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Framing and Nudging for a Greener Future

Abstract and Keywords

Framing and nudging are both ways of designing the contexts that influence people’s interpretations and choices. Both have recently garnered significant attention as potential methods for effecting environmental change. Toward this goal, both attempt to work with certain human characteristics and tendencies in order to encourage rather than force people to live more sustainably. Critics rightly worry that government, “experts,” or other leaders may frame and nudge in manipulative, paternalistic, individualizing, and superficial ways, treating people as objects to be swayed or managed within existing value-systems and institutions. Yet the context design accomplished by framing and nudging cannot be avoided in communal life. The question, then, is not whether to engage in these activities, but how. This chapter argues that context design can be a democratic tool for a greener future, promoting deliberation about environmental issues and encouraging communal self-nudging toward more ecologically balanced forms of living.

Keywords: framing, nudging, context design, manipulation, paternalism, individualization, democracy, deliberation, environmental change, green future


In light of various environmental threats—especially long-term, wide-scale threats such as those posed by climate change and biodiversity loss—the first key question to ask is: what is the source of the problem? Fundamentally, what human institutions, systems, practices, and values are degrading earth’s ecosystems? Closely linked to this investigation, the second question to ask is: what is to be done? What changes in these human institutions, systems, practices, and values are necessary to minimize the threats? The third question to ask is: how can we bring about these necessary changes? In this chapter I largely set aside the first two questions in order to focus on the third. Answers to the question of how to bring about change may include, among other things, governmental regulations requiring or prohibiting certain actions, market mechanisms that use economic incentives to motivate certain behaviors, and individual choices to engage in or refrain from certain practices. But each of these particular methods has its limitations, from popular resistance to restrictive government actions to difficulties in modifying the driving logic of capitalist economies to the insufficiencies of individual changes unless they are widespread and help to modify larger structures. In response to these limitations, a number of environmentalists have turned to framing and nudging as tools to facilitate change. These strategies are neither governmental regulations, nor market mechanisms, nor personal choices in themselves; rather they exist in the interstices of some or all of these sources of change. Framing and nudging both entail investigating how various symbolic and material contexts interact with human perceptions, thought-patterns, feelings, habits, and practices to shape the way that we live, individually and collectively, and so how we might change the way that we live through changing these contexts. While the literature on these activities as tools for change extends far beyond environmental issues, in recent years a broad range of scholars, advocates, and (p. 594) policy makers have begun to investigate how framing shapes (or could shape) people’s relationship to environmental issues and how nudging shapes (or could shape) choices that have environmental significance.

The chapter begins with a discussion of the activities of framing and nudging, particularly as applied to environmental cases. I argue that they are profoundly similar in that both involve context design. Next I discuss a number of concerns about these practices of context design: in particular, worries that they are manipulative, paternalistic, privatizing, individualizing, and superficial. Finally, I suggest that the best response to these worries is not to attempt to reject framing and nudging, since this is effectively not possible, but rather to frame and nudge in democratic and environmentally transformative ways.


George Lakoff describes frames as “mental structures that shape the way we see the world” (Lakoff 2004: xv).1 According to Lakoff, these structures occur in the “cognitive unconscious,” so we cannot access them directly. We can, however, access them indirectly through noticing the language we use, the way we reason, and what we consider to be common sense. In turn, by changing the language we use, we can eventually change our mental structures. The reason frames are so crucial is because they act as filters through which information is evaluated and processed; information that does not fit our frames is simply ignored or otherwise disregarded. Frames thus “shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of actions” (2004: xv). Not everyone accepts Lakoff’s argument about the cognitive unconscious, but many echo his ultimate conception of frames. As one summary of the literature puts it, “frames are generally conceived as organizing principles that enable a particular interpretation of a phenomenon” (de Boer, Wardekker, and van der Sluijs 2010: 502). Emphasizing the shared nature of these organizing principles, Clark Miller describes frames as “the perceptual lenses, worldviews or underlying assumptions that guide communal interpretation and definition of particular issues” (Miller 2000: 211, emphasis added). The key to organizing the interpretation of information, as many point out, is selectivity: “A frame allows complex issues to be pared down and for some aspects of that issue to be given greater emphasis than others in order that particular audiences can rapidly identify why an issue may be relevant to them” (Spence and Pidgeon 2010: 657, citing Nisbet and Mooney 2007). Finally, some authors link frames to narratives: “Frames are interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it” (Nisbet 2009: 4). In other words, by highlighting certain aspects of a situation and leaving other elements out of the storyline, frames convey an analysis of a problem and its solution in a condensed format. (p. 595)

