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Ethics, Policy & Environment
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What Will it Mean to be Green?
Envisioning Positive Possibilities
Without Dismissing Loss
Cheryl Hall
University of South Florida , Tampa , USA
Published online: 03 Jul 2013.
To cite this article: Cheryl Hall (2013) What Will it Mean to be Green? Envisioning Positive
Possibilities Without Dismissing Loss, Ethics, Policy & Environment, 16:2, 125-141, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21550085.2013.801182
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Ethics, Policy & Environment, 2013
Vol. 16, No. 2, 125–141, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21550085.2013.801182
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Target Article
What Will it Mean to be Green?
Envisioning Positive Possibilities Without
Dismissing Loss
University of South Florida, Tampa, USA
ABSTRACT Convinced of the importance of framing, many environmentalists have begun
emphasizing positive visions of a happy and healthy green future rather than gloomy pictures of
deprivation and sacrifice. ‘Gloom and doom’ discourses foster despair and resistance, they worry,
instead of hope and motivation to change. While positive visions are crucial, though, it is ineffective to
deny that living more sustainably will involve any loss. Since people value many incompatible things,
living more sustainably will inevitably entail both sacrifice and reward. Environmentalists must help
articulate new possibilities of a greener future without dismissing the value of what must be given up.
What story should we tell ourselves and each other about the state of the physical world we
live in, how it got to be that way, and what should be done about it? Should it be a
depressing, scary story of humanity’s violations of nature and our impending punishment
for these violations? Or should it be an optimistic narrative of the ongoing quest for
sustainability, a quest we’re bound to succeed at? Should the story emphasize necessary
sacrifices or the benefits of living green? What story should we tell ourselves and each
other about how we should feel in this situation? Should the story try to elicit concern, fear,
guilt, responsibility, resolve, hope, pride, joy, or what? What difference might different
kinds of stories make in motivating action to change the way we live?
As concern deepens that we are failing to avert potentially devastating consequences
from climate change and biodiversity loss, in addition to many other environmental
problems, environmentalists both within and without academia have been rethinking how
to approach these problems. The worry is that a negative discourse of ‘gloom and doom’ is
counter-productive, fostering resistance, apathy, or despair instead of hope and motivation
to change. Convinced of the importance of framing, many people are now aiming to
present positive visions of a happy and healthy green future rather than gloomy pictures of
deprivation and sacrifice. Activists are using social marketing techniques to cast green
issues in a more appealing light while scholars are proposing that sustainable low-carbon
modes of life could bring greater freedom, happiness, and well-being than existing highconsumption modes do. This paper traces the contours of this recent trend, examines its
assumptions, and evaluates its prospects. I argue that while it is indeed crucial to stress the
potential benefits of living more sustainably, it is, nevertheless, ineffective to deny that
Correspondence Address: Cheryl Hall, Department of Government and International Affairs, University of
South Florida, 4202 E Fowler Ave/SOC107, Tampa, FL, 33620, USA. Email: [email protected]
q 2013 Taylor & Francis
C. Hall
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transforming existing ways of life will involve any genuine loss. People value many
things, not all of which are compatible. As a result, living more sustainably will inevitably
entail both sacrifice and reward—just as living unsustainably inevitably entails both
sacrifice and reward. Denying this reality is either wishful thinking or patronizing and
consequently unpersuasive. The argument over whether to depict positive visions or
necessary sacrifices is thus based on a false choice: it will have to be both. For
environmental thinkers, then, the challenge is to help reshape imagination of what a
greener future could mean in ways that articulate new possibilities without dismissing the
value of what must be given up.
The New Focus on Framing and Narrative
Frames and narratives have become a frequent topic of concern in environmental
discourse (Alexander, 2008; Broder, 2009; de Boer, Wardekker, & Van der Sluijs, 2010;
Ereaut & Segnit, 2006; Fletcher, 2009; Maibach et al., 2010; Mann et al., 2009; Miller,
2000; Moser & Dilling, 2007; Nisbet, 2009; Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). This focus
indicates a strong sense that ‘information’ about the state of the environment is not the
only thing that matters. More than anything, what matters is how information is
interpreted, what meaning it holds for people. The argument for the significance of frames
and stories depends on at least four propositions. First, current ecological dangers are
serious enough that addressing them will likely require making some major changes in the
institutions, systems, and infrastructure of many societies. Second, in any society that is at
least nominally democratic (and arguably even in societies that are not), making major
changes in the institutions, systems, and infrastructure of that society requires at least some
level of support from significant numbers of people. Third, such popular support requires
changes in how people think and feel about existing ways of life and the possible
alternatives to those ways of life. And finally, changes in how people think and feel about a
situation depend in turn on changes in the frameworks they use to interpret that situation
and the stories they tell each other about it—that is, in the elements of the situation they
choose to focus on and the way they put those elements together into a coherent whole.
There is reasonable support for each of these claims. The need for humans—and
especially those humans who live in advanced industrialized/industrializing countries—to
make some major changes in how we interact with the rest of nature is, or should be, clear.
The situation may be usefully summarized by comparing humanity’s ecological footprint
to the available biological capacity of the planet.1 By this measure, the footprint of the
entire human population already exceeds sustainable biological capacity by approximately
50%, and it is continuing to expand rapidly. Focusing more specifically on advanced
industrialized countries, the ecological footprint of the United States is about five times too
big, for it would take about five planets’ worth of resources and waste sinks for everyone in
the world today (let alone larger populations in the future) to live the way that the average
person in the United States does (Kitzes et al., 2008, p. 468). In order to achieve a world
that is both sustainable and just, then, the population of the United States needs to reduce
its ecological footprint by approximately 80%. While the ecological footprints of most
European countries are certainly smaller, the required reductions still fall within the
40– 50% range. Meanwhile, in the case of carbon emissions, the situation is much starker.
