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Excavating Environmental Frames

As promised, we are now going to talk about how to use environmental framing. This is going to be a two-part post. Part I will introduce the method in detail. Part II will walk through an example from current events step-by-step.

The Basic Approach

Recall from last post that people use frames to provide a mental model of how (part of) the world works and how it should work. Many assumptions, values, motivations, experiences, and much knowledge are wrapped up in these models. Revisiting all of those commitments takes time and energy, and people generally do not actively think about them very much. Hence frames rest on a foundation of assumptions that people rarely revisit. Analyzing frames reveals taken-for-granted assumptions so that we can better understand the role they play in public policy and discourse.

I like to approach frames as mental models that people use to make sense of and communicate problems. Thinking about frames in relation to environmental problems helps me keep my work grounded and connects abstract, academic theory to practical questions confronting society right now: What should be done about climate change? Is urban sprawl harming America? Do people eat too much meat? Should I buy more local food? Is fracking too lightly regulated? Has the public sector invested enough in solar and wind energy?

Seen through the lens of frames, each of these big questions rests on particular ways in which people define, address, and resolve problems. If we boil it down, for any given public problem we want to know three simple things:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What options are available to deal with the problem?
  3. How will people know the problem has been solved?

Different actors will answer the questions differently. An actor is a general term used in social science lingo to refer to any person or organized group of persons (such as a government agency, a corporation, or a non-profit organization). Ideally, we want to survey the ways in which a variety of actors frame a given issue so that we get a sense of the range of possibilities.[i] Since the nuances matter in conducting such a survey, we should expand the three basic questions. To that end, I have been working on a guide to analyzing frames.

A Step-by-Step Guide

Here is a list of basic questions I am developing as a guide[ii] for systematically analyzing how actors frame environmental issues. The goal is to answer each question from the point of view of different actors engaged in the issue of concern.

Understanding the Actor in Context
  • To what audience is the actor speaking?
  • For whom does the actor speak?
  • Against whom is the actor arguing? It can help to compare arguments against one another to determine where the most relevant points of agreement and disagreement lie.
  • What resources does the actor have at their disposal? Resources might be monetary, social status, education, information, legal authority, coercive force, popular will, etc.
  • Does the actor occupy a position of authority? What is it, and with respect to whom?
Understanding the Problem
  •  What problem does the actor identify? Try to summarize concisely (imagine a twitter post) in your own words.
  • What caused the problem, and who is responsible?
  • Is it a collective problem or a problem for individuals?
  • At what scale does the problem exist?  Is it local, regional, national, global?
  • Over what timeframe does the problem exist? Is it a short-term or long-term problem?
  • Is it political (i.e. we need to distribute power and resources differently)?
  • Is the problem isolated or interrelated with other problems?
 Understanding the Goals
  • What are the stakes? For example, money, power, efficiency, justice, the public good, biodiversity, health, security, knowledge, etc.
  • Who stands to lose out? Who stands to benefit? And how?
  • Why does the actor care? i.e. do they have a financial stake? Is it their job? Are their friends, family, or community involved? Do they seek social status or prestige?
Understanding the Resolution
  • What tools are available to the actor or their audience to deal with the problem?
  • What options do those tools present for resolving the problem?
  • Who may participate in seeking resolution? Who is left out or excluded?
  • How does the actor or their audience know if they’re doing a good job or a bad job in resolving the problem? What are the criteria, or indicators, of success or failure?
Understanding the Big Picture
  • Where does the actor draw boundaries around the world? What scales matter? i.e. is this an individual problem, a local problem, a state problem, a national problem, an industry-specific problem, somebody else’s problem etc.
  • What time-frame matters? The next fiscal quarter? The next year? The term limit of a political office? The length of a human generation? A lifetime? This century? Indefinite?
  • What counts as a cause and what counts as an effect? Think of the Dust Bowl example: in story 1, harsh nature is the cause of human suffering and opportunity for bravery while in story 3 human exploitation of the land is the cause of natural disaster.
  • What can be known about the problem? In particular, are there limits to knowledge? Are there limits to control? What is within human power and what is beyond?
  • What counts as a “fact” or evidence? Who knows things? i.e. peer-reviewed literature, unbiased experts, experienced practitioners, legal decisions, public opinion.