Several points about frames are important to stress. First, they are necessarily partial. If one could include everything within a frame, it would no longer be a “frame.” Second, although they are necessarily partial, they are not thereby necessarily untrue, or at least not any more so than language in general, which also inevitably condenses, interprets, organizes, and otherwise shapes reality. To be sure, it is possible to frame an issue in a way that violates essential realities of the situation—but this does not mean that all frames of an issue violate essential realities. Finally, frames are unavoidable, particularly in communication. As Nisbet puts it, “there is no such thing as unframed information” (2009: 4). The question, then, is not whether to frame, but how.

To see how frames play a role in the interpretation and valuation of environmental problems, consider the case of “climate change.” Clark Miller provides an historical perspective on the issue by analyzing how “the CO2 problem” was viewed within the United States’ scientific policy community in the 1970s. He identifies several different frames of the problem that emerged during this time, each of which corresponded to a different societal narrative and invoked a different response strategy. For example, the “global warming” frame saw carbon emissions in terms of “pollution” and led to calls for “end-of-pipe” technology to curb that pollution. In contrast, the “weather extremes” frame focused on the narrative of natural disasters and led to calls to reduce vulnerability to such disasters, while the “energy planning” frame saw carbon emissions in terms of the debates over limits to growth, and led to arguments for de-carbonization and the transition to a low energy economy (Miller 2000: 216). Looking ahead instead of behind and broadening the scope to the general public, Nisbet provides a typology of possible ways to frame climate change in media coverage. He considers three of these frames to be particularly promising for encouraging broad-based support for mitigation: the “economic development” frame, the “morality and ethics” frame (especially as linked to a faith-based notion of responsible stewardship), and the “public health” frame (Nisbet 2009; Maibach et al. 2010). Of course climate change may also be framed, as is evident in US Pentagon reports among others, as a “national security” issue, particularly given potential conflicts over resources and the possibility of mass migrations (Davenport 2014).2 Each of these perspectives on climate change emphasizes a different facet of how to understand the problem and, accordingly, different conceptions of what can or should be done about it, and by whom. Each frame also potentially fuels or dampens different sources of motivation for addressing the problem among different people.3


In their influential book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein define a nudge as “any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (Thaler and Sunstein 2009: 6). A nudge, then, is a kind of “choice architecture.” Like building architecture, (p. 596) choice architecture is the design of contexts in which people live—in this case, the design of the various informational, symbolic, and material contexts in which people make choices. It is the structure of the “background against which choices are made” (Sunstein 2014: 14). Thaler and Sunstein use the example of a school cafeteria to explain. The food in the cafeteria is necessarily presented to the children in a particular order and fashion. Significantly, the way in which the food is presented will likely influence how much of each kind of food the children will “choose” to put on their trays, even if—perhaps especially if—the children are unaware of this influence. Furthermore, since there is no way to avoid arranging the presentation of food in some manner or another, there is no way to avoid influencing the children’s choices in some manner or another. (Notice, though, that this influence need not be intentional. To avoid glossing over this difference, I follow Hansen and Jespersen in using the term nudging to refer only to deliberate acts of choice architecture (Hansen and Jespersen 2013).) Not surprisingly, Thaler and Sunstein argue that, in these circumstances, the food should be arranged in whatever way will encourage the children to eat as nutritiously as possible. To not do so would be perverse. That is to say, it would be perverse to abdicate the potential of choice architecture to increase the welfare of the people whose choices it will influence. Or to characterize their argument more precisely: because choice architecture in general is unavoidable, choice architects can and should intentionally design that architecture to nudge people for their own and society’s good.

