Our Horizon sample label for gas pump handle

Climate change warning labels would set the stage for a practical, planet-wide, sitespecific art campaign that would animate countless inert spaces with critical thought.

Warning labels on packs of cigarettes didn’t keep me from smoking as a teenager. When I quit in my 20s, their newly gruesome imagery really didn’t have much to do with it. But the warnings most definitely coloured my leftover cravings with the dark possibilties of charred lungs, festering gums and impotence. They made me stop and think. And whether or not you believe the graphic nature of those labels to be effective, it’s tough to deny their role in exhibiting and clarifying the health risks of lighting up.

I’ve been thinking about this because an upstart Canadian non-profit is trying to build the same caveat into another global consumer good that is gradually, tragically degrading our quality of life. Robert Shirkey launched Our Horizon in spring 2013 with the goal of placing warning labels about the impacts of climate change on gas pump handles. One of the organization’s prototype labels shows a sunbaked, skeletal bird wing and reads, “Demand for this fuel product may harm wildlife and damage ecosystems.”

Warning people about the dangers of unchecked fossil fuel consumption at a primary point of purchase is a stroke of subversive genius. It would force us to consider the true cost of every tank of gas, not just the price per litre. It would challenge our willful blindness reflex. Shirkey hopes a brave municipal legislature will make its gas stations implement the concept and create a chain reaction of recognition, much as Canada’s endorsement helped spread smoke pack warnings around the globe. Recently, his idea has found traction in Berkeley, California, and West Vancouver – the latter led by 16-year-old Emily Kelsall’s slam-dunk speech to city councillors.

Climate change warning labels also set the stage for a practical, planet-wide, sitespecific art campaign that would animate countless inert spaces with critical thought. Think about what you remember about the last time you stood at a gas pump. Now, imagine that mindless, empty purchasing experience recast as an opportunity for constructive reflection. Imagine if the warning labels highlighted the local impacts of climate change. Imagine if buying gas also meant seeding behavioural change and a bigger appetite for better transportation and energy solutions.

Sure, warning labels would piss off some drivers. But if their anger ignited more public debate, we’d accomplish more than reinforcing complacency. We’d be provoking ourselves to recognize the gap between our actual and conceivable realities. Imagine if Calgarians were reminded of 2013’s Great Flood when gassing up, if only to drive home the fact that relentless fuel comsumption is linked to the hyperactive weather and excessive glacial melt that spilled the city’s rivers.

This issue examines the latent messages in other realms of consumer culture and explores how art can help to reframe the conversation. A\J graphics guru Nik Harron gives an introspective tour of three favourite video games and points to how they’ve strengthened his environmental perspective. Associate editor Janet Kimantas goes behind the scenes on Wild Canada, the CBC television documentary series that uses next-level technology to reframe the vast influence of humans on our home and native landscape. Self-taught photographer Kevin McElvaney shares heartbreaking scenery from the front lines of Ghana’s electronics graveyards, and A\J board member Katherine Barrett visits some of Canada’s thriving maker spaces to see how kids are rebooting used stuff and finding deep value in a DIY approach.

Everything we need to spark change is within our grasp. Sometimes it only takes a subtle shift in perspective to make sure the takeaway message has legs.

Conserve after reading,