Now that we have a set of tools, Part II will demonstrate how to use them through a concrete example. Next week: Hunger Frames!


[i] See last week’s post. In the face of an “overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality,” the complexity of things is so great that people only ever have a partial understanding. Frames help filter out a lot of the extraneous “noise” into a manageable subset of the whole, but important aspects are always and unavoidably lost in the process. Like in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, conflict often arises because people adhere very strongly to their incomplete knowledge of the world. However, cooperation and sharing notes with a humble acceptance for the partiality of any given frame can help form a more complete, if jumbled, vision. At the very least, we can try to survey all the different existing frames to put all the cards on the table and make sure we haven’t missed anything obvious. I’ll discuss in greater detail the link between analyzing frames and good democratic process in future posts.

[ii] I will make this guide available as a downloadable document soon.


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Framing Environmental Problems

Last week, I implied that as the answer to what is nature? changes, so do the consequences. Today, I will explain how to make use of this point through the concept of environmental framing.[i]

Defining Environmental Framing

A formal definition for environmental framing can be difficult to grasp all at once, so let’s step back and explore a related and more familiar idea: stories. In a famous essay on story-telling in environmental history, William Cronon compares two opposing interpretations of the 1930s Dust Bowl.[ii] The first tells a heroic tale of determined settlers persevering in the face of a wrathful (and very dry) nature. The second tells a tragic tale of man-made disaster caused by settlers who failed to adapt properly to the unstable Great Plains environment. The important point here is that the lessons to be learned from each story differ as starkly as the stories themselves: the first urges more daring agricultural development in the American West, while the second urges caution and conservation. When making sense of historical events, Cronon explains, the way in which a story is told matters:

When we describe human activities within an ecosystem, we seem always to tell stories about them. Like all historians, we configure the events of the past into causal sequences—stories—that order and simplify those events to give them new meanings. We do so because narrative is the chief literary form that tries to find meaning in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality. When we choose a plot to order our environmental histories, we give them a  unity that neither nature nor the past possesses so clearly. In so doing, we move beyond nature into the intensely human realm of value.[iii]

(Hi)stories carry power, but people also tell stories about what’s going on today, and even stories about what might happen in the future (an everyday example is when the meteorologist makes a 5-day forecast). The process of storytelling is the same: order events into causes and effects to simplify and give meaning to what we experience and observe. Again, the key point here is that giving events meaning brings them into the “intensely human realm of value” and makes claims about what people should do. To return to the main topic, we can think of environmental framing as a tool for critically analyzing the stories told about people and nature. This tool can help us see the connection between how people order knowledge of reality into causes and effects and how people seek to order social and environmental relationships.[iv] Environmental framing thus connects the knowledge of people and nature with the power to make changes in the world.[v]

Example: Climate Change

Now that we’ve covered the analytical purpose of environmental frames, I will demonstrate with the example of climate change. We’ll start with basics. Climate change results from an increase in the level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The most notable has been CO, a byproduct from burning fossil fuels. GHGs cause an atmospheric greenhouse effect that traps heat, originally from the sun, which would normally escape from the earth back into space.[vi] The extra heat warms the earth’s surface and lower atmosphere, causing a host of serious problems ranging from rising sea level to more extreme weather.[vii]

Increasingly, people view climate change as one of the most dire crises of our times. But even among the large majority who agree[viii] that climate change poses a pressing problem, there is wide variation in how this problem is framed. For the sake of example, I will only present two pieces of evidence. First is a 2009 blog post from climate activist Bill McKibben, a founder of the non-profit[ix] Second is a 2010 feature article from The Economist.[x] Below I quote some of the relevant excerpts.