As the example of the school cafeteria immediately makes clear, nudging is paternalistic. The reason it seems so obvious (to adults) that the food should be arranged to serve the children’s nutritional needs is because we (adults) believe that children are not yet consistently able to choose food that will be good for their health. So it seems indisputable that we should guide their choices. The difficulty comes in making an argument that “we” (we who?) should guide the choices of adults who are in full possession of their faculties. One of Thaler and Sunstein’s responses to this issue is to limit their argument to “soft” paternalism (or, in their words, “libertarian paternalism”) as opposed to “hard” paternalism. The characteristic feature of soft/libertarian paternalism is that it preserves “liberty of choice.” Recall that Thaler and Sunstein defined a nudge as “any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (emphasis added). They immediately add: “To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not” (Thaler and Sunstein 2009: 6).4

But why any kind of paternalism at all? Although choice architecture in general is unavoidable, nudging, as I have characterized it, is not. When the design of a particular choice context is inadvertent (for example, when cafeteria designers pay no attention to how their design will influence the food that people put on their trays), then the context’s choice architects are not intentionally trying to nudge people in any particular way. So the deliberate paternalism entailed in nudging still requires a defense. The key argument for nudging adults as well as children is that adults are not as different from children as is often assumed. Like children, adults frequently make decisions and act in ways that (p. 597) are not in our own interests. This is because in a sense we’re actually not in full possession of our faculties, or at least not all of the time in the way that is usually meant by that term. This claim depends on research in the field of behavioral economics, which in turn builds upon work in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. As Thaler and Sunstein report, many people in those fields have come to see the brain as operating with two different kinds of systems (Thaler and Sunstein 2009: 19). What Thaler and Sunstein call the “Automatic System” refers to the largely subconscious, fast, automatic, and habitual neurological processes that function to enable us to do many of the things we do and make many of the decisions we make. For example, after some practice, most of us are able to ride a bicycle, drive a car, or type on a keyboard without much conscious effort or even attention, in spite of the complex coordination and constant decisions such activities require. On the other hand, the “Reflective System” refers to the relatively conscious, slow, rational, and deliberative processes that enable others of our actions and choices, such as writing a letter or deciding between job offers.5

It might seem that the Automatic System is the source of all our problems and the Reflective System the solution, but this is not the case. If we had to consciously deliberate about everything we do, we would get very little done—and would have never survived as a species. Still, behavioral economics emphasizes that we are all “running on automatic” much more than we realize, and prone to certain kinds of errors as a result. We use heuristics or “rules of thumb” to quickly assess situations in the absence of full knowledge, often leading to misjudgments and biases. For example, we often automatically estimate how likely it is that an event such as an accident or natural disaster will occur in the future based on whether it has happened in the recent past, rather than on a complete historical survey (Thaler and Sunstein 2009: 24–6). We then make decisions about what is safe and how much we need to prepare for threats using these incomplete estimates. In addition, many of us have an “optimism bias” that leads us to overestimate how quickly, easily, or well something will go. And we often tend to prefer short-term over long-term goals, the status quo over change, and avoiding loss over obtaining gain (Thaler and Sunstein 2009: 31–5). Such unexamined preferences can lead to any number of decisions that are not in our own interest, such as waiting to save for retirement when it is far more cost effective to start saving sooner. The purpose of, and justification for, nudging is thus to counteract the kind of errors we’re prone to as human beings.

