The notion that on-street advertising – ‘outdoor’ as it’s known – is a blight which might damage the public’s “mental environment” was floated by Culture Jammers in the last decade – as part of a wider critique of the impact of advertising. It was one of those weak signals of change which seemed unlikely to happen soon. But now Sao Paulo – the world’s fourth biggest city – has acted on it.

According to an article by the Worldwatch Institute, the city banned most outdoor advertising in January this year. Some 15,000 billboards have been removed, and the city has generated about $8m in fines.

According to Mayor Gilberto Kassab, the so-called “Clean City Law” arose from a need to address rising pollution of all kinds, including air, water, and noise. “We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector—visual pollution,” he was reported as saying.

Despite some business opposition, the change has 70% approval from residents. This might be because advertising has been increasing four to five times as quickly in Brazil as the average rate of growth worldwide. One of the unexpected effects – as billboards are removed – has been to make parts of the city newly visible, sometimes exposing hidden inequalities. Sao Paulo’s not completely on its own. In Beijing certain types of outdoor ads promoting luxury products have been banned because they discourage “harmony in the city”.
And Worldwatch’s Eric Assadourian argues that it takes this type of change to address the underlying issues of consumerism which create both global warming and resource shortages.

“It’s not simply greenhouse gases that cause climate change—it’s our consumer lifestyle that causes the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Until we end consumerism and the rampant advertising that drives it, we will not solve the climate crisis.”

One interesting measure of visual pollution – which also bears on the amount of energy we consume – is the number of stars we can see with the naked eye. This has fallen hugely. In On The Commons, Jonathan Rowe quotes some striking figures first published in the New Yorker on the level of light pollution we now experience as normal.

One common metric rates the darkness of the sky on a scale of one [the darkest] to nine. Galileo’s sky was a one. New York City is a nine. The typical U.S. suburb is five, six, or seven. There are only a few places on earth – the Australian outback is one – where one can see the sky our ancestors did.

According to the New Yorker article, someone standing on the top of the Empire State Building (this is the New Yorker) on a clear night would see only one per cent of what Galileo would have been able to see in the night sky with the naked eye. As Rowe observes, one only has to watch a Shakespeare play to realise how much knowledge he could assume of the stars among his audience – and how little we understand in contrast.

An article on why we should worry about the mental environment, written by Bill McKibben for the Culture Jammers mahazie Adbusters can be found here.