Frames at Work: A Literary Approach

A significant part of my project was investigating how writers throughout the history of the environmental movement have communicated the details of the issues they investigate to a non-scientific readership. I began with the hypothesis that books on environmental issues would contain a certain degree of scientific information, and that this information would be relayed to a public audience in various ways. By the time I began to analyze the books I read for the project, my investigation of framing as a communications device had convinced me that the actual scientific content of a book, provided it is truthful and does not open up the author to attacks on a factual basis, is not as important as the methods used to transmit that content.

While the questions I raised with this research project would probably be best answered by an exhaustive of all related books written for a public audience since the beginning of the environmental movement, I compromised, choosing books for analysis which covered a wide range of topics and points in time. Each work of literature provided a unique window into a changing movement and a way to explore framing in the context of history.

I found my literary journey very interesting this summer, and read a number of different books, but the ones to which I applied an analysis of framing were:

Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau (1854): Though it does not tackle explicit environmental issues (besides, arguably, “civilization” as a whole,) Walden is an excellent example of nature writing, which has helped form the philosophical basis of the environmental movement.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): Another deeply philosophical book, A Sand County Almanac establishes an ecologically-based  “land ethic” and argues for the preservation of wildlife and ecosystems.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962): This book discusses the dangers to human and environmental health of rampant pesticide use, and led to the banning of DDT.

Biophilia, The Future of Life, and The Creation by E.O. Wilson (1984, 2002, 2006): Each book concerns the preservation of biodiversity and ecosystems, with a distinct voice. Biophilia focuses on the theory that humans are innately drawn to life and life-like processes, while The Creation is structured as a letter to a preacher, asking for science and religion to join forces in the cause to save the “Creation.”

The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock (2006): This book discusses global warming, in the context of Lovelock’s own “Gaia Hypothesis,” that the planet’s biosphere and abiotic elements function as one superorganism, whose metabolism has been thrown out of balance by humans. He dismisses alternative sources of energy as unrealistic solutions, and advocates for nuclear power.

Soft Energy Paths by Amory B. Lovins (1977): This book explores the crossroads between “soft” and “hard” paths for meeting our energy needs, advocating for the titular path, which includes renewable resources like wind and solar power. In contrast to Lovelock, Lovins was wholeheartedly opposed to nuclear in this book.

The End of Nature by Bill McKibben (1989): In discussing the causes leading to global warming (and global warming controversy,) Bill McKibben advocates for changes in the way we relate to the natural world.

Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber (2010): Sandra Steingraber weaves an investigation of toxic chemicals in our environment with a personal account of her struggle with cancer, and advocates for the “precautionary principle” in regulating potentially toxic materials.

Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers (1996): Structured as a scientific “detective story,” this book discussed hormone disrupting chemicals and their threats to our health and wellness.

Most of the authors could not have explicitly chosen frames from the chart I have included in this post. The earliest reference that Nisbet and Scheufele provide to this particular typology is from 1998. However, I hypothesized that themes and images would appear which were “ancestors” or “relatives” of the various frames. My hypothesis was proven correct; the images and themes associated with frames applied to science-related policy debates have arisen naturally throughout the history of the environmental movement.

For those who would like to read a frame-by-frame analysis, feel free to message me for a copy of my paper. For the sake of this blog post, I will summarize some of the conclusions I drew from my study.

1) Of all the frames, Social Progress and Morality/Ethics appeared most often, and in the widest variety of forms. They were associated with certain recurring images: the view of Earth from space, the interconnectivity of the biosphere, our place not just in the universe but in the history of life on Earth. I was able to pinpoint several recurring themes. In each case, the questions in bold are often added when writers begin to discuss moral issues.

a. Potential: The universe is largely unknown. The untapped potential of the natural world may help us learn more about ourselves, and to help aid societal progress. Is it right to treat this well of mysteries, which has guided our development as a species, with disrespect and flippancy?

b. Quality of Life: It is beneficial to us and to society to make environmentally conscious decisions. Lack of foresight in releasing chemicals into the environment, ignoring the consequences of global warming, and neglecting to invest in clean energy technology will impact our health, wellness and comfort. Do we have an obligation to our descendants to ensure this quality of life for them?

c. History and Legacy: As we decide our path forward, we should remember to take a long term view of our actions. We should remember our roots, and take into consideration how we will be remembered…and what we will leave behind. Do we have the right to leave the future bereft of resources? Do we have the right to be the villain of this story?

d. Interconnectedness: All things on Earth (and perhaps in the universe) are linked together in a complex series of relationships. Accepting that we are an integral part of nature will help us gain a more realistic perspective of our place, and help guide our future progress. When we see ourselves as connected to everything else, can we neglect to consider the earth and all its inhabitants part of our community?

It may be impossible to write about, discuss, or legislate on any environmental issue without taking into account what our vision of progress is. Likewise, it is impossible to discuss progress without considering what brand or morality and ethics informs our idea of it.

2) Explicit moral and ethical statements in writing should be accompanied by a strong awareness of the second premise (for more information, read my previous blog post!) The writers I investigated accepted, for the most part, that there is an element of uncertainty in their evidence and data, that there will always be more studies to be done. What keeps these books from falling into the pit of “scientific uncertainty” is that they also call into question a significant paradigm that seems to dominant environmental debates: that we have to wait for perfectly sound data to emerge before acting. Moral statements and questions like these are not incompatible with scientific data, as long as the two are kept at a reasonable distance, and may even help to aid our progress towards a sustainable future.

