Robert Brulle has kindly shared his reply to George Lakoff’s article “Why Environmental Understanding, or ‘Framing,’ Matters.” See below for further discussion of the article.

I found Dr. Lakoff’s comments quite interesting and revealing of the limitations of cognitive science in the analysis of social change processes. From a sociological perspective, attitudes and beliefs are the outcome of socialization processes. There are not just two different cultural models available for us to use in our interpretation of the world. Lakoff reduces the complexity and plurality of competing and/or contradictory world views into a highly simplified and individualistic approach. In essence, this is a form of psychological reductionism. For a competing view of value socialization and moral development, I suggest a review of “Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action” by Jurgen Habermas.


Additionally, I have never seen any engagement by Dr. Lakoff of the literature on the processes of social change. My work focuses on the role of citizens and social movement in fostering social change, which Dr. Lakoff reduces to a typification of only one part of my research. There is an extensive theoretical and empirical literature on the processes by which social change occurs, which is all ignored by Dr. Lakoff and the communications marketing approach. Again, for those interested in this approach, I suggest a read of chapters 2, 3, & 4 of my book: “Agency, Democracy, and Nature.” Additionally, many of my current writings are available online on my web site. For a direct response to Dr. Lakoff, I highly suggest a review of the article “Spinning our Way to Sustainability?” I am not the only person to critique the social marketing approach to fostering social change. I highly suggest a review of the report “Weathercocks and Signposts” published by WWF – UK.

It is not that messaging is unimportant. However, the cognitive science approach neglects the social movements literature on the type of message that builds long term commitment to a movement for social change. We need to create and promulgate an effective message on global warming. I recently published an opinion article on this in Newsday.

My concern over rhetorical form is that we are neglecting social movement building. The PR strategy seems to be the dominant mode of action for today’s environmental movement. Al Gore has his “Alliance for Climate Protection”, ecoAmerican has its spin campaign, etc. There is hardly anyone doing anything except virtual campaigns, or inside the beltway professional advocacy. The only exceptions I know of are Bill McKibben and 350.org/1Sky, the Sierra Club, and numerous local environmental groups. None of the well-recognized national organizations, such as EDF, NRDC, or even Greenpeace, has an active citizen participation component. The only engagement citizens can have is to make a financial contribution.

We aren’t going to get there with effective rhetoric alone. Rather than saying we are engaged in a multiyear messaging struggle – I see it as a multiyear political struggle, with messaging being one key part, but not the only, or even the most important part.

To deal with global warming, we need a social movement with sufficient political power to compel effective action to reverse ecological degradation. Clever, top down marketing schemes will not be able to accomplish this task. Rather than following the simplistic, and fundamentally undemocratic strategy of elite developed, funded, and controlled media campaigns, we need to shift to building a genuine social movement that directly involves individuals. This is essential to build a movement that is capable of acting to protect the environment, not just for a short term campaign, but to foster a long term process of social change toward a just and ecologically sustainable social order. For those interested in the specifics of my argument on reform of the environmental movement, I suggest reviewing the article “Fixing the bungled U.S. Environmental Movement”, also available on my web site.

Back in 1971, Dr. Barry Commoner noted the need to build a strong environmental movement based in citizen mobilization. It is no accident that it is during this time period that the environmental movement enjoyed its greatest success. He noted that “Anyone who proposes to cure the environmental crisis undertakes thereby to change the course of history…But this is a competence reserved to history itself, for sweeping social change can be designed only in the workshop of rational, informed, collective social action.” We need to follow his advice, and rebuild the environmental movement.

Robert Brulle is a Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University. More of his writing can be found via his web site.

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