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Why Framing is Worldchanging
Alex Steffen, 1 Apr 05

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff's work is no secret. His best-selling Don't Think of an Elephant exerted huge influence in American progressive political circles during the last election. He's also taken to advising a number of social change organizations and political groups.

The gist of George's work is that metaphors matter more than facts in the public debate; that we understand the world through a series of cognitive "frames," many of which function without our conscious awareness, and that new facts rarely change the frame through which we understand a given issue. Therefore, if we want to truly change people's minds about a given issue, we must not only provide them with new information: we must reframe the issue.

Last year, I worked with George on a project looking into the frames surrounding our understanding of the environment. As it happened, I had to choose between staying in the Bay Area and working at Rockridge, or coming back to Seattle and treating Worldchanging as a job. I chose Worldchanging.

That doesn't mean that I think frames are unimportant. Quite the contrary. I shared my own thoughts on how the we need to reframe the environment earlier this year. I emphasized an interlocking set of frames focused on the benefits a bold national move towards sustainability could bring average Americans: prosperity, security, guilt-free luxury, health, a sense of progress and meaningful hope that the future will be better than the past.


Now Rockridge has released their own ideas (PDF). The reaction from the environmental community has not been kind. (I should note that few, if any, of my own ideas are included in Rockridge's report, and I maintain no business relationship with them of any kind. Nor do I plan to get back into the communications consulting game. I have no horse in this race.)

Some of the criticism is entirely legitimate. The work Rockridge has done thus far has not been its best. Their environmental framing paper highlights the worst aspect of a cognitive science approach to framing: simply put, it's wonky and hyperfocused and caught up in its own jargon.

This has lead some people to question publicly whether George understands frames better than he builds them. It's lead many more to dismiss framing entirely, even to the extent of saying "What he's done is helped clarify common sense. All you need to be 'great at framing' is some empathy and a willingness to listen."

That's a silly statement, very much akin to saying "all you need to do to be great at painting is look." While seeing the world with fresh eyes is critical to good painting, that itself is a learned skill -- and seeing is only the beginning: you also need to learn brushwork and control over one's color palette, and have a sense of what's possible and what's been done before, and know which techniques and which approaches are likely to help you realize your vision on the canvas. Painting is an art, and as James said, "Art is long and life is short and success is very far off." It's not something you just pick up.

The painting metaphor is intentional. Political speech is an art. Framing is an art. That, I think, is where the Rockridge approach has perhaps thus far fallen short: having a great hammer in the form of cognitive linguistics, they find all framing problems suddenly looking like nails, and have perhaps relied too much of scientific tools that might best be thought of as part of a wider tool chest.

But I think the environmental movement is on the brink of making a much bigger mistake.

There's been a lot of talk over the last year about why the environmental movement is doing so poorly. I was troubled to see that debate come to focus on the Death of Environmentalism paper, because that paper, while useful in some ways, was ultimately a narrow (and some say self-serving) examination of environmentalism's failings. In beating on it, a certain crowd of environmentalists have, it seems to me, convinced each other in public that nothing much is very wrong, and nothing much needs to be changed, and, well, these guys shouldn't say that kind of thing in public anyways.

Indeed, in the reaction to ideas like those of Lakoff, Adam Werbach, Shellenberger and Nordhaus, it's easy to detect a sharp whiff of the bunker mentality.

But hunkering down and attacking critics (while it may be great for your career) won't fix what's wrong with environmentalism. Greens need a new approach. The critics may be right or wrong in their prescriptions, but the malady they're diagnosing is real: indeed, that's precisely why, I suspect, their work has aroused such vitriol.

A far more useful take is that of Worldchanger Alan AtKisson, who takes these critiques as a starting point and discusses how they might help us re-conceptualize the work of environmentalism:

For environmentalism's "No" to mean something, there must be a corresponding "Yes." That "Yes" must consist of technical, economic, and cultural innovations and solutions. They must be invented, championed, and adopted, as rapidly as possible. They must do nothing less than transform the world. ...

