Changing the language of climate change

Climate March photo

From, Photo by Heather Craig

A fascinating article in New York Magazine suggests that through careful management of language it will be possible to bridge the nearly 40% divide between progressives and conservatives on climate change. Psychologists Are Learning How to Convince Conservatives to Take Climate Change Seriously, by Jesse Singal, begins with a critique of September’s 400,000-strong People’s Climate March: it won’t change American politics, despite the slogan “to change everything, we need everyone” – because it didn’t include everyone. Conservative thinkers were excluded.

Singal’s article notes that, “Although climate scientists update, appropriately, their models after ten years of evidence, climate-science communicators haven’t,” according to Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale who studies how people respond to information challenging their beliefs.

Convincing conservatives that climate change is a threat to civilization might just work, though, if the climate activist community comes to grips with the way conservatives see the world, and change their messaging to fit the conservative framework.

Singal goes on the describe two theories currently being examined by social psychologists: moral foundations theory, and system justification.

Moral Foundations Theory holds that people with different political beliefs arrive at those beliefs because they have different moral values. Liberals tend to be more moved by the idea of innocent people being harmed, for example, while conservatives are more likely to react to notions of disgust.

In their paper The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes, social psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer describe testing liberals and conservatives by asking them to read op-ed-like blocks of text designed to stoke either “care/harm” (innocents suffering) or “purity/sanctity” (disgust) concerns. One excerpt “described the harm and destruction humans are causing to their environment and emphasized how important it is for people to care about and protect the environment,” while the other touched on “how polluted and contaminated the environment has become and how important it is for people to clean and purify the environment.” Post-test attitudes of the “disgust” group showed no statistical difference between liberals and conservatives, and the gap in the belief in global warming was significantly diminished.

Researchers are also exploring the concept of system justification. We humans have a deep need to feel that the broad systems we are a part of are functioning correctly. As Singal says, “It doesn’t feel good to know you attend a broken school or inhabit a deeply corrupt country — or that your planet’s entire ecology may be on the brink of collapse.” People respond to threats to the system either by attempting to neutralize the threat, or finding ways to justify the system’s legitimacy by denying problems within it.

Irina Feygina, a social psychologist at New York University, finds strong evidence that conservatives tend to have greater confidence in the system, and are much more likely to justify it – leading to a strong correlation between system justification and denial of environmental problems.

“What you need to do is put the system first,” says Feygina. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s deal with climate change, let’s be pro-environmental, let’s protect the oceans,’ you need to say, ‘If we want to preserve our system, if we want to be patriotic, if we want our children to have the life that we have, then we have to take these actions that allow us to maintain those things that we care about.’” Remove references to catastrophe, and climate change becomes a patriotic challenge and an “opportunity to profit, to save money, to compete with China.”

Singal concludes, “If climate activists are serious about doing anything other than preaching to the choir, they’re going to have to understand that messages that feel righteous and work on liberals may not have universal appeal. To a liberal, the system isn’t working and innocent people will suffer as a result — these are blazingly obvious points. But conservatives have blazingly obvious points of their own: The system works and we need to protect it, and it’s important not to let pure things be defiled.”

Singal’s article reminds me of this nation’s most successful anti-littering campaign, Don’t Mess With Texas. It launched in 1986 with a TV spot featuring blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan sitting in front of a huge Texas flag, playing a soulful rendition of “The Eyes of Texas.” The campaign continues to this day, and celebrities such as Willie Nelson, George Foreman, LeAnn Rimes, Erykah Badu, and Owen Wilson have contributed their time and image for the anti-littering ads. The original spot’s voiceover says, “Messing with Texas isn’t just an insult to the Lone Start state, it’s a crime.” Stevie Ray Vaughn ends the spot with the spoken admonition, “Don’t mess with Texas.”

The campaign was so successful that even when factoring 25 years of in increases in population and roads, the Texas DOT spending on litter cleanup has dropped from $2.33 per person to $1.90. In bypassing the typical liberal rhetoric about littering, the campaign successfully appeals to Texans’ strong sense of preservation, pride, and loyalty.

