Communication and environmentalism

TED talks are used to spread new ideas and insights – they have become a ubiquitous communications brand – and this week we are focusing on communication. On Monday you watched three TED talks. Per Espen Stoknes advocates focusing on the stories of individuals who are making a difference in terms of the environment, communicating through small nudges, and pushing three positive stories for every negative one. Katherine Hayhoe advocates taking into account the mental frames of your audience – start with common ground. Kate Raworth introduces a new mental frame – doughnut economics – this mental model is designed to move understanding and action about economics away from a focus on profit and growth to a focus on fairness and sustainability. Effecting real change on environmental issues means fundamental economic change – what are the steps that take us there? As you work on group project three, it might be interesting to follow the doughnut economics mental frame, is it making an impact?

You also listened to the podcast Communicating Climate Change: a psychoanalysis. Many of points made by Stoknes and Katherine Hayhoe are reflected by the speakers in the podcast.

Pyschologist Debika Shome suggests: (min 4:22 – 10:31 in podcast)

  • Climate change seems geographically and temporally remote – we tend not to react to threats unless they are perceived to be closer and more immediately dangerous. Shome characterizes this as experiential trumping analytical reasoning
    • Per Espen Stoknes also listed distance as one reason why we don’t respond to climate change in the ways that logic would expect.
  • Confirmation Bias: we tend to accept/seek information consistent with that we already believe. In this class we have already talked about mental models/frames
    • i.e our thought processes about how things work (made up of facts, intuitions, experiences, assumptions).
    • they can change BUT we tend to fit new information into our existing frameworks.
    • media-makers have to understand the frames of their audience if they want to be understood, both Stoknes and Katherine Hayhoe make this point.
    • media-makers have to choose mental models that resonate with the audience – not to manipulate them but to be understood. David Ingram makes a similar point about needing training/experience to understand/enjoy the kinds of films that Scott MacDonald advocates (Sogobi etc).

Tima Banzel from the Ivey School of Business at Western University, London Ontario comes at the problem of communicating climate change from a different perspective. She suggests we should focus on corporations. She says:

  • corporations have an influence on environmental issues in 2 ways
    • they fuel our desire for material goods.
    • they create emissions producing material goods.
    • but have little incentive to change/retool for green products.
  • climate change conversations tend to focus on governments or individuals, but Banzel thinks we need to focus on corporations as potential leaders.
  • she lists some problems:
    • corporate short termism (less profit now is better than bigger profit later).
    • managers don’t like to suffer a short term loss ever.
    • business doesn’t like uncertainty – the more uncertainty, the more the tendency towards short termism.
  • her solutions:
    • it only takes a handful of truly motivated people to make business miserable.
    • we can use communication to publicly shame and embarrass corporations to act more environmentally, using the doughnut economics mental frame might be a tactic.
    • we should also push governments to enact policies that lessen uncertainty.
  • Clearly many companies are making great efforts to change their environmental image and also their actual environmental practices – the doughnut economics mental model could help this transition.
  • If corporations didn’t care about their image, the strategies Banzel suggests would not work. On the other hand there is also a lot of greenwashing – companies that communicate a great environmental image but don’t act up to it.

Matthew McGregor – director of digital communications at Precision Strategies; worked on digital team/rapid response for the Obama campaign. From min 18:55 – 30:48, he gives his advice for communicating using short form media in digital campaigns.

  • Start from where things really are: Paris Climate Agreement  in Dec 2015 was a success, environmental campaigners have done a good job.
  • There’s no big moment – instead need to focus on lots of little things, embedding awareness of climate into day to day – get to people bit by bit by bit – this is very like Stoknes’ nudging strategy.
  • It’s not enough to be right in the scientific sense, you have to think what actually connects, persuades, moves people
    • the factual case is won, focus on the practical/moral case.
  • People are not interested in your topic, they are looking to be entertained, moved or to learn something in the short, in-between moments of their life.
  • Less spin is better. Don’t shove things down people’s throats.
  • People are more receptive to good outcomes – focus on a vision of a better tomorrow rather than drama about how bad things are – but do not mislead
    •  He suggests a 50/1 ratio of focusing on the positive rather than the negative as opposed to Stoknes suggesting a 3/1 ratio.
  • And again the PRIORITY is knowing your audience and using mental and emotional frames that connect to their everyday experiences.

Mindframes v Ideology Reprise

I want to revisit the terms ideology and mindframes, thinking about them as ideas to think with. Although these two concepts may seem very similar, they come from very different thinking traditions.

Ideology: In the history of this term is the Marxist theory that the economic or material base is in a dialectical relationship to the ideological super-structure. This means that the way we obtain the necessities of life influences our social & belief structures – and vice-versa. Thinkers in this tradition see a connection between power over material goods and power over ways of thinking. This connection is at the root of people holding and acting on beliefs that do not benefit them. Thinkers here suggest that some beliefs are so deeply embedded in culture that we are unaware of them. They want to make them visible, and find ways to raise people’s consciousness so they fight to change their material circumstances.

Mind frames or Mental Models: These ideas proceed from psychology, cognitive and behavioral science. They are attempts to understand scientifically how people think and the beliefs that drive individuals and populations. This kind of language borrows from science the trappings of neutrality and objectivity.

Donna Haraway and the film theorists in Ecocinema Theory and Practice are in the ideology tradition. While Haraway does not use the term much, phrases like “material semiotics” show how she consistently connects matter and meaning. She wants to trace complicated and political connections in art-works, biological practices, communities, and to imagine a new sympoeitic consciousness that will work for environmental changes. She assumes that the logic of capitalism makes it incompatible with effective environmental action.

The speakers in the TED talks and podcast this week, Hayhoe, Stoknes, Shome, Banzel, McGregor, are in the mindframe tradition. The kind of communication and action they advocate assumes that we will be able to cope with our environmental problems by tweaking our current economic and political systems rather than radically changing them.

Raworth sits somewhere in between. Doughnut economics suggests that “growth” a fundamental assumption for capitalism has to be challenged in the face of finite planetary resources. But in introducing a new mental model for economics she is careful not to trigger her audience’s resistance by any reference to Marxist or revolutionary economic theories.

This is a little recursive but note that the choice of terms (ideology or mind frame) reveals something about the ideology/mind frames of the speakers.

Not exactly a nudge but ….

Nudges – whether or not our we need to change our entire economic and social system in the face of environmental issues, I think the idea of nudging people little and often in the direction of change is brilliant. Below: nudges to reduce meat eating (and the carbon footprint connected to it), and a general article about nudges and the environment.