(1) Bill McKibben, in reference to a landmark paper in the journal Nature[xi] that proposed an atmospheric concentration of 350ppm CO2 (associated with a temperature rise of 2° C) as the upper boundary for “a safe operating space for humanity”:

[A]s a planet we’d need to get off coal by 2030 in order for the planet’s forests and oceans ever to bring atmospheric levels back down below 350—that’s the toughest economic and political challenge the earth has ever faced.

But it’s not as if we have a choice. The most useful thing about having a number is that it forces us to grow up, to realize that the negotiations that will happen later this fall in Copenhagen aren’t really about what we want to do, or what the Chinese want to do, or what Exxon Mobil wants to do. They’re about what physics and chemistry want to do: the physical world has set its bottom line at 350, and it’s not likely to budge. (emphasis added).[xii]

(2) The Economist, responding to the dismal prospect that “a plausible programme for keeping climate change in check” would result from another major international meeting:

Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it…

A 2009 review of the cost of warming to the global economy suggests that as much as two-thirds of the total cannot be offset through investment in adaptation… But adaptation can still achieve a lot…

The green pressure groups and politicians who have driven the debate on climate change have often been loth to see attention paid to adaptation, on the ground that the more people thought about it, the less motivated they would be to push ahead with emissions reduction. Talking about adaptation was for many years like farting at the dinner table, says an academic who has worked on adaptation over the past decade. Now that the world’s appetite for emissions reduction has been revealed to be chronically weak, putting people off dinner is less of a problem. (emphasis added). [xiii]


From these two short excerpts, two different ways of framing climate change emerge. In the first, humans have without a doubt overstepped the bounds of our biosphere by burning too many fossil fuels. Faced with the physical facts, the only option for our continued survival[xiv] is to scale back, way back, on industrial growth and development. In the second, while industrial development has led to costly problems related to the environment, economic growth cannot and should not be stopped. Only further innovation and development can provide solutions.[xv] The policy implications diverge greatly. One way points toward renewable energy, energy efficiency, and subsistence-oriented economies. The other toward big infrastructure, high-tech research, elaborate insurance schemes, and lots of capital investment.

I have grossly oversimplified the climate change frames for the purposes of example. Many nuances are in play, and there is plenty of room for compromise and even complementarity between mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Nonetheless, these two articles illustrate one core tension underlying all effort to address climate change: the promise of development versus the risk of overstepping natural bounds.

In summary, environmental frames help us analyze how different interpretations of the relationship between people and nature are connected to different claims about what should be done. Now that we have discussed what environmental frames are used for, next week’s post will discuss in finer detail how to use environmental frames.


[i] I taught this concept last semester for my advisor, Alastair Iles. I owe much of this discussion to that experience.

[ii] Cronon, W. 1992. A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History. 78(4): 1347-1376.

[iii] Ibid, 1349.

[iv] There is much more to be said on this point, and I will return to it in future posts on science and society, determinism, and co-production.

[v] The savvy reader will recognize that I am referencing Michel Foucault here. The canon of Foucaultian theory is too enormous to cite here, but The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, will do for my purposes.

[vi] NASA covers all of this information in detail here:

[viii] I will not address the critics of climate change science here, as by and large they represent industries which profit enormously from the status quo. The reasons for which these critics frame climate change as a hoax or as a purely natural phenomenon linked to periodic solar cycles have been addressed extensively elsewhere, and are too obvious to be of much interest for the purposes of this discussion. The really interesting exercise is to identify the political implications that people do not wear on their sleeves when they frame environmental problems. This example will only brush the surface in that regard.

[ix] Bill McKibben, “The Science of 350, the Most Important Number on the Planet,” which lays out the mission statement for the climate action group

[x] “Facing the Consequences.” The Economist. November 25, 2010.

[xi] I use McKibben’s blog post in part to avoid any possible pay-wall problems. Here’s the citation: Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature. 461(7263): 472-475.

