Gareth Hughes, dolphin slayer

Gareth Hughes, dolphin slayer
Don't tell them it's sustainable and they'll eat it by the boxful.

Don't tell them it's sustainable and they'll eat it by the boxful.

I have no beef with Gareth Hughes. (If I did, though, it would be organic, grass-fed and quite possibly slaughter-free.) He seems like a nice enough guy. I bump into him quite a lot on Twitter, and he always seems happy to the point of chirpiness to front up to a TV camera. These are all good things in a politician.

But here’s the problem. Every time he tweets, every time he opens his mouth to make a speech, every time he and his off-screen advisor agree to a TV interview, a cute little dolphin dies*. And here’s why I think that is.

A US study in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences examined the impact sales messaging had on an everyday purchase choice: whether or not to buy a long-life lightbulb. Two hundred and ten Americans were shown such a lightbulb, and given a list of rational benefits: how much it cost, how bright it was, what colour light it shone, how long it would last and, of course, how much it would save in electricity. 

Half of the bulbs had a blank sticker somewhere on the packaging. The other half had one that read “protect the environment”.

All 210 subjects were asked how likely they’d be to buy the bulb. For self-declared liberals, the sticker made no difference. They were just as likely to buy the bulb with or without the environmental message. For conservatives, though, adding the environmental message made them less likely to buy.

When faced with a compelling list of rational benefits, a good chunk of the conservatives said they’d buy. Add a green one and the number dropped. Why? Possibly because through their eyes, green issues are strongly associated with left-leaning politics and ‘save the planet’ is just a few slippery steps from ‘burn the flag’. Adding that environmental message made it harder for them to make what was up to that point a sensible choice. 

And this is where we come back to Gareth and the poor, defenceless dolphins. New Zealand, despite what we like to think in Grey Lynn, Thorndon and wherever liberals live in Christchurch, is, like the United States, a generally conservative country. While times are certainly a-changing, the 2011 election and polling since then confirm that most of us still lean at least a little to the right. 

Older readers will recall an advertising campaign for breakfast cereal Sultana Bran (I think it was) that cleverly combined the two usually mutually exclusive attributes of being good for you and not tasting like Dick Hubbard’s leather jandals. The tagline was something like, “Don’t tell them it’s healthy and they’ll eat it by the boxful”.

It was true for the cereal, it seems to be true for lightbulbs and I suspect it’s true for environmental messages in politics. The politicisation of green issues, while on the face of it a driver for the Greens’ growing support base, could end up achieving the opposite of what Gareth and Co want.

I’m not sure the lightbulb study scales to entire democracies, but if it does, the real potential for environmental change lies in giving the conservative majority reasons to act that don’t make them feel like they’re betraying their political beliefs.

But don’t do it because I said to. Do it for the dolphins. 

*Allegorically speaking. But you got that, right?