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How We Talk About the Environment Has Everything to Do with Whether We'll Save It

The American public's understanding of the environment is crucial -- the future of our earth and every living being depends 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.

 
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