Needless to say, many of these errors play a role in environmental degradation; consequently, there are many types of nudges that may potentially help to foster greener practices. Some kinds of nudges rely on the design of physical space, the use of material objects, or the ordering of choices in time (Jones, Pykett, and Whitehead 2011; Yeung 2012). Environmental examples of these kinds of nudges include the relative placement, sizing, and labeling of bins for recyclables and garbage (including labeling the latter bins “landfill” instead of “garbage”), as well as technologies specifically developed to encourage energy efficiency by providing immediate feedback on energy use (including smart energy meters in homes and fuel consumption gauges in hybrid cars). A second way to nudge relies on establishing defaults that can be changed but often aren’t—such as printers set up to print double-sided—or providing “anchors” or focal points that encourage (p. 598) people to make particular kinds of comparisons—such as ecolabels on products for sale that clearly rank the carbon emissions involved in their production or the fuel economy involved in their use. Whereas the primary mechanism of the nudges mentioned so far is to shape people’s cognitive processing, the mechanism of other kinds of nudges is to influence the social meaning (Jones, Pykett, and Whitehead 2011: 487–8; John et al. 2013: 14–17; Moseley and Stoker 2013: 8; Sunstein 2014: 60).6 Nudges of this sort attempt to elicit and/or encourage specific norms or values in their intended audience. One environmental example of this kind of nudging is adding smiling or frowning faces to household utility bills, depending on whether the residents’ energy use is greater or lesser than that of their neighbors (Thaler and Sunstein 2009: 69–70). Another example is “social marketing,” which uses marketing tools (such as understanding “the customer” and analyzing “the competition”) in order to promote “pro-social behavior change” (Corner and Randall 2011: 1006–7). Finally, some forms of nudging can be characterized as “deliberation tools” because they “facilitate more informed, thoughtful decision-making” by helping people to understand the options better and, in some cases, to discuss them with others (Yeung 2012: 132–3). Environmental examples here would again include ecolabels, as well as environmental information campaigns and mandatory disclosures of environmental risks.

As should be clear by now, framing and nudging overlap significantly. Peter John and his co-authors explain that nudging is effectively a matter of “framing choices” (John et al. 2013: 2). By the same token, framing is effectively a matter of nudging interpretations. Both are ways to design contexts, whether for understanding an issue or acting on it. To highlight the commonality, in what follows I will sometimes speak of framing and nudging together as context design.

Context Design as Anti-democratic and Anti-political

It is not hard to raise concerns about framing and nudging as methods for effecting change. While there have been any number of criticisms, though, most can be grouped into two general categories: first, worries that these activities are manipulative and paternalistic, and second, worries that they are privatizing, individualizing, and superficial—that is, limited to trying to change the attention and “behavior” of people as private individuals or consumers within the neo-liberal capitalist state. Clearly these two concerns overlap, but the first emphasizes the charge that context design is anti-democratic while the second emphasizes the charge that it is anti-political. In either case, however, the worry is that context design positions people as passive objects rather than active political subjects.

Let me address the concern that context design is anti-democratic first. Although both framing and nudging have been accused of being manipulative and paternalistic, (p. 599) I limit my discussion here to the charges that framing is manipulative and nudging is paternalistic. Interestingly, the specter of manipulation is raised by advocates of framing as much as by critics, as evidenced by the pains advocates take to distinguish framing from “spin” and “propaganda.” Lakoff, for example, specifically defines spin as “the manipulative use of a frame . . . an attempt to put an innocent frame on [an embarrassing occurrence],” and “propaganda” as “an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control” (Lakoff 2004: 100). Similarly, Nisbet differentiates framing from “placing a false spin on an issue” (Nisbet 2009: 4). Finally, Miller identifies a common model of framing as “a tactical choice in communication. Spinning information to comport with culturally embedded narratives purportedly raises its credibility with target audiences. This model presumes an ignorant and uninformed public with all the dangers that implies for democracy” (Miller 2009). Along with Lakoff and Nisbet, Miller rejects this model, preferring a second model of framing as “an ineradicable element of reasoning” that does not “exploit” this element “for political gain.” Such rejections notwithstanding, the conceptual distinctions these advocates draw between framing, spin, and propaganda serve to highlight the point that spin and propaganda are still forms of framing—and, moreover, forms that in practice may prove hard to differentiate from those that are not manipulative. These distinctions turn on whether or not a given frame goes beyond selectively presenting reality to truly misrepresenting it, as well as whether or not its purpose is to promote interests that are selfish or partisan. Needless to say, the answers to these questions are matters of judgment about which people will likely disagree. Robert Brulle would add that it is characteristic of spin to define the “public interest” for people, rather than encouraging them to discuss it themselves (Brulle 2010: 89). Insofar as framing is used for “one-way communication,” then, he argues that it is indistinguishable from spin and inherently functions to treat citizens “as objects of manipulation and control” (2010: 89).

