I have a friend who wanted to get involved in the climate movement and wondered what organizations would be appropriate for his interests? I asked him some questions, one of which was… how would he describe himself?
He answered, “Well, you know me. I’m no tree hugger.”
Ouch. It’s still surprising to me how often well-intentioned environmentalists and climate activists absorb and repeat the frames of the fossil fuel industry. We could ask why tree hugger is now an insult, but it is mild in comparison to environmental fanatic or ecoterrorist. These are ad hominem attacks directed against a person rather than their position or what they stand for.
One of the reasons that ad hominem attacks work is that they are a form of framing. Frames activate circuits in the brain though metaphors and stories. Fossil fuel companies have built a network of think tanks that pump out frames and misinformation that shape our thinking on climate and the environment. They’ve been doing this for over 30 years to deflect blame and stall action on climate. For example, which do you prefer drilling for oil or energy exploration? The second sounds more promising. Do you use the term climate change rather than global warming? You’ve been framed.
Another reason ad hominem frames work is that they re-enforce identity by making an enemy out of someone else. Who wants to be associated with ecoterrorism? That sounds scary. They must be bad people, and I’m not a bad person. I want to be one of the good people.
In 1990, Dr. Frank Luntz wrote the now infamous GOPAC memo to Newt Gingrich. It was called, Language: A Key Mechanism of Control. It contained a list of terms to be used by Republicans to call Liberals and their ideas. Here’s his list of words and terms courtesy of the Connections Lab. A few of the worst words are highlighted.
decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, “compassion” is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocrisy [sic], radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor…) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage.
How you feel after reading these words? The effect of these words over 30 years is to create fear of other Americans to the extent of making threats on their lives. This language is direct. But much of the coded language like thugs, and welfare queens is directed at White Americans in thinly disguised dog whistles against Black Americans.
If the Right and fossil fuel companies are so good at framing, ad hominem attacks and dog whistles, should Liberals and Climate Activists do the same?
Please. No! There are lots of reasons. To start with, it’s disgusting. But mostly there’s a better way to use language. This doesn’t mean climate activists can’t call out and expose the word choices of the fossil fuel and Right wing think tanks. The user of negative frames, ad hominem attacks and dog whistles often hopes you won’t notice how they are manipulating you. Exposing their techniques and motivation robs their words of power.
For example, “He calls me a tree hugger, because he wants you to mock me. He can’t stand against my ideas. Trees give us the oxygen we breath, lumber for our homes, and provide us with food. My question is… why aren’t we all tree huggers?”
But there’s one more step. What if we had a set of words that were positive and visionary? People are attracted to a better image of what they can be, and we can be as a society. So much of what we hear now days is negative. Simply countering the negative with negative doesn’t make a positive, it makes for apathy, disengagement, and hatred.
What if we talked about environmental and climate heroes rather than terrorists? What if we focused on the benefits of breathing clean air and drinking pure water? This is aspirational. This is attraction. Madison Avenue has known for decades that it works much better than persuasion (facts and reasons). Because it is positive and inclusive. It also helps create identity.
So from a climate standpoint, here are a few positive and optimistic words that will help your ideas spread. They can be based on the adjectives and nouns that describe our vision, action verbs, or our core values. The thesaurus is your friend. Add your own. Even reading these words will change the way you feel. That’s because they are triggers and frames for positivity.
Pure. Clean. Pristine. Natural. True. Fresh. Green. Lush. Verdant. Blue (skies). Vital. Budding. Spring. Growing. Healthy. Life. Beautiful. Simple. Earth. Nature. Sun. Rain. Sky. Birth. Light. Dream. Vision. Future. Quiet. Forward. Breath. Energy. Whole. Strong (strength). Fair (fairness). Tough(ness). Peace(ful). Love. Healthy. Sacred. Caring. Bold. Fearless. Truthful. Courageous. Grateful. Proud. Moral. Right. Free(dom) from fear, disease, poverty. Everyone. Together. All of us. Protection. Children. Family. Brothers. Sisters. Sons. Daughters. Raising up. Lifting up. Support(ing). Our Nation. America. Democracy. Heritage. Hope. Faith. Hard work. Passion. Compassion. Empathy. Sunshine.
Do you feel recharged? You get the idea. Thanks for all your hard work and passion in saving our home. You are inspiring. It’s because of people like you caring for others with courage and compassion that we will succeed. Thank you for your strength and determination. You are choosing a positive vision with your words. They will spread.
‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™
That said, being a “tree hugger” will ALWAYS be a compliment in my book.
Jami, I always thought of you more as a chickadee whisperer.
This is my first read of your blog. I’m a fan! I sent this around to a few friends because it is so apt. Thank you. And I will never use this phrase I’m no tree hugger again. What was I thinking?!