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Reframing the Planet
Alex Steffen, 29 Nov 04

Environmentalism has been getting sand kicked in its face on the political beach for too long now. How do we beef it up?

Environmentalism is in chaos. There are a number of reasons for this disarray: Outdated organizational structures and funding mechanisms, an extremely well-heeled opposition who understands that a little FUD goes a long way and a compliant, if not complicit, media.

But the biggest reason? Environmentalists no longer talk about right kinds of priorities, in the right ways, to the right audiences.

Earlier this year, I worked with George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute, exploring what sort of new "frames" the environmental movement needs in order to succeed. The time is ripe to share some of that work.

Here's a quick and rough version of my thinking now. I wish I had time to convert the big pile of materials I have into better and clearer essay, but in this case, the perfect is definitely the enemy of the good. (I should also note that these views are my own, and shouldn't be taken to speak for either George or Rockridge.)

(much more below...)

The problem:

As the authors of The Death of Environmentalism (long PDF) argue, in the last fifteen years, the environmental movement has mostly been on the defensive, unable to much sway public opinion on the issues (like global warming) that matter most. Public support is extremely broad, but has mostly proven shallow. Yes, even in the midst of a disastrous national election, the voters clear messages that they want the environment protected, but there's little, if any, evidence that most voters are willing to do as much as we need to do to achieve sustainability.

Environmentalism after all, unlike most social change movements and ideals, has the benefit of extremely concrete benchmarks, things like tons of CO2 emissions prevented; acres of rainforest and coral reef preserved; species saved from extinction; and so on, up to the ultimate concrete benchmark: are we getting closer to building a civilization which can thrive on this planet without destroying it? The numbers pretty objectively tell us we're failing. Despite three and a half decades of contemporary environmental activism, things are getting worse, more quickly. This, indeed, is one of those times when bluntness is called for: environmentalism has failed.

Whatsmore, those who benefit from environmentally destructive practices have dominated the debate, sowing Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about the need for and costs of acting on issues like climate change and biodiversity. At the same time, they have learned to use the sentiment of concern for the environment as a cloak for more aggressive exploitation and more egregious pollution (as master Republican message crafter Frank Luntz puts it, people won't take the time to think too deeply about the policies if you can “convince them of your sincerity and concern for the environment”). As the leader of a national coalition of environmental groups puts it, "we've lost quite a few steps on the opposition."

Polls suggest she's right: "the number of Americans who agree with the statement, “To preserve people’s jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future,” increased from 17 percent in 1996 to 26 percent in 2000. The number of Americans who agreed that, “Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people,” leapt from 32 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2000."

National groups themselves have lacked a shared strategy or vision, while the movement as a whole has lacked what I call a "win scenario" -- a clearly articulatable and complete description of how the world will be a better place if we get what we want.

When Americans think about the environmentalism now, research shows, they all too often think: elitist; anti-jobs, anti-business, anti-technology; more concerned with critters than people (willing, for instance to sacrifice loggers and their families for the sake of owls); against rising standards of living (wanting us to all "freeze in the dark") -- in general "doom and gloomers" who oppose progress and prosperity.

In short, Americans support protecting the environment, but have been persuaded that protecting the environment too much may cost them their jobs, their hopes, their futures. The national environmental movement has done little to persuade them otherwise, and many environmental messages fall into the trap of actively reinforcing the frame that "environmentalism = decline."

Politics is largely a war of persuasion. If environmentalists want to stop losing so badly, they need better language; language that evokes different feelings and places environmental issues within new conceptual frameworks; language that makes people feel and think about "the environment" in a new and more effective way.

What are these new frames? What feelings do we wish them to evoke?

Framing the Environment as the Future

We must convince the American people that we have a better answer, a brighter future to offer. We need to present a vision of the that future which is deeply compelling to the majority of Americans while making clear that our current situation is unacceptable. We need, in short, to reclaim the cultural initiative.

How? The work I did with Lakoff and since suggests to me six broad areas of focus:

Prosperity
Americans (like most people) vote their pocketbooks. Politics ain't entirely "the economy, stupid," but you don't get very far if people think you're going to put them out of work.

