How We Talk About the Environment Has Everything to Do with Whether We'll Save It
Continued from previous page
What the Times Missed
The summary report, commissioned and publicly presented by Bob Perkowitz of ecoAmerica, discussed the results of message research done by Celinda Lake and Drew Westen. Lake is one of the most prominent Democratic pollsters and Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, is the author of the excellent book, The Political Brain. These are people to be taken seriously. They had been asked how environmentalists should be responding to right-wing attacks on climate and energy issues.
What about Robert J. Brulle? He is a sociologist who has written studies about the sociological divisions in the environmental movement. He seems unaware of the extensive research on framing in the cognitive sciences. He comes from a social movement tradition that uses the concept of "discursive frames," which are conscious and superficial, though not inaccurate. He discusses movements that have different "discourses," -- preservation versus conservation, versus deep ecology, versus environmental justice, versus ecofeminism, and so on. Correct but superficial, not at all getting to what values are the same across these social movements. Nothing about unconscious value systems and frames physically realized as neural networks in the brain. And nothing about how to respond to the Right's attacks. Of course, Brulle would see Westen and Lake as selling toothpaste. And not surprisingly, Broder, a reporter on environmental policy not cognitive science, would miss the brain-based determinants of public understanding. Brulle and Broder are both fine folks with all-too-common limits on what they understand about how brains work.
Unfortunately, the ecoAmerica report plays into that misunderstanding. Much of the report uses the language, not of understanding the significance of the scientific facts and figures, but of sleazy marketing: "winning messages," "appeal to," "generate positive emotional responses," "Americans like ...," "top messages beat ..."
The framing report could have been framed better.
What Westen and Lake Get Right
I've spent a number of years studying, writing, and speaking publicly about environmental communications, based on results from the cognitive sciences. Westen, in his contribution to the report, makes many of the same observations: speak the truth, stick to the high ground, play offense not defense, appeal to the best in people.
Most people don't understand all the facts and figures thrown at them. People think in terms of fundamental values like freedom and responsibility, and themes that are close to their everyday lives, like health, jobs, and their children's future. Polluting fuels are dirty, both physically and morally, and should be called that.
I'm delighted to see these basic observations from the cognitive sciences finally getting applied. I don't agree with all their conclusions and language recommendations, but that is beside the point. They do get a lot right. It is about time. They deserve real credit.
An Unfortunate Diagram
Unfortunately, one of the things Westen and Lake get right is in an incomprehensible diagram on the back page: an explanation of why discussions of climate fail. It is hidden in a discussion of "associations," an inadequate way of discussing the public's frame-based logic. Climate and weather are usually understood as beyond immediate causation, something you are subject to, but can't just go out and change right away. Climate is not directly and causally connected to the values that underlie our concerns about our planet's future: empathy, responsibility, freedom, and our ability to thrive. They try to say that in the diagram, but the arrows and lines don't communicate it.
What Westen and Lake Miss
The right wing has spent billions of dollars over decades on a widespread system of think tanks, language experts, training institutes for speakers, grassroots organizing, buying media, computer communications, and the daily booking of speakers in the media across the country. They have worked long-term at a deep level. They have gotten their deepest values into the brains of tens of millions of Americans.