Why Environmental Understanding, or "Framing," Matters: An Evaluation of the EcoAmerica Summary Report

How the environment is understood by the American public is crucial: it vastly affects the future of our earth and every living being on it.
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EcoAmerica is soon to make public a report on the framing of the environment called "Climate and Energy Truths: Our Common Future." The New York Times, on May 1, 2009, ran a front-page story on the report by John M. Broder called "Seeking to save the Planet, with a Thesaurus." It amounted to a belittlement of the report.

Broder quoted Drexel University Professor Robert J. Brulle as saying that "ecoAmerica's campaign was a mirror image of what industry and political conservatives were doing. 'The form is the same; the message is just flipped,' he said. 'You want to sell toothpaste, we'll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we'll sell that. It's the use of advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion.'"

The story missed most of the main issues, but at least it was on the front page. Broder, a fine environmental policy reporter, did his best with a very limited understanding of framing. I am glad that Broder and the Times saw that the issue is significant enough for the front page.

This is an attempt to make better sense of that story.

Framing is Understanding

How the environment is understood by the American public is crucial: it vastly affects the future of our earth and every living being on it.

The technical term for understanding within the cognitive sciences is "framing." We think, mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called "frames." Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity. In short, framing is a big-deal.

All of our language is defined in terms of our frame-circuitry. Words activate that circuitry, and the more we hear the words, the stronger their frames get. But if our language does not fit our frame circuitry, it will not be understood, or will be misunderstood.

That is why it matters how we talk about our environment.

But the frame circuitry in our brains doesn't change overnight. Just using the language of scientific facts and figures does not mean that the significance -- especially the moral significance -- of those facts and figures will be understood. That moral significance can only be communicated honestly and effectively using the language of value-based frames, preferably frames already there in the minds of the public.

What makes this hard is that there are two competing valued-based systems of frames operating in our politics, one progressive and one conservative. Parts of the conservative framing system is actually at odds with a realistic understanding of the environmental problems facing us.

For many years, the powerful conservative Republican messaging system in the country has communicated a greatly misleading picture to the public, successfully getting their frame-circuits established in the brains of a large proportion of the public. Meanwhile, the environmental movement and the Democrats have done a less-than-sterling job of communicating the reality of what we all face.

Luckily, a large proportion of the public has versions of both conservative and progressive value-systems in their brains, applying to different issues. Many Americans are conservative on some issues and progressive on others. It would be nice if political value systems were not involved here, but they are. The good news is that it may be possible to activate a realistic view of our situation by using the fact that many swing voters and even many Republicans are partially progressive, from the perspective of the value-systems already in place in their brains. If we are to talk about the environment effectively, we need to make use of this neural fact to bring about a true understanding of our situation through honest communication.

What the Times Missed

The summary report, commissioned and publicly presented by Bob Perkowitz of ecoAmerica, discussed the results of message research done by Celinda Lake and Drew Westen. Lake is one of the most prominent Democratic pollsters and Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, is the author of the excellent book, The Political Brain. These are people to be taken seriously. They had been asked how environmentalists should be responding to right-wing attacks on climate and energy issues.

What about Robert J. Brulle? He is a sociologist who has written studies about the sociological divisions in the environmental movement. He seems unaware of the extensive research on framing in the cognitive sciences. He comes from a social movement tradition that uses the concept of "discursive frames," which are conscious and superficial, though not inaccurate. He discusses movements that have different "discourses," -- preservation versus conservation, versus deep ecology, versus environmental justice, versus ecofeminism, and so on. Correct but superficial, not at all getting to what values are the same across these social movements. Nothing about unconscious value systems and frames physically realized as neural networks in the brain. And nothing about how to respond to the Right's attacks. Of course, Brulle would see Westen and Lake as selling toothpaste. And not surprisingly, Broder, a reporter on environmental policy not cognitive science, would miss the brain-based determinants of public understanding. Brulle and Broder are both fine folks with all-too-common limits on what they understand about how brains work.

Unfortunately, the ecoAmerica report plays into that misunderstanding. Much of the report uses the language, not of understanding the significance of the scientific facts and figures, but of sleazy marketing: "winning messages," "appeal to," "generate positive emotional responses," "Americans like ...," "top messages beat ..."

The framing report could have been framed better.