To be sure, there is uncertainty and continued debate over how much carbon dioxide
humanity can discharge into the atmosphere without risking ‘unacceptably dangerous’
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What will it mean to be green?
increases in global temperature. Nevertheless, climate scientists are increasingly arguing
for a target of no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) by 2050 in order to keep the
increase in global temperature below 28C (Hansen et al., 2008).2 We have already overshot
that target: by the end of 2012, the level of carbon in the atmosphere stood at 394 ppm.
Getting back down to 350 ppm by 2050 would require global emission cuts of 90% or
more (Leahy, Bowden, & Threadgold, 2010, p. 854). And if projected population growth
is taken into account, a goal of no more than 350 ppm translates into a global carbon
budget of 0.1 tons per person, a whopping 98.5% less than the 6.6 tons emitted per person
in the U.S. back in 2002 (Huesemann, 2006, pp. 541 –542).
So the populations of advanced industrialized countries need to reduce their ecological
and carbon footprints by percentages between 40– 99%. Accomplishing such massive
cutbacks will likely require changes in energy use, land use, methods of transportation,
residential patterns, agricultural systems, production processes, and levels of consumption, among other things. Indeed, it will likely require fundamental changes to an
economic system that is currently predicated on unlimited growth. The hypothesis of a socalled ‘Environmental Kuznets curve,’ in which economic development brings an initial
increase in environmental impact followed by an eventual decrease, is not supported by
the evidence, especially once global impact is taken into account (York, Rosa, & Dietz,
2003, p. 294). On the contrary, increasing affluence, along with population growth, is one
of the main drivers of environmental problems (Brulle, 2010, p. 88; Rosa, York, & Dietz,
2004). Studies show that ‘an increase in per capita GDP consistently leads to an increase in
the ecological footprint’ (York et al., 2003, p. 294). Insofar as the existing global economy
depends upon permanent economic growth, then, serious reductions in ecological and
carbon footprints cannot occur without significant modifications to that economic system.3
Moreover, the popular belief that technological invention will single-handedly provide the
key solutions to the most fundamental environmental problems, enabling many other
aspects of existing society and culture to remain essentially unchanged, is also misplaced.
While technology will undoubtedly be part of the solution, it cannot solve these problems
on its own, both because of inherent physical limitations and because technology cannot
counteract the effects of unlimited growth in population and consumption—in fact,
historically it feeds such growth (Huesemann, 2006; Huesemann & Huesemann, 2008;
York et al., 2003, p. 287). As a result, achieving both environmental sustainability and
global equity will require significant departures from current ways of life, particularly in
industrialized countries—and soon.
How can such changes come about? In ‘Reorienting climate change communication
for effective mitigation,’ David Ockwell, Lorraine Whitmarsh, and Saffron O’Neill
(2009) offer a helpful framework. They describe three main options for effecting change
on carbon emissions: top-down, where governments ‘force people to be green’; bottomup, where citizens voluntarily take action to be green; and a bridge between the two,
where citizens voluntarily insist that the government regulate everyone’s high carbon
behavior (Ockwell et al., 2009, p. 317). Ockwell et al. persuasively argue that the third
approach is the most promising—and, therefore, the best target for climate change
communication. A purely top-down approach is limited in the depth and sustainability of
the changes it can inspire, particularly insofar as citizens resent the regulations the
government enacts. Indeed, governments are usually reluctant to pursue such strategies
because they fear public backlash come election time (Ockwell et al., 2009, p. 313).4 A
purely bottom-up approach is limited in the scope of the changes it can accomplish,
C. Hall
particularly insofar as individual actions cannot address the systemic, structural
influences on levels of carbon emissions (Ockwell et al., 2009, p. 317). It also fails to
address the problem of free-riders. So:
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voluntary action may not work fast enough because of the entrenched social and
structural barriers to individuals adopting low carbon lifestyles, while forcing people
to be green is politically unpopular, undemocratic, and ultimately unlikely to change
values and lifestyles in the long term. (Ockwell et al., 2009, p. 319)
The advantage of the third approach is that it combines the strengths of the first two while
avoiding some of their weaknesses. Encouraging popular support for governmental action
addresses the need for structural changes at the level of the entire society; for rules that
require everyone to do their part, thereby guaranteeing both equity and better results; for
democratic process; and for positive citizen response to regulation and shifts in priorities,
which reduces the political risk involved for elected officials. When big changes are
needed, neither governments nor citizens can make them happen on their own. The
necessary transformations can only be achieved if the community takes action as a
community and if enough people in the community are personally and politically willing
to abide by and even demand such action.
Of course, the problem is that broad and especially deep popular support for
community-wide action on environmental issues such as climate change currently does not
exist. In the United States, research suggests that people are generally in favor of
addressing environmental problems but not at the cost of other problems they consider to
be more important. According to January 2013 data from the Pew Research Center for The
People & The Press, only 28% of citizens surveyed ranked ‘dealing with global warming’
a ‘top priority’ for the President and Congress. Out of a total of 21 possible priorities, the
goal is ranked dead last. ‘Protecting environment’ fares somewhat better, with 52%
considering it a top priority. Still, it ranks twelfth out of 21, far behind the top priorities of
‘strengthening economy,’ ‘improving job situation,’ and ‘reducing budget deficit,’ with
the support of 86%, 79% and 72% of those surveyed, respectively (Pew Research Center
for the People & The Press, 2013). Hence the need to find ways to encourage citizens in the
United States to reconsider our thoughts, feelings, and views about the significance of our
current relationship to the rest of nature, the consequences of this relationship, and the
necessity to change our ways of life. However, to reconsider thoughts, feelings, and views
about complex issues usually means to tell a different story about them.