A strong national commitment to environmental progress will create jobs. Good jobs. The jobs of the future. We know this. Heck, Business Week knows this. The only people who don't know this are the voters.

We need to constantly and consistently frame environmental protection as the path to prosperity -- and not in any abstract "quality of life" sense, but in real dollars-in-your-pocket terms. Environmental protection is the path to create clean power industries, hybrid car industries, green building industries. There is no future which is bright without being green. We must show our opponents to be what they are: job-killers, willing to mortgage both the future of the country and the health of the planet.

Think: a group of working class guys in hardhats with a windmill farm the background, complaining about how their corrupt Senator wants to send their jobs to Denmark.


Security
Security is a trump card these days. It's also a card we're holding and refuse to play.

Centralized, polluting, fossil-fuel-dependent industries endanger our lives. Not just because they put our health at risk (we'll come back to that point), but because they increase our vulnerability to terrorism and disruption in a chaotic world.

The Apollo Alliance has a good rap on this and energy, but we mustn't stop there: petrochemical plants are potentially chemical weapons waiting to be triggered by a terrorist bomb; nuclear plants... well, enough said; centralized corporate power grids (as we saw in last year's blackouts) are extremely vulnerable to disruption; inefficient and outdated manufacturing processes leave us vulnerable to supply disruptions. Virtually everything we want to do to transform American industry into a leaner, greener engine of progress, from the factory to the farm will also reduce the risk that some crazy turn our worksites into weapons of mass destruction with a truck and load of fertilizer. We ought to frame people who drag their feet on making this transition as soft in the War on Terror.


Luxury
Sex sells. Surprised?

Yet, when it comes down to it, what is less sexy than, say, recycling one's used motor oil? While there are some fine things being done with help these days, come on: who would really say that environmentalism as a whole is stylish, fun, luxurious and sexy?

This must change. The reality of course has always been that cancer, filthy water and dirty air aren't hot at all, but the perception is that I as a consumer can choose a) the right thing, b) the thing that'll get me laid. Which do you think wins?

We need to frame green lifestyles as the new luxury good. We need to get Viridian on the American consumer. We need to bombard the American public with media like the new magazine Plenty and efforts like the Sustainable Style Foundation. We need to systematically juxtapose ecologically-conscious and sexy affluence with crass, unhealthy and sexually-repugnant polluting lifestyles.


Health
People care about their health. Even people who don't take care of themselves. Even people who vote Republican.

Bright green living is healthy living. People in compact communities walk more and suffer less from obesity; people in countries with tough chemical and air quality standards die less often of cancer and heart disease; organic food and free range livestock are better for you. Living bright green usually means living better and living longer.

We need to attach in voters' minds the ideas of health and environmentalism. We don't do that through having yogis endorse our messages. We don't do that by advertising in health food stores. We don't do that by scaring the bejeezus out of people while talking about their chemical loads.

We do that through appeals to middle America. We do that by making the family doctor (that endangered species who still looms large in the public imagination) our spokesperson. We do that by getting athletes to describe how they'd never train in a smoggy city. We do it by framing it not just as a health issue, but as a middle-American, mainstream, regular people health issue.


Progress
Americans believe in progress even more than they believe in God.

Environmentalism took a (then perhaps needed, but now) poisonous turn in the mid-1980s, when, through groups like EarthFirst! (who also, I will note, did some real hardcore good) environmentalism came to be thought of as anti-modern, anti-technology, at war with industrial civilization itself. This may have made some of us feel good in our youth, but it probably fed the other side more ammunition than anything else we could have done, and was a major contributor to environmentalism's loss of the cultural initiative.

It's time to take that initiative back. It's time to frame environmentalism not as the belief system of a bunch of whinging throw-backs, but as the font of bold, even visionary, ideas for building a future far better than our present. We need some seriously kick-butt green futurism here, people: we need foresighted visionaries, artists, science fiction writers and filmmakers, designers, architects and teachers who are willing to imagine dynamic, creative, pro-technology, progressive-in-the-true-sense futures. We need to frame environmentalism as the only sensible and cool path to building futures which exceed our wildest dreams. We need to strongly frame environmentalists as "the party of the future," and our opponents as the party of the past.


