Framespotting: Review by Caroline Whyte

What do climate change, sports teams and your family’s achievements have in common?

Here’s another question: which consumer good is considered by many people to be completely indispensable – despite the fact that it directly causes over a million deaths worldwide each year?

The answer to both these questions can be found in Framespotting, a short and lively book by long-time Feasta climate group members Laurence and Alison Matthews. The book takes us on a safari trip to spot frames – hidden assumptions about the way anything from human nature to the universe as a whole operate. Frames can blinker our vision and make it much harder for us to think creatively about problems. As with the second example above, they can even lead us to make deadly choices.

The way to neutralize them, according to the authors, is to ‘zoom out’, adopting a broader perspective so as to place the frame in a wider context.

Their safari trip is quite wide-ranging but has a much more serious purpose than the tourist variety. The focus is on planetary limits and the fact that we’re pushing against them to an extremely dangerous degree. As they point out, ‘planetary’ is a concept that is, well, global: it therefore includes whatever you might happen to value. Whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, you will be affected.

A particularly insidious frame has to do with growth and limitless freedom, both of which we are told are possible ad infinitum, as well as desirable. The authors point out that this belief conveniently makes it possible to rationalise the growing gap between rich and poor. If the cake is always expanding then it doesn’t need to be divided more equally.

They link this frame to what they call ‘playground thinking’, which is the attitude of spoilt children in a playground: that you can just do what you want whenever you want. The authors believe that we’ve all we’ve all become hooked on this idea to some extent, partly due to clever marketing. The ‘elites and the largest corporations’ are particularly prone to it and need some ‘firm parenting’.

This idea troubled me a bit at first since it could be interpreted as meaning that we’re all greedy at heart and that people only manage not to act selfishly when they’re forced to obey rules that are imposed on them from above (by an authority fugure who takes on the role of ‘parent’). But for one thing, ‘firm parenting’ might set off alarm bells for people who are concerned about Big Brother – who would be the parents, and how would they be appointed? (Of course, it’s true that rules can be developed collaboratively rather than imposed from above.)

For another, it seems that greed – or if you prefer, addictive consumerism – is often an attempt to relieve stress in people’s day-to-day lives, or to compensate for stress they experienced in the past. Only small children are naturally self-absorbed, and that’s just because their higher brain functions haven’t yet kicked in. If adults are behaving this way, we need to look at why and not just assume that they’re following core human impulses which we would all follow if we had the chance.

In any case, the authors reassured me further on in the book by clarifying that when they write about ‘the rich,’ they’re thinking in particular about corporations, since corporations are structured in such a way as to demand endless expansion.

If we put all of these ideas together we can see that if we made the world fairer – by doing things like changing the legal structure of corporations and implementing justice-based environmental programmes such as Cap Global Carbon– the chances are that at least some of the addictive consumerism that seems so all-pervasive now, and that is threatening our ability to survive within planetary limits, would actually ease off all by itself.

The idea that self-absorbed behaviour is linked to a particular, early phase in psychological development dovetails very nicely with the authors’ overall attitude to economic growth – that it’s a type of growth that can be appropriate during early phases of development, but at a certain point you just, well, grow out of it. (This isn’t to say, of course, that you don’t continue to develop and grow in other ways.)

Of course, we mustn’t assume that all of the world’s economies actually need to go through this high-gdp-growth phase in order to attain maturity. There are plenty of indigenous groups who have no interest whatsoever in the Western-style growth model – which is just as well, since it wouldn’t actually be possible for them to adopt it given the planetary limits we’re up against.

So, to summarize – the book is refreshingly straightforward in its approach and uses good plain language. Better yet, it includes a wealth of clever graphics drawn by the authors, and at the end there’s a handy graphics-based summary. It’s definitely worth getting hold of a copy to refer to if, like me, you sometimes need a bit of help with zooming out. And if you think that people aren’t really capable of changing their frames, this book can also help you to spot evidence that they can indeed manage to do so – sometimes rather unexpectedly.

Framespotting by Laurence and Alison Matthews. IFF Books, 2014.

Featured image: stars. Source: Author: nturani

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