The concern that nudging is paternalistic is also directly addressed by its advocates. As already indicated, Thaler and Sunstein claim “libertarian paternalism” as another term for “soft” nudging. According to Sunstein, governments or other actors are paternalistic when they “[do] not believe that people’s choices will promote their welfare, and . . . [take] steps to influence or alter people’s choices for their own good” (Sunstein 2014: 54). Given this definition, he argues that some nudges are unquestionably paternalistic; others, however, are not. In his words, “paternalism does not include government efforts to prevent people from harming others—as, for example, in the case of assault, or theft, or air pollution. There is nothing paternalistic about preventing people from beating you up, stealing your car, or making the air hazardous for you to breathe” (2014: 80). Now, following this view, it might seem that nudging for environmental purposes is rarely paternalistic, since in these cases people’s choices usually harm the welfare of other people, beings, and ecosystems as much as (if not more so than) their own welfare. Yet paternalism need not be limited to individuals.7 If the collected choices of a community are not promoting the welfare of that community (for example, if they are not supporting the ecological systems upon which that community depends), then (p. 600) nudges that attempt to influence the community as a whole to act for the benefit of the community as a whole are arguably still paternalistic. They are still interventions intended to help people not engage in “self-harm,” even if the “self” in this case is larger than a single human being.

Of course, many questions can be raised about the legitimacy and effectiveness of paternalism, particularly when directed at adults. The most obvious question is whether choice architects have the necessary knowledge to nudge other adults well. Even in the case of experts, can they possibly know more than people do themselves about how to promote their own welfare? Especially when a problem is as complex and multi-layered as some of the biggest environmental problems are? Another question is whether choice architects have the integrity to nudge well. How can we be sure they won’t be biased or corrupt? A third question is whether paternalism is effective over the long term. By preventing people from making mistakes, doesn’t it prevent people from learning to make good choices on their own? Critics of nudging—and some of its advocates, too—express these concerns and more about the paternalism entailed in this form of context design (Selinger and Whyte 2011; Gill and Gill 2012; Goodwin 2012; Moseley and Stoker 2013; Sunstein 2014).

I turn now to the concern that context design is an anti-political response to environmental problems: privatizing, individualizing, and superficial. Again, there are two main aspects to this concern. The first is that, when used as methods to effect change, framing and nudging situate people as individuals and consumers rather than citizens. From a green perspective, insofar as these strategies focus on encouraging what is often called “pro-environmental behavior,” they hold people responsible for their personal energy use or carbon emissions or consumption of resources with little attention to the larger structures (energy grids, transportation systems, capitalist economies) within which these “individual choices” are made. This criticism is quite similar to that levied against some models of green citizenship: that these approaches function to “[promote] sustainability through changing individuals rather than structures” (MacGregor, this volume, p. 613, emphasis added, citing Gabrielson 2008: 430). As Sherilyn MacGregor argues, “buying, washing, collecting, and transporting one’s plastic bottles to a privately-contracted recycling bank are not citizenly acts. Instead, a citizenly act is demanding free, curbside recyclable waste collection for all, or pressing governments to pass laws against unnecessary and wasteful packaging thus reducing the need to recycle in the first place” (MacGregor, this volume, p. 618). Building on this example, to the extent that recycling is framed solely in terms of individual responsibility and people are nudged only to recycle on their own, the context that necessitates so much personal recycling is left unexamined and unchanged. At its worst, then, an approach that merely encourages individuals to behave differently is not only insufficient to solve the problem, it actually prevents a full solution by drawing attention away from the fundamental structures causing the problem and the political engagement necessary to address them.

