How to Talk to Americans

It"s amazing the amount of horrific news we manage to filter out during the course of a day. I recently awoke to discover that there had been a major earthquake in Asia. CNN told me, "Hundreds of people are reported dead after a massive earthquake struck off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, just three months after a huge quake and tsunami devastated the region."

Hundreds dead, and yet I still ate my breakfast bagel, poured myself a cup of coffee. My thoughts were about stories that were due and the problems I was having installing Norton Antivirus, not on the death and destruction in Indonesia.

George Lakoff: "Liberals believe that the facts will set you free. And the Republicans have learned that it's false."

I went to the office and was greeted with this news: "A landmark study released today reveals that approximately 60 percent of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth—such as fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water regulation and the regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests—are being degraded or used unsustainably. Scientists warn that the harmful consequences of this degradation could grow significantly worse in the next 50 years."The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report advised me that “any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies [15 of the 24 examined] continue to be degraded.”

Among the changes we can expect to see, says the report, are "the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of “dead zones” along the coasts, the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate."

I"m guessing that the report will get brief and respectful treatment in the newspapers of record, including the New York Times and Washington Post, but will be ignored just about everywhere else. The problem is that, despite the ominous predictions contained in the report, it"s all likely to happen in some unspecified future. "The next 50 years" is too distant for folks to get excited about—that"s our children"s children"s problem.

Many environmental problems are like this: overfishing the oceans, population growth, loss of biodiversity. Here are some population factoids, courtesy of the group Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth):

"At the annual growth rate of 1.2 percent, world population increased by 76 million people in 2004.
"U.S. population is expected to rise 43 percent by 2050—from 293 million today to 420 million.
"Under President Bush, poverty has risen by 7.1 percent. For the first time in 13 years, the poverty rate grew two years in a row, jumping nearly a percentage point from 2000 to 2002 (from 11.3 percent to 12.1 percent). The number of poor grew to 34.6 million people in 2002, including 12.1 million children.
"Between 2005 and 2050, eight countries—India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, the United States, Ethiopia, and China—are likely to contribute half of the world"s population increase.

All of these bullet points are alarming, but none of them are really newsworthy in 21st century America. Even if they were in the paper we"d probably ignore the stories. Part of the problem, as E will discuss in its forthcoming May/June cover story about the controversial "The Death of Environmentalism" essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is that we all possess built-in information filters that block input that"s not in our frame of reference.

The information on "framing" in the "Death" essay is largely based on the work of George Lakoff, a Berkeley linguistic professor and the author of the influential book Don"t Think of an Elephant! Lakoff"s ideas have already filtered through the environmental movement, and many groups are using him as a consultant. "Lakoff has a fascinating analysis, and the movement is absorbing it in all the ways it can," says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "He talks about how the brain is wired, how people view the world through a preconceived lens."

Lakoff says that throwing disturbing statistics at people—a prime tactic of environmental communications—is only intermittently successful. "A lot of liberals believe that the facts will set you free," Lakoff said in an online interview. "It is our inheritance from the Enlightenment
.And the Republicans have learned that it"s false. They"ve set up a frame, they set up a narrative, and they set it up in terms of their values. And they get it as part of normal, everyday language and normal everyday thought. Once they"ve done that, the facts are irrelevant unless the Democrats can learn to re-frame the issues from their point of view, and then make the facts fit other frames."

Lakoff, whose conservative counterpart is the even more influential Republican Party advisor Frank Luntz, has his critics. Justin Busch, a computational linguist who lives in San Diego and blogs about politics at, told columnist Molly Ivins that "Lakoff"s problem, and this is one area where Frank Luntz just by virtue of his job has a real advantage
is that he doesn"t see enough ordinary people and discuss these things." Lakoff responds by saying that more evidence for the efficacy of his models is on the way.

And there’s also a question of how effective Lakoff has been as a consultant to the environmental movement. According to a March 29 Grist piece by Amanda Griscom Little, the much-in-demand Lakoff has been slow to fulfill a commitment he made for a long-term “reframing” project with the Green Group, a coalition of 20 big-ticket national groups. He was to have been paid $350,000 for a three-phase project whose results were due in May, but progress appears to have stalled.

Framing has to be taken seriously, and perhaps it should influence the way major green groups send out their press releases. The Citizens Committee on Oil Peak and Decline warns, "The foreshocks of the impending oil production peak are already impacting our economies, our environment and our geopolitics." Yawn, right? You"ve heard that a million times and it hasn"t changed your behavior one bit. Who cares about "our geopolitics"? But suppose the committee wrote, "The impending oil production peak is already affecting your ability to buy an SUV, drive to the corner liquor store for a six pack and tow your 50-foot motor home [italics added]." As that brilliant interpreter of popular culture Michael Moore might put it, that"s a frame most Americans fit into.

I don"t mean to be facetious, but we have to do something to cut through the ongoing denial. That means relating our information to the way we really live our lives. If we insist on writing for an audience of scientists and members of the green choir, we"re probably doomed. From where I sit, our emerging environmental problems are demanding immediate attention, and George Lakoff makes a lot of sense.


World Resources Institute