Success, Not Self-Esteem
It has been one of the environmental movements most cherished frames of the last decade: to say that while challenges remain, we must look as well at the success stories. The problems with this approach are multiple, but are best summed up by Homer Simpson when he asks, "Save the Rainforest? Didn't we do that last year?" The success story approach is practically guaranteed to lead to confusion in the publics mind and obfuscation in our opponent's statements.

A much better approach is to constantly emphasize the big picture, the planetary, whole systems.

The argument against this is that people can't wrap their brains around the whole planet. Well, the evidence is pretty conclusive that few people can wrap their brains accurately around any environmental problem by direct experience -- they know what they know about the environment mostly because people tell them what's known.

Similarly, drop the feel good "Things you can do" approach (what we used to call squash a can for Gaia), wherein citizens are given suggestions for minor actions they can undertake to make things better. This is insanity, both practically -- since the actions suggested are almost never within orders of magnitude of actually solving the problems we're causing -- and strategically, because it provides a perfect setting for greenwashing.

Massive change is what we need. Anything less isn't environmentalism, it's obfuscation. Rather, set the science-based bar and provide mechanisms for people to see where they measure up. Point out untaken alternative paths, and highlight real successes (like CFCs), certainly, but don't lull people back to sleep in order to spare their self-esteem.

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Comments

Bravo, Alex! A great beginning on a long-term effort.


Posted by: Jon Stahl on 29 Nov 04

Terrific piece, Alex.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 29 Nov 04

What a great essay! Nice job! This is really, really helpful, I think.

In my own work, I'm especially intrigued by the connections to health and security. In fact, our Center has been focusing on these issues lately -- using them as a lens to describe why global environmental change matters to people (or why it should).



Posted by: Jon Foley on 29 Nov 04

Alex, this is an excellent essay - thanks! The "frames" you suggest are worthwhile goals, but perhaps abstract - "prosperity," "security," "luxury"? Once these "frames" are acknowledged as important, there's a vital opportunity to develop meaningful, tangible *indicators* of the goals. It's a chance to say, "OK, we agree that health, prosperity and security are important - now, what actual, measurable things tell us whether we're really moving toward those goals?" I think it's the combination of goals and indicators that allows the environmental movement to shape the debate.


Posted by: David Foley on 29 Nov 04

Great ideas. I look forward to a book or long essay based on them! You are onto something.

One quibble with this text:

"Despite three and a half decades of contemporary environmental activism, things are getting worse, more quickly. This, indeed, is one of those times when bluntness is called for: environmentalism has failed."

Is it necessary to denigrate the labors of your allies? There is quite a difference between saying, "You are a failure and I have all the answers," vs "I have some suggestions to make your work more effective."

More careful phrasing would make your message more palatable without detracting from your points.

A second problem is logical. Your statement that "environmentalism has failed" does not logically follow from the observation that the situation has gotten worse. The situation could have gotten MUCH worse, except for the efforts of environmentalists. Your assumption is that with the correct strategy, people can change any situation. The truth is that even with the best strategy, some battles cannot be won. The reasons for the deteriorating environmental situation are more complex than a bad PR strategy. In the meantime, let's be nice to our allies!


Posted by: bart on 30 Nov 04

Alex, very well done. My response could be titled, "Yes and No." But not in the sense of "Maybe." Rather, both.

Here's the thing: I and many others in the sustainability movement who are older and wiser than I have been sounding the same themes for many years. Amory Lovins has been saying things like this for probably 25 years. The Natural Step has been saying this for 15 years. I've been singing the same song and advising clients in this direction, including foundations who fund environmental groups, for at least ten years (hey, you even helped me do that a few times). Why hasn't the scenario you lay out here happened?

One reason is that the numbers of people saying yes are still too small, and that saying yes gets less media attention than hanging banners from buildings. Also, even ten years ago, there were far fewer convincing/visible cases of transformative change, at civilization scale, and a lot of sustainable solutions sounded like fluffy dreaming. (Who took fuel cells seriously a decade ago, besides NASA?)