The second aspect to the concern that context design is superficial and privatizing stems from the prospect that it takes people’s values as fixed individual preferences, seeking only to frame information or nudge behavior in ways that better “fit” what (p. 601) people already believe and care about. In this case, individuals as well as structures remain essentially unchanged. Consider Lakoff’s explanation of how reframing an issue works. Lakoff distinguishes between “deep” frames and “surface” frames—a distinction that parallels the one he draws between unconscious mental structures that cannot be accessed directly and language that can be. Deep frames are fundamental but unconscious worldviews about what is good, right, and true, while surface frames are words or phrases (what might be considered slogans). Again, only surface frames can be explicitly changed. But for a new surface frame to change a person’s conscious orientation toward an issue, it must resonate with an existing deep frame: otherwise there is nothing for it to hook onto (Lakoff 2006: 29). “Reframing is not just about words and language. Reframing is about ideas. The ideas have to be in place in people’s brains before the sound bite can make any sense” (Lakoff 2004: 105). The goal, then, is to “activate” the right [deep] frame. “Framing is about getting language that fits [a person’s] worldview” (2004: 4). The key point here is that the deep frame, the worldview, is already present in that person’s mind. It is not introduced, produced, investigated, or changed in this process; it is merely “activated.”

Again, some framing advocates specifically endorse Lakoff’s deep vs. surface model and some do not, but either way, most operate with the same aim of finding “language that fits [a person’s] worldview.” In discussions about ways to encourage support for climate change action, for example, it is common to note that people generally support addressing the problem, but not at the expense of addressing other problems that hit closer to home (usually everyday economic and security concerns). This means that the values for taking action on climate change exist; they just get “crowded out” or “shouted down,” so to speak, within people’s interior dialogues, and correspondingly in their political dialogues with other people. So the task becomes figuring out how to help people make the connections between climate change and these other daily concerns—or, we might say, figuring out how to see that the values (or voices) are really harmonious rather than conflicting. Although not specifically discussing framing, John Meyer provides an example of this when he references work by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus showing that “popular support can deepen if the concerns for global warming are persuasively tied to the everyday concerns of citizens and to their hopes for a better future” (Meyer 2005: A7). Meyer is clear that “this is not an effort to change public attitudes. Instead, it is a change intended to bring the progressive agenda into closer contact with public attitudes that are already sympathetic, yet tepid” (2005: A6).

Tying climate change to people’s everyday concerns is crucial work. At the same time, it may not be entirely possible. To the extent that this approach assumes that the different things people care about (such as economic security and climate change mitigation) only appear to be in conflict, it fails to account for cases where the tension between values is real.8 But this is common in life. Even people who are committed to a comprehensive progressive agenda value incompatible things, both within and between themselves. For instance, they may well value many things that a low-carbon lifestyle can offer, from the ethical satisfaction of preserving the planet’s ecosystems to the more bodily rewards of, say, getting more exercise and sunshine while biking to work. At the same time, they (p. 602) also likely value the ability to easily travel long distances by plane, and for good reason, since it can enable them to maintain ties with far-flung family and friends and experience different landscapes and cultures first-hand. Unfortunately this ability to travel easily comes at the cost of significant greenhouse gas emissions.9 Barring some massive technological advance, the value of plane travel and the value of mitigating climate change truly do conflict. If this is the case—if living more sustainably really does jeopardize some of the things many people currently value—then the task at hand requires something more than just connecting to people’s existing values. It requires changing some of their existing values.

Notice, though, that the structure of the last sentence still situates people as objects of transformation, not subjects. “People’s values must be changed,” not “people must change their values.” This point returns us to the fundamental concern about context design: that it positions people as passive private individuals rather than active political subjects. Manipulation, paternalism, privatization, and individualization: where is democratic politics here? Where is collective action? Where is deliberation? Where is change substantial enough to meet our substantial environmental threats?