Of course littering is not the same as climate change, but both issues relate to “the environment” and how we feel about the systems we live within. It’s time for environmental organizations and activists to rethink how they frame discussion around this issue that has profound implications for everyone on the planet. Because to change everything, we really do need everyone.

The power of a symbol

altered accessibility signA year ago I wrote a post, Guerrilla Art is Changing Perceptions of Agency for the Disabled, about two New York artists, Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren, who started a culture-jamming project of modifying public ‘disabled accessible’ signs. Their aim was to make the person-in-a-wheelchair symbol more energetic by changing the angle of movement, and adding a sense of agency to the figure. They wanted to counter the message of passivity embedded in the traditional accessibility symbol.

Their work caught the attention of New York city officials, and the new symbol soon became recognized in New York city.


updated disabled symbolFast-forward a year, and Governor Cuomo recently signed an updated accessibility icon into New York state law. (See press release.) The new official symbol of accessibility for New York state features a much more active and engaged image, and it very closely follows the original guerrilla art design. After the artists placed the symbol in the public domain, it was turned into official signage by Conrad Lumm and Katrina Otuonye for SmartSign, and is being distributed by MyParkingSign on a mostly donation or discount basis to encourage implementation of this important revision as fast as possible. (See MyParkingSign’s accessibility campaign.)

As Conrad Lumm says, “Ambient messaging about people with disabilities has the potential to stifle job prospects and quality of life, so the Accessible Icon designed by Hendren and Glenney is an important corrective. We look forward to rolling out (and donating) indoor wayfinding signage that includes the Accessible Icon, too. It makes us unspeakably proud that New York state is making this switch, and we hope more states follow.”

What I love about this story is not just that disabled people in New York have a better public symbol, but that the movement towards this change came from the grassroots. Culture-jamming and guerrilla art can be defined as the people talking back to a culture whose messages and images are largely corporate- or institutionally-driven. That two artists took it upon themselves to say, “Here is a better way to symbolize this particular sector of our society,” and that their idea was seen and acted upon by those with the power and resources to move the change into law, and distribute it statewide, is truly inspiring.

Now it’s time for Oregon to update its disabled signage!



Net Neutrality at risk: the Internet as we know it will change

What’s about to happen will affect us all in ways we can’t yet imagine.

The current nondiscrimination principle of “network neutrality” forbids phone and cable companies from blocking or even discriminating between or entering in special business deals to the benefit of some sites over others.

For example, as Suzanne succinctly puts it on “Net neutrality is the idea that all information is created equal, therefore, it should be available to all users of the internet without the interference of big companies stating what can or can’t be viewed. For example, if there was not net neutrality then Google could choose to not allow any Gmail users to receive emails from Yahoo accounts and vice-versa. Also, wireless carriers could sell tiered services that would allow some people to get information faster than others.”

I found this image uncredited on another blog. If you know the author, contact me via the main Blue Mouse Monkey site.

However, net neutrality is “dead man walking”, because the DC Circuit Court is about to rule probably in favor of Verizon.

As Marvin Ammori writes in Wired, “Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.”

“The implications of such a decision would be profound. Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology and design, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others. This means large phone and cable companies will be able to “shakedown” startups and established companies in every sector…”

Read the whole article on Wired »

Short term greed is killing us all

An excellent article by Henry Blodget  (CEO and Editor, Business Insider) examines the implications of a tweet by a Twitter user who lashed out against his suggestion that McDonald’s should increase the wages of its restaurant workers and pay for this by making a bit less money. (Blodget was arguing that McDonald’s employees should not be treated as “costs,” but instead as valuable members of a successful team who shouldn’t have to work that hard and still live in poverty.)

The tweeter responded:

offensive tweet(The tweet is quite articulate for Animal from the Muppets.) But as Blodget points out, this is not a unique opinion, and many senior managers think this way.

And it never ceases to shock me. I’m a business owner, but I’m also a human being, in fact a human being first. Strip away my business ownership and I’d still be a human being. And the people who work with me, for me, and for whom I do work are all human beings. Each one of them carrying a birthright that means they deserve to be treated with fairness, respect, honesty, and as people with hopes and dreams of their own.

I have never understood hope some people lose site of this. It’s just so obvious. It’s a given. In fact, it feels strange even to write it out, like I’m writing something obvious and unarguable like, “The sky is blue except on cloudy days when it is gray”.