[xii] McKibben

[xiii] The Economist

[xiv] McKibben quoting the abstract for the Nature article, “above 350 you couldn’t have a planet ‘similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.'”

[xv] For example, see the passage that reads, “Economic development should see improvements in health care that will, in aggregate, swamp the specific infectious-disease threats associated with climate change.”



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Why does thinking about nature matter?

In this post, we will explore two questions: What is nature? and, Why does this question matter?

Nature, and the adjective natural, are some of the most widely used words in the English language. Backpackers hike and camp in nature to escape the city and suburbs. Natural disasters strike in the form of tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Loggers, miners, and prospectors extract natural resources. Conservationists protect natural areas and conserve nature. Natural scientists poke, prod and observe nature to know about the world. Orators base arguments upon what is natural or what is true by nature. Farmers both battle nature’s caprices and cultivate its fruits. Despite the near endless variety of uses for the concept of nature, all build off of three basic meanings[i]:

  1. The essential character or quality of a thing.
  2. The force which directs the physical world.
  3. The physical world itself.

Each meaning is related to and inseparable from the others. For example, consider the term wilderness[ii], which many people associate with nature. Wilderness is a physical place, “a wild or uncultivated region…uninhabited or inhabited only be wild animals” according to the dictionary definition. Wilderness is nature, in a physical sense, because it is a place where the forces of nature rule completely. Here, organisms, ecosystems, and biophysical processes are said to exist in their natural state because no human cultivation, settlement, extraction, or other use interferes. In summary, nature refers the essence of things, the way they are and will tend to be if we don’t interfere. A natural process unfolds through things acting according to their essential character. Nature as a place encompasses a group of things acting together through natural processes.

This seems simple enough, so why is it important to ask what nature is? Because, through the implicit contrast of nature with people that is common to all three meanings, we can see a fourth meaning for nature: that which should be (and would be if we didn’t artificially interfere and muck up the works). However, we humans live and work in nature at the same time that we alter it to produce man-made things. This blurs the distinction between nature and artifice. At what point does the block of marble cease to be a natural deposit of sediments compressed by heat and pressure over millions of years and become Michelangelo’s David? This ambiguity means that using nature to draw a hard line between what should and should not be is more difficult than it might seem. Let’s think about another example.

References to nature are common in debates over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetic engineering directly inserts genetic material from one organism into the DNA of a different organism, allowing for combinations that are not possible with conventional breeding techniques. Common GMOs include Bt cotton, the DNA of which has been augmented with a gene from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium that causes the plant to produce its own insecticide, and Roundup Ready Soybeans, the DNA of which has been augmented with a gene granting it resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (trade name Roundup).

Proponents of GMOs argue that genetic engineering is simply a new way of combining genetic material already found in nature. The only difference is that while breeding is limited to combining genetic material randomly from two organisms capable of sexual reproduction with one another, genetic modification can predictably combine genetic material from any organisms. GMOs are merely an extension and acceleration of natural genetic combination. Therefore genetic modification is no more unnatural or unsafe than any other practice in agriculture[iii].

Opponents of GMOs, on the other hand, argue that such crops are not natural at all, giving them names like “frankenfoods”[iv]. The naturalness of the process of combination, not the things combined, matters most. Even if the genes are natural, i.e. found in nature, the process of inserting a gene from a bacterium directly into a plant’s DNA is thoroughly artificial. Such a thing could not happen without people, they argue. Therefore genetic engineering is unnatural and should not happen. We have made plants like cotton and soy do things that are not part of their essential character, and we deviate from nature at our peril[v].

Representations of nature do not merely describe the world as it is. They also serve as a guidepost for imagining the world as it should and should not be. People on both sides of the GMO debate use different meanings of nature to mark the boundary between the safe and the dangerous. Western society tends to treat nature as a source of concrete, objective truth. However, as the GMO example shows, this guidepost is ambiguous in practice. It is important to ask what is nature, because the meaning can change with every use.


