How we think about and talk about ecological crises and our role in them form the structures of our responses. This is why thought forms, concepts, frames as George Lakoff calls them, are all central, form the crux, of attempts to protect species and the planet’s systems. The current predominant frames are not working, evidenced by the governmental and societal non-action on these fronts. What are the current frames, and how can these be altered to more essential and effective ones?
Both climate change and rapid species extinction are usually framed as problems arising from human overpopulation, resource depletion, industrial, technological, and economic development. Another way to frame and understand these separate but interconnected catastrophes is to see them as human failures to coexist with natural systems. This alternate frame puts the focus on a certain goal, namely coexistence, which is rarely expressed or discussed in the media. This concept is not compatible with human-centered ways of viewing the world, and the human focus cuts to the root of the problem.
Prescriptions for these crises are centered on outer solutions, outer issues, but there are inner and outer realms and both must be addressed. If we are to attempt to prevent further climate-driven ecological collapse, the energy infrastructure has to be transformed rapidly, as does, concurrently, the inner landscape, the cognitive infrastructure, in terms of how we frame human relationships with natural systems.
Framing is a primary ingredient of human cognition. It provides an infrastructure for thought. Human brains are neurologically structured to understand the world within frames, each word in our vocabulary belongs to a frame, linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains. These frames are powerful, as they guide our thinking and perhaps contribute to the challenges of large-scale shifts, such as the one needed at this moment.
Humans in the West tend to be dominant to their own frames, even when contemplating relations to the world and other species. Human life, human suffering, human access to resources, human civilization, are all central, to the exclusion of other species and their rights to live their lives. It is a one-way frame. To borrow from Lakoff’s family metaphor, it is a grown child who can only contemplate his/her own existence, and not the relationships of which he/she is a part.
Technological fixes are in general seen as the panacea for climate change, instead of opting to grant other species a place at the table, or a place in our circle of concern and value. Technological fixes tend to be consistent with the human-centered frame that is blindly causing, while seemingly immune to the devastation. Value systems are reflected in frames; the West looks to technology and to the primary technology companies for much of what people used to find in relations to the divine. Technology is a godhead for many, as shown in the documentary, Secrets of the Superbrands.
One example of this human-centered thinking occurred the other day on a radio news show, though examples are everywhere. Presenting a new study’s findings, they reported a significant reduction of groundwater in the Colorado River Basin, which was described by a team from NASA as “shocking.” This basin, they said, is the water source for 30 million people and 4 million acres of farmland. Though the study appeared to be well researched and the news show should be commended for covering water and drought issues that are often invisible in other news sources, this emphasis shows the human-centered thinking inherent in resource management and the media. This shocking reduction of water will also greatly impact all the species that live in the western states, yet this is not mentioned. This water seems to exist in the Basin solely for direct and indirect human consumption. Impacts to other species are consistently excluded in issues of wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes (except for pet rescue efforts).
We are all deeply familiar with failures to co-exist with nature. We hear about them every day on the news; elephants and rhinoceros going extinct in Africa, ecosystem collapse in Indian River, Florida and elsewhere, algal blooms, dead zones, and human-induced climate change. The failures are ever present and too numerous to mention.
What are some examples of positive co-existence? In parts of the world, even today, local people practice sustainable methods of fishing, agriculture, and forestry. What can we learn from them about how to maintain co-existence? And how can a co-existence frame be established? Can environmental educators and all educators incorporate elements of this new frame?
Co-existence may sound trite to some, a bumper-sticker concept. It involves seeing oneself as one part of a system in which all the interconnected aspects are essential and valued. One aspect is not dominating the system and hogging all the resources. The concept of co-existence underlies Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s discoveries into diverse and successful management of natural resources. She found in the mountains of Nepal and the savannahs of Africa, certain practices in regard to common pool resources that protected biodiversity. The work of Harvard law professor Steven Wise to establish legal personhood rights for chimpanzees is an example of attempts to create not only a co-existence frame but also positive co-existence.
And in the last weeks, two reports (one from World Resources Institute and Rights and Resources Initiative) on small-scale resource management as sustainable highlight co-existence, though these stories don’t make it to many news outlets. Community managed forests in Guatemala and Brazil have deforestation rates 11 to 20 times lower than outside community-run forests, one group reported.
The many varieties of positive co-existence would provide relevant and meaningful dissertations for PhD students and could be the focus of interdisciplinary departments or institutes within universities. Academia has much to offer this paradigm shift through research in a similar vein to Ostrom’s. The social sciences are key to creation of a new frame. The science is already in on how humans are destroying many species and ecosystems, but social scientists can speak to how to change behavior, how to offer to our cultures and our minds a new way forward.
Elizabeth Oriel is a conservation biologist, currently studying positive models of coexistence between humans and marine mammals. Previous research has been focused on animal welfare and climate change adaptation.