So while you need environmentalism, you also need sustainable development, that unsexy-but-world-changing term (for which "worldchanging", by the way, is probably the sexiest available substitute). You need the wood recycling and related shaping technologies that get rid of the need for big, raw, ancient logs. You need the technical, economic and social innovations like certified sustainable wood and LEED green building standards and replacements for wood fiber in general. And of course you need to change values and reduce demand and increase the protection of conservation ... and some of those things cross the fuzzy border back over into what we tend to call "environmentalism." But many of them are not. They are innovation and transformation processes. And for Julia's historic sit-in (we're using her here as symbol of environmental activism in general, and not just talking about trees) to be truly successful in the long-term, they need to keep happening, faster and faster all the time.

That's ultimately why reframing -- and other strategic communication, intellectual and creative work -- is so important. Reframing, done right, will give us the ability to better tell new stories about the meaning of environmental advocacy. Better stories will let us change the context in which we are heard. As Nicole Boyer says:

As one wise person said, "stories are tools for knowing and judging. Change the stories and you change how people live." We believe that parts of this new story are already here...

New stories will make easier the work of defending what we have, and more possible the task of imagining the new. Helping these stories to emerge is a critical piece of work here at the beginning of the 21st Century. To do that, we need better framing. We need better visions. We need an explosion in innovation. We need a creative, cultural, intellectual wing of the movement to build a sustainable civilization which is energized, well-funded and well-heard.

So I hope that whatever disenchantment professional environmentalists feel with Rockridge's first efforts, whatever anger they have over being declared dead, whatever frustration they feel with the growing chorus of voices saying that they aren't doing their jobs well enough, they will come to see that this is more opportunity than crisis.

We cannot build that which we cannot imagine. We have the opportunity here to imagine a bright-yet-green future for the planet, and describe it in ways which people can embrace. Let's take it.

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Alex, your readers could probably get a better sense of what I had to say about framing if you linked to it. And if they want a better sense of the debate sparked by the "Death" paper, they might check out a few of the many pieces we've run on it, none of which argues that "nothing much is very wrong, and nothing much needs to be changed, and, well, these guys shouldn't say that kind of thing in public anyways." In fact, I can't recall having seen anyone argue that, but maybe you have a cite to something I haven't seen.

Posted by: Dave Roberts on 1 Apr 05

LOL. Alex, this entire site is a brilliant effort at reframing. You don't need George Lakoff; he needs you.

Posted by: praktike on 1 Apr 05

Well, Dave, I didn't link to you because I wasn't looking to particularly single out Grist for criticism here. I like Grist. I often read it. I like the people who work at Grist, yourself included, and consider y'all allies who are doing vital work -- and most of the time doing that work exceptionally well.

But, since we're on the topic of Grist, let me say that I think that you guys missed an opportunity here.

I say above "I was troubled to see that debate come to focus on the Death of Environmentalism paper, because that paper, while useful in some ways, was ultimately a narrow (and some say self-serving) examination of environmentalism's failings."

It seems to me that Grist quite explicitly focused the debate on this one (albeit newsworthy) event, the presentation of a single paper at EGA. That framed Grist's coverage of this debate thusly: is environmentalism dying, or not?

I don't think that's a helpful frame. The DoE authors were hardly the first or the only people to have grave misgivings about the direction and the health of the environmental movement. Two public indications of that are Werbach's speech and the Green Group RFP to which Rockridge responded.

The opportunity existed to have a frank discussion of what kind of a movement needs to be built today and what that movements goals and strategies could be. That discussion was occurring. I was party to some of those conversations.

DoE's criticisms are both more inflammatory and less telling than the conversations I was hearing before its publication.

And in answering charges, I see a lot of people defending the movement where a year ago they were prepared to question its assumptions. I think Carl Pope's letter is a perfect example of this: he's one of our sharpest minds, but he and others have spent vital energy disputing the "Death" charge. I read much of the comment by the sources in your coverage as essentially defensive as well, with notable and inspiring examples like Adrienne Maree Brown (who frankly uses the Death paper as the barest of occasions for saying some things that need to be said and which would have made total sense even if we'd never heard of it).