[i] Williams, Raymond. “Nature,” Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.

[ii] See also, Cronon, William. “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” Environmental History 1.1 (1996): 7-28.

[iii] See, for example, the website of Monsanto, a key developer and patent owner of GMOs:,, or all touch on the arguments I have paraphrased here.

[iv] For an in-depth discussion infused with the humanities, see also, Francois, Anne-Lise. “’O Happy Living Things’: Frankenfoods and the Bounds of Wordsworthian Natural Piety,” diacritics 33.2 (2005) 42-70. Online:

[v] In the words of Prince Charles, a long-standing skeptic of GMOs, “manipulating nature is, at best, an uncertain business.” In Shiva, Vandana, Ed. Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press. 2007. 26-27.


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Introducing the blog: People and Nature

This first post explains my pragmatic goals and broad vision for this blog and concludes with a short discussion of my plan for how the blog will develop.

The Big Picture

This blog is about people and nature, the most boiled-down description of what I study. Though the acronym means “all”, a goal out of reach, pan can also mean bread or a cooking implement, tying into my topical interest with farming and food.  Pan also refers to the Greek god of the wild, of forests and pastures and mountains—typical meeting places of people and nature. In other words, titling the blog People and Nature is an overreach, but also a nod to the immensity of the world and the endless and often surprising connections we can find if we don’t worry too much about narrowing our vision.

The Practical Purpose

In a practical sense, this blog is a way for me to work out how to explain my research, my field, and why I think it matters. When people ask me what I do, I never feel I have an adequate response. “I am an environmental social scientist,” I might say, or “I study food safety governance in an environmental science and policy department.” These descriptions might satisfy the questioner and help me move the topic somewhere else, but I think neither of us really understands what is meant. On my end, my work incorporates elements from many disciplines: science and technology studies, political ecology, environmental history, political science, organization and governance studies, public health, ecology, and philosophy to name a few. I struggle to explain the core concepts and methods of inquiry for each of these fields to myself, let alone explain how they all fit together in a way that an interested bystander can make sense of. Writing things out always helps me organize and compose my thoughts, and provides a durable record that I can share with others. In addition, this blog is a platform from which I can showcase what the National Science Foundation (which currently funds me) calls “broader impacts” – helping inform the wider public about my research findings and hopefully engage more people in a wider, more knowledgeable, more transparent and more inclusive discussion of pressing problems at the nexus of people and nature, or at least farming and food!

The Connection

Combining the abstract big picture with the detailed day-to-day concerns of working and living is also the challenging divide that all academics must straddle. We have to explain the connection in our work: What does Polanyi’s double movement or Beck’s risk society have to do with controlling foodborne pathogens? We have to explain it to our students: How is an in-depth understanding of the concept of sacrifice zones or immutable mobiles going to help me get a job when I graduate? And we have to explain it to the public and private sources that fund our work: Why does elaborating a better formal model of meta-governance or examining the philosophical differences between paradigms of safety and sustainability justify you using spending our money? These connections are neither obvious nor intuitive; academics spend years learning how to think about and make use of them, and it is an ongoing struggle to teach others how to do the same.

This blog is my attempt to work on my skills in teaching and communicating the importance of connecting the big picture to the day-today. I will begin with a series of posts that discuss basic concepts from my fields that inform how I understand people and nature and frame my work on food safety governance. For example, next week I will post about why we should ask what nature is, and the next week will explore the concept society, or “the social.” Each post will aim for between 700 and 1000 words of plain language, to make the concepts as digestible as possible. In the endnotes, I will try to provide citations and links for articles and books that provide a more in-depth treatment of the topic. As the blog progresses, I will begin to weave in discussions of current events – for example debates over GMO labeling, fracking, pesticides, climate change, air pollution, or endangered species, to name some likely candidates – that highlight how the basic concepts may be used. Once there is sufficient foundation, I will also post about my own research progress in my studies of food safety and other ongoing research. I hope to post once a week, usually on Sunday night (PST).


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