Reframing the environment vs economy argument
In my keynote speech at the Energy & Environment North East 2012 conference, I argued that the question was not low carbon or growth, but low carbon or stagnation. Now the CBI has released a report arguing exactly the same thing:
With a technical double-dip recession now a reality and private sector growth at the top of the agenda, some are questioning whether there is still room for ‘going green’. The business response is definitive and emphatic: green is not just complementary to growth, but a vital driver of it [my emphasis].
In trying economic times, the UK’s green business has continued to grow in real terms, carving out a £122 billion share of a global market worth £3.3 trillion and employing close to a million people. And in 2014/15, it is expected to roughly halve the UK’s trade deficit.
Stirring stuff. But also a vital reminder of the importance of framing arguments when it comes to making the case for sustainability. Too many politicians, media commentators and business leaders have a default view that ‘green’ is a luxury, expensive and/or a communist plot at the best of times, never mind during “the current economic situation.” The statistics are showing us is that green growth is the only way forward, but many choose to ignore them.
This arises because we all perceive the rest of the world through a ‘frame’ which blocks out most of the picture and allows us to isolate the things or issues we perceive to be important. We have to do this or we would simply be overwhelmed with information, but the downside is that what we see through the frame may not represent the bigger picture. Before coming to an important decision, it is always worth questioning our default frame and maybe trying a different frame to see if it makes a difference – testing our assumptions in other words.
The ‘reframing’ process is extremely important at an organisational level too. “If it’s a choice between profit or the environment, my boss always chooses profit.” someone complained to me recently. That’s an argument they are very unlikely to win unless they can reframe the argument to “environment and profit.” Getting someone to change their default frame is not straightforward, but there are a number of options:
- The opinions of someone the person trusts – the CBI report is very powerful because that group is anything but a group of lefty beardy tree huggers. I often quote the International Energy Agency for exactly the same reason;
- Use questions – questions are disarming and get people thinking. I start my workshops by asking “Why should we take sustainability seriously?” which encourages delegates to make the case to themselves;
- Frame presentations and arguments carefully – if I started my workshops with “Should we take sustainability seriously?” then that is quite a different frame and puts the onus on me to argue ‘yes’.
Chesterton said “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” It is also the most important part of any argument, so choose your frame carefully.