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Notes on environmental communication: Why conservatives message better

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | October 5, 2010

EcoAmerica recently hosted an important environmental conference, America The Best, in Washington, DC, for a small group of specialists in environmental communication to see what ideas would emerge. Because of the number of distinguished participants, I compressed my ideas to just a few pages. I have written about these issues at length in the journal Environmental Communication, No. 1, 2010, but since a condensed version has a chance of actually being read, I thought I would send it out beyond the conference participants to see if it can get some discussion started on a national level.

An understanding of communication is necessary, as the communication failures of the Obama administration have made clear. The environmental movement as a whole shares such failures, which is why the conference is being held. The importance of communication in politics has not been recognized sufficiently by environmentalists, and by progressives in general.

When a huge number of Americans hear mainly from anti-environmental conservatives all day every day, they put pressure on their representatives in Congress. That affects voting on legislation. It is getting late to act on global warming. If the Republicans take over Congress it may be too late. The fate of the planet hangs in the balance. Here are a few pages to begin a conversation that should be engaged immediately.

These notes are about ideas that have to change in the wider public and how to change them. They are not about short-term slogans.

Notes on Environmental Communication

Some Brain Basics

We think with our brains. We think using conceptual systems that are physical. They use brain circuitry, structured to characterize frames and metaphors. All language is made meaningful by activating these frame-circuits.

Activation of a frame-circuit makes its synapses stronger. Just listening to or using language that activates a frame-circuit strengthens that frame-circuit.

Negating a frame activates that frame. Using conservative language to argue against conservatives just reinforces conservative framings. Environmental language must avoid activating anti-environmental frames and anti-environmental language.

For example, defending science activates the idea the science needs defending and so is questionable. Go on offense, not on defense.

All Politics is Moral: The system of concepts used in political discourse is grounded in conceptions of what is moral. Every political leader claims he or she is doing what is right, not what is wrong. But Conservative and Progressive moral systems differ profoundly (see The Political Mind and Moral Politics). Parts of the conservative moral system contradict environmental values — Man over Nature, Laissez-faire markets, personal not social responsibility, etc. Environmental values derive from a moral system centered on empathy and social responsibility.

Biconceptualism: Many, if not most, people have two contradictory moral systems, applied to different issues. They may be progressive on some issues, conservative on others. The brain makes this possible via mutual inhibition — activating a moral system strengthens it and inhibits, and hence weakens, the other.

This means that one should talk using the positive language of an environmental (and hence progressive) moral system, and avoid the language of the anti-environmental (radically conservative) moral system.

Political bi-conceptuals include something like 15 to 20 percent of the voting population. It is crucial to think of them all the time.

Moral Versus Merely Factual Arguments: Facts matter. But for their importance to be communicated at all, they must be framed in moral terms. Facts by themselves are not meaningful to most people. Just arguing the science of global warming is not effective. If done defensively, it can be self-defeating.

The Conservative Communication System: Over the past 40 years, conservatives have built an effective communications system better than anything progressives have. It consists of a prior understanding of the conservative moral system, dozens of think tanks working from that system, talented framing professionals, training institutes that train tens of thousands of conservatives a year to think and talk from a radical conservative perspective, a system of trained spokespeople, and booking agencies to book their spokespeople on radio, TV, and in venues like civic groups, colleges, corporations, etc., and more recently, a blogging community. The result is that, throughout the country, millions of people hear consistent messages day after day. The environmental community has not built such an effective system, and does not have the long-term framing needed to go with it. Just running ads doesn’t compete with an effective communication system!

Language Changes Brains

Language is crucial, because language activates frame-circuits and hence can change brains. Most brain change is slow, long-term, and requires constant repetition. Some brain change is fast — mostly in the case of trauma. The recent environmental disasters have been opportunities for fast brain change. The environmental community was not able to take advantage of those opportunities.

Long-term versus Short-term Messaging: The conservative message system has been activating the conservative moral system in the brains of listeners for over 30 years. Their anti-environmental messages have been affecting brains for a very long time, and in recent years their messaging has been very effective.

Such long-term, morally-based, anti-environmental messaging cannot be countered effectively by short-term messages and mere ads.