And another: there was less direct economic and human-health pain being felt ten years ago, after the initial clean-up of egregious pollution in the US and Western Europe after the burning-river-1960s. Now, people fall dead from climate change.

But another, more important strategic reason is this: the core environmentalist movement is essentially a protest movement. It plays the "Iconoclast" role in my Amoeba model of culture change (if you'll indulge me that). It is pre-occupied with the tough work of trying to say no to a tidal wave of destruction, of ringing alarm bells, and it too often views efforts to come in with a "yes" (which is what the sustainability crowd does, the "Change Agents," with talk of new design and green jobs) as a distraction at best, and as the toadying of co-opted corporate boot-lickers at worst.

My own thought is that what needs to grow is ... both. We need more strong RAN-like NGOs who, through force of confrontation, make the case for change. And we need an army of "Change Agents" with the convincing plans for new tech, policy, etc. to change *to*. That's the movement you're talking about, I believe.

I'm *not* sure that we need to get the traditional "environmental movement" to change (though tactically, in the US context, they are shifting to health and other entry points to try to reach more people). Maybe. Maybe they just need to get tougher, even better at saying no. But we sure as heck need this other movement, the yes-vision-new-solution side, to grow . It is growing, but it needs to grow faster, be stronger, be ever more convincing.

Well, that at least is why we do the workshops we do, what I'm writing about now, etc., so of course I am going to comment in that vein. But that is not to detract from my support for the main thrust of this essay.

To sum up my main point: Even the folks saying "no" need to understand what the "yes" is that they are trying to drive the system toward. The "yes" needs to keep building, along the lines of your essay.

But it will be hard to convince the no-crowd that they should switch to a yes-based message, while the chain saws roar and the ice melts. They think the no is ever more necessary, ever more essential to strategic advance overall, and I think they are probably right.


Posted by: Alan AtKisson on 30 Nov 04

Is there anywhere sexier than worldchanging?!
Great analysis.
Oh, And we need to ask people for their help.
We need to show that we need them and all their emotions, all their ideas, all their contradictions , all their hopes. This is going to take all of us.
Tell them it's ok to look at the long term - it's not just a terrifying mess of environmental disasters - if they're only brave enough to face it.


Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 30 Nov 04

Although I feel that the suggestions for moving the environmental movement along are excellent, I think to qualify the movement as a failure misses the larger picture. Freeman Dyson pointed out that, "It usually takes 50 to 100 years for fundamental scientific discoveries to become embedded in technological applications on a large enough scale to have a serious impact on human life... In spite of the hustle and bustle of modern life, it still takes two or three generations to convert a new scientific idea into a major social revolution."* Although there may be small examples in indigenous cultures of what we constitute as "environmentalism," the truth is that it was not on everyone's conscience 100 years ago, and I believe that's changed.

Have things gotten worse? Yes. But have we have put the discussion on the table. And we almost certainly have slowed the rate of decline. My point is that these things take time. If our generation is worried about it, our children are likely to care, and our grandchildren may well hold such issues as first priorities when they become us 30 to 60 years from now. We suffer from cultural myopia, and many actually believe we're going to solve these problems in our own lifetime. For my part, I'm content to believe that these problems will get solved as long as we continue pushing hard enough, whether I personally benefit from my efforts or not.

Thirty years ago, would you have imagined that over 100 industrial nations would sign an agreement like the Kyoto treaty? How many businesses were there that specifically targeted the green market? Fuel cells have been around a lonnnnng time, but now you can (almost) buy them in a production car off the lot. Recycling has become a major pastime in urban areas. From my perspective, we're not losing because things are getting worse, we're winning because we're starting to make the majority sit up and take notice.

I can't argue that we need to continue to do more, harder, better, but I like to put the question this way: If you knew, absolutely, that future generations would be significantly better off because of your efforts today, despite also knowing that you will get no benefits personally from those efforts, would you still make the sacrifices you make? I think most of us would answer yes. And though this may seem like semantics, I think it's critical for us to take on this attitude. It's a question of faith.

