George Lakoff may be the new darling of the Democratic Party, but how sweet is he on the environmental movement?

George Lakoff.

Photo: Bonnie Azab Powell, U.C. Berkeley.

A onetime adviser to Howard Dean, who hails him as “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement,” Lakoff is author of the election-year best-seller Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which solidified his rep as a top-tier Democratic strategist. A professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, he is widely seen as the meta-thinker who can rearticulate liberals’ core values and help invigorate the flagging progressive movement.

Environmental leaders, too, are turning to Lakoff for guidance as they grapple with a values dilemma similar to that of progressives at large. The past few months have seen much heated debate about how best to revive environmentalism, if it can be revived at all. But even before Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus‘s much-ballyhooed “Death of Environmentalism” paper spurred a combustive mix of introspection and vitriol, green leaders last year signed a high-dollar contract with Lakoff to help them revamp their messaging strategy and increase their political power.

Now, that ambitious project appears to be floundering.

In April 2004, a coterie from the Green Group — a behind-the-scenes coalition of 20-plus national environmental organizations whose leaders plot big-picture strategy via listservs and semi-regular meetings — convened for a weekend getaway at a conference center on the Wye River in Maryland. Lakoff was the guest of honor. With his standard stump speech on crafting values-based messages and political strategy, he won the hearts and minds of those assembled.

Framing — Lakoff’s much-touted specialty — is purposeful use of concepts and language to recontextualize debates and change the way the public views an issue, or the world. Lakoff often cites examples of the political right’s masterful use of frames: death tax, partial-birth abortion, war on terror, ownership society. The left, he says, has some serious catching up to do. That point hit home with green leaders, who have seen too many of their public messages land with a dull thud.

Soon after the retreat, American Rivers President Rebecca Wodder, who was the 2004 chair of the coalition, contacted Lakoff about launching a long-term project with his Rockridge Institute. “We hired George to help us develop a methodology for communicating more effectively,” Wodder told Muckraker, “for reframing environmental issues in a way that they have more traction, more importance.”

Sources close to the project say that Wodder and Lakoff negotiated a budget of roughly $350,000 for the venture, which would include three phases: First, a diagnosis of the weaknesses in the environmental movement’s communications strategy. The second and third phases would involve more challenging efforts to clarify the values of the movement and recast its approach to messaging.

Both the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Wyss Foundation agreed to pony up funds for the project. Wyss didn’t respond to Muckraker’s requests for information about its grant, but Peter Teague, director of the environment program at Nathan Cummings, waxed enthusiastic: “This is an incredibly audacious thing, right, to say we’re going to reframe environmentalism? And coming from the Green Group? Wow!” Teague, who was instrumental in introducing Lakoff into green circles, approved $50,000 in Cummings money to fund the project’s planning process, which is slated to conclude in May.

And that’s just the down payment. In the Nathan Cummings grant description, the endeavor was envisioned as “a multi-year reframing initiative designed to positively change public perception of the environmental movement.” When asked to confirm rumors that the total budget for the project would be in the range of $350,000, Teague replied, “Yeah, easily.”

We Was Framed!

But the fate of the audacious venture is far from clear. In December, Rockridge submitted to Green Group leaders a draft of the diagnostic phase of the project, which Lakoff was scheduled to discuss at a conference in January. But with little advance warning, Lakoff cancelled his appearance.

“He flaked,” said a top-level Green Group participant who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He’s in big demand right now, and the project apparently wasn’t a priority. He has bigger fish to fry.”

Buck Parker — executive director of Earthjustice and Green Group chair for 2005, who has worked closely with Wodder on the project — cast the situation more gently: “Rockridge has a lot going on and needed to extend the timeline.”

Neither Lakoff nor his staff responded to repeated requests from Muckraker for clarification on the status of the project. It appears to have been on hold for about three months, and some insiders have said the deal looks likely to peter out. “The last official notice that was sent around said that they were canceling the [January] conference,” said the anonymous Green Group participant. “I’ve heard absolutely nothing since, except rumors that Lakoff is dropping the ball.”

The project leaders, however, are confident that it will move forward. “I think everybody is still on board,” said Parker. But the scope and intent of the effort seem to be in flux: “We’re revamping the project to focus more on where are we now than where we’re headed — what’s working, what’s not working in terms of the frames that are currently in use,” Parker said. When pressed to explain the decision not to look ahead, he said they might tackle that later: “This is the first of many steps.”

Wodder was less forthcoming: “We are going to keep the details of our discussions about the timeline and deliverables between ourselves and Rockridge Institute.”

Teague, for his part, said he was still waiting to see what would come of the final project proposal due in May.

As it is, the only definitive result of the project thus far is the 20-page report [PDF] evaluating the environmental movement’s current use of frames, written by a Rockridge Institute staffer, Pamela Morgan, with “research assistance, discussion, and/or review” from Lakoff and others at the institute, according to the paper’s footnotes.

“The basic data needs refining and more work,” said Parker, but he sees the paper as a “good beginning step” that will lead to a more detailed examination down the line. The aforementioned anonymous Green Group source, on the other hand, characterized the submission as “basically a piece of crap, like a grad student paying not a whole lot of attention must have produced it.”