Designing Contexts Democratically

These questions have important democratic and environmental implications. The concerns that critics raise about framing and nudging are real possibilities. At the same time, completely rejecting these activities is not an option. Communities and their members may refuse to purposely frame or nudge, but they cannot escape structuring and reinforcing—however inadvertently—the ways that information and choices are presented within their community, and thus establishing and maintaining contexts that shape the community’s thinking and behavior. Anyone in a position to communicate and/or make background decisions that affect other people (in government, industry, and elsewhere) will inevitably be influencing people’s interpretations and choices, one way or another, deliberately or not, toward one kind of end or another. Recall Nisbet’s point that “there is no such thing as unframed information” (2009: 4). The same point applies to choices: there is no such thing as unframed choices. In other words, there is no choice that exists outside of some kind of choice architecture. As Sunstein notes, “People make only a very small fraction of the decisions that actually affect them” (2014: 105). The rest of the decisions are made by multitudes of other people, past and present, who have thereby created the contexts that circumscribe the small fraction of decisions people do make. This holds true not just for individuals but for entire communities. For example, most people in the United States did not decide (or, at least, certainly not on their own) to build communities that lack the transportation infrastructure, geographical layout, and culture that would foster other forms of transportation besides automobiles. Background decisions about infrastructure, space, and values all set the context for the “choice” people make to use cars to get around. Moreover, as this example illustrates, (p. 603) the design of contexts is not only unavoidable but powerful. When it comes to encouraging more environmentally sustainable modes of life (as with many other possible goals), context design has the potential to be very helpful—or not. Consequently, I think Thaler and Sunstein are right that we should not abdicate the potential of context design to increase the welfare of those whom that design will influence.

How, then, to respond to the concerns raised above? From a green perspective, the best option is to frame and nudge in ways that are as deliberative, democratic, transparent, and environmentally transformative as possible—in other words, for people (and the “voices” of other beings) to be as involved in the process as possible, and for the process to include as much questioning of ends and means as possible. Context design should be something that people pay attention to and engage in themselves, as political subjects capable of collective action to shape their future. It should not be something that is done to them as objects of manipulation by experts.

Surely this is a challenging goal, but communities can at least move in this direction. Let me briefly sketch some possibilities for more democratic, political, environmentalist forms of both framing and nudging. In the case of framing, it is important to note that there is no necessary self-interest, partisanship, whitewashing, or misrepresentation—no necessary spin or propaganda—built into the concept. Frames may well provide candid, broad-based perspectives that advocate for inclusive and just aims. Furthermore, frames may be used to foster exploration and discussion. Will Friedman offers a helpful distinction between framing-to-persuade (“defining an issue to one’s advantage in the hopes of getting an audience to do what you want it to do”) and framing-for-deliberation (“clarifying the range of positions surrounding an issue so that citizens can better decide what they want to do”) (Friedman 2007: 2). Friedman does not imagine that framing-to-persuade will or should disappear, but he argues that framing-for-deliberation can provide a way to help citizens assess and respond to persuasive frames more productively (2007: 5). He notes that some nonpartisan organizations already approximate framing-for-deliberation by providing guides that sort through and compare various approaches to a particular issue of public debate (2007: 2). The key point for my purposes is that framing-for-deliberation does not position us as passive objects to be acted upon by experts. Nor does it take our values as set individual preferences. On the contrary, by fostering deliberation, it encourages us to actively examine our values, identify where they conflict, and consider how and why they might be understood or prioritized differently. Among environmental advocates, much scholarly and political effort has been put into finding ways to frame climate change so that people will be persuaded to believe it is a serious problem worthy of attention and action. I argue that advocates should put more effort into finding ways to frame it as a situation worthy of serious and sustained public investigation and debate—including investigation and debate about what contributes to the situation and what is to be done about it. More broadly, I argue that we should all put more effort into finding ways to frame our lives as situated within, and in relationship to, the ecosystems of this planet.