I think people will lose jobs. I think we do have to give something up. As an American, I'm participating in a culture that consumes six times more than the world can support (well, I may not be personally, but). There's no where to go but down from here - for me. But for the future, that's another story. One of the major cultural failures I see is the religion of the individual that denies any sort of self-sacrifice for others, and I really think the environmental movement has made dents in that armor.

I think it's also fundamentally important to recognize that "better" (as in a better future) might need to be measured in fundamentally new ways. A smaller house, less water, fewer clothes, more walking - these are a few of the almost certain changes that we'll have to make. Lose jobs? You bet. How many jobs can you name right now that we shouldn't even offer? What would the great mass of people do if suddenly we eliminated all the non-environmental positions? Clearly, such changes are not simply mechanical (e.g. higher mpg cars), but cultural, and as such, will take generations to fully realize. I can't think of a really compelling arguement that we need more people on this planet, but I can think of lots of good ones for fewer people. So, lowering the world population is a potentially valid and valuable goal, but that could easily take several hundred years.

The "better" part comes in the form of cleaner air, more active communities, greater security, often less tangible social and cultural benefits, and those benefits may only accrue to generations we'll never meet. How much "stuff" would you give up to live in a world that you knew was safe for your child, or your grandchild? I believe we need to actively think about and campaign for a shift in how we measure value and wealth. Push comes to shove, we need faith that what we're doing matters, even if we can't immediately see results. I think it's dangerous to categorize the failure to make the world over in our image right now as a failure in any absolute sense. After all, we're trying to change the world, and it will take a really long time. But that's no reason not to try, nor to give up.

$.02


* Infinite in All Directions pg 270, Freeman Dyson


Posted by: neil on 30 Nov 04

Very nice, Alex. I, like you and many others, have been thinking a lot about frames these days. I like these frames in large part because they focus on meeting people's needs.

It would be interesting to overlay what you have here with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. For example, concern for health is at the base of the hierarchy in physiological needs. Security is the next layer up in safety needs, prosperity in the esteem layer and progress in the self actualization layer. It's not a perfect match, but possibly worth exploring if only because Maslow does such a good job of framing people's needs.

One other thought -- it'd be great to look at where these frames potentially connect with other sectors within the broader progressive movement. The "win scenario" we're shooting for is very unlikely to have hard borders that stop at the edges of environmental concerns. I'm sure that's why you're involved with Rockridge - but just worth mentioning here.

Again, nice job on this.
- Gideon


Posted by: Gideon Rosenblatt on 30 Nov 04

1) Joining the chorus of applause...

2) I have the feeling that the partisanship of today's grassroots environmental organizations is counter-productive. Organizations that take direct stances on who should be elected, for instance, will never be able to reach out past the red/blue divide in the U.S.

3) I would suggest that one avenue of future environmental activisim should be through religious organizations. Most of the world's religions have some strong stewardship message, if not a stronger green message. What better way for religions and environmentalists to both tarnish their images and reach across cultural divides? Work together, building trust and understanding, realizing that many people listen to their pastors more readily than to the executive director of the Sierra Club.


Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 30 Nov 04

Great essay, Alex. However, I think you're assuming that the reasons these things haven't happened is that no one's thought of them, when really the problem is largely a matter of connecting with the right people. As others have mentioned above, RMI has been saying these things for twenty years, as have other groups. But the message isn't getting through to those that need to hear it, just like the Democrats failed to get their message across this year and most of the country ended up voting against their own best interests. (And for largely the same reasons.)
The points you lay out are definitely the core platform of the environmental movement, and well articulated, but they've been around for a while now and haven't changed things.

What we need is a PR machine.

Specifically, a PR machine that can connect with the average pickup-truck-driving Iowan, rather than alienating them as we've been doing for decades now, because we're latte-sipping elitists, myself included. We need to bring the conservatism back to conservationism.


Posted by: Jer on 30 Nov 04

This is good and necessary work but as others have pointed out RMI and Natural Step have been playing these tunes for a while now.

My experience is that one major problem with the environmental movement is that there is no unified vision and another major problem is that the various environmental groups do not work together.

