Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Wave With Words

Yesterday I met a man who had a wave with words. He was a cognitive semanticist. His name is Joe Brewer. He contributes to an ongoing discussion of climate policy from the viewpoint of cognitive science at

Those who regularly surf NPR or PBS will probably have seen Joe Brewer’s mentor at Berkeley, George Latoff, most often in political campaign season. Latoff is that guy who talks about language, and how conservative spinmeisters have co-opted the discussion by framing the question. Some classic examples are the “death tax,” (for inheritance taxes), “War on Terror” (for illegal, immoral and endless military adventurism), or “intelligent design” (for creationism).

Latoff advises progressives to switch the language back to actually describing what is going on. “Healthy Forests Initiative” should be called “No Tree Left Behind.” “Liberal” means “a command of the basic facts and a sense of being an equal, not a superior.” Progressives have to understand that right-wing think tanks have a four decade jump on them. Ronald Reagan was an A-student of the discipline, learning from S.I. Hiyakawa. But, hey, it is never too late to catch up.

Joe Brewer was an invited speaker at Vanderbilt University’s Interdisciplinary Conference on Climate Change and Consumption, and although I knew nothing about him, once he assumed the podium and began to speak, I closed down my multitasking mind and focused in. This guy had something serious to say.

Brewer told the small room — no more than 20 people in attendance — that the conversation about climate change was teetering precariously on being co-opted by the neoCons, and the way they were doing it was with frames. Even Al Gore was being led by the nose-ring into Fox News’ frames. To defend carbon sequestration he is forced to talk about green tech profitability, or net jobs creation.

Brewer’s central point was that environmentalists, and environmentalism, have been negatively framed. Those treehuggers would have us sacrifice comfort and well-being for the sake of some abstract aesthetic value — polar bears on an ice floe, or a tiny snail darter in a dammed stream.

Some of us are old enough to remember what it was like before Reagan, when saving the global commons for future generations was called “conservation” and those who advocated on behalf of other species were “conservationists.” That was a positive frame — the Good Steward (if The Bible is your bent), or the good parent, if you think of saving something of value for your grandchildren.

So how can we find a better frame for the world after petroleum? Well, for one thing, terms like “positive forcing” or “positive feedback,” which are used by scientists, cannot be used to convey negative climate changes to the general population. We need words that say what they mean, plain and simple. "Petrocollapse" is accurate, but unenticing.

George Latoff, in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant!, advises us that the conservative-liberal “values” dichotomy is really an argument between a strict father and a nurturing mother. Like most ex-colonies, the USA became independent by turning away from its strict (and sadistic) father and choosing instead to be the mother who nurtures and empowers her children.

Latoff says, “[R]ight-wing ideologues have convinced half of the country that the strict father family model, which is bad enough for raising children, should govern our national morality and politics.”

Our national symbol should be Liberty, raising her torch, beckoning us home, not the Eagle, brandishing arrows and hiding behind a shield.

If we talk about fixing the climate crisis by levying carbon taxes, or forcing industries to catch their smoke and bury it, we are still in the strict father frame. David Suzuki, by calling for imprisonment of climate criminals, is speaking George Bush’s language. Instead, let’s ask, what would our mother do?

She would remind us of how being a good parent involves caring for our sick family. Earth needs us. Earth needs her many creatures now going extinct. We need to care. We need to help, restore, and rebuild. We should save water, and soil, and seed for the children, and the grandchildren. Let us raise our children to care. Let us teach them to become good parents themselves.

Drawing upon Brewer’s foundational work, I can restate the NeoCon frame like this:
  • Nature is a resource waiting to be exploited.
  • Wealth is measured by money.
  • Industry makes money, and thus creates wealth.
  • Markets, which aid wealth creation, are naturally good.
  • Any intrusion by government upon free markets is bad.
  • Polluting is the natural consequence of industry, so pollution is an inevitable side-effect of wealth.
  • Protection of the economy and protection of the environment are goals that inevitably conflict.
  • If industry is forced to achieve environmental goals, then companies should be compensated for the cost.
  • The better choice is for governments just to leave it to the markets.
So we see this ends up reading very much like the Warner-Leiberman climate bill, supported by the majority of Blue Dog Democrats, such as Nashville’s Jim Cooper.

Instead of that, we can reframe:
  • Nature is the basis of our survival.
  • Wealth is really about well-being; having good friends, or living in a flourishing community.
  • A healthy economy requires a healthy environment.
  • We all breathe the air. It is our right to have it, and in clean, healthy condition.
  • Markets are tools for achieving societal goals and should serve those purposes.
  • Markets should generate wealth in the broad sense — the health of the planet and future generations.
  • Good government makes markets possible.
  • Unregulated markets destroy the societal goals that created them.
  • Regulation of industry and markets creates real wealth, and enduring wealth, in the broadest sense.
Now we just need to come up with a catchier way to say “net sequestration.”


MPayne said...


I applaud your "restatement" at the end of this article. If progress is to be made (to say the least, as we both know, it is much more serious than just "progress"), we need to frame matters in positive terms, not in ones that create more division, disagreement.

My favorite cognitive semantic: "palestinian gunmen". Look for it!

Call if you come to town.

Martin Payne
Austin, Texas

billhicksmostfunny said...

Just started your reading your posts. Learned about biochar. Now going back to your 1st posts and slowly working my way to your most recent.

One thing about this article. Mothers are nurturing. This is true. But lest you forget, a Mama Bear or any other Mama in the wild will defend her cubs or babies quite fiercely when the situation calls for it.




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