And I think that in putting so much effort into refuting DoE's charges, there's the overall sense that the crisis has passed. It's allowed a small "victory" to stand in for a larger problem, which can no safely return to the realm of high-minded things we'll worry about after the next campaign's done. It's a little like the spin that went around after the last election put into office what is widely regarded to be the most anti-environmental administration in American history: that, sure we lost at the national level, but we cleaned up in local races... In short, I think this frame on the debate makes it seem as if one not-particularly-brilliant paper were the crisis, rather than the fact that the planet is demonstrably unsustainable and the environmental movement does not currently appear able to change that, or even, bluntly, have a very good plan for going about the task.

That's the crisis which should be absorbing our attention.

Finally, I have personally heard environmentalists say exactly the things you claim aren't being said. I've read much worse. Without dignifying them with links, you can go Google up people saying that N + S are: right-wing plants, racists, wrong on all counts, in bed with Bjorn Lomborg, and wrong for destroying the image of the movement.

And for a great quotable example of the "nothing much is wrong" attitude, we need look no further than Amanda's coverage of the Lakoff work, where she writes

"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.""

Which is essentially saying, we need to do what we were doing before, only more so.

The point to all this is not that Grist is bad (quite the opposite) or that you're wrong about framing being simple (though I think you are), but simply this: environmentalism is broken, frames are one of the tools for fixing it, and the Death paper was not a particularly helpful thing over which to get obsessed.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Apr 05

Well put, Alex. Although I think you may be critiquing Grist's coverage a little too harshly - the initial flurry of reactions to The Reapers was less than constructive. But I think the more reflective pieces we've been seeing in Grist and elsewhere (like WC!) are in fact the dialogue that I think we all agree should be occurring. DoE shoved it a little furhter into the light, but perhaps at too high a cost.

Posted by: Jon Stahl on 1 Apr 05

Worldchanging requires a unifying purpose. Framing is only a tactic unless it clearly delineates a unifying purpose, a purpose that resonates deeply enough to inspire action.

Posted by: gmoke on 1 Apr 05

Worldchanging (verb) doesn't require a unifying purpose. One can change the world for the worse quite easily and carelessly. That's why this talk of intellectual infrastructure is so important. The stories of whatever-we-end-up-calling-it (be it environmentalism or sustainabilityismness or BRIGHT GREEN or whatever) must all come back to that point. They must link everything back to a vision of sustainability that's not only acceptable but desirable.

So create a vision of sustainability which is desirable, and then promote it as desirable. No use arguing over whether environmentalism is dead or not. Sure, the statement itself gives The Other Side ammunition, but once they find out how much money they can make by growing biofuel and planting wind turbines on their property, they won't want to shoot that ammo back.

Posted by: Paul on 2 Apr 05

Oh, and the 'art is long' quote is from Joseph Conrad.

Posted by: Paul on 2 Apr 05

Thnaks, Paul. Noted.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Apr 05

Here's a helpful way of reframing an issue:

Stop calling people "the other side." There is no political majority (or even minority) who's explicit goal is the destruction of the environment. Most people, if you talk to them as individuals, are 'environmentalists.' They're in favor of clean air, water, etc.

If environmentalism (which is popular) is to survive, environmentalist leaders must distance themselves from the anti-capitalist marxists (who are not popular) within their midst.

Some people protest dumping because they want to protect the environment. Others do so out of a general dislike for all things resembling private industry. THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT YOUR ALLIES. They will cause the general American public (who don't have the time, patience, or inclination to distinguish the two groups) to dislike all of you as a whole. You must distinguish yourselves.

Many of the folks here at WC do a decent job of this already. The Honey Bee network is just another form of angel investing and venture capital, transported to India. It is fundamentally non-marxist. That's good. The American electorate would approve.

Reframe yourselves. Don't just be 'Worldchanging." Mao, Stalin, and Hitler changed the world too. Stand for something the American public approves of. Be capitalists. Be in favor invention and private industry (are not the manufacturers of solar cells industrious?).

If politics doesn't convince you, maybe dissonance will.

Most environmentally friendly products are simply more expensive than their environmentally unfriendly counter-parts. That's just the way it is. Bio-degradable diapers are just more expensive than the non-biodegradable ones. Poor people might be in favor of Green politics, but at the end of the day their kid needs diapers and they'll buy the ones they can afford. Only capitalism will make them wealthy enough to afford the biodegradable ones. Only capitalism will get people to invest in cheaper, Greener, technology.

