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In Why Environmental Understanding, or “Framing,” Matters, published today on the Huffington Post (and on AlterNet), liberal framing guru George Lakoff provides a useful critique of a forthcoming EcoAmerica report on the framing of environmental and climate change issues. While his conclusions are perceptive and make the article a valuable read — I’ll get to those — I find the assumptions underlying his critique worthy of examination. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist, and he contrasts his use of the term “frames” with sociological work on “discursive frames,” rather unfairly biasing the comparison in his favor by suggesting that the sociological approach is “superficial” while his is rooted in the neurobiology of brain functioning.

We think,” he writes, “mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called ‘frames.’ Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains [sic]. 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.

In translating science for a popular audience, especially in a political context, one of course has to simplify. But I find Lakoff’s simplifications here a bit jarring. They remind me of those Cartesian diagrams of human mental circuitry by which a physical stimulus leads to a neurochemical response leads to a physical reaction (see illustration above), with no place for culture or for a feeling human agent in the middle of it. Lakoff reduces all of our understanding to words (“all of our language” works this way) activating distinct neural circuits called “frames,” which are “organized in terms of values,” with the latter in turn “determin[ing] our sense of identity.” It’s not clear where these “values” come from, or if values and identity have their own separate neural circuits or, if not, what exactly they are. According to Lakoff, “two competing value-based systems of frames,” and therefore two identities, are available “in our politics”: a conservative one and a progressive one. (See his Moral Politics for more on these.)

But my quibbles here are not so much with the simplification of our politics or of the “neural circuitry”; I’m content to acknowledge that a quick polemical Huffington Post article is not the place for articulating a thorough and coherent model of language, selfhood, and society. What’s more important to me, though, is that there seems little role in Lakoff’s model for affect, that is, for individual and collective emotional response, in people’s processing and use of language, concept, metaphor, and image.


In reality, the relations between language, cognitive frames, affective responses and emotional investments, individual and collective identities, social movements, and, perhaps most importantly, the cultural infrastructure of production and consumption that underpins our everyday realities, are much more complex than Lakoff lets on. The literature on these many and complex interconnections is dispersed across a wide range of scholarly fields which I can’t summarize in a short article like this, though an important piece of it can be found across a range of post-constructivist theorizing in the social sciences and humanities (more on that in an upcoming post).

But let me contrast Lakoff’s model with that of an author who is well positioned within these post-constructivist currents to make some insightful moves in the direction of a progressive environmental politics. That author is Johns Hopkins University political theorist William E. Connolly. Best known for his work on pluralism, Connolly’s Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed outlines, albeit somewhat impressionistically, many of the complex feedback loops between culture, politics, language, affect, cognition, ethos, and the “infrastructure of consumption” (as he calls it). His Capitalism and Christianity, American Style gets at the systemically intertwined nature of US political and religious discourses (of the right-wing variety), including the ways the “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” works by mobilizing less-than-conscious sentiments, feelings, and bodily responses of a collective as well as infra-personal nature. Most importantly, he suggests some ways progressives and environmentalists could work to develop an alternative “eco-egalitarian resonance machine” through a mixture of personal and collective efforts.

For Connolly, there are no “frames” to be found in our “neural circuitry,” and that circuitry is not organized secondarily by “values” which “determine our identity.” What there is, instead, are complex, layered interactions between thinking and emotion (both of which are biologically and culturally mediated), action and ethos (or sensibility), and micro- and macro-political practices which are supported by the structured relations and infrastructural formations that make up our world. The emphasis, in Connolly’s work, is not so much on changing the frames as it is on combining efforts across a wide range of activities and scales in order to create “contagious resonances” across constituencies, resonances that carry ideas as well as sensibilities — including those of openness to difference, caring (including for the vulnerable and disadvantaged), and gratitude for being (which means also for the ecological connections on which we all depend). (A flavor of the activities he advocates can be glimpsed here, in the paragraph that begins with “As I have been arguing…”)

So let me come back to Lakoff’s suggestions, which I find wholly laudatory, in order to connect them to a broader context of thinking and action. Lakoff argues that several things are missing from Westen and Lake’s “messaging” research which, apparently, underlies the EcoAmerica report. (I say “apparently” because I haven’t read the report.)

“First, the public’s very understanding of nature has to change. We are part of nature; nature is not separate from us. Nature nurtures us. The destructive exploitation of nature is evil. What is good is the use of nature that doesn’t use up nature.”

Yes, and this is what the literature on social nature has been arguing for several years now. It’s what Bill Cronon’s anthology Uncommon Ground got into trouble for several years ago from environmentalists who found its embrace of constructivism too threatening. And it’s what the “bad boys of environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus, argued a few years ago (though with a bit too much heat than light). It’s also what this blog is about, and where much of the literature in political ecology, biosemiotics, process-relational philosophy, and other fields and subfields I’ve discussed here all point toward. At the same time, communicating this idea of a social nature in a culture that still sees nature as “out there” somewhere and culture as “in here” among us humans, is not easy, as it goes against the grain even of what a large part of the American conservationist community has traditionally said (and celebrated), i.e., that nature is in our national parks, not in our homes or schoolyards. But my hunch is that many people, even in America, recognize that nature is not just “out there,” and I think that our sensibilities reflect that.

