Today we present Part II of Ken Ward’s response to “The Death of Environmentalism,” in which he argues that greens should reject the political position embedded in Lakoff’s framing analysis — namely, that environmentalism is just one more single-issue liberal group. Rather, the green movement should preserve its ability to speak across the left/right divide and focus on mobilizing and energizing its core supporters.

Don’t forget to read Part I, and Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

A Response to “Death of Environmentalism”: Part II: Framing and the Environmental Core
by Ken Ward

Adopt Framing, Reject the Politics

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George Lakoff’s work on framing has gained wide currency and underpins the reasoning in “Death.” Most environmentalists get the gist of framing analysis. We know the story of how the right wing methodically built its institutions, particularly the think tanks, and crafted precise wording to evince strength of character and signify righteousness.

Framing offers useful insights and an important analytical approach to understanding public communications and environmentalists are adopting and adapting this new tool. The technique comes encumbered, however, with a pernicious political perspective that should be challenged.

Lakoff’s view is that liberal values, properly framed, can win majority support in head to head competition with the right wing.[1] Blended into the applied semiotics, however, is an assumption that environmentalism is just another single issue group that needs to be herded into the liberal camp. This view is woven into the fabric of “Death” and has spread like a virus through the environmental community. Younger staff especially, express a gnawing worry that our values are weak values, that our concerns are scattered and trivial and do not stand up to the right wing.

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From a liberal or Democratic Party perspective, it makes sense to subsume environmentalism under a spiffed up liberal agenda, the view expressed most strongly by Adam Werbach.[2] But environmentalists have enough experience to know that we exert little influence from this supine position. We have watched two Democratic presidential candidates who by background and inclination might have been environmental champions walk away from the role. While we may aspire to such leadership (in a blue-green alliance which contends for real control of the Democratic Party, for example) we should do nothing that forfeits our ability to speak from outside the right/left spectrum.

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It is important that we distinguish between the technique of framing and the political view with which it comes encumbered. We should adopt the former and reject the latter view of environmentalism as a single-issue group. As several replies point out, environmentalism is a coherent, alternative worldview with clearly defined values that are as much a challenge to liberal/left thought as to conservative.[3] Environmental values also appeal to people across the political spectrum and we should not lose sight of, or crimp, this adaptability.

Rather than give up our identity as environmentalists, as proposed by S&N, we should reaffirm green values and, however difficult it may seem today, remember that our mission is to win the world to our view. This is not a sentimental perspective, there is both a sound strategic rationale and a practical imperative to do so.

Focus on Our Core

S&N see worrisome longterm conservative trends in public values. The specific point they raise — that overall support for environmentalism has ebbed — seems modest and unsurprising. It was clear even at the time that much of the public support for environmentalism in the 90s was driven by media attention and a cultural caché for environmental groups.

Allowing our agenda to be driven by where we stand in the ratings sweeps is a mistake. It is far more important to attend to the environmental core, the folks who are imbued with environmental values[4], and to ask how well we are building, activating, and inspiring this group. It is instructive on this point to look to the conservative experience.

Lessons drawn from the right wing, largely written to argue for this or that structural change, seem mechanistic and tend to skip over the human element. Beyond the analysis of money and institution-building, it seems important look at the people laboring in the vineyards. Where did these folks come from? How did the right wing reinvent itself, turning a bunch of marginalized, homogenous, intellectual cranks of the John Birch stripe into a cohesive, radicalized, diverse and activist core? How then did this core, espousing an agenda well outside the boundaries of then-current civic debate, capture the allegiance of so many?

The factors mentioned in most right wing critiques — policy and language sharpened in think tanks, the network of conservative attack media, astute investment in infrastructure, and all the other right wing bells and whistles — would have been useless without the changing makeup and strengthening of the conservative core. The energy and will of these shock troops transformed the right wing, built new institutions like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, and ultimately captured the Republican Party.

Where did these core activists come from? Three main sources: the crucible of the anti-abortion movement, the tough and uncompromising legislative campaigns of the NRA, and the fierce “defund-the-left” conflicts orchestrated on college campuses.