In Boston, after the 1994 election of the Contract Congress, the local groups began to meet together but it didn't last. We tried to do outreach to unions, churches, and professional groups and even had some success but nobody, to my knowledge, kept it up. One thing we did do was to send delegations from a variety of interest groups to meet with all of our Congressional members. I had hoped that we would continue that process by then going to the editorial boards of the newspapers and TV and radio stations but we didn't. Later, I found out that the Boston Globe was cutting back its environmental reporting at the same time and such visits might have made a real difference.

We need some cooperation among the different enviro/eco groups or we will never get ahead. A couple of weeks ago, "The West Wing" did an episode on alternative energy in which a roundtable of biofuel, wind, solar, hydrogen people argued and denigrated each others' proposals and technologies. Not like any reality I've ever seen but the producers thought it was good TV. It wasn't.

As for a unified vision, I was once hired to do research for a book on learning organizations and the environment. One of my tasks was to assess the ecological futures presented in science fiction literature. When I did the work, I found that there really wasn't very much out there. Ursula K. LeGuin, Ernest Callenback's _Ecotopia_, Norman Spinrad's _Songs from the Stars_, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy was about it for positive visions of ecological futures. Dystopias, of course, were rampant. If we can't even imagine a successful ecological future, how can we get there?

My own particular take on the reframing thing is environment as a quality issue. Especially when talking to business people, I think it is useful to talk about zero emissions the way W. Edwards Deming and TQM talked about zero defect, to call for Six Sigma not only for the production line but for the whole enterprise. Since businessfolk already tend to know this language, we should be able to make some headway. Zero emissions, if only as a thought experiment, is extremely useful and opens up possibilities in a way that nothing else does, IMHO.

The best ecological design principles I know of are Bill McDonough's: waste equals food, use only available solar income, respect diversity, and love all the children. Once people have zero emissions down as a concept, move on to them.

Lastly, more people should read Gary Snyder's "Four Changes" written about 40 years ago in _Earth Household_. A lot of useful information and vision are there.


Posted by: gmoke on 30 Nov 04

Great text,
1. and I think the most important "frame", when it comes to marketing to ordinary consumers, is that of money: does environmentalism bring me a profit, in a direct, visible and cash-in way, yes or no? The answer is no. And so most people will kindly ask you to go away.
Environmentalism is not fundamental enough when compared to "the economy", in simple terms.
Now that the world has become a place of less solidarity, more selfishness and grab-what-you-can-or-die, I think environmentalism stands no chance.

2. Another problem: maybe the environmentalist movement can convince an upper layer of "bourgeois" citizens in the West, who fall for the luxury aspect and for the sexyness of it (in Europe this is certainly the case), but if you bring that story to, say, booming China, I think a lot of people will laugh. And it's in the developing nations where the environmental changes will be greatest. So that's a huge problem.

Still, a new "marketing" effort like the one you describe is absolutely necessary.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 1 Dec 04

Nice article.

Salon has an article this morning on Detroit's failure in addressing the environment well, and losing out to foreign hybrids:
http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/12/01/hybrid_hesitation/index.html

I think the key change that has to happen on the environmental side is a recognition that there ARE solutions that allow BOTH an improved environment, and continued economic growth. Too many environmentalists in their hearts still see growth and the environment as necessarily opposed to one another. You've mentioned the Apollo Alliance as one advocate - their take is more specifically pro-jobs than pro-growth, though of course both are related.

To be pro-growth and not just pro-jobs, the alternative energy and other environmental solutions must be not just better for the environment, but less expensive in some net sense, for the economy. That may require some ramping up and government support during that phase, but it has to reach a point where the alternatives are themselves economically advantageous over the old way of doing things.

With high gas prices, hybrid cars are making that case right now. Wind energy isn't quite there yet since it still requires subsidy, but it is awfully close. In other areas we really need some big R&D efforts to make better solar panels, better energy storage and transmission systems, seriously look at space-based energy options, and look at economical replacements for industrial chemicals etc. as you mention.

