Being good storytellers isn’t enough
The milieu of Gods & Radicals is full of people who are great storytellers and communicators. Many have been brought up on the ‘mother’s milk’ of sagas, epics, spirit lore, the voices of plants, or whispers out of Faerie. I suspect a high proportion have degrees in creative writing or work in a creative field. So, if we choose to work for common causes, this is one of our major strengths. And yet, as the bards and diviners know, telling a good story isn’t always the whole picture; often what matters is sharing an appropriate narrative for the situation. This holds especially true when it comes to activism.
These days many campaigners have started to try and get heard and to access power by talking in the language of the antagonists. ‘You’ve got to use language they understand,’ goes this argument. An example would be conservation charities engaging with the corporate-political archons by speaking of woodlands as ‘natural capital’. It’s a fatal mistake. As George Monbiot notes, ‘you can never win by adopting the values of your opponents’. This is because once you concede to your opponents’ values, all you have left is facts and unanchored emotion, both of which are much more easily manipulated – especially when media ownership is dominated by a narrow capitalist elite who have the means to live nearly anywhere and therefore little to no interest in issues of local concern.
You can’t put ‘nature’ in a box
Recently I took a walk through the fields around my local wood. Six years ago the Planning Inspectorate gave permission for this area of Green Belt to be built on, in the face of strong local opposition, on condition that the land to the west of the wood is transformed from wide open fields into meadows, copses and hedgerows. Since then, however, development plans have been altered so that the proposed community park will be reduced to a third of the originally agreed size.
Setting aside the question of the role of the park as a community ‘amenity’ (on which more below), many of the species that live in the woods – such as badgers and buzzards – rely on the surrounding fields as an area of food supply, but this seems to be entirely forgotten. It’s as though planners and developers think that you can simply detach a wood from its surrounding landscape and expect the biodiversity it contains to remain unharmed. Or maybe they just don’t care.
Sadly such is the power of the housing development lobby that many conservation organisations seem to be starting to give in to the false narrative that nature can be packaged up into parcels. For instance a conservation society I’ve been a loyal member of for nearly my whole life, the RSPB, not long ago adopted the horrendous slogan ‘Giving Nature a Home’. It’s precisely this paternalistic attitude to ‘nature’ (the ecosystem which actually sustains us) that has got us into this mess in the first place.
The failure of the Labour government at the last UK parliamentary election was to meekly acquiesce to the Tory’s austerity narrative despite the fact that history contains many examples of successful alternatives to deep cuts to public services. In a similar way we are being sold a false narrative that ignores and denies the fact that life is characterised by reciprocity and interdependence. We are not separate from some abstract ‘nature’, and neither we or the natural world have a long term future while we think that a few shoeboxes full of ‘wild’-life set amongst sprawling housing estates are going to be adequate to the holistic well-being of humans, or the Earth processes and systems on which we depend.
It’s not all doom and gloom
A small digression to cheer you up before I continue …
While by no means perfect (they’ve used the ‘natural capital’ frame from time to time), one organisation making some positive moves toward a more holistic approach in the UK is the Woodland Trust that has been working to mitigate the impact of ash dieback on 12 million trees outside of woods which risks the loss of vital wildlife ‘corridors’ across the landscape.
I should also mention that the RSPB, despite their terribly misguided slogan, are actually doing a great deal of good work in the field of environmental connectivity too; such as in their support of the Fair to Nature food label which requires accredited farmers to put at least 10% of their production area (i.e. the area of land on which they produce crops, livestock, milk, etc.) into five types of wildlife habitats.
And finally, while speaking of environmental connectivity, having cut a hole in my garden fence as per the advice of the Hedgehog Street project, I now have an enchanting visitor every evening — and with little to no cost or effort am doing something to help a local endangered species.
‘A frame is a story, composed of ideas, memories, emotions and values attached to and associated with a given concept. Framing is a communication tool, that we use (consciously or unconsciously) to provoke a particular kind of reaction to that concept.’
~ Bec Sanderson
Earlier I briefly mentioned the question of community ‘amenity’. I’ve been reflecting on this concept a lot since filling out a recent survey by a conservation charity. In the survey, a question asked was, “How often do you use a park (urban green space) or wood for any of the following activities…” and one possible response was: ‘Escapism / spiritual connection with nature’.
I found this an odd pairing. Most people I know who interact with woodlands and ‘natural’ spaces for ‘spiritual reasons’ do so to engage rather than to escape. I don’t want to make too much of one little survey answer of course (I suspect that enduring supporters’ pedantry is one of the main occupational hazards of charity survey writers) but it can serve as an important illustration of a bigger issue, namely effective ‘framing’. The careless elision of the two non-identical motivations illustrated above accidentally plays into a ‘frame’ that woodlands are best protected by promoting them as as leisure amenities: a place to escape so-called ‘real life’. It also implies that the ‘spiritual’ is ‘otherworldly’ which need not be true, and is – in my experience – particularly untrue of the spiritual understanding of many who are passionately engaged with their local woodlands and environments.
These seemingly small framing errors can however be easily hijacked by developers and government who often use them to argue that they are ‘only being pragmatic and realistic’; offering them an excuse to overlook the uniqueness of woodlands and of specific woodlands in particular. It allows them to argue that the ‘escapism’ and/or ‘spiritual connection’ sought in a specific woodland can just as easily be found in another ‘amenity’; perhaps a leisure centre, shopping precinct or local churches or mosques (Since for most architects of monoculture all spiritually and religiously inclined people must practice their devotions communally, indoors, on designated days, and in socially acceptable ways that do not disrupt the wheels of work and commerce!)
Effective framing is also vital in campaigning not only in terms of ‘winning’ short-term goals, but because there are many unintended longer-term consequences that can flow from a poor choice of frame. Take as an example the term ‘Bedroom Tax’. The widespread media adoption of this phrase has been celebrated as a winning frame by people campaigning against the benefit restrictions set out in the British Welfare Reform Act 2012. However the ‘under-occupancy penalty’ isn’t actually a tax, so the frame is open to a defensive attack, and much more seriously it suggests the idea that ‘Tax = Bad’. Considering that the ‘Bedroom tax’ campaign is one against cuts to state welfare, which is funded from taxation, the implication that taxation is an evil could well prove to be a longer-term strategic error.
So to sum up, it can be worth asking if the way an issue is framed corresponds to one’s values. Sometimes another frame might seem more likely to gain support or get a short-term win, but what will have been conceded in the bigger context?
For more information on ‘Frames’ check out the Common Cause Handbook.
~ Accipiter Nisus
Article based on material originally published by Accipiter Nisus at: http://vernemeton.tumblr.com/