Mad Men: hope for the planet

Of the two American TV shows we are currently watching at home, Mad Men and The Big Bang Theory, Mad Men is the more instructive in the matter of climate change policy.

It portrays the life of high-octane advertising executives in New York in the early 1960s.  In a typical scene, the lead character, Don Draper, might be sitting in his office, smoking a cigarette.  Pete, one of his account managers, ambles into Don’s room and helps himself to a whisky on the side-board.  He pours one for Don, too, and lights up.  Then the latest new secretary walks in, all bum and boobs, and Pete shoots off a slick double-entendre.  Don lights another cigarette and so it goes on; yet it is haunting and riveting.

So what’s it to do with climate change policy?

That was 1962.  Fifty years on, you won’t find people smoking at their laptops.  Nor will you find the executives at an ad firm knocking back whisky in their office every afternoon.  And if people said things half as sexist to their secretaries they’d be looking at a jail sentence in modern America.

In short: big cultural change has happened in three specific areas over five decades: smoking, drinking at work and how we treat female colleagues.

Aside from how it happened, it gives hope for climate policy: dramatic cultural change can happen within a small number of decades.  Other examples are the use of seatbelts and drink-driving – perhaps even quicker significant change has happened.

It surely was not about pricing.  People didn’t stop pinching secretaries’ bums because the girls started charging for (s)externalities.  They didn’t stop chain smoking at work because of cigarette taxes.  And the price of whisky was not the driver for workplace abstinence.

The reasons seem to be more to do with education, cultural change and regulation.  Bad news for policy-makers stuck in dogma of tax and market-mechanisms.

Perhaps in the 2050s when people are watching “Bad Men”, the investment banking thriller set during the financial boom in the first decade of this century, they will be equally horrified at the meat eating, jetting to conferences in Switzerland and the single-glazed sash windows in their swish London homes.

You might say: smoking and drinking are easy cases, because you know there is a benefit to you if you smoke or drink less.  So it’s a simple self-interest.  Whereas cutting CO2 emissions only benefits people way down the line so you’re never going to find the self-interest to motivate people to change.  Not so fast: cutting down on sexist and racist behaviour doesn’t benefit the person who does the cutting down (it benefits the victim of that behaviour).  Rapid cultural change can be altruistic as well; where the person who changes his behaviour has no immediate benefit from the change.

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