Disaster Messaging: When environmental messaging has failed and faces a communication disaster like the present one, the response has been “disaster messaging” — an ad campaign to “get the facts out there” and be bipartisan. This fails because (1) without the moral language and ideas behind them, the facts by themselves don’t register, and (2) attempts to be bipartisan do not activate the environmental moral system in bi-conceptual brains, and may even hurt if the messages use conservative language.

Why Conservatives Message Better: In business school, they studied marketing, and marketing professors study cognitive science to learn how the mind really works. Progressives tend to study political science, law, economics, and public policy, which assume Enlightenment Reason, which is not how the brain really works. Those fields get reason wrong and thus give conservatives a big advantage.

Needed Long-term Messages: In order to decide on short-term messaging, one has to have a very good idea of the long-term ideas that are necessary to make sense of and to integrate short-term messages. The long term-ideas that have to be understood and accepted by the broad public are mostly are moral in character. Here are some of those ideas.

We Are Part of Nature: The term “environment” provides a misleading image, as if the “environment” were outside of us, around us, not inside us and part of us. The reality is that we are not separate from our environment. This is obvious from air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat — but also what we experience of nature, since experience is physical, part of our bodies and brains.

Nature Nurtures Us: We cannot exist without all that we get from nature. Human beings are who we are because of Nature as it exists. Nature nurtures and shapes us.

The Greatest Moral Issue of Our Time: Nature as we know it is being destroyed by human action. The issue of global warming is the issue of the destruction, or the saving, of Nature as we know it, at least where optimal conditions still occur such as clean air, abundant water, available food, mild climate, disaster-free life, extensive habitable regions, animals that share nature with us and that we are linked to through evolution, and our biological and ethical connections to the living world.

Children and Grandchildren: Will our children and grandchildren be able to know nature as we know it? Only if we stop global warming.

We All Own The Air: Support the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR ACT now. Every adult citizen gets a significant financial dividend as the carbon pollution is cleaned up. There are only a couple of thousand distribution points for carbon fuels in America, and they are already monitored. To sell polluting fuels, each company would have to by dumping permits for the pollution to be dumped into the air. The number of permits would be reduced each year, cleaning the air and producing a market in permits. The permit money would go, three-quarters to adult citizens equally, and one-quarter to alternative fuel development and repairing previous environmental destruction. Most people will make money, even if fuel prices go up. That money will be spent and will create jobs all over the nation. The bill is 39 pages long. Read it.

The Global Economic Crisis Is The Same As the Global Environmental Crisis.: Tom Friedman has expressed this in economic metaphors: Both of crises arose from Underestimating Risks, Privatizing Profits, and Socializing Losses. Both are consequences of human greed in a Greed-Is-Good economic system.

Systemic Causation and Risk: Every language represents direct causation in its grammar. No language in the world represents systemic causation in its grammar. Yet both the global economy and global ecology are systemic in nature, with large-scale overall causes, positive and negative feedback loops, and so on. Systemic causation must be taught; it does not arise naturally as a concept. We must learn to think in systemic terms. Systemic risk is different from local risk.

The Cost of Doing Business: Dumping pollution, blowing off mountain tops, leaving pipelines in the ocean, letting fertilizer run off — these are all “externalizations of costs;” that is, they increase profits by harming nature. Businesses should not be allowed to externalize costs. A moral business should not destroy Nature. Oil companies are in the business of destroying nature.

Cost-Benefit Analysis: The use of cost-benefit analysis is inherently anti-ecological. The mathematics works by a formula: The integral (or sum) over time of a local environmental benefit minus the corresponding local business cost, times the following factor: e to the minus discount (interest) rate times time. Since money is worth less in the future than in the present because of compound interest, any environmental benefits go down exponentially relative to business costs and soon approach zero. Since nature should continue indefinitely, while business is transitory, the mathematics itself has a hidden anti-ecological bias.

Energy Saved Is Worth Far More than Energy Used: Energy savings are multiplicative. Suppose you insulate your house. Next year you will use X barrels of of oil less to heat it. That means X barrels of oil not needed to be extracted. But each year after that, again you will not need X barrels of oil. Thus, the savings are multiplicative: you keep not needing oil year after year.

When it is claimed that business “needs” dirty energy (fossil and nuclear fuels), the possible multiplicative savings from conservation and alternative fuels — that is from not needing dirty fuels — is usually not factored in.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has observed that, via conservation alone, we could save 23 times all the energy we get yearly from coal. Even if he is only ten percent right, it would mean that coal is not needed as an energy source.

