At what point does something become normal? It’s not quite a simple as waiting for the moment when a majority of the population supports an issue. Plenty of philosophies and technologies are adopted by just a small minority of people and yet are deemed normal, while there are also incidences throughout history, most of them tragic, where something is deemed normal but in retrospect emerges as being staggeringly abnormal.

The identification of this crucial tipping point, to use the Gladwellism, between niche and normal is of huge importance to any social and economic movement – not least the transition to a low carbon economy.

The roll out of low carbon technologies and business models faces many economic and cultural challenges, but one of the most important and least well understood is the perception that green solutions are not yet the norm. Whether it is the solar panel on your roof, the hybrid car in your drive, or the carbon label on the bottle of milk you just bought, there is a sense that these products are in some way unusual, niche, perhaps even elitist.

It is in this context that President Obama’s decision to put a solar panel on the White House roof may prove to be of immense significance.

It is easy to see why the Obama administration agonised for so long over this decision, initially rejecting calls to install a solar system before this week announcing that panels would now be deployed. The last President to install solar panels on the White House roof was one term Democrat Jimmy Carter and the last thing Obama needs during election season is to provide right wing nutjobs with another excuse for them to characterise him as an effete elitist tree-hugger.

But regardless of the inevitable brickbats this move will attract, the Obamas have done the low carbon economy a huge service by announcing the installation. The White House is arguably the most famous home on the planet and while this is unlikely to prove the tipping point for mass adoption, installing solar panels at such a high profile site inevitably helps to move the technology a step closer to normalisation.

For anyone who sneers at the Obamas’ environmental concerns, others will conclude that if it is good enough for the president it is good enough for them.

It is for this same reason that the UK’s recently introduced feed-in tariff is so important. As many critics have pointed out the scheme is not the most cost effective means of reducing carbon emissions, but in addition to increasing renewable energy capacity each solar panel and wind turbine installed as a result of the incentive is helping to normalise low carbon technology. It will become much harder for people to be cynical about the green agenda when they can see it in action on their street.

I attended a round table event last week where one of the participants argued that we needed to reach a stage where a solar panel could be installed on the Queen Vic and no one would regard it as strange.

Currently, any effort to feature solar panels or smart meters as part of a long running soap would prompt accusations of government-approved preaching, or even worse, subliminal advertising. But were such technologies to become an increasingly normal part of the urban fabric, then they would also become part of the media landscape, further encouraging real world adoption in what would become a virtuous circle.

Similar adoption curves can be seen time and time again throughout history and they remain one of the few reasons to be optimistic about the prospect of us building a sustainable economy over the next few decades.

Whether it is the break-neck pace at which people bought iPods during the noughties or the decades-long battle to normalise equality in the workplace that is gloriously illustrated in TV show du jour Mad Men, it has repeatedly proved possible to engineer economic and social tipping points.

The lesson for those businesses and governments keen to drive the development of the low carbon economy the lesson is clear: there are benefits attached to the visible deployment of green technologies and business models that go over and above the immediate carbon and energy savings.

This is particularly the case for those firms in the media sphere that have the potential to accelerate or slow the normalisation process.

One of the most significant victories secured by environmentalists in recent years was Rupert Murdoch’s acknowledgement of the threat posed by climate change and his promise to mobilize his vast media resources to address the challenge. What followed was an encouraging season of green programmes and articles across the News International portfolio that served to further push the environment up the political and social agenda in the run up to last year’s Copenhagen Summit.

Unfortunately, since then Murdoch has reverted to type, unleashing Fox News to attack the Obama administration’s green agenda and providing millions in funding to a Republican Party that remains in hock to climate change sceptics.

If ever there was an illustration of why it is so important to change what is regarded as the norm, this is it.

Source: Business Green Blog.

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