Monday, May 4, 2009

A complicated message

As our group was preparing to interact with the public at our Earth Day tabling events, we ran into the problem of having a complicated message. The term "peak oil", while technically meaning the point at which we reach the world's maximum production of oil, carries a background and implications that are not usually apparent to a typical citizen without some detailed explanation.

Our group, Transition Town OKC, already has several slogans, such as "The community approach to the energy challenge," and "Building stronger and more resilient communities," which kind of hint at the problem, but don't directly address it - because it would take too long, or on the flipside, be too blunt (publicity problem). We test-marketed "Working together to survive the energy apocalypse," but it didn't play so well.

One issue is that we can't assume that the public knows anything. During our tabling we ran into a woman who didn't realize that plastic was a recent invention. She asked, "What did they do before Tupperware?" While she may be an extreme example, most people don't realize a lot of simple information - because they have never been informed, and because they have never stopped to question the fundamental assumptions that drive our economy (infinite growth is possible and desirable). We have to start from scratch when dealing with the public, not because they are stupid, but because they have never examined the basic realities of their life.

So I decided to break down what we needed to communicate into it's components. I came up with six:

1. Our society is incredibly dependent on cheap energy, especially oil.
2. Oil supplies are finite.
3. At some point, probably soon, we will reach maximum production of oil supplies and then oil production will start to decline.
4. This decline will cause major disruptions to our agriculture, economy, financial systems, and way of life.
5. We need to create stronger and more resilient communities to face this challenge.
6. With creativity and hard work, we can build ways of life that are actually preferable to our anxiety-ridden, unhealthy, inequal, ecology-destroying status quo.

Trying to fit all of these concepts into a table display, a conversation, a soundbite, or a slogan, is difficult. It's not that hard to fit into a pamphlet or a website or a PowerPoint presentation, but we need a quick, one or two sentence way to explain who we are and what we are doing. This means that a lot of the nuances, and even some important information (like "we may have already reached peak oil") is lost.

On top of that, we need ways to answer the most common questions. It's best to do that pro-actively, because otherwise people tend to walk off in denial by comforting themselves with the thought that ethanol, or wind, or solar, or electric cars, or nuclear fusion, whatever technology comes to mind, is going to make it possible to keep existing in our current way of life.

What we're trying to balance is brevity and understandability with complexity, urgency and comprehensiveness. What we gain on one aspect, usually we have to give up on another, and I haven't yet come up with the perfect combination. One example we practiced was something like this:
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy released the Hirsch report, which
analyzed world oil production. Their conclusion was that oil production would start declining soon, probably within the next ten years, which would cause a lot of problems for us because we depend on oil so much. We need to build stronger, more local communities so that we can face this problem.

This explanation relies on a government report (authoritative source), takes three sentences (fairly brief), explains most of the peak oil problem (comprehensive). However, it lacks urgency (no specific timing), and may not be easy for people to understand (without a background understanding how much oil we use, what we use it for, how much we import, etc.). This explanation is also pretty light on the "solution" side of the thing. I mean, how the heck are local communities going to help the problem? It may not be very obvious. Not to mention the fact that it completely leaves out the climate change aspect of the problem.

Do you have an elevator speech of two or three sentences that you use to explain the energy problem - or do you go into a detailed explanation, or avoid talking about it entirely?


Andrew said...

You have to realize that you may be turning someone's entire belief system on its head.

For someone who isn't "aware", this must be done delicately, and I don't think it can be accomplished in one or two sentences.

I don't have any good suggestions, just sharing my thoughts.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

Andrew -

Thanks for your comment! We do realize that - that's part of what makes it complicated.

I think you make a good point, we may have to settle for step-by-step, incremental awareness - just being part of the message, not the whole enchilada.

Tara said...

Your best bet in a situation like that might be to pique their interest enough to make them look it up and read up on it when they get home (you'd provide resources, of course). When you're dealing with people who aren't aware, just bringing it to their attention is about all you can hope for. And repetition helps - that's how advertisers sell products, after all, by flooding our awareness with a name, an image, etc. Over and over and over.

mos6507 said...

I think actions speak louder than words. Everyone knows what the Amish believe because how they live their lives is their calling card. Someone who is a peaker in spirit but not in deed doesn't make much of an impact. But someone who breaks the ice through explaining his preps makes a more convincing argument. You have to drink your own kool aid so to speak. They may call you crazy, but they have to at least concede that you are putting your money where your mouth is. So that's where I'm putting my emphasis, on preps (gardening, home efficiency, etc...), and then using the preps as a conversation piece with family, friends, and neighbors, and just fan out from there.