We might use a number of different words here: story, narrative, frame, even—
perhaps—theory, if we return to its original sense of ‘vision.’ Frames are concise, stories
more extensive, and theories (ideally) fully developed and supported visions. Since there
has been a good deal of talk about frames recently, I shall focus on that word for now.
What is a ‘frame’? According to Joop de Boer, Arjan Wardekker, and Jeroen P. van der
Sluijs, ‘frames are generally conceived as organizing principles that enable a particular
interpretation of a phenomenon’ (De Boer et al., 2010, p. 502). Clark Miller emphasizes
the shared nature of these principles. As he puts it, ‘writers invoke the concept of
“framing” in reference to the perceptual lenses, worldviews or underlying assumptions
that guide communal interpretation and definition of particular issues’ (Miller, 2000,
p. 211, my emphasis). As Alexa Spence and Nick Pidgeon (among many others) point out,
the key to organizing the interpretation of information is selectivity:
What will it mean to be green?
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A frame allows complex issues to be pared down and for some aspects of that issue
to be given greater emphasis than others in order that particular audiences can
rapidly identify why an issue may be relevant to them. (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010,
p. 657, citing Nisbet & Mooney, 2007)
Finally, Matthew Nisbet connects frames to narratives: ‘Frames are interpretive storylines
that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a
problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it’
(Nisbet, 2009, p. 4). In other words, by highlighting certain aspects of a situation and
leaving other elements out of the storyline, frames convey an analysis of a problem and its
solution in a condensed format.
Miller and Nisbet both provide useful examples of the concept of framing in their
discussions of the various ways that climate change has been (or could be) framed. Miller
analyzes how climate change was interpreted within the United States’ scientific policy
community in the 1970s. He identifies several different frames of ‘the CO2 problem’ that
emerged during this time, each of which corresponded to a different societal narrative and
invoked a different response strategy. For example, the ‘global warming’ frame saw
carbon emissions in terms of pollution or environmental degradation and led to a call for
‘end-of-pipe’ technology to curb that pollution, while the ‘climatic change’ or ‘weather
extremes’ frame focused on the narrative of natural disasters and led to efforts at
adaptation and the reduction of vulnerability to disasters (Miller, 2000, p. 216). In similar
fashion, Nisbet provides a typology of different ways that any science-related policy may
be viewed (Nisbet, 2009, p. 5). Applying this typology to the case of climate change,
he considers three frames to be particularly promising for encouraging broad-based
support for mitigation efforts: the ‘economic development’ frame, the ‘morality and
ethics’ frame (especially as linked to a faith-based notion of responsible stewardship), and
the newly emerging ‘public health’ frame (Nisbet, 2009; Maibach et al., 2010). Each of
these perspectives on climate change emphasizes a different facet of how to understand
the problem and, accordingly, what is to be done about it.
Several points about frames are important to stress. First, they are necessarily partial.
If one could include everything within a frame, it would no longer be framing anything.
While frames are necessarily incomplete, though, they are not thereby necessarily untrue,
or at least any more so than language in general, which also inevitably condenses,
interprets, organizes, and otherwise shapes reality. To be sure, it is possible to frame an
issue in a way that violates essential realities of the situation (for example, to call a law that
lowers standards for reducing pollution a ‘Clear Skies Act’)—but this does not mean that
all frames of that issue violate essential realities. Finally, frames are unavoidable,
particularly in communication. As Nisbet puts it, ‘there is no such thing as unframed
information’ (2009, p. 4). The question, then, is not whether to frame, but how.
To recap, frames and stories matter because they are important in shaping how people
understand the world around them and what needs to be done about it. In order to change
how they understand the world, people need to change the frames or stories through which
they view the world. Since addressing environmental problems such as climate change and
species loss will likely require major changes in social organization and life, and such
changes will require popular support, environmentalists need to pay attention to what
kinds of frames and stories will facilitate that support and what kinds will not.
C. Hall
What’s Wrong with ‘Gloom and Doom’?
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The recent flood of criticism about environmentalism’s ‘gloom and doom’ message can be
understood in this context. The contention, whether explicit or implicit, is that gloom and
doom is an ineffective frame. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are perhaps the
most well-known critics, consistently taking ‘environmentalism’ itself to task for what
they consider to be its narrow and overly negative approach.5 The two authors bemoan the
lack of a ‘compelling vision for the future’ offered by environmental advocates
(Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004, p. 30). As they put it,
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is famous because it put forward
an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it.
Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an ‘I have a nightmare’
speech instead. (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004, p. 31)6
Yet, they argue, this is precisely what environmental leaders are doing. The reason leaders
should not be painting pictures of apocalypse and cultivating fear is because negativity and
fear do not work: ‘Cautionary tales and narratives of eco-apocalypse tend to provoke
fatalism, conservatism, and survivalism among voters—not the rational embrace of
environmental policies’ (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007b, p. 33).
Nordhaus and Shellenberger are hardly alone in arguing that fear is counter-productive.
In a New York Times blog post asking, ‘Are words worthless in the climate fight?’
