Values and Experience in Environmental Campaigns

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

At Identity Campaigning, we talk a lot about values and how they pertain to the sense of identity that people have.  What we haven’t talked much about – yet – is the central role of experience in the expression of values… especially as they emerge in environmental campaigns.

Why is it that you almost never hear anyone suggest that the way the public experiences a campaign could have a significant impact on what the campaign means to them?  There is quite a lot of discussion around selecting among word choices (Global warming or climate change?), and yet no one seems to notice that recent smashing successes in the campaign world went much deeper than wording – and into the realm of experience.

Take, for example, the Obama campaign in the United States.  Obama’s strategy was based on a profound shift in thinking about the role of supporters in a political campaign.  People weren’t merely given a passive role.  They weren’t asked to be a conduit for the official “Obama message”.  Nor were they told that all they had to do was show up and vote, then the Mighty Hero Obama would come and save the day.  Something very different was going on.

Instead, supporters were treated as active creators of social change.  They were encouraged (via social networking software online) to form local communities, engage their neighbors, and start a movement that would only succeed if millions of people came together and collectively built the better world they hoped for.

At it’s heart the Obama campaign was concerned with the experience people had when they got involved.  And get involved they did!  Millions of supposedly disengaged citizens, including the mythical “apathetic youth” surprised all the experts and delivered an African American to the White House.

Environmental advocates can learn a lot from this.  Rather than focusing on the smallest and least important element of campaigns – which words to use – they could look deep at the underlying assumptions that guide their strategies.  This is what Lakoff was really getting at when he talked about political frames and the values that people have.  He was most concerned about how people think, feel, and act in the political arena.

Of course, this is a radical notion in its own right.  What I am arguing is that we need to re-evaluate ourselves and take a critical eye to the strategies we use in advocating for a sustainable world.  Values run deeper than words.  Affirmation of life, human dignity, and the social responsibility to preserve them are all powerfully passionate actions that give meaning to our lives and provide foundations for our sense of who we are as a people.

I think it is about time for environmental campaigns to recognize that our experiences embody the values we express.  If you treat the citizenry like a stupid herd of ignorant people (whom we need to “inform” and “push to the polls”), then they will sense the value judgments embedded in campaigns that promote this view – and they will be turned off by you.  Conversely, if you treat the citizenry like empowered agents of change (whom you only need to assist in their pathways to empowerment), they will sense a different value judgment and respond accordingly.

Joe BrewerValues and Experience in Environmental Campaigns


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  • Tom - July 3, 2009 reply

    Thanks Joe. I too worry that there is a risk we get too caught up in specific language (e.g. ‘global warming’ versus ‘climate change’). Of course, it’s important, as Frank Luntz recognised in working on that notorious memo.

    But the danger is, I think, that in focussing too much on how to active different frames, we overlook the crucial issue of how those frames are shaped.

  • Joe Brewer - July 3, 2009 reply

    Hi Tom,

    I’d like to build on your comment.

    There are two deeper strategic issues that are missed in discussions about language use in environmental discourse as those discussions have tended to unfold until now. The first is that language is fundamentally about thought. Modes of thought are where the action is, yet the dominant frames for language in mainstream culture mislead people into discussions about word choice because they lack a deeper understanding of the cognitive dimensions inherent in language processes.

    The second strategy element that tends to be missing is that the meanings of stories are bound up in the experiences of people having them. Not only do we need to choose our words with care, but we must look deeper at the conceptual structures (and value systems) that shape how people experience our messages and not get caught up at the level of the messages themselves.

    Essentially, this means looking at the frames we are operating in when we seek to communicate with others. Not only must we look at our word choices, we must also look at the entire context we’re operating in (and the assumptions that shape our communication strategies within that context).

    It is possible to change the communicative context, and thereby alter the rules of interaction to promote new outcomes that weren’t possible in the old set of rules. Environmental advocates can shift the realm of discourse and profoundly alter the discourse itself.