What Westen and Lake Get Right

I've spent a number of years studying, writing, and speaking publicly about environmental communications, based on results from the cognitive sciences. Westen, in his contribution to the report, makes many of the same observations: speak the truth, stick to the high ground, play offense not defense, appeal to the best in people.

Most people don't understand all the facts and figures thrown at them. People think in terms of fundamental values like freedom and responsibility, and themes that are close to their everyday lives, like health, jobs, and their children's future. Polluting fuels are dirty, both physically and morally, and should be called that.

I'm delighted to see these basic observations from the cognitive sciences finally getting applied. I don't agree with all their conclusions and language recommendations, but that is beside the point. They do get a lot right. It is about time. They deserve real credit.

An Unfortunate Diagram

Unfortunately, one of the things Westen and Lake get right is in an incomprehensible diagram on the back page: an explanation of why discussions of climate fail. It is hidden in a discussion of "associations," an inadequate way of discussing the public's frame-based logic. Climate and weather are usually understood as beyond immediate causation, something you are subject to, but can't just go out and change right away. Climate is not directly and causally connected to the values that underlie our concerns about our planet's future: empathy, responsibility, freedom, and our ability to thrive. They try to say that in the diagram, but the arrows and lines don't communicate it.

What Westen and Lake Miss

The right wing has spent billions of dollars over decades on a widespread system of think tanks, language experts, training institutes for speakers, grassroots organizing, buying media, computer communications, and the daily booking of speakers in the media across the country. They have worked long-term at a deep level. They have gotten their deepest values into the brains of tens of millions of Americans.

The Westen-Lake messaging approach is short-term; something that can be said straightforwardly tomorrow. Much of the argumentation is sensible. Nonetheless, there are huge holes, though they are much more difficult to deal with and one can understand why Westen and Lake didn't go there. Here is what is missing.

First, the public's very understanding of nature has to change. We are part of nature; nature is not separate from us. Nature nurtures us. The destructive exploitation of nature is evil. What is good is the use of nature that doesn't use up nature.

Second, the economic and ecological meltdowns have the same cause: the unregulated free market and the idea that greed is good and that the natural world is a resource for short-term private enrichment. The result has been deadly, toxic assets and a toxic atmosphere.

Third, the global economy and ecology are both systems. Global causes are systemic, not local. Global risk is systemic, not local. The localization of causation and risk is what has brought about our twin disasters. We have to think in global, system terms and we don't do so naturally. That is why a massive communications effort is needed.

Fourth, the Right's economic arguments need to be countered. Is it too expensive to save the earth? How could it be? If the earth goes, business goes.

Fifth, we are the polar bears. Human existence is threatened, and the existence of most living beings on earth.

Sixth, we own the air jointly and we can't transfer ownership. Polluting corporations are dumping pollution into our air. They need to gradually be made to stop, two-percent less a year for 40 years: that is what a "cap" on carbon dioxide pollution is about. And meanwhile the polluters should pay us dumping fees to offset the cost of fuel increases and pay for the development of better fuels.

Seventh, even the most successful emissions cap would only take us halfway. Business needs to do its part to take us the rest of the way. Large corporations need to face up to reality and join in the effort.

Finally, for those in the business world: Corporate interests are constantly putting forth arguments based on cost-benefit analysis. But the very mathematics of cost-benefit analysis is anti-ecological; the equations themselves are destructive of the earth.

The basic math uses subtraction: the benefits minus the costs summed over time indefinitely. Now those "benefits" and "costs" are seen in monetary terms, as if all values involving the future of the earth were monetary.

As any economist knows, future money is worth less than present money. How much less? The equation has a factor that tells you how much: e (2.781828...) to the power minus-d times t, where t is time and d is the discount rate. Now e to a negative power gets very small very fast. Just how fast depends on the exact discount rate (that is, interest rate), but any reasonable one is a disaster. The equation says that, in a fairly short time, any monetary benefits compared to costs will tend to zero. That says there are no long-term benefits to saving the earth!

Cost-benefit analysis is just the wrong paradigm for thinking about global warming.

Those are among the big ideas that have to be understood by the public. Language is needed, imagery is needed -- whatever will communicate the significance of the truth.

Ideas like these have to be repeated over and over. Liberals don't like repetition, but that's what it takes. Why? Because that's how brains work.

The ecoAmerica report, when it appears, should be taken seriously -- and critically. The issues the report raises are too important to be belittled.

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