Is it Time to Send in the Clowns?

How can deeply ingrained civic habits be changed?  How can the pessimism inherent in collective action problems be overcome?

Antanas Mockus, upon becoming mayor of Bogota, Colombia in 1995, confronted Bogota’s epidemic levels of traffic fatalities with a unique blend of statistical analysis, street and performance art, and civic education.  Statistical analysis told Mockus that the key to reducing traffic deaths (and improving traffic circulation) was getting drivers to stop before reaching crosswalks and getting pedestrians to only cross in crosswalks.   Rather than hiring legions of traffic police to write tickets to drivers and pedestrians who violated these norms, Mockus hired 40 made-up street mimes to stop cars and buses from entering crosswalks, and to poke fun at offenders of crosswalk rules.  The streets became a massive stage for lighthearted education about traffic norms, with jay-walkers,  crowds on the street, and the mimes all engaged in the performance, and television and other media drawn to the spectacle and amplifying its message. Bogota pedestrians and motorists adopted the norms promoted by the mimes, and traffic deaths began to fall, successes widely reported by the media. The mimes proved so successful that Bogota’s ranks of mimes increased to 400, and traffic deaths in the city plunged by more than 50%.

The injection of mimes into Bogota’s traffic mess has become a famous example of “cultural acupuncture”–a shot of art/culture used to change behavior and heal social problems.

Can the techniques Mockus used in Bogota to address traffic fatalities apply to changing consumers’ carbon-emitting behaviors?  Where would be the strategic points to apply “cultural acupuncture?”

Mockus’ actions in Bogota provide some clues.  Before employing cultural techniques, Mockus used statistical research to identify interventions that would provide the most bang for the buck.  In the case of consumer carbon emissions, we know where the most bang is—getting people out of their cars, to turn down their thermostats, and to turn off lights and electronics.

The experience in Colombia also tells us that cultural interventions must be narrowly tailored to specific conditions in the community in which they are performed in.  Following Bogota’s success with mimes, 100 other cities in Colombia also employed mimes to reduce traffic fatalities, but without measurable success.  What works in Los Angeles will likely be different from what works in Boise.

One possible focal point for cultural intervention is the gas station—those highly visible, ubiquitous, critically important, and mostly ignored locations where carbon passes from the oil companies, through a nozzle held by a consumer staring blankly into space, into the gas tank of the consumer’s car, ready to be released into the atmosphere, forever.

Thusfar, cultural interventions relating to the public’s CO2 are unheard of. I can’t think of one significant, well-publicized effort in the U.S. to reduce consumers’ carbon emissions through street-level cultural interventions.  We need hundreds of such cultural experiments, in the search for remedies for our deadly addiction to carbon.

-Matthew Metz