Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Grand Prize

Al Gore's well-deserved win on Oscar night sent a very clear message to the world. Sometimes doing the right thing will actually get you the grand prize. His Oscar win, to say nothing of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, marks a major turning point in the mainstream attitude toward environmentalism.

For decades, Kermit was right. It wasn’t easy being green. In fact, it was almost impossible. The problem now becomes, in a world so completely driven by materialism, how do you define, let alone reward, the success of less? In some cases, we have created new jargon to define the indefinable. The great oxymoron, “sustainable development” and Amory Lovins’ exceedingly clever term “negawatt”, (the megawatt of electricity saved that can be used elsewhere), are just a few examples of how we have attempted to put the idea of anti-consumerism and anti-materialism into tangible terms.

Al Gore’s golden statue aside, we are still left with the problem of how to create a system of acknowledgement that doesn’t further exacerbate the problem by rewarding positive accomplishments in ways that can be construed as negative.

A new anti-smoking campaign by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) is a classic example of the problem. The “Driven to Quit” campaign launched on March 1st, challenges smokers to make an online commitment to quit smoking for 30 days. On March 30th, a name will be drawn randomly from the list of registrants. A non-smoking buddy, also registered, will be contacted to confirm that the selected smoker has in fact remained smoke-free. To further verify the claim, the winner will be asked to take a urine test.

So far, so good. In fact, very good. The problem isn’t encouraging people to get healthy by quitting smoking. The problem is that the grand prizes for this contest are a car and a very big screen TV.

“It's been known for years that cars and trucks are the main source of urban air pollution, contributing 75 percent of the pollutants that cause smog and producing a toxic brew of benzene, small particulate pollution and other carcinogens that lodge in our lungs,” wrote activist Angela Bischoff. “Even the Canadian government estimates that 16,000 Canadians suffer premature death annually due to air pollution alone.”

In response, a Toronto anti-auto group, Streets are for People, has issued a very interesting counter challenge. The “I’ll Quit Smoking if You Quit Smogging” Challenge is offering a prize pack that includes bicycles and a year of free bicycle maintenance.

According to a the group’s press release, “When smog and air quality are at crisis levels, and the world has finally awakened to the reality of climate change, the Canadian Cancer Society is giving away another car to congest our streets and pollute our air.”

The point that the group is trying make is a valid one. It’s time that we seriously looked at our current reward system. If you really must give away a car, why not a hybrid or a Smart car? The CCS is offering an Acura as its grand prize. Wouldn’t it be better (and cheaper) to offer a hybrid Civic instead?

As for the big screen TV, watching television is a couch potato activity. If you want to reward someone who has just quit smoking, how about helping them to get healthy again? A year’s membership at a fitness club, a supply of running shoes and other sports equipment, or a bicycle (to borrow the Streets are for People’s idea) would seem infinitely more fitting (and fitness promoting).

Or perhaps the idea is no prize at all. As a former smoker who was offered all kinds of challenges, bribes and other incentives to help me quit, I can personally attest to the fact that none of it worked. What did work was recognizing that my life was far important to me than my bad habits. More importantly, actually quitting smoking was its own reward.

And that’s the point. When we finally realize that our reckless abuse of the planet is also destroying our home, we won’t need any rewards. Simply being able to breath clean air will be enough.


Check out the Canadian Cancer Society’s contest page at www.driventoquit.ca.

For more on the playful antics of Streets are for People, go to www.streetsareforpeople.org.


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