The question, “Which came first, the radicalized core or the infrastructure which supports it?” can be argued either way. There is no doubt, however, that the transformation from oddball eccentrics fighting fluoridation of drinking water supplies into solid centers of power resulted from the marriage of the political skills and passion of the new conservatives with the support system of training, framing, and smooth integration into Republican Party politics, made possible by the money of Joseph Coors and a handful of others. Twenty years later, these same volunteers out-organized the very best professional operation the Democrats could field.

What do we offer our core? For concerned environmentalists wanting to make a difference on climate change there are a handful of inadequate options. Our largest numbers are connected through essentially passive membership in any one of a variety of moderate national organizations. As S&N point out, these groups do not draw bright lines and rely on insider acccess to negotiate for half of the loaf, poor fare for the core. State-level campaigns, particularly around initiatives, offer some of the intensity and group experience through which leadership is forged, but these are sporadic, centralized, staff-intensive, and unlinked to an ongoing national presence. Citizen climate-change groups have formed in many places to move municipal policy. They offer our core an opportunity to be engaged, but their program is an exercise in futility, completely out of scale to the size of the problem. There are also specialized organizations that add a community-of-interest quotient, but little else.

Politization is more the result of political activity, than it is the cause and is inspired by engagement in something powerful. Our organizations do not appear cohesive, and neither individually nor collectively do we offer the combination of participation and impact (and fun!) that many members, for example, experience.[5]

Who is our core anyway? S&N rest their thesis on conclusions drawn from the Strategic Values Project. They emphasize the overall trend toward conservative values picked up in the survey and suggest that this is linked to the reduced level of environmental support.[6]

More importantly, even if overall rates have dropped, what is happening to our core numbers? Both anecdotal reports and polling results[7] support the view that environmental belief is increasing within otherwise self-described conservatives. Does this support extend beyond the surface? What is the basis for these beliefs and how can we best appeal to these folks? These are the questions we should be asking.

It is simply not in anyone’s job description to work out who is our core and how as a group they may be engaged, trained, tempered in the fire of conflict, inspired with a practical political agenda which they help shape, brought together and refreshed by community, inspired by art, music and stories, and offered a ladder of opportunity to greater roles. The right wing does precisely that.

That there are significant numbers spread across the political spectrum is not in doubt. That, however imperfectly, our organizations speak on behalf of this core is also clear. To attempt, as S&N propose, to shift our appeal entirely away from clear environmental values would not work. If our organizations were shut down and the resources shifted to New Apollo-type programs, the environmental core, imbued with green values, would simply found new organizations.



Ken Ward has 25 years leadership and campaigning experience with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, Greenpeace USA, Public Interest GRFX, and the National Environmental Law Center. He was a cofounder of the Fund for Public Interest Research, Environmental Endowment for New Jersey, and Green Corps.

[1] “Where conservatives have organized for an overall, unified onslaught on liberal culture, liberals are fragmented into isolated interest groups based on superficial localized issues: labor, the rights of ethnic groups, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, abortion rights, homelessness, health care, education, the arts, and so on. This failure to see a unified picture of liberal politics has led to a divided consciousness and has allowed conservatives to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy.” — George Lakoff, Metaphor, Morality, and Politics Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust (PDF)

[2] “Is Environmentalism Dead?”

[3] A durable listing of these values was compiled by Richard Paehlke and will appear as Appendix 1.

[4] The difference between a core environmentalist and an environmental supporter is the distinction between environmental values and the environment viewed as a good. Values are fundamental underpinnings of our worldview. Goods are worthwhile, but subject to cost-benefit analysis.

[5] For an illuminating view of what is going on in organizations like MoveOn, see Network-Centric Thinking: The Internet’s Challenge to Ego-Centric Institutions, Jed Miller and Rob Stuart.

[6] Is it? If environmentalism and progressive values were lumped together by the pollster, as they are in the S&N discussion of results, this would tend to inhibit the search for environmental values existing beside or within conservative beliefs.

[7] A recent national poll by the Global Strategy Group, found that 35% of Republican men hold the view that “the scientific evidence is in” and it is time to act on global warming. Given the philosophical and cultural distance this group, Republican men, must travel to answer “yes” to that question, this is a very intriguing piece of data. Source: Yale University School of Forestry, May 27, 2004.