  • Martin Kirk - July 3, 2009 reply

    As ever with these debates, I think there is truth in what you both say. I work on the assumption that the sweet spot is where we engage the whole person, with all their skills and intelligence and interests in a campaign – a la Obama – so that they experience the campaign, and thereby the issue, in an holistic and positive way, and put it in a challenging framing that encourages a far wider shift in the framing of the issue. The former can be very powerful on its own, the latter too, but together they can change the world. So our job as the designers and initial propogators of campaigns is to use all available tachnology, intelligence and resources in a way that pushes control down and out to campaigners, and provide enough of a new framing (voiced through a specific change agenda and a simple – or at least simply articulated – challenge) to spark the mass re-experiencing and understanding of environment/global development issues.

  • Joe Brewer - July 3, 2009 reply

    Hi Martin,

    Tom and I weren’t debating one another. We are building a understanding together through dialogue, which you’ve contributed to nicely.

    One of my goals in writing this post was to suggest that more holistic thinking is necessary for creating sustained positive change in the face of environmental issues. You’ve added to this with your observations about re-experiencing and how re-framing is about changing the way we understand the issues.

    In solidarity,

    Joe Brewer

  • Nicola Thomas - July 7, 2009 reply

    I think there’s no blanket answer. It depends on what stage the citizen is it.

    To awaken a citizen to the dire need for change, (Obama focused on empowerment before and while engaging the masses to get involved) we need to focus on egocentric values, and once the citizen has had the ‘aha’ feeling, then they are ready and waiting to participate in grass roots, bottom up campaigns and get connected with their deep rooted society-centric values, such as social responsibility.

  • Martin Kirk - July 8, 2009 reply

    Sorry, Joe, I didn’t mean to suggest there was anything other than healthy, understanding-building dialogue going on.

    Have you got your copy of Tom’s book yet? It’s great stuff. It leads me to comment on Nicola saying we need to focus on egocentric values. . .

    Nicola, without going into it all in detail here (it’s downloadable from the link above) Tom presents a very compelling case for the opposite of that; that at the very heart of campaign and messaging design we should be focussing on enhancing intrinsic values.

    I’d highly recommend it. And once I’ve finished it I’ll no doubt have some thoughts to wrangle with on here.

  • Nicola Thomas - July 8, 2009 reply

    To reply to Martin:
    I do not refute the importance of intrinsic values at all and have read TC’s paper. However:

    To engage the masses who are currently unmoved by the sustainability message, you will hit a brick wall if you try and introduce intrinsic values straight off.

    My own empirical evidence gathered during a 5 year research program strongly indicated to move people towards the point where you want to discuss intrinsic values, the best way to engage them FIRST is to focus on how their egocentric values are intricately tied to ecosystem health, e.g. their kids health, job security, lifestyle, etc.

    Not sure if you’ve ever been surrounded by a bunch of bankers who “don’t give a damn” but you’d be surprised how taking an egocentric stance helps them to first help them make the connections, and then be more open to hearing an intrinsic value message.

    So, it’s because of this that I feel, based on the first hand experience I’ve had into social change, that to try and tackle hard to budge basic values head on with an intrinsic values message is wrought with difficulties. You can move them there once they’ve made the egocentric connections.

    As I said, there’s no blanket answer, because people are at different stages of openness towards sustainability, from being closed to open.

    The end game is altruistic, but to get many of us to the table, the start game is egocentric.

    I don’t think we disagree, but how we get there… perhaps!

  • Joe Brewer - July 9, 2009 reply

    Hi Nicola,

    Very interesting comments you’ve offered. I’d like to suggest that the there is something deeper going on than the “intrinsic vs. extrinsic” dichotomy. When Tom and I release our report later this summer, there will be a section that lays out how value systems work that links motivational psychology with neurological processes with human conceptual systems.

    One feature that will be important to think about is the relationship between surface frames (that operate at the level of words and phrases) and deep frames (that activate vast webs of associated knowledge sufficient to comprise an entire coherent worldview… including an internally consistent system of evaluative judgments).

    Egocentrism is important in that it evokes a clear relationship between the individual and the larger world. But it will be the deep frames that lay the moral foundations for this relationship that will be transcendent and bridge egoist and communalist tendencies.

    Much to unpack in this of course! Let’s keep the conversation rolling.

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