Sunday, November 30, 2014

Changing how we talk about the Earth

Lately I've been thinking about mental frames. Frames are powerful tools for persuasion that work at a nearly subconscious level. We use frames every day, often without thinking about it.

What is framing?

To briefly illustrate how framing works, I'll summarize a clever study done by two researchers from Stanford (see endote for citation). 

Two groups of students each read a fictitious news article about crime. In one version, the article refers to crime as an infection; in the other, crime is a wild animal. In all other ways, the two articles are otherwise identical. After reading the article, the students are asked what they think should be done to prevent crime. 

Students who had read about crime as a "beast preying on the city" thought that there should be more enforcement. Students who read about crime as a "virus infecting the city" thought more should be done about social reform. When asked to identify what in the article had influenced their thinking, most students pointed to the stats in the article, not the metaphor. 
So what do frames have to do with environmentalism?

Lately, I've wondered if we are framing our relationship to Earth in the wrong way. We always say "Mother Earth". But, at least in the United States, you do not take care of your mother. You respect your mother, but your mother is not your responsibility in the same way your child is your responsibility. 

The connotation of mother brings along other images besides one of respect. For example, I associate my mother with caring for me and for punishing me when I've been naughty. Let's explore those two frames a little more. 

The "caring mother" frame is pretty obvious to identify in mainstream media-- take, for example, movies like Avatar. Interestingly enough, the "punishing mother" frame is ALSO frequently reflected in the general media. For example, apocalytpic movies like The Day After Tomorrow show Mother Earth as finally reaching the breaking point and giving us a really bad spanking. Alternatively, Mother Earth can ground us (sending us to bed without dinner, not letting us watch TV, etc) by turning into a post-apocalytpic world wherein our old standards of living can not be met. We see examples of this type of "punishing mother" frame in movies like Water World or Wall-E. 

What I am wondering is if maybe there is a better frame for Earth. What if we thought about the Earth as our BABY? If the Earth was our child, it would be our responsibility to care for it. It would also bring up feelings and images of parental love. These sorts of feelings, I believe, are often associated with campaigns protecting charistmatic mega-fauna. That these campaigns have worked well would suggest that we should capitalize on this framing. 

Seems like an idea at least worthy of a little more exploration. Your thoughts?

Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS One 6(2).