orangutan Land Trust

Rika said...

I do sign up for every single word said. It is hard, though, if the aim is to multiply and make real money. I believe that if people would pull together, they can achieve more than the individual. So far I have to admit that I failed miserably to inspire others. There is so much to know - didn't know about the plywood thing - so the 'raising awarness bit' is essential, and one needs a psychology degree to get people out of their lethargy. But hey, it's a new year, a new game... off we go!

Anonymous said...

It is the sad state of our world today. People are presented with so much choice they do not know where to begin, nor do they wish to know the impact their consumer choices have on the world around them. There is a lack of awareness, ignorance and culpability that is dragging society into a midden.

Personally I believe raising awareness does help. Because if there is no-one there banging the drum, how will those who do not know be enlightened?

Repeat something often enough and it will finally sink in and hopefully, translate into action.

Anonymous said...

The end objective is to have people make different consumer choices, but first you have to change opinions, to educate and inform. There is no quick way to do this as changing fundamental beliefs (in, say, the right to buy or consume what you want, or a belief that animals are less important than economic well-being) are slow to change, and attempts to shift the views of others can meet with hostility. It seems to us that doing something is obvious and easy, but one of the easiest things for people to do is eat less meat, just have smaller portions, but few are willing to embrace even that small change.
Attitudes and beliefs move slowly, we need to be quietly persistent to shift the greater population of the planet, most of whom struggle daily to manage their lives.
What we really lack is political leadership, and they hesitate because they fear for their careers if economies fail and people lose their jobs and homes. So now, what we need most are alternatives, for politicians and consumers, linked to the kind of re-education and persuasion that underpinned all major social change. It takes time, but there is no alternative.
But even thinking this doesn't mean that I'm not frustrated too. Our economic system is insane, and our tastes and choices primitive, but even so, let's keep talking because things are changing, people are slowly making changes in their lives, it's just happening at a pace that is sometimes hard to see. And, anyway, public changes in behaviour will not make the real difference we want to see. Global warming outstrips everything else, and we have at best ten years to turn things around, this requires political choices on a global level, and they won't act until they believe we are behind them and that their careers are safe. Thus is where the most leverage can be placed.

Grouch said...

Raising awareness cannot be underestimated, it's people's willingness to make an effort as a consquence, that is overestimated. If it was possible to change something that mattered with a click of a mouse, or a status update more people would do it.
Facebook groups have managed to change the course of events in several instance's ( the UK Christmans number 1 song for example). Seeing an obvious result gives people instant gratification and a sense of empowerment. It is so easy for people to believe that they, as an individual, cannot make a difference. Particualarly, when they often do not hear the results of campaign efforts, merely all the further work and further fund raising that needs to be done.

In the music chart instance the public are familiar with how the music chart system works, it is not obvious to most people how reading a label and choosing one product over another, or writing to the producers of their grocery products to demand sustainably sourced ingredients makes a difference.
In my line of work I raise awareness every day about the plight of this planet and the wildlife we share it with. Not everyone is going to change their entire lifestyle, but many do take little steps, steps like recycling their mobile phones, or writing to chocolate manufacturers. They tell their families and friends, they get the message out there, there is nothing wrong with that. Not everyone is going to be a hard core campaigner, just a special few have the guts to do that, the rest is a spectrum of effort. Without raising awareness, through status updates or whatever the medium is that reaches out to as many people as possible we will never find the people passionate enough to make huge differences. For all any of us know a status update could inform and inspire a friend of a friend who has the power to change the course of a campaign. We don't know. But at least people are getting involved in one way or another. I can understand the frustration in the post but ten years ago how many of the general public even knew the connection between vegetable oil and orangutans, or had even heard of palm oil?