Andrew Revkin cites Tom Lowe of the Center for Risk and Community Safety on the
obstacles involved in communicating concerns about climate change. Lowe writes,
In the absence of physical evidence that something bad is going to happen, people
tend to ‘wait and see’ . . . . A common reaction to this stand-off is for risk
communicators to shout louder, to try and shake some sense into people. This is
what I see happening with the climate change message. The public are on the
receiving end of an increasingly distraught alarm call. The methods used to grab
attention are so striking that people are reaching a state of denial. This is partly
because the problem is perceived as being so big that people feel unable to do
anything about it, partly because the changes associated with impact reduction are
unacceptable and/or unviable to many people, and partly because this ‘overselling’
of climate change attracts strong criticism from a vocal and disproportionately
publicized few. (Revkin, 2007, p. 6)
Lowe’s assessment of the ineffectiveness of the ‘increasingly distraught alarm call’ is
repeated in a report by the British Institute for Public Policy Research entitled ‘Warm
words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?’ In the report, Gil
Ereaut and Nat Segnit analyze the ‘linguistic repertoires’ used in British popular media
coverage and government communications about climate change. They find that the two
most common repertoires are what they call the ‘alarmist’ repertoire and the ‘small
changes’ repertoire. The ‘alarmist’ repertoire is characterized by an urgent tone, extreme
words, and ‘cinematic codes.’ It speaks of acceleration and irreversibility, and employs a
‘quasi-religious register of death and doom’ (Ereaut & Segnit, 2006, p. 7). Unfortunately,
they argue, this discourse’s emphasis on the catastrophic danger entailed in climate change
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tends to overwhelm and distance people: ‘the scale of the problem as it is shown excludes
the possibility of real action or agency by the reader or viewer. It contains an implicit
counsel of despair—“the problem is just too big for us to take on”’ (Ereaut & Segnit, 2006,
p. 7). The ‘small changes’ repertoire attempts to head off such paralysis by encouraging
relatively easy actions that ordinary citizens can take to reduce carbon emissions. Its
language conveys ‘ease, convenience and effortless agency’ (Ereaut & Segnit, 2006, p. 8).
However, when used in conjunction with the alarmist discourse (as it frequently is), this
discourse raises the ‘unspoken but obvious question: how can small actions really make a
difference to things happening on this epic scale?’ (Ereaut & Segnit, 2006, p. 8).
While the criticism of ‘gloom and doom’ is usually offered as a unified reproach, the
phrase nevertheless signals two distinct (albeit connected) worries. The first concern is that
the picture that environmentalists paint of what needs to be done is too gloomy: we
(especially we Northerners) need to sacrifice our comforts and conveniences, to consume
far less than we do, in order to save the planet, the global South, and future generations.
From now on our lives must be considerably more restrained than they have been, our
quality of life seriously reduced. Moreover, we Northerners have no right to protest such
deprivation because we have brought this upon ourselves and the rest of the world through
our careless, profligate ways. We are the guilty ones. This account, the critics claim,
is deeply unappealing. It promises a future devoid of both freedom and happiness. As such,
it is virtually guaranteed to be met with serious resistance. The second concern is the
picture that environmentalists paint of the present and especially future state of the world
is too frightening and overwhelming: the problems are monumental, the hour late, and the
resources few—consequently we are all doomed, because there is little most of us can do
to solve these problems. This account, the critics contend, is extremely daunting. It elicits
both fear and a sense of powerlessness. Building on arguments that fear-based appeals may
be ineffective in motivating action (Feinberg & Willer, 2011; Feygina, 2010; Moser &
Dilling, 2004; Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2009; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009;
Revkin, 2006), critics maintain that a discourse of doom is ill-advised.7 Finally, adding
doom to gloom only makes matters worse. For in emphasizing the magnitude and
intractability of environmental problems, the narrative only further undermines any
personal willingness people may have to live within limits. Why sacrifice if it will not
make any real difference? What is the point? Thus, the argument declares, a doom and
gloom approach backfires, inspiring resistance, despair, withdrawal, and fatalism rather
than personal/political action for change.
Alternatives to Gloom and Doom: Hope and Possibility
If the concern is that the frame of gloom and doom is ineffective, then clearly the solution
is to tell a more positive, inspiring story. As with the critique of gloom and doom, the
proposed alternative has two distinct facets: to replace gloomy images of deprivation and
restriction, authors offer a hopeful vision of a happy and free green life, while to replace
doom-filled warnings of impending disaster, they provide an empowering description of
what we can achieve if we work together (whoever ‘we’ are). Needless to say, although
each narrative emphasizes a different corrective, the two are often deeply intertwined.
Let us begin with the hopeful visions of a happy and free green life, focusing first on the
argument about happiness. Frames that focus on the fulfillment that could come from
living more sustainably are becoming increasingly common. A few examples can serve to
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C. Hall
illustrate the trend. Juliet Schor has been arguing for at least 20 years that the ecologically
unsustainable levels of production and consumption that Americans, in particular, engage
in do not lead to happier lives, as many people assume, but rather to alienation, exhaustion
and dissatisfaction. In her most recent book, Plenitude (Schor, 2010), she emphasizes that
the model she is advocating—working and spending less, creating and connecting more—
is ‘not a paradigm of sacrifice. To the contrary, it involves a way of life that will yield more
well-being than sticking to business as usual . . . ’ (Schor, 2010, p. 2). In ‘A shallow route to
environmentally friendly happiness,’ Chrisoula Andreou also argues that, beyond a certain
minimum level, increases in wealth are not associated with increases in happiness.
