Blog Post

Perpetual Movements: Change for Good

Three steps that create sustainable shifts to improve our world
September 8, 2021

By the 1970s, no one in my family smoked, yet we still put out ashtrays as a courtesy for any guests who might want to light up inside our house.

In the 1980s, I assumed clothes reeking of stale smoke after a night at a concert or club was – like ringing ears – just an inescapable side effect of going out.

Decades ago, Americans smoked in living rooms, bedrooms, offices, buses, airplanes, movie theaters, concert venues, nightclubs, restaurants, college classrooms, and even grocery stores.

Fast forward to the 21st century: Smokers typically go outside their own homes, often braving the elements, for cigarette breaks.

This societal shift helped turn the tide on tobacco use and has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It not only reduced exposure to harmful secondhand smoke but also prompted many smokers to quit and reduced tobacco’s lure to young people.

The sea change also shows how combining policy reform, behavior change, and evolving social norms can start a virtuous cycle of profound and lasting improvements.

Perpetual Movements: Change for Good describes the three-step process that creates and sustains a cycle of positive change.

It’s the core of SE2’s social change process, which is reflected in our new web address – SE2ChangeforGood.com.

Not settling for sound and fury that ultimately signifies nothing

Too often, movements resemble fireworks – they start with a bang, create a spectacle, and then fizzle out.

But the successful ones pick up momentum over time – gaining strength year after year like the movement to create marriage equality.

Sustainable long-term movements typically combine these three key elements. Here’s how it worked with indoor tobacco use.

  1. Policy change: Health activists – initially in lonely local political battles in the 1970s and, over time, as part of a well-funded and well-coordinated national campaign that went toe to toe with Big Tobacco — passed incremental policies that limited indoor smoking step by step. Policy shifts can include federal, state and local laws, as well as institutional policies (like an organization declaring its building or campus smoke free).
  2. Behavior change: Public health advocates educated the public on the dangers of tobacco generally — and specifically exposure to secondhand smoke. States also provided free resources to support tobacco users who wanted to quit. Smoking rates declined markedly, as did secondhand smoke exposure.
  3. Shifting social norms: As more places went smoke-free, more people started experiencing the benefits. And as more tobacco users quit or at least took their smoking outside, the social norm evolved. Tobacco seemed less glamorous and more annoying. (Imagine Humphrey Bogart huddled in an alley outside for a smoke break, or Lauren Bacall telling him his breath stinks.)

Fewer kids started smoking. Smoke-free businesses saw increased revenue and embraced clean indoor air policies.  The momentum created further momentum as the movement to reduce tobacco’s terrible toll accelerated.

This evolving social norm created a fertile environment for more clean indoor air policies while more people went tobacco-free. And this virtuous cycle continues today.

Think of other examples of this that have led to lasting, positive change:

  1. Seatbelt use.
  2. Recycling.
  3. Early childhood education.

None of these could have happened without a combination of policy change, individual behavior change, and evolving social norms.

Consider the causes that motivate you and how this approach to sustainable change could further them.

The work is never finished

But it’s the nature of policy, behavior, and social norms that they never stop moving, so reformers cannot afford to stand still.

For example, the rise of vaping and the widespread legalization of marijuana threaten to erode progress on clean indoor air.

These days, tobacco users step outside to smoke cigarettes at concerts but vaping continues inside and the air is thick with marijuana smoke.

We cannot rest and breathe easy: It will require policy shifts and education campaigns to regain momentum in this area.

At least we now know the formula for impactful, long-term, sustainable movements.

Eric Anderson is co-founder and senior strategist for SE2. To explore how your issues could benefit from this approach, contact him at Eric@SE2ChangeforGood.com.