In the case of nudging, the more that citizens and not just “experts” or leaders are involved in the process, the less paternalistic the activity is. To the extent that a broad (p. 604) range of people are involved in determining the structure of the choice architecture in their lives, concerns about whether choice architects have the knowledge or integrity to nudge other adults well or whether nudging prevents people from learning from their mistakes diminish. In effect, choice architecture becomes a practice of people nudging themselves. This is actually not unusual at the individual level: many of us nudge ourselves by (literally or metaphorically) “putting the fruit at eye level” in our own homes. It is less common on a political level, but not entirely absent, and not implausible to pursue as a goal. More democratic forms of nudging could begin with citizens being nudged to participate in political processes, processes through which they would then decide how to nudge themselves as a community.10 As Jones, Pykett, and Whitehead put it, we need “deliberative choice architecture” (2011: 494, emphasis added). It could also involve citizens nudging leaders, for example by using social marketing techniques (John et al. 2013: 139).11 Beyond this, more environmentally transformative forms of nudging could begin with citizens being nudged to expand their awareness, experience, and knowledge of the environment in which they live, including their impact on it and its impact on them. Such expansion could in turn enable them to contribute to designing more environmentally conscious nudges for their communities.12 Together, these suggestions sketch nudging as an activity that could incorporate multiple human and non-human voices in designing frameworks for human choices.

Taken seriously, attention to context design points to a deeper examination of values, practices, structures, and systems than critics fear. While framing and nudging may be used to influence superficial beliefs and behaviors within existing value systems and institutions, they are not inherently limited to operating at superficial levels. On the contrary, these activities have the potential to draw our attention to the foundational contexts that shape our views, actions, and ways of life—and thereby to enable us to begin to change them. Unless and until we come to recognize how much is “built in” to the conceptual and material contexts surrounding us, we will not be able to make fundamental changes. For this reason, environmentalists who believe that fundamental changes are necessary in order to address substantial environmental problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss should not reject framing and nudging as methods for effecting change; rather, they should use them in democratic and transformative ways.


I am especially grateful to my co-editors, Teena Gabrielson, John M. Meyer, and David Schlosberg, for their contributions to the development of this chapter.


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                                                      (1.) Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and linguist who has been leading the charge that progressives of all stripes need to make better use of framing.

                                                      (2.) This list does not exhaust the different possible ways that climate change can be framed. Other possibilities include framing the issue in terms of what will be gained from mitigation vs. what will be lost without it, or in terms of local impacts vs. distant ones, and so forth (Spence and Pidgeon 2010).

                                                      (3.) For a more in-depth discussion of a central debate over how to frame environmental problems in general, see my article “What Will it Mean to Be Green? Envisioning Positive Possibilities without Dismissing Loss” (Hall 2013).

                                                      (4.) Here is another distinction between choice architecture and nudging: where the latter is limited to soft paternalism, the former is not. Just as a building may be constructed with only one door, choice architecture may be constructed to allow only one real “choice.”

                                                      (5.) The two systems are often referred to more generally as System 1 and System 2.

                                                      (6.) Of course, some forms of nudging attempt to do both. See Jones, Pykett, and Whitehead (2011), Yeung (2012), and Mosely and Stoker (2013) for more categorizations of types of nudging.

                                                      (7.) Nudges need not be limited to human beings, either, but I leave that point aside here.

                                                      (8.) To be clear, Meyer does not assume that people’s values only appear to conflict. In his book, Engaging the Everyday: Environmental Social Criticism and the Resonance Dilemma (2015), he does not contend that tying climate change or other environmental issues to people’s everyday concerns will “resolve tensions or result in consistency.” Rather, he argues that it will “politicize these aspects of life that often can seem disconnected from concerns like climate change” (personal correspondence). Other authors, however, do appear to assume inherent consistency in values.

                                                      (9.) Of course airplanes are not the only mode of transportation with significant environmental costs. I choose this example because planes are both carbon intensive and, in industrialized countries, often used for leisure travel. As such, the carbon emissions from this kind of travel surely count as luxury emissions, not subsistence emissions (see Henry Shue’s distinction in “Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions”(2010)).

                                                      (10.) For further discussion of this reciprocal process, see Peter John et al. Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Experimenting with Ways to Change Civic Behaviour. While the authors initially distinguish between nudge strategies and “think” strategies (strategies that involve collective deliberation), they ultimately argue for integrating the two by nudging citizens to be involved in deliberation about the design of nudge strategies (2013: 152).

                                                      (11.) John et al. acknowledge that constraints in existing government structures and procedures may limit citizens’ effectiveness in nudging representatives (2013: 141–2).

                                                      (12.) I thank David Schlosberg for this suggestion.