The paper, which aims to explain why current environmental frames are failing, is peppered with statements of the obvious. “For all their good intentions, environmentalists have been far less effective than their opponents at enacting a values-based, effectively framed vision,” it reads, adding that anti-environmentalists have achieved towering influence over American culture “because the Radical Right understands about framing.” The paper centers on the thesis that environmentalists rely mostly on “the Protection Frame” to communicate their message and concludes, unhelpfully, that the “dominant Protection frame needs to be supported and supplemented with new framing strategies, as the Radical Right continues to work to undermine its efficacy in public discourse.”

Suffice it to say that as a launching point for a $350,000-plus project, it does not inspire confidence. And it begs the question of how helpful a diagnosis can be if no treatment is in the works.

A Case of Elephantiasis

The elephant in the Green Group’s living room, of course, is the divisive “Death” paper, which was funded — not coincidentally — by Teague. He has pushed the debate about the future of environmentalism on a number of fronts, and seems to relish his role as an agitator.

After joining Nathan Cummings in 2002, Teague made his first grant from the foundation to Lakoff, whom he “wanted to make available to all grantees, so they could turn to him whenever necessary.” And it was Teague who brought Lakoff in during the development stages of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition that aims to link environmental protection to job creation, with which both Shellenberger and Nordhaus have been closely involved.

The controversial authors cite Lakoff as an influential mentor. “He is a genius … he was one of the inspirations for ‘Death of,’” said Shellenberger. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great thing that the Green Group folks are interested in drawing from his theories. I just hope they realize they need to do a deep and thorough rethink of their vision and political strategy, not just devise better language for the same old failing ideas.”

Nordhaus was also skeptical. “If all they want is for George to whip up some magic words and packaging to make all their problems go away, it’s not going to work,” he said.

When signs arose that Lakoff might drop out of the reframing effort, Teague proposed Shellenberger and Nordhaus as possible alternatives to head up the stalled project, according to sources. Not surprisingly, the major environmental group heads allegedly negged that idea. Who wants to work with people who have called you a corpse?

The Green Group leaders who spoke to Muckraker said they know perfectly well that the movement needs to adapt to changing political circumstances and find ways to better connect with the public. And they emphasized that their interest in working with Lakoff preceded and was in no way influenced by Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s paper.

Said Wodder, “For years we’ve looked ourselves in the mirror and asked, Are we too wonkish? Are we just talking into the mirror? What are better ways to communicate? These are clearly very challenging times for us, but we are always looking at ways to be more effective.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, the most outspoken critic of the Death paper, believes Lakoff can help the movement gain new focus and clarity. “Sierra Club has been working with Lakoff for a long time,” he told Muckraker. “It’s been hugely valuable to understand that frames determine the way the mind works. They are metaphors that articulate values, expectations, understandings.” Pope cited “polluter pays” as one of the most effective environmental frames: “It invokes the universal if-you-spill-the-milk-you-have-to-clean-it-up principle,” he said, adding that “energy independence” is becoming another useful frame for highlighting the freedom inherent in clean energy sources.

But will clever new terminology do the trick, or do the environmental community’s needs run deeper? “When you have inarticulate frames, you get murky about your values,” said Pope. “We need to recover the clarity of our moral vision, and you can’t do that without recovering the clarity of language and frames.”

Parker, likewise, sees deeper value in the framing exercise. He wants the project to help broaden the environmental community’s focus beyond Beltway political work to encompass a more expansive, values-based vision: “I regard [the Lakoff project] as a down payment in a larger effort to reinvest the capital of the environmental movement — instead of investing it all in the specific issues, we need to invest it in a more holistic view. We need to build a broader base.”

But some in the environmental community argue that true political power-building requires a more pragmatic strategy. “We need to wrap our minds around a fundamental fact: We lack electoral and political power. We don’t have 51 committed environmental votes in the Senate,” said Mark Longabaugh, the recently departed senior vice president for political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “We didn’t lose the vote on drilling in the Alaskan wilderness two weeks ago; we lost it last November. To make real and sustained legislative progress, we don’t need framing. We need to rededicate ourselves to the hard political work of winning elections.”

Teague sees another problem behind the environmental community’s lackluster performance: the strictures of shortsighted funders. “The way that foundations do their business is probably a big part of the problem,” he said. “We divide ourselves up according to different ‘issues,’ and then we make groups jump through hoops to fulfill the very specialized objectives that we’ve defined.” He added that the funders have failed to put feedback mechanisms in place that require organizations to challenge their own assumptions and engage in a collective debate. “If the grantmakers really took a hard look at their own strategies,” said Teague, “we might just realize that we’ve met the enemy, and it is us.”

Even Lakoff, if he ever gets around to finishing his Green Group commission, can’t solve the deeper structural problems of the movement. And while he could help enviros reap important political gains from new frames and a savvier communications strategy, green ground is being lost by the day as the reframing process narrows its scope and loses its steam.