Social Campaigns Based on Ableism

Via Information Aesthetics, a blog I read because i am obsessed with data visualizations and charts and graphs, I read about a new campaign designed by “eco-design consultancy Giraffe Innovation.” They’ve created a website where a user creates a humanoid form to represent themselves. The site then tracks the person’s environmental impact – things like home energy use and waste creation – and represents their individual environmental impact by modifying the humanoid form that represents them.

It’s when we get to the specifics of how the representative form is modified that I start to get uncomfortable. As the site describes:

The website shows the environmental impact of a person by using humanoid forms with body parts distorted relative to the environmental impact of common activities. Each part of the body is allocated to a different type of environmental burden: the feet correspond to the transport footprint, the hands to home energy, mouth to water, stomach to consumption, bottom to waste and the eyes and head to electrical consumer products.

Here is a sample image demonstrating some of the distortions:

A group of humanoid figures, seemingly sculpted from grey clay. The center figure is a "normal" man. The surrounding figures have distended bellies, exaggerated hands and feet, larger skulls, and protruding lips.
A group of humanoid figures, seemingly sculpted from grey clay. The center figure is a "normal" man. The surrounding figures have distended bellies, exaggerated hands and feet, larger skulls, and protruding lips.

The whole purpose of the website, the underlying assumption that makes this a meaningful exercise to convince people to reduce their environmental impact, is that when people see these “distorted” human forms that represent themselves, they will be so horrified that it will motivate them to reduce their impact so they can again be “normal.”

There’s got to be a way that we can encourage and motivate people to be more environmentally aware without drawing from, relying on, and reinforcing these ideas about “normal” bodies.

The full site for the project is available here.

15 thoughts on “Social Campaigns Based on Ableism

  1. Yeah, it’s pretty awful. “OMG HORRIBLE DISTORED UGLY THINGS WITH BIG ASSES!!!” Yeah, um, thanks for sharing your crappy visual metaphor with us.

    Not to mention that it’s pretty classist as well. And not just that but completely unrealistic. I live in a sweet neighborhood, but I don’t have access to curbside recycling where I am, and the city recycle bins are frequently moved or abandoned or just taken away, so I can’t reliably plan to recycle anything. My city does not have safe, reliable public transportation (a bus ride can take two hours to get you where you need to go, and I am not exaggerating) so I have to drive everywhere that I can’t walk — and there are no grocery stores within walking distance. I live in a very energy-efficient home, but most people cannot afford to just go out and get a more efficient water heater or have their house re-glazed and insulated. They have to live with what they have, they don’t have the money to change it.

    These are things caused in no small part by cultural problems, large cultural problems. One person can make a difference, sure, a very small one, and if everyone did it, it would be a big difference, but what would make a really useful difference would be addressing some freaking poverty issues and maybe making public transportation actually feasible and accessible to people in cities like mine and just *perhaps* working so that neighborhoods are more self-contained, with basic necessities within walking distance.

    Sorry. Rant. I actually went through the thing. Ridiculous!

  2. That’s rather ghastly. Thanks for pointing this one out. (Your normal standard body is also not female and has Caucasian features, obviously.)

  3. o_O
    Whoa, this is soooo bad!
    What Nele said, the default standard human is white, male, thin and looks able-bodied. WTF?

    The irony is mind-blowing, because the more privileged a person is (like that standard human) the bigger their “footprint” is.

    Also, this pointless attempt to portray the default human neutrally by depicting him in a superficially neutral colour as well as naked but without genitals? It’s obvious that this human is white and male. It’s an artistic failure.
    .-= Kowalski┬┤s last blog ..Blogging Against Disablism: An Obituary =-.

  4. Thanks for pointing this out. And yes, the fact that the norm is an able-bodied white man totally bothered me too.

    Also, the questionnaire didn’t even allow me to select the reality of my living situation – no heating, no hot water, no washing machine. In some parts of the world those are standard, yes, but where I live, it’s rare (and unnecessary) to have any of them.

    As an alternative, GOOD profiled this GE interactive chart that shows how much energy your appliances use last week. Not exactly the same thing, but a helpful chart that doesn’t seem to have the same issues as the Habbit site:

  5. As an additional point to what Naamah said: what about all the things that are packaged with non-recyclable packaging? Some essentials are impossible to buy in recyclable packaging, while others are but the item with the recyclable packaging is always more expensive. I heard in some countries in Europe (might be the whole EU, don’t know) that they have laws prohibiting non-recyclable packaging.

    Also, where I live we aren’t allowed to compost (by the people who run the block of flats I live in). So ALL of our food waste goes to the landfill.

