Sometimes, Old Concepts Need New Frames


Just as we have renamed fish to make them more marketable, there is a push in conservation (and science in general) to change certain uncommunicative terms to more lucid or dramatic ones. As an article in the NYTimes titled Seeking to Save the Earth, with a Thesaurus points out, it might be useful to replace "global warming" with "our deteriorating atmosphere", especially since conservationists (note: a shift from "environmentalists") are up against coal companies promising "clean, green coal".

In the same way the liberal party needed to begin using frames to manipulate public opinion (as George Lakoff pointed out in Don't Think of an Elephant!), conservation science (and science in general) is learning the same thing. In Eating the Sun (an excellent new book), author Oliver Morton refers to global warming as "the carbon crisis". Randy Olson also elucidated on this point in his film Flock of Dodos when he noted there was no scientific equivalent to counter the Creationist battle cry of "teach the controversy" (Olson has suggested calling evolution "the science of change").

Frames might play a role, for instance, in why certain campaigns are successful while others fail. Consider the successful moratorium on high seas driftnets passed by the UN in 1993. Part of the success, I believe, was framing the driftnets as "walls of death" (the 23-minute documentary film on driftnets in a far less information crowded world must have helped, too). The proposed ban on high seas trawling in 2006, however, failed -- Iceland and Russia led the opposition. I cannot help but wonder if the problem had been framed differently if the outcome might also have been different? What if we renamed "high seas trawling" as "ocean clearcutting" (scientists and conservationists often refer to trawling as clearcutting).

The lesson seems simple: when a product is not selling, sometimes it is simply a matter of packaging.


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I suspect this can be a bit of a double-edged sword...

As it is, without any intentional effort to re-name/re-frame, the climate change deniers are going on about "the push to re-brand 'global warming' as 'climate change' that happened after the earth stopped warming" as if the AGW campaigners are not just wrong, but deliberately lying (when of course we're neither), and are trying to hide this by framing their case differently (which is bullshit). Trying to introduce another term, especially a somewhat waffly one like 'deteriorating atmosphere', and particularly if it's a concerted effort, could get more people thinking along those lines.

On the other hand, if you look into the German hacker community's effort at fighting the government's push to allow the authorities to break into people's computers, framing it as a trojan (in the computer malware sense) and coining the term "Bundestrojaner" probably helped a lot to counter the government's "Online-Durchsuchung" (which makes it sound like the 21st-century version of police searching the premises, warrant in hand and following proper due process).

"no scientific equivalent to counter the Creationist battle cry of "teach the controversy""

Oh yes, there is, and it is still called "teach the controversy"... well, actually "preach the controversy" since for the sake of fairness and equality if creationism is to get equal time in the classroom evolution must get equal time in the churches :)

... but of course no conservative is able to give that much equality to anything :)

Interesting thoughts. It definitely seems that science and conservation must pay close attention to lessons of communication and media. The arena changes fast and we must keep up to be effective. While a rebranding of old ideas does seem like a choice I think folks implementing such techniques must be aware of potential consequences. Might be an interesting study for someone interested in the human dynamics or social sciences of resource management.

I don't think I agree. Step outside environmentalism then reassess the issue.

Civil rights: minorities most often achieve successful equality and integration by simply insisting on those two principles. They do not ask to be made superior. They do not spin their current inequality as anything other than what it is. People would see through such shams; on the other hand, a direct appeal for equal rights as human beings appeals to a broad section of the community.

Science, especially evolution: you've used the example of 'teach the controversy', from the creationist side. Well, it doesn't work. Canny citizens and legislators see through it as an attempt to pollute science with religious propaganda. On the other hand, the scientific education community has had a great deal of success by simply insisting science remain science, and by demonstrating that creationist propaganda is NOT science.

Then go back to looking at environmentalism. It's already sensationalist. One of the main (and most valid) criticisms levelled at Anthropogenic Global Warming theory proponents is that they misrepresent the completeness of climate science and dramatically overstate the likely consequences of climate change. The validity of this argument extends in the public debate to lend validity to arguments made by AGW deniers which are NOT rationally defensible (including, for example, the sophistry that 'anything bad for the economy can't be true').

Of course environmentalism is difficult. But sensationalising it disproportionately will not help in the long run. I think it will probably do the opposite. The public isn't capable of maintaining interest in sensation for the long period of time necessary. It's important to engage their interest at critical times, yes, but not all the time for no reason. When you need to pass the law, or stop a law from being passed, then it's time to lobby. But do it with the truth. Spin it only so far as doing so does not misrepresent the science, or you're shooting yourself in the foot.

If anything, the problem with environmentalism and its lack of appeal is that it is already TOO emotive. It's a commonly held (and probably accurate) prejudice that a large proportion of environmentalists are emotive environmentalists: they want to save the whales because they're cute, the fish because they're helpless, the trees because they're noble, the sky because it's blue. On the flipside, normal people don't care. They want their kids to grow up safe, they want food on the table, they want air they can breathe, they want to be healthy. They don't care exactly how those things come to pass, or whether some obscure fish species is around or not.

The implication is that the very focus of environmentalism needs to shift. It needs to be made harder. It needs to give up on anti-nuclear campaigns and recycling, on blanket bans on hunting of certain species. As environmentalists, we shouldn't care if someone kills a whale, as long as the species isn't threatened: and this should be expressed at every opportunity. We need to ram home the message that biodiversity is important because the biosphere preserves US, not because some rare frog is amazing and beautiful. We need to ram home the message that climate change is bad because it threatens US, not because it threatens coral reefs.

Of course, I could be mistaken on this approach, but I'm entirely convinced that guilting people into caring won't work either. Because people aren't built to care; they're built to survive. And it's on that basis they'll make their decisions.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

"Just as we have renamed fish to make them more marketable..."

Now we call then ghoti, right? Just messin'! But seriously, I'm all for re-branding "global warming" as "Global Meltdown". Are you with me?!

'Global warming' itself isn't a terribly good term. 'Climate change' is probably the more accurate and responsible. And along the lines of this argument (which I don't support in general), the one that would make the most impact. 'Global warming' sounds rather like we all just get a holiday in the tropics the whole time. Ali G's sketch about global warming comes to mind.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

just look at all the businesses who are all of the sudden environmentaly friendly. they are 'greenwashing' for a reason. it works.

a rose, by any other name, wouldnt smell as sweet. otehrwise PR companies wouldnt exist.

"just look at all the businesses who are all of the sudden environmentaly friendly. they are 'greenwashing' for a reason. it works."

Actually, this is a good example of how changing image DOESN'T help. A company 'greenwashes' without changing its behaviour or 'footprint' at all. This is not good for environmentalism at all. The company sells more stuff; the environment keeps tanking.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink

We need to ram home the message that biodiversity is important because the biosphere preserves US, not because some rare frog is amazing and beautiful.

Really? Because I think that you'll find that as far as ecosystem functioning goes the evidence suggests that most species are expendable. I think that we ought to be able to be rely a little bit on ethics rather than merely enlightened self interest.

Because people aren't built to care; they're built to survive. And it's on that basis they'll make their decisions

This is probably true and it is the reason that reducing poverty and population size are so important (not just for environmentalism but also for reasons of reducing war, crime, and illness. Of course that is a nearly insurmountable challenge given human nature. I'm pretty sure that a huge number of species will go extinct and millions of people will starve and millions more will die in wars before we get to that point. But hopefully I'm being too pessimistic.