About Math, Tables, and Frames

Do you like math? I don’t (sorry). But whether you like it or not, you might have come across the fact that, in math, one of the main principles is being able to replicate patterns. You have a main concept that you can apply to a set of numerical values and problems. The pattern becomes our frame, the context through which we are able to understand and solve more complex or abstract mathematical complications. Okay, now that we have talked about math, let’s turn to the important topics (sorry, sorry, math is also important, I know…).

The reason I am telling you all this is because mathematical patterns are not the only ones that exist in our – at times, surprisingly capable – brains. We have a pattern for everything. When you look at a table, you don’t have to think a lot to come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, a table. When you see a table, a pattern, a frame, is unconsciously activated in your brain, which says: “Yep, even board, some straight leg kinda things, you can place stuff on it – looks like a table”. Every word we read, hear or write triggers such a frame. The same applies to visual and auditory signals. Every frame is highly individual and includes personal experiences and associations. But frames are more than just table-patterns. They are also one of the most important keys to (climate) action, or in the words of Max Boykoff, who is a professor at the University of Boulder and an expert on climate communication: 

“At a most elemental level the way in which we frame things, the way in which we talk about it, can really shape the way take action in the world. The way in which certain problems are defined, certain issues are described, shape our attitudes and intentions, out beliefs, out perspectives and then our behaviors. When it comes more specifically to the climate crisis: for instance framing it as a crisis is a fundmental way to help raise awareness about the urgency of action, about the depth of the challenges that we have before us.”

Max Boykoff

Framing and Campaigning

Okay, so it seems like framing is very important for our work as activists. One of our main mantras has always been factuality – but facts alone are not enough. Successful campaigns need good framing, because in the end those are what gives us a true perspective on the issue and ultimately changes our behavior. If it was as easy as going around and simply letting people know: “Hey, there is this thing called the climate crisis; this is what will happen if we don’t do anything now”, we would’ve won this struggle a long time ago. 

This is where framing comes in. But how do we decide which framing to choose? There are so many! As Bill McKibben, whom I also interviewed for this article, puts it:

“…Public health, for instance, which can help make the crisis more immediate to people who haven’t yet known fire or flood. There’s an economic frame: this costs so much. There’s a religious one: we’re not doing what God has asked us to. And so on.”

Which frame works depends on the kind of campaign, what your audience and your objectives are. “There is no silver bullet” was Max’s favorite sentence throughout the interview. But there are frames that have been proven to work better on average. For the climate crisis, it is extremely important to not only focus on the problem, but also point out the solutions. Looking at upcoming events such as COP26, frames that could be very important include global solidarity, people standing up for each other all over the world or strong leadership, in the form of powerful agreements and acts.  

Will frames save us?

Sorry to break it to you but no. Conscious framing alone will not be what saves us. But without conscious framing, success is much more unlikely, if not impossible. Merely pointing at the facts is simply not enough. They need to look in a way that people are also willing to accept them and make them a part of their personal reality. Precise framing in the form of greenwashing for example is what makes the fossil fuel industry so powerful (read The History of Science Obstruction for more info) – we believe lies, because they trick us into it through framing. To use Bill’s words:

“[Frames] are a way of beginning to counterbalance the huge political power of the fossil fuel industry. When you’re up against hundreds of billion of dollars you need to be smart!”

Bill McKibben