Interview with Rob Shirkey, Proponent of Gas Pump Warning Labels
In my last post, I discussed a new initiative from Canada to mandate the inclusion of warning labels on gas pumps. Today, I interview the guiding force behind the campaign, Robert Shirkey, Executive Director of Toronto-based Our Horizon. The text below is a summary of our interview, not a transcript.
Q. How do you assess consumer consciousness regarding gasoline?
A. The act of pumping gas is normalized, habitual, and automatic. We scarcely even think about gasoline, and have complacent about using it. We need to bring the conversation about gasoline and carbon reduction closer to the end user.
To the extent we think about the global warming problem, we tend to think of it as a problem caused by industry, not by ourselves.
The goal of the sticker campaign is to shake up the complacency with which we view gasoline and create demand for alternatives.
While our goal is not to create guilt, if the end user does feel guilt, that helps establish conditions where change comes from. Change comes from dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Q. Are there sufficiently viable alternatives to gasoline right now? Is it fair to ask people not to use gasoline before there are viable alternatives?
“If you make them want it, then you get to build it, then they will come.” If we keep on buying the old internal combustion engine, then it will take longer for better alternative vehicles to come to market. If you can signal to a producer broader market interest, you are signaling to them an opportunity to produce at greater economies of scale.
The sticker will create a thirst for better alternatives. You make people want it first.
As long as consumers are complacent, we will not get the alternatives we want. Complacency doesn’t drive change. Consumers’ distance from the global warming problem perpetuates the status quo. If consumers become dissatisfied with the status quo, they will demand better alternatives.
Q. Why have the mainstream environmental organizations not asked their membership more directly not to drive gasoline-powered cars?
A. There is an ideological blindspot, a disconnect.The narrative popular with many activists is that there are big, bad evil corporations responsible for global warming.
If there is a narrative that we are all conflicted, that we are all part of the problem, it is harder to go to a protest and shake your fist. The real enemy is inertia and the status quo in which consumers are comfortable using gasoline.
Sure, there are some bad apples in the petroleum industry, but our challenge is systemic inertia, not cartoonish big, bad corporations. This narrative is more complex, but more honest. I think it will be more effective.
Q. Where do things stand with labeling in San Francisco and Berkeley? What do you think will be the first jurisdiction in the world to actually adopt the warning label requirement into law?
A. There is a group in San Francisco and Berkeley that I have been advising.They haven’t yet implemented a labeling law yet, but they are at the tail end of the legislative process, and we are looking at another month or two before it is complete. In West Vancouver, they recently passed a resolution in favor of climate change stickers on all gas pumps throughout Canada.
Many jurisdictions are reluctant to mandate the use of stickers now because of the threat of litigation. No one municipality has as of yet been willing to be first, but I believe a number will be willing once the law is decided that municipalities do have jurisdiction to require warning labels.
In West Vancouver, the mayor was formerly a petroleum distributor, and he has said that he will voluntarily put the warning stickers on the gas pumps he owns. Some consumers might want to support gas stations that voluntarily use the stickers. Voluntary placement of stickers could be a big growth area for the sticker movement.
Q. Is the time right for a gasoline boycott or similar coordinated withdrawal of gasoline purchasing? When will the time be right? How could it be achieved?
A. I wouldn’t go the boycott route. But it would introduce another perspective and be an interesting downstream intervention. We need to look at where fossil fuels companies get their revenue, which is from markets. The only reason that pipelines, tar sands, and oil drilling occur is because there is a market for the product. If we take away the market, all of these problems will disappear.