Frames, Fads, and The Environment

This article was originally published on the Rockridge Institute website on May 8, 2007.  It was written by Joe Brewer.

Several Rockridge Nation members have posed questions about how to frame environmental issues. This is an extremely important area that we are working to address. In this installment we clarify the difference between fads and deep frames in the environmental movement and suggest that there is a need to rethink the relationship between economics and ecology…

This week we respond to two excellent questions posed to Rockridge staff by members of the Rockridge Nation community.

The Environmental Movement is Here to Stay

How do cognitive studies of framing explain the difference between a fad and profound shift in politics? (Obviously a fad comes and goes and true shift remains) For example some ask if the green movement is a fad or if it is the beginning of a shift in values. Is this a shift in deep frames? Or is it a sudden bombardment of surface frames? How can we tell/track the difference? What can we do to make certain this sudden explosion of ‘green’ becomes an intrinsic, mainstream value?

Rockridge Nation member DavidP

Thank you, David.

Cognitive studies of framing do shed light on the difference between a fad and a new deep frame. The first thing to keep in mind, is that in order to be meaningful, any fad that arises in your consciousness must have deep frames already in place. Think for example, of the fashion fad of wearing bell-bottom pants that transpired during the 1990’s. There already existed a deeply held narrative of free-expression carried over from the sixties that young people intuitively recognized and found appealing. The fashion fad did not require a new deep frame. Rather it was a resurgence of an existing deep frame in pop culture.

Another key difference between fads and new deep frames is longevity. A fad, by definition, will rise in popularity for a short period of time and then fall to the wayside. A new deep frame takes time to become hardwired in the neural connections of our brains. Additional time is necessary to construct and reinforce alternative neural pathways to establish new or replacement deep frames. Work done in our brains establishes the physical structures for new deep frames, resulting in the stable platforms that will support lasting knowledge about the world.

Deep frames shape moral worldviews and reinforce core values, adding a component of personal identity to be considered. As we all know from personal experience, it is difficult to change our mindsets (or those of others) quickly or easily. Superficially, fads appear to be expressions of personal identity, but they do not resonate deeply with people as core features of identity. If fads were core features of personal identity they would be held firmly and remain steadfast, even in the midst of change. This is the opposite of how fads operate.

The green movement is not a fad. It has been growing in an organized and sustained way for more than four decades. During that time there has been a gradual shift in understanding how human communities relate to the natural world. Tremendous effort has been made among environmental writers, scientists, politicians, and activists to introduce new ways of looking at the world. This process creates new deep frames.

As we see with the sustained (and growing) public interest in the climate crisis, there are core values at stake that people rally around and identify with. Among these values are empathy for ourselves and the natural world, responsibility for our collective and personal actions (now and for future generations), and interdependence in a fragile web of life. An example of the new understanding that is emerging with new deep frames is the recognition that human societies cannot survive for long if they are out of ecological balance with their surroundings.

This is definitely not a fad.

A number of fads have arisen through efforts to market “green consumerism” that come and go, but the environmental movement is here to stay.

Getting to the Root Cause of the Environmental Relationship to Economics

For years conservatives have been arguing that being environmentally friendly or using alternative energy will hurt the economy. I think its clear that alternative energy will actually boost the economy, substantially. Whenever talking about alternative energy or the environment try to throw in “Good for the environment, good for the economy” This should start to link the two frames together to reinforce how well it will be for both. What do you think?

Rockridge Nation member jamatucci1

Thank you, jamatucci1.

We have been presented with a false dichotomy. Conservatives have framed the relationship between the environment and our economy as being in competition with each other, as though any gains for the environment are losses incurred by the economy. This is ironic considering the common ancestry of the words economy and ecology, both of which are based on the Greek root oiko which means “house.”

Economics is about the management of the household. Our first experiences with the management of resources occur in the home. We share a finite amount of space that requires harmony and cooperation among family members. The need for privacy is balanced against the need for community space. Intuitively the law of supply and demand makes sense because it applies every time we sit down to the dinner table, especially when divvying up slices of pie.

The deep frames that inform this historical concept of economics are the same as the deep frames that inform ecology. The central message of environmentalism is that humanity has not managed the household of our society. We have soiled the beds we sleep in, poisoned the food we eat, and squandered the resources that our livelihood depends upon. It is an economic call to action.

Alternative to Alternative Energy

The phrase alternative energy refers to sources of energy that are not commonly used. These sources may be just as harmful to the environment, such as the use of nuclear fission which produces radioactive waste. We recommend the phrase renewable energy because it refers to energy sources that are compatible with ecological processes.

The claim that renewable energy and increased efficiency will be harmful to our pocketbooks flies in the face of reality. These cost-saving measures are applauded by working people every time their monthly bills go down. Consider what happens when you replace 100 watt light bulbs with 10,000 lumens bulbs that give off more light at a much lower 15 watts of energy. The room has more light in it and your energy bill goes down, a win-win situation.

This is the reality of renewable energy. The true costs of fossil fuel use are hidden in the market now. They emerge in unexpected places where their causes are not recognized. For example, the exhaust that bellows from automobiles increases your chances of getting asthma and cancer. Health care costs associated with these increased rates of illness are not attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, even though they are correlated in reality. This truth is hidden by the way we assign monetary value to business transactions now and it needs to be recognized for the economy to function properly.

The slogan “Good for the environment, Good for the economy” is a step in the right direction, but has an important limitation. Currently, the economy frame is not understood as having anything directly to do with the environment. At the same time, the environment frame is not widely understood as having anything directly to do with the economy. This slogan is only successful when a deep frame is in place that makes sense of the connection health factors for the economy and environment.

The environment is framed as being distinct from the economy in this slogan. The truth is that the environment is intimately connected with the economy is ways that muddle this distinction. This becomes evident when we try to describe the economy of a world with no raw materials and unlivable conditions. The economy does not exist in isolation from the world of living things.

The deep frame that needs to be established – and there is considerable progress already – is that our health and prosperity are inseparably connected to the ways we manage natural resources.

(Comment: Some readers may react negatively to the use of economic frames to describe the environment. We have used economic terms like resource and raw materials to describe nature in this answer to emphasize the connection between the environment and economy. Other frames are more appropriate for environmental discourse in general.)