However, Andreou departs from the familiar lofty argument that the reason we are not
happier when we have more material goods is because genuine happiness only comes from
non-material goods. Instead, she emphasizes recent empirical evidence that the reason we
are not happier when we have more material goods is, in great part, because we are
comparative animals: the pleasure we get from material goods depends on how much
everyone else has (Andreou, 2010, p. 12). When other people have more as well, our
happiness is not increased. Andreou finds hope for the environment in this phenomenon,
because it suggests that we could be ‘as happy with much less, so long as others,
particularly [our] peers, also have much less’ (Andreou, 2010, p. 15). In ‘Living green and
living well: Climate change and the low-carbon imaginary,’ Steve Vanderheiden worries
that calling on people to sacrifice in order to mitigate climate change will not work,
particularly because in this case (unlike in wartime) the sacrifices involved must be
permanent. Since ‘it stands as a truism that we all want to live well’ (Vanderheiden, 2010,
p. 2), the better course is to challenge the norms that presume a connection between
consumption and welfare, and thus a conflict between ‘living green’ and ‘living well.’
Drawing on Schor’s defense of downshifting, John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas
Naylor’s critique of ‘affluenza,’ and Michael Pollan’s defense of the slow food movement,
Vanderheiden contends that reducing competitive consumption and eating sustainable
food can increase leisure time, the quality of our personal relationships, and the pleasure
we find in food (Vanderheiden, 2010, pp. 14– 17). These sorts of revisions to existing
norms can help to construct a new ‘low-carbon imaginary’ that presents the necessary
changes as attractive rather than sacrificial.
Frames that focus on the freedom that could come from living more sustainably are
somewhat less common but still significant. Jonathan Porritt points out that the accusation
that environmentalists want to take away people’s freedom rests on an understanding of
‘freedom’ as consumer choice within an exponentially expanding economy. But the
freedom offered by infinite growth is only an illusion. Meanwhile, the environmental
movement has not said enough about
the complexities of defending real freedom of choice within a sustainable society.
It is not articulating as it should the proposition that people would in fact lead richer,
healthier, better lives in a sustainable (or ‘stationery’) society, and would, therefore,
in so many different ways be more free. (Porritt, 1995, pp. 18– 19)
They would, for example, be free not to have to consume and ‘not to be subsumed into an
inherently irrational and destructive economy’ (Porritt, 1995, p. 19). Jason Lambacher
echoes Porritt’s point that freedom has often been defined in opposition to limits. As a
result, respecting ecological limits has seemed to require restraining freedom (Lambacher,
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What will it mean to be green?
2009, p. 2). However, this exclusive definition of freedom can and should be challenged.
Lambacher distinguishes between ecologically irresponsible forms of freedom, which
ignore limits, promote ‘context-less individualism,’ and deny obligations to non-human
others, and ecologically responsible forms of freedom, which do not. For Lambacher,
being free means, among other things, being able to restrain ourselves (Lambacher, 2009,
p. 41). If freedom is ‘the law we give to ourselves,’ then to live more responsibly means to
live more freely (Lambacher, 2009, p. 38). Understanding freedom in this way allows us to
‘[harness] the aspiration toward freedom, rather than assuming it can only be part of the
problem’ (Lambacher, 2009, p. 28). Finally, Richard Dagger also emphasizes freedom as
autonomy and self-government. Drawing on Philip Pettit’s distinction between optionfreedom and agency-freedom, he argues that having more options (for example, more
choices of things to buy) does not always lead to greater autonomy.
What matters is that we have options that promote the ability to be self-governing.
This means that we must be able to enjoy a reasonably secure sense of the self as
something that is not simply the plaything of external forces or the creature of
ungovernable impulses. (Dagger, 2006, p. 212)
In the case of our relationship to the environment, this in turn means learning to curb selfdestructive tendencies that threaten the natural systems that support us. Again, if we can
learn to do this, we will actually be freer than we are now.
Let us now turn to frames that emphasize human power and agency rather than the
inescapable doom of a looming catastrophe. Here Nordhaus and Shellenberger offer such
an unparalleled example that I confine myself to discussing them. Over and over, the two
counsel against apocalyptic narratives that, they argue, engender fear and fatalism. At the
foundation of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s argument is the claim that people are more
productive and more generous when they feel strong and in control of their lives
(Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007a, pp. 187, 222). If this is the case, then motivating
action on issues such as climate change requires focusing on people’s strengths and
abilities, not their weaknesses. Responding to the tragic stories that bemoan human
arrogance and ecological failure, they write:
There is a very different story that can be told about human history, one that
embraces our agency, and that is the story of constant human overcoming. Whereas
the tragic story imagines that humans have fallen, the narrative of overcoming
imagines that we have risen . . . . Not only have we survived, we’ve thrived . . . . The
narrative of overcoming helps us to imagine and thus create a brighter future.