3) Of all the books, Silent Spring had the greatest variety of identifiable frames. It also had the most clearly identifiable cultural impact – the banning of DDT. This has tempted me to draw a conclusion that more variety equals greater success, but I am convinced this issue is much more nuanced than that. Future studies could investigate the way those frames are employed, on a rhetorical level. Narrative voice matters, as well. Why was my mother taken in by Steingraber’s prose, where scientific detail was interwoven with personal memoir, but felt overwhelmed by E.O. Wilson’s biological ramblings? Why was I inspired by Wilson, but found my mind wandering during Amory B. Lovins’ heavily technical arguments? Even if authors explore values that are relevant to their readers, it is how these values are stated that is important to whether a book makes an impression or not. In a way, you could say that how frames are framed is as important as frames themselves…and so on and so forth.

4. In many of the books, the “conflict/strategy” frame was notably absent. Issues tended to be presented in an “anti-conflict” manner, focusing on points where both sides of a debate could agree, and targeting points of difference with a values-based discussion. Conflicts of interest are difficult to reconcile; an oil company, though they may be working on integrating more sustainable technologies into their portfolio, would have different interests than a solar cell company. However, if both can be reconciled to the value that we should be working towards a more sustainable energy future, then one roadblock towards the realization of that future will have been surmounted. As E.O. Wilson says in The Future of Life, “Deep down, I believe, no one wants a total victory. The people-firster likes parks, and the environmentalist rides in petroleum-powered vehicles to get there.” The first step, he advises, is to “turn away from claims of inherent moral superiority based on political ideology and religious dogma. The problems of the environment have become too complicated to be solved by piety and an unyielding clash of good intentions.” “

Further study of these frames and their effectiveness can help point the way forward for communication of specific environmental issues.

Frame typology table from Nisbet, M. C. &  Scheufele, D. A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 000-000.

Wilson, E.O. The Future of Life (2002). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


  1. Sharon,

    This strongly reminds me of a topic that we discussed in my Intermediate IR Theory class: do the American people participate in a marketplace of ideas, or a marketplace of values? That is, do we really seek out the truth above all else, or do we seek out information presented in a way that we can relate to? This ‘weight’ given to personal values and points of view seems connected to the rationale for using the frames you have studied. I find it intriguing that Social Progress and Morality/Ethics frames appeared most often; being pessimistic, I imagined that the “doom and destruction” angle would be taken more. You studied the use of various frames–in your opinion, which one was the most successfully employed?

    Also, how did you feel reading these books from as a scientist, not an average reader? Did the absence of all the data and quantitative logic bother you?

    You have read an incredible number of books, and your insights are amazingly comprehensive. Please send me a copy of your paper, if you get the chance.

  2. sehartzell says:

    Thank you for your comments Nat! After this project, I’d say that we are more inclined to participate in a marketplace of values, but the marketplace we have is portrayed as one of ideas. I’ve been having a lot of trouble lately with the concept of “truth,” because any information I take in is filtered through the values that I have that I’m not even aware of, and is given to me by people who may not be aware of THEIR value-filters. I believe what each person defines as “truth” is highly variable. I’m planning to make a more encompassing summary post to work out some of these ideas, but I think one of the problems with our media and with our system of political discourse is that we are afraid to have values-based discussions which don’t fall into what I have named “the partisan chasm of nothing-ever-gets-done” (eloquent, I know). Like the quote I added in this post, people who might feel obligated to take an “anti” stance on some environmental issues because of their political affiliation might surprise themselves by sharing a number of basic values with people who are “pro.” Global warming, for example: So much time has been wasted debating whose position is based on “sound science” when the question we should be asking ourselves is values-based: How “sound” does the science need to be to make decisions in favor of alternative energy technology, a more sustainable approach to our future, or towards preventing disasters from an increasingly unpredictable weather system? Although evidence has been stacking up in favor of anthropogenic climate change, does it really matter who’s causing the warming? We try to prevent hurricane damage, even though we didn’t make the hurricane. Greater emphasis on values gives science room to grow, so to speak, instead of dragging it into the realm of politics in support of any particular position. Most importantly, this allows us to make decisions in the absence of certainty. As you know, if we wait around for science to be “proven,” we will wait forever.

    I, too, was surprised by the prominence of social progress and morality/ethics but I think it makes sense. There was a certain degree of doom and gloom, but it was always accompanied with another statement; as in, “this is the worst possible scenario, BUT here’s how we can change it!” Most of those changes came in the form of rearranging the way we look at the data we have. Hmm, the most successfully employed…I will side with social progress (which, as i said, often went hand in hand with moral/ethical rearrangement of our idea of progress.) I think this is the most versatile frame, since you can appeal to a lot of different types of progress that people value (creating jobs, preserving resources for the future, making ourselves healthier, living more “in tune with nature”). It is also easily people-centric, and it is optimistic.

    I’d like to respond to your last two comments together. Thank you for calling my number of books “incredible,” but I’d like to clear up that I did not read every word of every book, and I will make a case for that decision: Most of the writers are scientists (with the exception of Thoreau (a naturalist) and McKibben (a journalist who covers primarily environmental issues).) From Silent Spring onwards, the books contain a quite a bit of data and case studies. For the purpose of this project, which focused on the way in which scientific information was integrated into the narrative rather than the information itself, I gave the scientists the benefit of the doubt that their data was given in honesty, and skimmed some of the more technical sections, especially as the summer wore on and I was interested in exploring more authors! The information in some books was also outdated. Rather than carefully peruse Lovins’s economic calculations from the late 70’s, I felt it was adequate to know that they were made and included in the book, and to focus my attention elsewhere. As another example, the chapter of Walden where Thoreau introduces readers to all of his neighbors had little relation to my topic 🙂 So, in summary: I was actually impressed by the amount of scientific information included in the books, although I wasn’t particularly focused on the information itself. I will definitely send you a copy of my paper, and whatever future research I do on this topic!