Re-framing our thinking for a better world

Do we really make choices as consumers, or are we merely victims of pre-determined constructs? Laurence and Alison Matthews explain how shoppers can take back the power through ‘framespotting’

Are you a consumer? Are you positive? Can you be both?

The word ‘consumer’ conjures up a whole set of inter-related ideas about how to behave. In this ‘frame’, your job as a consumer is simply to choose between menu items; you don’t have any say over what gets onto the menu in the first place. Making decisions in life is framed as shopping.

This has consequences, perhaps more than you might realise. Firstly, if you concentrate on the offered items, you often fail to even realise that there might be other options that aren’t on the menu. While you’re choosing between a red car and a blue car, it might not occur to you to wonder why you can’t buy a good bus service. Secondly, shopping focuses on us as individuals: in choosing your car, you don’t care how other people get around, let alone about any wider effects on society as a whole. Thirdly, you shop using money, and this means that the rich get more say: the poor may not be able to afford any choices at all. And fourthly, there’s the issue of blame: the ‘consumer’ frame implicitly blames us for problems. If we all want cars, or to fly, then climate change must be our fault.

“Spotting frames is all about seeing the bigger picture; looking outside and beyond the frames that we find.”

It’s much more uplifting, liberating and empowering to reject this frame. But to do that, you have to spot that it’s there in the first place.

In our experience talking to politicians, policymakers, civil servants, academics and activists as well as the general public, we’ve found that many ‘experts’ unconsciously think within frames too. Our new book, Framespotting, explores how to identify frames, and what happens when we do.

Frames can run deep: they can tap into deep stories of who we are and where humanity is going. At the moment too many people are trapped in one of two stories: a despairing ‘doom’ story or an unrealistic ‘endless growth’ story. This all too easily leads to depression or denial, neither of which is good for our mental health, never mind helping with the clear thinking we’ll need in the future. But what alternative is there?

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Well, there’s a third story, which we need to embrace. Growth sounds good: children grow, don’t they? But there’s the clue: children grow, but adults don’t. And what do we call it, when youngsters stop growing? Adulthood. Maturity. In other words, growth is something that happens in childhood, and is good only up to a point. This can be our story: if we realise that clinging to growth is childish, then we will have grown up. And the turning point, here and now in this generation, is our species’ coming of age. That’s a powerful, positive story.

Spotting frames is all about seeing the bigger picture; looking outside and beyond the frames that we find. And that can be inspiring: it can lead to larger, positive and appealing visions, which in the long term will be more effective than environmental scare stories or exhortations to change our ways.

Framespotting by Laurence and Alison Matthews is published by IFF Books.

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