Human societies will continue to stumble. Many will fall. But we have overcome
starvation, disease, deprivation, oppression, and war. We can overcome ecological
crises. (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007a, pp. 150 –151, their emphasis)
The implication is clear: without a narrative of how human beings have successfully
overcome obstacles and can continue to do so, we will be unable to imagine or create a
brighter future. This is why stories must strive to inspire feelings of joy, gratitude and
pride: because stories that inspire feelings of regret, guilt, sadness, and fear will not foster
the optimistic attitude necessary to solve the problems we face (Nordhaus &
Shellenberger, 2007a, p. 153). Notably, Nordhaus and Shellenberger explicitly identify
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this approach as a form of cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy encourages depressed
patients to reorganize the narratives they tell themselves, focusing on different experiences
and reinterpreting the meaning of their lives in more positive ways, in order to ‘become the
person [they want] to be’ (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007a, p. 217). Thus,
environmentalists (and other progressives) need to switch from a negative frame that
emphasizes all the things people must stop doing to a positive frame that focuses attention
on our potential to be creative—to invent new solutions (Nordhaus & Shellenberger,
2007a, p. 120). Instead of thinking of climate change as a pollution problem that requires
more regulation and restriction, we should think of it as a clean energy problem that
requires ‘unleashing human power’ (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007a, p. 113). In this
light, Nordhaus and Shellenberger have been strong supporters of the Apollo Alliance, a
coalition working to promote investment in the development of clean energy technology
and green jobs. Of course, in referencing the Apollo Project to send an American to the
moon, the Apollo Alliance means to call to mind American technological leadership and
‘can-do spirit’ (Anon, n.d.). The approach is a perfect example of the frame that Nordhaus
and Shellenberger advocate.
What Could be Wrong with Hope and Possibility?
It is important to tell a story about humanity’s relationship to the rest of nature that is not
just gloom and doom—now more so than ever. As argued above, better technology, while
no doubt part of the answer, will not single-handedly solve the most pressing
environmental problems. To solve these problems, people in advanced industrialized
countries will need to forego current high-carbon, high-consumption ways of life, while
people in lesser-developed countries will need to forego whatever aspirations they may
have to emulate those ways of life. The necessary transformations can only be achieved
democratically if enough people are personally and politically willing to support them. Yet
people usually are not willing to change their lives and dreams unless they have a clear
idea of how doing so will make a significant and beneficial difference. Hence the need for
alternative stories. Since the dominant narrative emphasizes the freedom, power, and
happiness entailed in a high-carbon, high-consumption lifestyle, environmentalists need to
challenge the assumptions of that narrative. That is to say, we need to help people reimagine what it might mean to be free, powerful, and happy.
At the same time, telling a story that is all hope and possibility has some limitations.
To explain how and why, let me begin by pointing out that, while the authors discussed
above all agree on the importance of replacing a gloom and doom frame with a more
positive one, they do not agree on the specific individual, social, economic, and political
changes necessary to solve problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss. The
question is not just how to ‘communicate’ about these problems; the question is what
needs to be done about them. And the answers range from reformist to radical. In spite of
their rousing, revolutionary-sounding rhetoric, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are decidedly
reformist in their recommendations. They do not endorse any significant alterations in the
economic system, political structure, or culture of consumption in advanced industrialized
countries. They explicitly disavow any need for people in these countries to change their
everyday behavior (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2011, sec. Fourth Thesis). They see no
need, for example, for humans to eat lower on the food chain or return to smaller-scale
organic forms of agriculture. They do not advocate either political decentralization or
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What will it mean to be green?
more effective global governance. Nor do they call for a rejection of the imperative of
economic growth; on the contrary, they see continued economic growth as crucial. For
Nordhaus and Shellenberger, the fundamental solution to the problem is massive public
investment in the development of clean energy technology. In their own words, ‘the
solution to the ecological crises wrought by modernity, technology, and progress will be
more modernity, technology, and progress’ (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2011, sec.
Twelfth Thesis). In contrast, many of the other authors discussed above recommend more
profound changes in current patterns of consumption, energy use, reliance on high-risk
forms of technology, land use, methods of transportation, agricultural practices, political
institutions, and economic systems.
The problem with a narrative that is overly focused on hope and possibility depends on
the solution being advocated. In the case where the story points to a reformist solution, as
Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s does, the problem lies with the solution itself. This frame is
cheery, confident, and reassuring, downplaying difficulties and any need for sacrifice. The
reason it can do this is because the proposed solution maintains much of the status quo,
including existing institutions, practices, standards of living, and values. Since the status
quo in advanced industrialized countries supports a relatively privileged way of life,
particularly in comparison to life elsewhere, little sacrifice is indeed called for here.
(Or perhaps better put: little sacrifice of the comforts and conveniences of current forms of
advanced industrialized life is called for, while the less obvious sacrifices already entailed
in this way of life are ignored.8) Given the scope of the problem, though, a solution such as
the one offered by Nordhaus and Shellenberger is not sufficient. In putting their faith
almost entirely in economic growth and the expectation of technological progress, they
underestimate the changes needed. Once again, technology cannot do the job on its
own, and economic growth intensifies ecological destruction more than it reduces it.
If everything Nordhaus and Shellenberger advocate were done, the biggest problems
would remain, and might even be worse.
In the case of the reformist story, then, the optimism of the frame reflects the optimism
of the solution, but it does not get us where we need to go. The hope that this story provides
is false, because the proposed solution is too shallow to solve the problem.9 In the case
where the story of hope and possibility points to a more radical solution, the problem is
different. Unlike the first story, the second story means to point to changes big enough to
address the depth of the problem. In emphasizing what will be gained, though, it does not
adequately account for what must be given up. Instead, the tendency is to argue that people
in advanced industrialized countries are not actually benefiting from current ways of life;
therefore, it’s no great sacrifice (indeed, maybe not even a small sacrifice) to change how
they’re living. Whereas in the reformist story no sacrifice is involved because no real
change is involved, in this story, no (real) sacrifice is involved because the change, while
real, is supposed to be entirely for the better.
However it is not effective to maintain that no real sacrifice will be involved in the
transition from high-carbon, high-consumption ways of life. For even if the change will be
for the better overall—that is to say, even if most people stand to gain a good deal more
than they lose by living more sustainably—it does not follow that no loss is entailed.
