Deep Frames and the Environment

In a blog post on the 6th August 2009 (Sticks, stones and lexical nudges) I was critical of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Warm Words publication (2006). This report suggested that if we could somehow change the “linguistic landscape” associated with climate change—largely from alarmism to pragmatic optimism— we could more effectively get people to change their climatic behaviours. My critique argued that such linguistic nudges embodied superficial attempts to short-circuit the climate change debate through a process of sub-conscious subterfuge. The good news is that things appear to be improving within the field of environmental behaviour change. The recent publication of the report Common Cause: The Case for Working with Our Cultural Values appears to signal a shift from addressing the surface framing of climate change to its deep psychological resonance.

Common Cause was published by a collection of Environmental NGOs in September 2010 and was written by Tom Crompton, a ‘Change Strategist’ at WWF-UK. According to the Common Cause report: ‘It seems that individuals are often predisposed to reject information when accepting it would challenge their identity and values. Campaigning approaches that rely on the provision of information may well work for people whose existing values are confirmed through accepting, and acting upon, that information. But for others, the same information (for example, about the scale of the challenge that climate change presents) may simply serve to harden resistance to accepting new government policies or adopting new private sphere behaviours’ (2010: 9).

The ideas presented in Common Cause have been influenced by the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California Berkeley. In particular the Report draws on Lakoff’s distinction between deep and surface frames. Surface framing involves the use of key words and phrases to guide the ways in which people approach and understanding an issue. Deep frames on the other hand relate to the ‘cognitive structures held in long-term memory’ (2010: 42). The crucial insight of Lakoff’s work is the emphasis it places on the interrelationships between deep and surface frames. According to Lakoff, the success of surface frames (like the climate crisis), in guiding and shaping human behaviour, depends on the ways in which they resonate with deeper frames and associated values. The compelling argument of Common Cause is that people are failing to take action on climate change because the climate change message is at fundamental odds with our deep frames and associated sense of self.

The message of the Common Cause report is of great value to those interested in how to transform our individual and collective relationships with the environment. While there are some who still wait for definitive proof from science of the climate crisis, I personally feel that science may have taken us as far as it can. The point is that even if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could tomorrow produce a definitive consensus on the exact nature and consequences of climate change it would be unlikely to significantly shift behaviour. As Common Cause points out, the scientific message on climate change has to resonate with our deep frames. To these ends, it is clearly important to consider why it is that we value the accumulation of wealth, gratuitous consumption, and economic measures of success, despite their deleterious consequences for our climate, so much. It is clearly these values that should be the target of environmental behaviour change policies in the future. It is, of course, precisely these values that the Transition CultureDegrowth, andVoluntary Simplicity Movements have already been focusing upon.

The more cynical among us can quite fairly argue that surely the problems of climate change are quite enough to have to deal with, without also having to initiate a fundamental shift in the nature of human values as well. This may, however, be the real challenge of climate change.


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About Mark J Whitehead

Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University
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