    Why everything is always marketed as the INDIVIDUAL’S problem when there are *obvious* societal or regulatory deficiencies I DON’T know.

  6. I find myself rather squicked by that visualization too, for the same reasons that you all highlight.

    And aside from the representational issues, the more I look at the attempts to encourage people to care for the environment, the more I think that guilt-tripping people is not the way to do it. It’s getting the sustainable living movement very entrenched, in the minds of many of the public, as That Thing That Tells Us That We, And How We Live, Is Bad. It’s difficult to relate to a campaign that basically talks down to you.

    I’d rather see more campaigning based on highlighting the positive effects for individuals, societies and the environment of recycling, reducing our carbon footprints, etc., because I think it’s more effective and minimises the risk of blaming the individual rather than the society and the system. People above have made excellent points about how we need systemic solutions as much as we do individual ones.

  7. There is another unfortunate implication, I don’t know why I’m only noticing it now, the “sinners” are bloated and fat, whereas the Good Guy (TM) is thin (like I already said).
    So according to this graphic, fat symbolizes greed, gluttony and wealth. And If you aren’t emaciated you can’t be poor?
    Not at all like realityland where poor people can’t afford good quality food.
    Just wanted to point this out as a fattie who can afford pasta, but doesn’t always have enough money for fresh fruit and vegetables.
    .-= Kowalski┬┤s last blog ..Blogging Against Disablism: An Obituary =-.

  8. Wow, that’s an … interesting image. I’ve seen visualisations where you were shown how many earths would be required if everyone lived like (general) you. Much better, more informative and manages to totally side step any possible issues.

    The quiz itself is pretty dire.

    1) Gender? Male or female. No option for other, no ability to not disclose. -10 points

    2) No options anywhere to opt out of a question.
    How do you heat your house? Um, we don’t usually, and when we do it’s with a wall mounted convection heater in whatever room we’re in.
    How much do you turn down your thermostat to save energy? Um, we don’t have a thermostat, so none? Bad me? It’s a “When did you stop beating your dog” question.
    Do you have loft insulation? Um, did I not just tell you I live in an apartment block? Again, I lose points because the question doesn’t apply?

    3) Dooood, hitting of folks food choices? Uncool! And nonsensical. I put that I have milk/yoghurt 1 to 2 times a day, and cheese 3 to 4 times a week. Apparently I have to cut that s**t down! It’s not like us females (which I had to disclose) often don’t get enough dairy coz of the death-fat-scares.

    Ableism/lack of gender options, quiz-fail and environment-fail in one magical website!

  9. I’d toss in racism to go along with the ableism. If you look at the distorted images, they bear striking resemblances to some of the horrific racist stylized images of Blacks from only a few decades ago. So not only is the default a white man, but the negative images are racialized.

  10. @Kao: when I was reading the description before clicking through and before getting the image to load, I thought it sounded like a bad racial caricature. But then I got distracted by the discussion of the blaming.

    In short: I agree.

  11. I’m increasingly bothered by the ableism in much ‘green’ activism, even among otherwise very socially ‘aware’ groups (e.g. sociologists). I shudder to think what kind of carbon footprint my medication alone has, but it’s not like I can stop taking it, so what am I supposed to do? Feel guilty?

  12. shehasathree – my medication comes before any green movements, sorry. (As much as I hate PETA, I think the founder is right to take medication that was tested on animals. Living trumps a lot.)

    And I know some people don’t have AC and mom didn’t have AC growing up and blah blah blah, but I grew up with it. I get sick if I get overheated, and I we don’t have a nice summer house in the mountains or at the beach, so AC it is. It was only broken for about 24 hours and I started to get a heat rash, which is bad.

    I think we all do what we can, and we shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for not doing more. (That’s how it is in so many parts of our life.)

    The base used to recycle (they did when we lived there in the mid ’90s) but the town does not. The campus does, and they recently added bins outside the dorms which was great. I always felt good when I put a plastic soda/water/juice bottle in its recycling bin.

    I will only feel good about what I do, I refuse to feel bad about what I don’t.

  13. I did the test, then e-mailed with a couple concerns (male as neutral, difference/disability as bad). This is the reply I received:

    “Many thanks for your email. It is sad to hear to you feel the Habbit portrays a human body that way. The Habbit is not based on a male figure at all, it is a neutral humanoid form. It is based on the Homunculus (latin for “little human”) and is a term used, generally, to refer to any representation of a human being. The reason why the Habbit is so strong is because you get a visual representation on how bad your Habbits are – This is me this is my impact. We do not mean to cause anyone offense.”

    I don’t think they got it.

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