A low-carbon lifestyle may indeed offer some genuinely valuable goods, such as better
tasting food, more leisure time, or stronger neighborhood communities. Yet a high-carbon
lifestyle also offers some genuinely valuable goods: to mention only one, the ability to
travel long distances quickly and easily, and thus to more easily visit far-flung family and
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friends, take advantage of work opportunities in distant places, and experience a wide
variety of different cultures first-hand. It is quite possible that frequent, widespread travel
by jet plane is not a sustainable practice. If plane travel must be seriously reduced in order
to prevent dangerous levels of climate change, is this not a significant sacrifice—albeit for
a crucial cause? The point is that people value many different things. Inevitably, some of
the things we care about will conflict with other things we care about. As a result, the
reality is that living more sustainably will unavoidably entail both sacrifice and reward—
just as living unsustainably unavoidably entails both sacrifice and reward. Ignoring this
reality is either inaccurate in missing what it is that people value in existing ways of life, or
patronizing in implying that people are essentially suffering from false consciousness
about what is truly valuable in life. Yet a frame that is inaccurate or patronizing will not be
persuasive. People in overdeveloped countries can see that some loss of what they
currently value will be involved in the transition to a low-carbon, low-consumption way of
life. Although they may not realize what they are currently sacrificing in order to have
what they have now, they do realize what they are going to need to sacrifice to live more
sustainably. Even if they reevaluate what matters to them, not everything they will have to
give up is worthless. Refusing to acknowledge this fact risks a serious loss of credibility
with the audience one is hoping to reach.
So the reformist story is optimistic and inspiring in great part because the solution is too
shallow, while the more radical story is optimistic and inspiring, at least in part, because it
overlooks or dismisses the losses entailed in living differently. Its solution is deep but the
story about it is too shallow. As a result, neither frame is sufficient. In the first case, the
story is too good to be true; in the second case, it will be seen to be too good to be true.
To get past this dilemma, environmental thinkers and activists must embrace the need for a
more profound transformation of life in industrialized and industrializing countries and
rewrite the story about this transformation in a way that allows for complexity in people’s
values and appreciation of the inevitability of sacrifice in any way of life. Currently, many
environmentalists advise against any discussion of sacrifice because they perceive it to be
inherently opposed to a positive vision. Recall Juliet Schor’s claim that the model of
plenitude is ‘not a paradigm of sacrifice. To the contrary, it involves a way of life that will
yield more well-being than sticking to business as usual’ (2010, p. 2, my emphasis). Here,
sacrifice and well-being are entirely opposed. Steve Vanderheiden echoes this opposition.
We need, he says, to reconcile the goal of ‘living well’ with the goal of ‘living green,’ but a
frame of sacrifice ‘treats these as incompatible aims that require the former to give way to
the latter.’ Moreover, ‘By casting voluntary reductions in personal consumption as a kind
of sacrifice, critics of unsustainable consumption forfeit the ability to question the alleged
incompatibility between living green and living well’ (Vanderheiden, 2010, p. 6).
These arguments rely on a common interpretation of sacrifice as essentially synonymous
with deprivation or self-denial. A closer look at the concept, however, reveals a far more
complex picture. As defined in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sacrifice is ‘the
surrender of something valued or desired, especially one’s life, for the sake of something
regarded as more important or worthy, or in order to avoid a greater loss, reduce
expenditure, etc.’ To be sure, then, sacrifice involves foregoing or giving up something one
cares about—but only for the sake of something else one cares about even more. In this
way, sacrifice is decidedly not the same as simple deprivation or self-denial (Meyer, 2010,
pp. 14– 17). It entails loss but it also entails gain. Indeed, the point of the concept is that the
gain is considered more important than the loss, else the sacrifice would not be undertaken.
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What will it mean to be green?
Thus, articulating the need for some level of sacrifice in moving toward more
sustainable forms of life in no way precludes presenting a vision of how people’s lives
would be improved by doing so. Quite the reverse: it actually requires a vision of
improvement, because there must be something of greater value to inspire the sacrifice in
the first place. I suspect that the fundamental obstacle in the quarrel about the frame of
sacrifice is the presumption that this greater value can only benefit others, not oneself.
The sacrifice involved in ‘living green’ (if it is a sacrifice) must be undertaken to save the
whales or the polar bears, or to protect ‘the environment’ as a whole, or at best to
preserve it for the sake of future human generations—not to live well oneself. However,
this need not be the case. One can sacrifice something that benefits oneself personally
(say, the greater convenience of packaged food) for the sake of something else that also
benefits oneself personally (say, the better nutrition and taste of food one prepares at
home). Furthermore, even if one is sacrificing at least in part for the sake of others, to
assume that there is no personal benefit in doing so relies on an overly individualistic
view of what counts as a person’s well-being. Living well is not just about one’s own
individual material well-being. It is, or at least certainly can be, about one’s physical,
emotional and spiritual well-being and the well-being of anyone or anything else one
cares about. A sacrifice made for the sake of a child, a friend, even a stranger or nonhuman animal can be and often is experienced as part of a ‘good life’ for oneself. For this
reason, recognizing that ‘voluntary reductions in personal consumption’ may involve
some sacrifice in no way requires that one ‘forfeit the ability to question the alleged
incompatibility between living green and living well’ (Vanderheiden, 2010, p. 6). It
merely acknowledges the reality that there are some incompatibilities between some
forms of living green and some forms of living well, just as there are some
incompatibilities between many, if not most, other choices we make about how to live.
It is not possible for any of us, individually or collectively, to have everything we want.