Distributed, clean, capital-lite energy is more efficient, profitable, and moral than centralized, dirty, capital-intensive energy (like coal mines and plants, oil wells and refineries, huge dams, nuclear power plants, natural gas fracking, etc.). This is crucial to developing countries as well as developed countries.

Political Action is More Important than Symbolic Action: It was nice of Jimmy Carter to put solar cells on the White House, and Michelle Obama’s White House organic garden is a fine gesture as well. But neither of those has changed much. A presidential order putting solar cells on all military and government facilities, and having all military and government agencies require fuel-efficient vehicles, would change a lot. Buying senators is more effective than buying new light bulbs. Effective communication can “buy” political leaders by changing what voters hear. Ecological moral action is fundamentally political action.

Effective communication and education constitute political action: Whatever changes brains on a massive scale in an ecological direction will result in material change.

Business is central to the effort: Business can save, and hence make, a lot money by going green and developing green technology.

Food: It is important to move from mostly oil-based food (using pesticides, fertilizers, global transportation) to sun-based food (local and organic) and from huge, centralized, unhealthy, polluting feedlots to small local operations.

Ecological development creates jobs and prosperity: People want to live, and business want to locate, in places that are ecologically attractive and responsible, and the conversion to such values means new businesses will thrive.

Ecological Education is the Most Essential Form of Education: The saving of Nature depends on It. Our economic future depends on it.

Women’s Education is one the most important ecological issues: Population control depends on it.

True Morality is Ecological Morality: The saving of Nature depends on it.

Comments to “Notes on environmental communication: Why conservatives message better

  1. Two things not mentioned in this article: environment advocates are not only trying to convince people. They also need to counter detractors, find chances to speak at all, while the so-called conservatives have their alternative message that life is all about business, the economy and money, in the end.

    To counter such a wide variety of opponents, you cannot simply speak with one voice, one message. You’ll need people on the attack, others on the defense, and others actually selling the environmental ideas, using various types of arguments to convince various types of people. You need an ecosystem of communicators.

    On the other hand: see how effective one person of authority and power can be, as clearly shown by the examples of Gore and Bush. People are surprisingly willing to accept without much thought a lot of what powerful authorities are willing to repeat on public tv.

  2. Lamenting that liberals out Gun Conservatives I must defer to the pre-frontal cortex,liberals are evolving, and conservative are devolving Darwin would be amused.

  3. P.S. regarding the point I was trying to make below about science needing a much more influential spokesperson the October 2010 issue of Scientific American published the results of a joint poll with Nature magazine on how people in various countries around the world feel about science. There were some very interesting results, including:

    People trust what scientists say about important issues in society more than any other group, and do not trust the opinions of citizens groups, journalists, companies and elected official, with religious authorities being least trustworthy.

    On the topic of “Climate change” scientists’ opinions came out in 8th place when comparing trust on 15 topics.

    In the U.S. 67% percent of respondents agreed that in tough economic times scientific funding of defense projects was the overwhelming pick for cuts in spending.

    In the U.S. only 18% were “Not comfortable” with risks of nuclear power.

    And while numerous polls show a decline in the percentage of Americans who believe humans affect climate, this new SA/Nature poll indicates attitudes may be shifting the other way in the past year because three times more said they are more certain than less certain that humans are changing the climate.

    QUESTION: Does Cal have anyone who can meet the need for an influential science spokesperson, because the totally unacceptable consequences of climate change are much too great a threat to humanity to allow the present state of public confusion produced by less trustworthy citizen groups, journalists, companies, elected officials and religious authorities to continue to confuse public opinion?

  4. Amusing. I hear almost identical laments from conservatives: “Liberals are better communicators.” “The Republican Party is the stupid party.” “Liberals think with their emotions while conservatives use reason.” On the latter, Rush Limbaugh has said for years that he operates with “half his brain tied behind his back,” and when asked, he said it was the right side of the brain he has tied. The political left has no shortage of emotional communication experts. Hollywood is mostly liberal. Ditto for most of the nation’s humanities departments. I dare say it’s the conservatives who are outgunned.

    The Left has very effective communication and training systems. You dominate the universities and most major media outlets! A quick thumb through Mother Jones reveals multiple training programs for progressive activists.

