WARNING LABELS on packs of cigarettes didn't keep me from smoking as a teenager. When I quit in my 20s, their newly gruesome imagery really didn't have much to do with it. But the warnings most definitely coloured my leftover cravings with the dark possibilties of charred lungs, festering gums and impotence. They made me stop and think. And whether or not you believe the graphic nature of those labels to be effective, it's tough to deny their role in exhibiting and clarifying the health risks of lighting up.
I've been thinking about this because an upstart Canadian non-profit is trying to build the same caveat into another global consumer good that is gradually, tragically degrading our quality of life. Robert Shirkey launched Our Horizon in spring 2013 with the goal of placing warning labels about the impacts of climate change on gas pump handles. One of the organization's prototype labels shows a sunbaked, skeletal bird wing and reads, "Demand for this fuel product may harm wildlife and damage ecosystems." (Look left for others.)
Warning people about the dangers of unchecked fossil fuel consumption at a primary point of purchase is a stroke of subversive genius. It would force us to consider the true cost of every tank of gas, not just the price per litre. It would challenge our willful blindness reflex. Shirkey hopes a brave municipal legislature will make its gas stations implement the concept and create a chain reaction of recognition, much as Canada's endorsement helped spread smoke pack warnings around the globe. Recently, his idea has found traction in Berkeley, California, and West Vancouver--the latter led by 16-year-old Emily Kelsall's slam-dunk speech to city councillors.
Climate change warning labels also set the stage for a practical, planet-wide, site-specific art campaign that would animate countless inert spaces with critical thought. Think about what you remember about the last time you stood at a gas pump. Now, imagine that mindless, empty purchasing experience recast as an opportunity for constructive reflection. Imagine if the warning labels highlighted the local impacts of climate change....