Whither the environmental movement? III
I was going to do a policy post next, but an insightful comment from reader Sandy M got me thinking again about framing.
The second piece of unsolicited-with-good-reason advice I’d give the environmental movement, with apologies to Apple computer, is: Talk different.
It’s time for enviros to think in a more careful and calculated way about the way they frame their issues. Progressives are forever wedded to the idea that the unvarnished truth is all we need: Give the people the facts and they’ll draw the right conclusions. "That," says UC Berkeley professor and newly minted pundit George Lakoff, "has been a disaster."Lakoff has done in-depth work on conceptual framing and its neural substrates — if you want the gory cognitive science details, try this book — but his central thesis can be (crudely) summarized thusly: We think in metaphor. The conceptual frameworks that structure our reality are robust; if we are confronted with data that does not fit in them, it is the data that is discarded, not the framework.
Conservatives, says Lakoff , understood this early and poured money into proactively framing their issues. Think, for instance, of the myriad connotations of the terms "tax relief" and "death tax." Or better yet, consider the effect of replacing "Alaska National Wildlife Refuge" with the bloodless acronym "ANWR."
Lakoff says environmentalists have allowed a certain set of frames to develop, frames that virtually neuter the movement. For example, in his words:
The term “the environment” suggests that this is an area of life separate from other areas of life like the economy and jobs, or health, or foreign policy. By not linking it to everyday issues, it sounds like a separate category, and a luxury in difficult times. Wilderness: a place for those in Birkenstocks to go hiking.
Lakoff’s evil twin, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, is famous for his memo to Republican leaders warning that the environment is a weak area for them, and coaching them on the proper way to frame it. Never say "deregulation," always say "common sense policy." Use strong, active words like "protect" and "preserve." And so on. Say what you will about Luntz, but the guy’s a genius.
Enviros sneer at this sort of thing, call it "Orwellian," and get their asses kicked repeatedly. It’s time they took it seriously. Framing does not have to be dishonest or misleading; the fact is that the truth will not, can not, be absorbed by a public with no frame to fit it. Enviros need to work on establishing one.
Sandy M offers a few thoughts:
“Environmentalism” is a dry, empty, and abstract word. My office is my environment; so is this drab city; so is the air I breathe and the water and land around me. The word has no innate appeal or positive meaning. Why don’t we frame our fight in terms of the goal and in terms of human life, as every other successful movement for social change has done? Instead of the “environment,” why don’t we say we that ours is the movement for resource rights – air rights, water rights, land rights? Children have the right to breathe clean air; coastal fishing communities have the right to protect their waters from rapacious, destructive industries; all of us have the right to make decisions about resources we have no choice but to share.
Exactly. One important point in there is that the movement be framed around human life and health. Too often, enviros exhibit a barely-concealed hostility toward humanity. You want a textbook example of a frame destined to lose in the public sphere? Try humanity as a "cancer on the planet." This manifests in constant hectoring for human to do less, consume less, procreate less, produce less, slow down, and most of all, feel guilty for raping and ravaging the earth. Whatever the merits of this outlook, it’s a loser, and isn’t winning the point?
What we need is a positive, forward-looking set of frames built around reducing the poisons in our communities, stimulating the next wave of technological progress, and getting creating a better, more modern, and yes, more stylish lifestyle with fewer resources. These are historical challenges and they call upon people’s ingenuity and optimism rather than their guilt.
This will be a long-term, ongoing conversation in the enviro community — I hope. I recommend everyone read Lakoff’s interview on the environment, think it over, and please, leave your own thoughts in comments.
UPDATE: Lakoff boosters would like me to remind you that he has a new book out called Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. You can learn more about it, check out a New York Times review, or read an excerpt (PDF). Howard Dean wrote the foreword and is positively gushing.