If you're anti-capitalist, you're anti-Green. This is irreconcilable. Marxism, socialism, fascism - they don't get results.

Posted by: Cardozo Bozo on 2 Apr 05

I wrote "Worldchanging" in the context of Of course, everybody changes the world for good and ill all the time, usually by tiny, momentary increments. Some of us concentrate on the common benefit, others on individual gain. That's how people are.

My latest project is the sponsorship of a recycled solar design contest at MIT for Earth Day. A friend and I are putting up a few hundred bucks in prize money and asking MIT students and others to design the most useful renewable energy device from recycled bottles and cans. We'll see whether anyone's interested.

You can see more about the idea at

If that piques your interest, check out my Three Solar Projects at Each of these projects is an attempt to reframe the ecological debate on a do-it-yourself, economic basis.

Posted by: gmoke on 2 Apr 05

"Framing" isn't new, and it's always been important, but it's not a panacea or cure-all.

Done well, framing changes terms of debate. A great example is Amory Lovins' groundbreaking work. Others asked, "How will we produce the vast amounts of energy we need?" He asked, "How much of what kind of energy do we need to do what? How can we use energy more intelligently?" He re-framed the question.

He began that work 30 years ago. We're nowhere near the elegant energy system he described. That's frustrating, but not evidence we're "losing." No one was "losing" when Chartres Cathedral wasn't finished in 30 years. World-changing deals with time cycles of decades, generations and centuries - which is anguishing if you feel, as I do, that the changes we need should have begun at least 30 years ago.

But those changes DID begin. They take decades to reach a tipping point. That's when an older paradigm can fight its last stand. A world view can seem most dominant and powerful just before it collapses. One clue is how loudly it proclaims its primacy and permanence. We often cling to cherished beliefs the hardest when we suddenly realize that they're in doubt. Who needs to scream that the sky is blue?

Paradigms have died before, but never with the stakes as high as this. This time, we're playing for keeps. Alex has asked, "We're winning, but are we winning fast enough?" Good question.

Framing is an invaluable skill at a time like this. Framing helps illuminate when the world seems in turmoil. New stories, new things to say "yes" to, an invitation to a world that can work - all vital.

But hardly sufficient. "Frames" are descriptive. They're not, by themselves "generative." They aren't instructions. I think that's an important distinction. Our genes don't carry a description of us; they carry instructions for enzyme secretion, protein fabrication, cell division, etc. Nature contains very few descriptions, but is full of generative structures.

I think we need new "Pattern Languages" of sustainability. "Patterns" are instructions, specific enough to contain accumulated wisdom and experience, general enough to allow adaptation to particular circumstances. "Pattern Languages" are individual patterns linked across scales, with linkages that help each pattern arise from larger ones and give birth to smaller ones. The idea of a "Pattern Language" was first developed by Chris Alexander and his colleagues (see The EcoTrust of Portland, Oregon has made a good first attempt at a "Sustainability Pattern Language" (see We need to extend this work, in thought and more importantly, in deed.

"Framing" helps us understand why something is a good idea. "Indicators," such as the "Ecological Footprint," help us discern our progress or lack of it. "Patterns" empower us to make an idea come into being. "Pattern Languages" help us share empowerment across scales, enrolling us in collaborative design and problem solving.

By all means, let's get good at "framing," but let's not be too dazzled by it. The world needs good stories, but also good instructions. Honey on the tongue, but sweat in the armpits and calluses on the hands. Clarity of thought and dirt under the fingernails.

Posted by: David Foley on 3 Apr 05

Perhaps our biggest challenge is supporting environmental media. Does it really matter which frames are used when environmental stories and magazines are declined precipitously since the Earth Summit?

Readers need to be more demanding in asking that media do a better job of covering environmental news. I am inspired by Lakoff's essay on Where to start?. Networking skills among progressives is usually limited to finding people with whom we agree. That's not enough!

Posted by: Ron Mader on 8 Apr 05



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