To my mind, a person would have to be psycho to think of other human beings are merely “costs”. That’s not far from thinking of other human beings as less-than-human. As expendable. And we know where that kind of thinking can lead.

And guess what? ALL employees of a company are “costs”, including the higher management. Including the CEO. If you wanted to look at the structure of workplaces this way, you could argue that ALL employees are trading their labor for money. Even the CEO is laboring as a CEO. And her salary is a cost on the company’s books. She’s laboring with her head rather than her hands, but she’s still spending dedicated time in service of the company.

My company, Blue Mouse Monkey, Inc., is a corporation. My project manager’s wages are a cost to the company. My salary is a cost to the company. My subcontractor’s fees are costs to the company. If I hire a temp, that’s a cost to the company. We’re all costs. And we’re all much, much more. We all depend on each other. Without my employee and my subs, I wouldn’t be able to serve my clients. Without me (as the founder of the company), my employee and subs wouldn’t have the money my company provides in exchange for their labor.

We’re all valuable members of a successful team, and like any workers, we shouldn’t have to work as hard as we do and still live in poverty. (Which we don’t).

Now I’m not arguing that the work of a McDonald’s employee is equal on the marketplace to the work of a website developer. I understand that the level of skill and education and life experience necessary to be a good McDonald’s employee compared with that needed to be a a good developer (or copywriter or UX designer, etc. etc) is very different.

But no one should have to work that hard, give over than many hours of their life, and still live in poverty. They should make a living wage. Everyone should make a living wage. The alternative is a dying wage.

As Blodget points out,

“The real problem is that American corporations, which are richer and more profitable than they have ever been in history (see chart below), have become so obsessed with “maximizing short-term profits” that they are no longer investing in their future, their people, and the country.


“American corporations can afford to pay their employees better, hire more employees, and invest more in their future and the country’s future.

But American corporations aren’t doing that.

Instead, American corporations are choosing to divert as much of their value as possible to their owners and senior managers.

Doing this is not a law of capitalism.

It’s a choice.

And it is a choice, unfortunately, that is destroying America’s middle class, robbing American consumers (a.k.a., “employees”) of spending power, and, ironically, hurting the growth of the same corporations that are making this choice.”


Considering it doesn’t have to be this way, it’s a real shame that’s the way it’s turning out for so many many people. The best I can do, personally, is be a fair and honest employer.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

A side note: the tweeter’s use of “full stop” instead of “period” strongly suggests he is not from the United States. An interesting detail, considering Blodget was talking about American corporations and American workers. But many American corporations are also multinationals, and economic neoconservative attitudes are international in scope and spread, so it’s perhaps not all that surprising to see the non-Americaninsm in such a virulently capitalist response. (But it casts doubt on the veracity of the tweeter’s photo — I always thought Animal was American.)

Upstream Public Health website launched

We are very proud to announce the launch of the new website for Upstream Public Health. Upstream is an Oregon non-profit that researches innovative public health solutions and moves them into the mainstream dialogue, providing expertise in regional policy and decision-making. Upstream’s old website obscured the impact of their work. Upstream enlisted Blue Mouse Monkey to provide them with a distinctive platform to frame issues, provide timely information to their audiences, and express the values and upbeat personality of the organization.

Points of View website launched

nwhf_points_of_viewThe Northwest Health Foundation wanted a new website to support their work in public policy advocacy. Built on the concept of a video magazine, each issue of Points of View covers a topic germane to the work of the foundation, with a short introduction and a collection of videos that reflect the point of view of the NWHF, along with the many points of view represented by their diverse community partners.

A new face for The Conversation

nwhf_conversation_blogFormerly the Community Health Priorities project, this site has been given a fresh new look as it has morphed into The Conversation, the blog of the Northwest Health Foundation. The blog encourages Oregonians to participate in surveys, share feedback, read news, peruse resources, and apply for grants. Since its inception 2008, participation has climbed steadily, and the site returns data that the Northwest Health Foundation can bring to the state legislature.

Fighting for the value, dignity, and necessity of design work

artworks_logoThe Obama presidential campaign is sponsoring “Art Works: A Poster Contest to Support American Jobs.”