“Second, the economic and ecological meltdowns have the same cause: the unregulated free market and the idea that greed is good and that the natural world is a resource for short-term private enrichment. The result has been deadly, toxic assets and a toxic atmosphere.”

This brings together the left and the green critiques of, respectively, free market triumphalism and anthropocentric industrialism — the marriage of Marx and Malthus that right-wing pundit Chris Horner described on the Fox News exchange I blogged about a few days ago. (I don’t take that ‘M&M’ characterization seriously, of course.) Stated this way, it’s also a message that goes against the stream (in the US at least), but now is a better time for pushing this message than ever before.

“Third, the global economy and ecology are both systems. Global causes are systemic, not local. Global risk is systemic, not local. The localization of causation and risk is what has brought about our twin disasters. We have to think in global, system terms and we don’t do so naturally. That is why a massive communications effort is needed.”

Yes, yes, yes. This is what environmental scholars have said for the last four decades. Systems theory of one kind or another (complexity, etc.) is also a growing part of the ontological mix of the post-constructivist social sciences. But this holistic-systemic form of thinking is also not new: Marxism and its progeny (neo-Marxism, world systems theory, dependency theory, etc.) have been exclaiming it for 150 years. The cognitive, or specifically the evolutionary psychological, piece is a valuable addition to this line of argumentation, though, as it gives us an account of why it’s not in our nature to think about the distant, systemic, creeping, multiple-feedback loop effects of our actions. So again we’re traveling upstream. Here we could do worse than follow Gregory Bateson’s steps, most notably in Mind and Nature and Angels Fear, to develop a set of metaphors by which we can start thinking about the ways we ourselves are implicated within systems we can never quite grasp in their totality.

“Fourth, the Right’s economic arguments need to be countered. Is it too expensive to save the earth? How could it be? If the earth goes, business goes.”

Ecological economists have been making these arguments, and even making some inroads into popular culture with them (e.g., Adbusters magazine seems to regularly feature their ideas). But there’s still a way to go with them. Here it’s instructive to look at the way behavioral economics has ballooned into the stratosphere of public discussion over the last year or two. Ecological economists should be finding allies there, as they’re addressing some of the same flaws in the economic system, just from different angles. (Here’s an article applying behavioral economics to climate change issues. And see also Connolly’s chapter “Is Eco-egalitarian Capitalism Possible?” in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.)

“Fifth, we are the polar bears. Human existence is threatened, and the existence of most living beings on earth.

Environmentalists have argued this at least since the 1960s. This is why “saving the Earth” is a mischaracterization; it’s about saving ourselves. But Lakoff’s “we” is a bit too simple here, since it’s made up of a minority who can adapt relatively easily to crises and a large majority who are much more vulnerable. This is the message of the environmental justice movement and of the environmental risk literature (Ulrich Beck, et al), and it is a growing emphasis in the resilience and adaptability discourses that focus on the most vulnerable “bottom of the pyramid.”

The last three points can be taken together:

“Sixth, we own the air jointly and we can’t transfer ownership. Polluting corporations are dumping pollution into our air. They need to gradually be made to stop, two-percent less a year for 40 years: that is what a “cap” on carbon dioxide pollution is about. And meanwhile the polluters should pay us dumping fees to offset the cost of fuel increases and pay for the development of better fuels.

“Seventh, even the most successful emissions cap would only take us halfway. Business needs to do its part to take us the rest of the way. Large corporations need to face up to reality and join in the effort.

“Finally, for those in the business world: Corporate interests are constantly putting forth arguments based on cost-benefit analysis. But the very mathematics of cost-benefit analysis is anti-ecological; the equations themselves are destructive of the earth. [. . .] Cost-benefit analysis is just the wrong paradigm for thinking about global warming.”

All of these arguments have been made time and again, but the Obama presidency is the first time when some of them are being made from the highest office in the most powerful nation on earth. (Gore’s office wasn’t the highest, nor was his commitment that noticeable at the time.) The revival of values-based discourse on the left — the values of commitment to building a common future, caring for the least of our brothers (in Obama’s Christian spin), etc. — finds a welcoming home in his White House. All the same, discourse isn’t enough; there are powerful interests and infrastructures that make it difficult to shift things in these directions. We need a much more systematic analysis than we get when we focus exclusively on “frames,” especially if these are presented as something that’s built into neural structures. And the idea that our brains really are divided into a “conservative” and a “progressive” circuitry seems a little quaint (and ethnocentric) in the face of the complex global world that Lakoff acknowledges is out there.

Lakoff’s attempt to bring cognitive insights into politics is laudable, and he’s been an effective catalyst for innovative thinking on the moderate left. But if we are to build an effective and applicable model for political and environmental change, we will need to draw not only on the cognitive sciences, but also on (by now well developed) constructivist insights from the social sciences — which look at discourse and language in the context of social movements as well as political-economic structures — and on the more recent work, among both cognitivists and humanists and cultural scholars, on the affective dimension of human behavior (an area in which the behavioral economists, actually, have got an edge over the cognitive linguists). Each of these three pieces is essential to the bigger picture.

A special thanks to Antonio at Mediacology for posting about this. See also Andrew Revkin’s blog post following up on the New York Times article that got this line of discussion going. It’s another example of the Times still being central in setting the agenda for public discussion (at least among the blogging public).

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