    The Right may appear to be better at staying “on message” than progressives simply because you cannot discern the variations of conservatism. Members of the Right have similar problems distinguishing the various flavors of liberalism and progressivism. It’s a matter of perspective. (I have an Olympian perspective because my own ideology at present has no echo chamber to deaden my senses.)

    Much ideological difference stems from environment. Liberals dominate the urban cores, where nature is scarce and externalities ooze over physical property lines. The red states are those with large rural populations, where nature is still plentiful and property lines provide sufficient rights protections.

    If you want to reach the red state populations, have some respect for physical property lines, and give some weight to other conservative values. For examples, see my conservative case for a carbon tax. Also, keep an eye out for conservatives who “get it.” You won’t find them on talk radio, but you can find them in places like Forbes magazine.

    Finally, let me say you make an excellent point about present value calculations. When it comes to nature, we should use a negative interest rate!

  5. “Above all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives) as charismatic as Pope John Paul II or, say, the late Carl Sagan. Right now, the faces of science are selected by book sales, television specials, and pure self-promotion; its elected leaders, the heads of scientific societies, rarely function as public figures. Surely there is a better way, and the future will be all the better for it.” recommendation by Corey S. Powell, executive editor of Discover magazine and adjunct professor of science journalism at NYU.

  6. Just want to pass on a very interesting approach to marketing sustainable business through framing.
    Book: Igniting Inspiration: A Persuasion Manual for Visionaries.
    Roberts builds on the theory of psychologist Clare W Graves whose ideas also reportedly influenced President de Klerk in South Africa to give it up more peacefully.
    He identifies the moral frameworks of different types and how to inspire them, even how to combine frames to talk a more common language.
    I took a seminar with Roberts that was excellent on Innovating with Empathy.
    His speaking and writing are very lively, vivid, and cool. He says you have to be authentic and understand your audience. I think he can get through to young people.
    There is also some interesting insights into negative aspects of some progressive types, which is very refreshing to me and long over-due.

  7. I agree, the “environment” points out there. But our bodies are part of the ecology. Ecology is pro-life, about health and vitality, feeling good in our bodies. Health makes a personal connection with environmentalism to get more people involved.

    Health is the big overlooked area. The toxic crisis is already here: toxicity is one of the leading physical causes (along with nutrition) of the epidemic of diseases correlated with industrialization, some of which are escalating exponentially, like autism. The health care system ignores toxicity while contributing to it. Doctors do not check for toxic load and don’t know how to treat it. The dominant frame is nature is the enemy so attack germs. Health care reform cannot succeed without addressing the root cause of diseases. Health care costs are the single biggest cost in an automobile and the most common reason for personal bankruptcy. This is a huge strategic opportunity.

  8. If everyone would study communication the world would definetely be better. But the environmental communication is an absolute must. Please post more and more articles like this, I hope they are read by the right person.

  9. I don’t believe this. Jimmy Carter said by 1999 ( Committed back then $1 bil.), his plan would be the USA on a program of 20% of alternativeve energy. Nothing happened. The Dems hold the house, senate the president office and they have done nothing but concentrate on how to smear the poor Tea Party movement so they can keep in power and spend more money on the banking CEOs and big corps. When freedom reigns then solutions will be developed. But constantly committing time to writings and organizing hate rallies , op-eds, and TV skits to smear and defame the conservatives is one reason that in 2010 we still have no viable green movement. Keep blaming the poor people and lower middle class. That is what Mao Tse-tung did and he did not accomplish anything but millions killed. One thing I learned at UCB is that no-one ever takes responsibilities for their actions and ideas. It is always some poor rube or poor peasant that is to blame. Keep up the good work, nothing has been accomplished but the creation of Platonium and making of the weapon systems to kill humans.

  10. this is pretty much the best summary of what’s going on and what’s needed that i’ve seen in a while. thanks! glad to see other people are seeing the simplicity and also complexity of the issue and are able to formulate it as such;)

  11. Why do we need a mission to Mars? Because we need a place to go when the Earth can no longer support its human population. But who will go? Not you or me; perhaps a few special people that carry the seeds of a new colony will be selected by our leaders. Does that mean that those of left behind will die? Yes, most will die until a level of sustainability is reached than can be supported by the leftovers from previous generations. Wow! That sucks, why should I struggle to graduate from college, develop a good career, marry and have kids. No real reason, unless you want to make a change.

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