A poster contest. Where designers create designs for free (“spec work”) and submit them, hoping theirs will be picked. This from an organization that expects to raise a billion dollars in donations.

This kind of “volunteer your creativity!” attitude towards design undermines the entire design industry and the value of designers’ work. It’s a common attitude, the idea that designers somehow shouldn’t expect to be paid for their skills (unlike, say, plumbers, nurses, landscapers, programmers, urban planners, film makers, or any other skilled profession), and it drives me crazy. The attitude often goes hand in hand with another patronizing attitude, that designers are so desperate for “exposure” that they will give away their expertise in exchange for a mere chance of being noticed.

Can you imagine, say, plumbers being asked to donate their plumbing skills to a new wing of the White House, in exchange for a chance that their plumbing design will be chosen among all the others to transport water to and from that wing? Of course not. A plumber would be chosen via a traditional bid system, and they would be compensated for their work.

AIGA  (American Institute of Graphic Arts) executive director Richard Grefé wrote an excellent letter demanding the Obama campaign cancel the contest and consider other ways to bring the power of design into the reelection campaign. The text of the letter follows. Emphases mine.

October 21, 2011

Jim Messina
Campaign Manager
Obama for America
130 E. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60601

Dear Mr. Messina:

AIGA, the most established and largest professional association for communication design in the world, urges the Obama campaign to immediately:

  • Cancel the Art Works poster contest that trivializes the value of design by failing to compensate for it and assuming ownership of intellectual property rights, against standard professional principles, and
  • Consider the role of design in creating social and economic capital as well as innovation and growth, treating it as an economic driver instead of a creative indulgence, and involve the design community in integrating design into an economic strategy for strengthening U.S. competitiveness.

The recent “Art Works: A Poster Contest to Support American Jobs” demonstrates a lack of respect for the design profession, violates global principles and standards for professional design practice, contradicts the intent of creating jobs for American workers and asks designers to give up intellectual and creative property rights.

As executive director of the oldest and largest professional association for communication designers in the country, I speak on behalf of a profession that is central to innovation and creative value in the U.S. economy. We urge you to cancel the poster contest and consider alternative, appropriate approaches to achieving your need for great design that communicates effectively. No creative community in the world is as talented as American designers and as eager to be engaged on challenging assignments to enhance understanding of complex issues. For instance, over the past decade, AIGA and its members have been active participants in enhancing the citizen experience and clarity in the election process through the Design for Democracy initiative.

The Art Works poster contest asks designers to work speculatively, creating designs without compensation for an activity that has value to a potential client, against established global principles in communication design. We are quite certain that public relations consultants, political consultants, networks, telecommunication providers and advertising media are not asked to donate their services and turn their ideas, research and work over to a campaign that is poised to raise $1 billion without compensation. This demonstrated lack of respect for the value of creative endeavors is exacerbated by the stipulation that ownership of all the creative property submitted, whether or not selected, is transferred to the campaign. And it is particularly contemptuous to ask the creative community to donate their services in support of a jobs program for other American workers.

There are ways in which you can seek proposals from designers that do not violate the integrity of the profession (and the client) and we would be willing to work with you in developing a process to solicit ideas leading to retaining a designer to develop an effective design and program to advocate your messages.

The Obama for America campaign would also be well served to shift to a strategic perspective in involving the design profession by exploring with us the means to develop policy proposals to enhance the support of design as a key driver of innovation and economic growth in the U.S. economy. The government, in aggregate, is undoubtedly the largest single client for design services in the economy. Design provides a highly leveraged, relatively low cost means of enhancing the competitiveness of the nation’s products and services as well as a critical element in enhancing effective and efficient citizen-based government services. Recognizing this would follow the example of countries like Korea, China, Singapore and the UK in advancing productivity relevant to the 21st century.

If you choose to proceed with this contest, we will feel compelled to single it out as a reflection of your lack of respect for designers and your perception that design has little value, even while you are encouraging creating work for other workers and professions. Incidentally, it is also undoubtedly injudicious to seem to politicize the current NEA initiative entitled Art Works that is a well-conceived effort to demonstrate the value of art to communities.