Can we get environmentalists behind a push for a massive R&D effort to find the solutions we need? Too many (including RMI) seem to think we just need to implement solutions we have today, but those solutions are simply not cost-effective yet; we need the R&D investment to get to that point.

Rick Smalley (1995 Nobel prize winner for buckyballs etc.) was here recently and talked about his new passion: solving the energy problem. He sees a need for a $10 billion/year alternative energy R&D effort, increasing to $20 billion/year by 2010 if we don't have the solutions we need by then. That compares to perhaps $300 million/year currently spent in the US, much of that wasted on hydrogen-car nonsense.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 1 Dec 04

Alex, this is a great start on a forceful and important case, and a conversation that shouldn't be limited to the confines of the enviro community. Glad to see it.

I largely agree with your analysis. But I'm not sure I agree that it is "environmentalism" that has failed. Rather, I think when a body of important ideas got bundled as an "ism," something that has happened almost imperceptibly but inexorably since the "Golden Age" of U.S. environmental policy in the early '70s, that sowed the seeds of the disarray we see today.

The environment and concerns about sustainability are central to my life and thought, but I don't consider myself an "environmentalist" any more than, appreciating common courtesy between strangers, I consider myself an "etiquette-ist." Until the practices and taste for innovation that lie at the heart of sustainability break out of their false conceptual imprisonment (as tenets of "environmentalism," which most voters obviously seem to consider about as relevant to their lives as a quaint hobby), we are screwed.

Yes, to more ambitious, sexy, punchy, hard-hitting PR! Yes to infiltrating the punditocracy with legitimate and informed voices critiquing policy and events from a sustainability perspective, selling the new sustainability narrative at every opportunity!

I would love to see, for instance, a good commentary on the Iranian uranium enrichment standoff that took the tack "Well, if part of Iran's motivation really is seeking confidence about a long-term power source, here's the perspective and package that can make Iran the regional leaders in green power -- at much less financial and diplomatic expense than their silly flirtation with the nuclear fuel cycle. Here's how the US and the world community can help make that happen. Here's how we all win." Lovins or a good Project Apollo type needs to do this.

Anyway, great start. I look forward to seeing lots more along these lines.


Posted by: Ted Wolf on 1 Dec 04

"...we need foresighted visionaries, artists, science fiction writers and filmmakers, designers, architects and teachers who are willing to imagine dynamic, creative, pro-technology, progressive-in-the-true-sense futures..."


Many nature documentaries are quite dynamic, creative, and tech-positive: salmon swarming up streams, leaping past dams via handy fishladders, to jump into the mouths of waiting bears.

I know that salmon are extremely endangered, and that dams are a major culprit, but that image tells me otherwise.

What images communicate the real situation: a photo of a barge full of dying smolts? Or a bear starving in the woods? Idle fishing boats covered with barnacles? But we'd probably agree that in the world of sexy, progressive environmental messaging, these are gonna be non-starters.

How are filmmakers, photographers, documentarians going to overcome this without being simplistic or didactic?

How art and literature intersect with reframing the planet is indirect. Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven is not an overtly positive vision of the future, or science, but it's probably the single creative work that's had the most impact on my life's efforts to create positive change in the world. Dystopic images and stories (like Alexis Rockman's paintings, or Bruce Sterlings's Heavy Weather) give people frames of reference for considering what might be coming down the pike and why it needs to be averted, or subverted.


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 4 Dec 04

Maybe I'm just young, but I wonder what the environmental movement will lose if it becomes sexy and well framed? The Republican party is, in my opinion, the undisputed master of framing, and what has it brought them? Surreal discourse, and a loose affiliation with truth. Is that really the way we want to see environmental issues debated: not by who has the best grasp on morality and reality, but rather by who's best at framing their issues so people will agree with them? Doesn't this smack of propaganda, and a sort of manipulation of the public? Also, do we really want to become the Nike of social movements?


Posted by: Colin on 5 Dec 04

Many great comments here. Too many to answer at length, but thank you all for your good thinking on this.

I will, however, respond to the last comment by simply noting that saying things well and telling the truth are by no means opposing values.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 5 Dec 04



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