Values and Experience in Environmental Campaigns

This blog post is re-published from Identitycampaigning.org.

At Identity Campaigning, we talk a lot about values and how they pertain to the sense of identity that people have.  What we haven’t talked much about – yet – is the central role of experience in the expression of values… especially as they emerge in environmental campaigns.

Why is it that you almost never hear anyone suggest that the way the public experiences a campaign could have a significant impact on what the campaign means to them?  There is quite a lot of discussion around selecting among word choices (Global warming or climate change?), and yet no one seems to notice that recent smashing successes in the campaign world went much deeper than wording – and into the realm of experience.

Take, for example, the Obama campaign in the United States.  Obama’s strategy was based on a profound shift in thinking about the role of supporters in a political campaign.  People weren’t merely given a passive role.  They weren’t asked to be a conduit for the official “Obama message”.  Nor were they told that all they had to do was show up and vote, then the Mighty Hero Obama would come and save the day.  Something very different was going on.

Instead, supporters were treated as active creators of social change.  They were encouraged (via social networking software online) to form local communities, engage their neighbors, and start a movement that would only succeed if millions of people came together and collectively built the better world they hoped for.

At it’s heart the Obama campaign was concerned with the experience people had when they got involved.  And get involved they did!  Millions of supposedly disengaged citizens, including the mythical “apathetic youth” surprised all the experts and delivered an African American to the White House.

Environmental advocates can learn a lot from this.  Rather than focusing on the smallest and least important element of campaigns – which words to use – they could look deep at the underlying assumptions that guide their strategies.  This is what Lakoff was really getting at when he talked about political frames and the values that people have.  He was most concerned about how people think, feel, and act in the political arena.

Of course, this is a radical notion in its own right.  What I am arguing is that we need to re-evaluate ourselves and take a critical eye to the strategies we use in advocating for a sustainable world.  Values run deeper than words.  Affirmation of life, human dignity, and the social responsibility to preserve them are all powerfully passionate actions that give meaning to our lives and provide foundations for our sense of who we are as a people.

I think it is about time for environmental campaigns to recognize that our experiences embody the values we express.  If you treat the citizenry like a stupid herd of ignorant people (whom we need to “inform” and “push to the polls”), then they will sense the value judgments embedded in campaigns that promote this view – and they will be turned off by you.  Conversely, if you treat the citizenry like empowered agents of change (whom you only need to assist in their pathways to empowerment), they will sense a different value judgment and respond accordingly.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.