Yours truly,

Richard Grefé
AIGA executive director

cc: David Axelrod

Bravo, Mr. Grefé. Thank your for standing up on behalf of all of us designers. Little do some non-designers realize how ugly and non-functional the world would be without us. Our work is not just decorative afterthoughts. It is essential to high quality communication.

TOFCO Website Launched

tofco-2The Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon (TOFCO) is revitalizing anti-tobacco advocacy in Oregon through a grassroots movement and outreach to communities most impacted by the harmful effects of tobacco use. Blue Mouse Monkey is proud to have worked with TOFCO to create a website that acts like a virtual staff member. The site provides relevant information to community advocates and decision makers, builds the tobacco-free movement support base, increases efficiency, and elevates TOFCO’s presence in the community at large.

Soy. Food of the Gods.

tofu-beijing-china1Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the “soy issue” has come up a few times. Not from doctors (who appear to care little about what you eat – hah!) but from friends. Well-meaning friends who wish to warn me about the “dangers of soy”, particularly for people with hormone-related cancers.

I’m a vegetarian. I eat soy. I love tofu and eat it in some form almost every day. (I go through a tub of Toby’s Tofu Pate a week. I must have put their kids through college by now). I like miso, but it’s so salty it’s more like a condiment than rib-sticking food. I admit I do like “vegan junk food” like tofurkey slices, smart dogs, and the like. I don’t eat this kind of processed stuff every day, but a couple of times a week I’ll indulge. I don’t like tempeh but will eat it very occasionally if it’s well-disguised. I don’t like soymilk, and rarely drink it. The exception is the occasional winter drink of hot soymilk with maple syrup and a dash of salt. Somehow, maple and salt make it divine.

Aaaaanyhow, my point is, I eat a little bit of soy, often. I don’t believe it gave me cancer. And I don’t believe omitting it from my diet will reduce the risk of cancer returning. Quite the contrary.

Japanese women have the lowest rate of breast cancer in the world. A lot has been written about the Japanese diet, and many epidemiological studies have demonstrated a correlation between soy consumption and reduced breast cancer risk there. Now I know that correlation is not cause, but epidemiological studies are all we have when it comes to understanding the long-term relationship between diet and health. You can’t do a double-blind, controlled experiment following several thousand people for 20 years, during which half of them eat real soy and the other half eat placebo soy. It’s just won’t work. So epidemiological studies are what we have, and particularly useful are meta-studies of those studies.

When a Japanese woman has breast cancer, she is more likely than an American woman to survive long term. Her cancer will likely be slower-growing, less aggressive, and hormone receptive. When a Japanese woman gets breast cancer, her tumor is easier to beat.

My tumor was slow-growing, less aggressive, and highly hormone receptive. There’s no way I’ll ever pinpoint the cause or my cancer, but based on what I understand, it might be the case that my 20 years of soy-eating (and general healthful practices) gave the tumor a less favorable terrain to get really nasty. It’s out now, and my task for the rest of my life is to make sure it doesn’t return. It’s a statistics game: I could do everything possible that’s right and good for health, and the cancer might still come back. But if I do everything that’s right and good, at least I’ll know I did everything I could.

So why does soy have such a bad rap among the general public, and also some alternative medical practitioners such as naturopaths?

If you look at the history, it’s apparent that soy’s reputation has slid for political reasons rather than scientific ones.

Here’s a link to a good article about soy and why the bad rap it’s gotten is based on politics rather than science: Is Soy Safe?

More info on soy and health can be read here: Soy improves breast cancer survival

One government that has particularly obvious anti-soy policies is New Zealand. New Zealand’s small economy is based heavily in animal agriculture. Milk there is like corn here: a massive surplus that the food industry mops up by adding milk products to a lot of processed foods, the way corn products are added to many foods here. (New Zealand is a hard place to be if you’re lactose intolerant!).

New Zelanders internalize anti-soy propaganda to the point where, e.g. my brother in law won’t eat tofu because it will “give him titties”. (Ironically, NZ has one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease, due to high meat and dairy consumption).

Here in the US the economy is so huge and based on so many variables that pressure comes less from the federal government and more from particular industries. The effect is the same: spread of misinformation and fear-mongering.

So, say yes to soy! Food of the gods, in my opinion.