As a result, any way of life necessarily entails some sacrifice and—because this is the
whole point of sacrifice—some reward for that sacrifice. In the case of living green, that
reward may well include both an increase in personal material well-being and an increase
in other facets of one’s well-being or the well-being of others. The fear that any
discussion of sacrifice must inevitably lead to an entirely gloomy picture is unwarranted,
and stands in the way of a realistic account of the choices we face in life.
Positive visions about what it might mean to be green are badly needed. There is no doubt
that a story of gloom and doom on its own is not sufficient. However, a purely optimistic
message is not sufficient, either. A story that focuses only on what will be gained in living
more sustainably necessarily dismisses either the seriousness of how much needs to be
changed or the seriousness of people’s perceptions about the many different, even
conflicting, things one might value in life. A stronger frame would give both of these
issues their due. In particular, it would acknowledge and respect people’s existing values
and honestly incorporate their realistic concerns about losing at least some of the things
they value. At the same time, it would encourage deeper exploration of where existing
values conflict, and how and why values might be understood or prioritized differently.
That is to say, it would help people to look at the situation differently, to re-think and refeel what matters to them and why. A stronger story would help people to re-imagine what
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it could mean to be free, happy and powerful without insisting that there is no true
happiness, freedom, or power as things stand. There is no dichotomy between
acknowledging the need for sacrifice and articulating the rewards such sacrifices can bring.
Environmentalists can and must encourage reflection on both.
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I am grateful to the following people for constructive feedback at various stages in my
work on this paper and the larger project of which it is a part: Max Boykoff, Sheri Breen,
Mark Brown, Peter Cannavò, Deserai Crow, Ben Hale, Lauren Hartzell Nichols, James
Lowe, John Meyer, Zev Trachtenberg, Kerry Whiteside, Justin Williams, Harlan Wilson,
Rafi Youatt, and Michael Zimmerman. I am also grateful to two anonymous referees and
additional audience participants at panels at the International Conference on Culture,
Politics, and Climate Change and annual meetings of the Western Political Science
Association. Finally, I thank the Humanities Institute at the University of South Florida for
much appreciated funding in the form of a summer grant.
An ecological footprint is the ‘area of biologically productive land and water that a population . . . uses to
generate the resources it consumes and absorb its wastes under prevailing technology’ (Kitzes et al., 2008,
p. 468). Ecological footprint calculations are admittedly somewhat controversial; still, they can serve as
rough estimates.
Indeed, the situation may be even worse, as some climate change scientists have recently argued that even
an increase of 28C will prove quite dangerous (Anderson & Bows, 2010, p. 23).
On the question of climate change, climate scientists Anderson and Bows note the common and telling
view that ‘reductions in [carbon] emissions in excess of 3 –4% per year are not compatible with economic
growth’ (2010, p. 40). This view has led policy advisers to reject proposals for larger reductions.
Unfortunately, Anderson and Bows argue, considerably larger reductions are needed to have even a
reasonable chance of keeping global temperature increase below 28C. They reach a blunt conclusion:
‘(extremely) dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least
temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within Annex 1 nations and a rapid transition away from
fossil-fuelled development within non-Annex 1 nations’ (2010, p. 41).
I would add that they may well fear corporate backlash even more.
Although Shellenberger and Nordhaus offer broad criticism of an entire movement, their specific
complaints were developed in the course of interviewing ‘more than 25 of the [U.S.] environmental
community’s top leaders, thinkers, and funders’ (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004, p. 4). In other words,
they focused primarily on the leadership of mainstream environmental organizations in the United States.
Interestingly, whether due to their influence or not, major organizations such as the Environmental
Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and the National Resources Defense Council currently tell a story that, in
significant respects, is much closer to the one that Shellenberger and Nordhaus advocate than the one they
decry. In particular, they tend to emphasize win/win strategies, such as the economic benefits of green
In Break Through, Nordhaus and Shellenberger clarify that King in fact began his speech with a
nightmare—but that this beginning only shows how important it was to move on to his dream (Nordhaus &
Shellenberger, 2007a, pp. 2–4).
It is important to note that the claim that fear-based appeals are ineffective is disputed. Other research
suggests that results depend greatly on whether people are addressed as individuals or as members of a
community, and whether or not fear appeals are combined with guidance for effective group action
(Camill, 2010; van Zomeren, Spears, & Leach, 2010; Witte & Allen, 2000).
For more on the notion of unacknowledged sacrifices already being made, see the discussions in several
chapters of The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice (Maniates & Meyer, 2010).
What will it mean to be green?
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Or to use Rebecca Solnit’s terminology, those who argue that we can rely on technological progress for
salvation, as Nordhaus and Shellenberger do, offer optimism rather than genuine hope. According to Solnit,
hope is crucial but we should not ‘mistake hope for optimism. Optimism and pessimism are siblings in their
certainty. They believe they know what will happen next, with one slight difference: Optimists expect
everything to turn out nicely without any effort being expended toward that goal. Pessimists assume that we’re
doomed and there’s nothing to do about it except try to infect everyone else with despair while there’s still
time . . . . Hope, on the other hand, is based on uncertainty, on the much more realistic premise that we don’t
know what will happen next’ (Solnit, 2011). Of course, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are hardly arguing that
no effort needs to be expended. Nevertheless, they are essentially arguing that ordinary citizens need expend
no effort other than to agree to fund scientific research and its application by their government, and all will
be well. It is in this sense that they offer optimism rather than hope. I thank John Meyer for bringing Solnit
to my attention and encouraging me to think about the distinction between hope and optimism.
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