In a recent post, Craig Morris took a critical look at US linguist’s recommendations for “framing” the energy transition better. Today, he sheds light on how he, perhaps unintentionally, followed George Lakoff’s advice nonetheless for years to change perceptions about the Energiewende. It started with this website.
Myth-busting is the kind of trap Lakoff talks about: you repeat someone’s misrepresentations to prove them wrong. But of course, by repeating the myth, you also reinforce it in the reader’s mind.
Take the example of the Energiewende’s cost. When a report comes out alleging a high cost, I can rebut it (or at least put it into context), but I cannot do so without reinforcing the idea that 1) cost is a crucial, and possibly the most important, aspect of the Energiewende and 2) that I am on the defensive in talking about it.
Back in 2012, I already felt that rebuttals allowed others to set my agenda. No one in Germany seemed to have anything good to say (that, in itself, typically German), so foreigners must have wondered why the Germans were even pursing the transition. So I set out to tell everyone why.
My post from that October entitled “Time to celebrate the Energiewende” is an early attempt to change the tone, albeit one that is still a rebuttal in spirit. But the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which runs this website, had contacted me and agreed that, in the wake of the world’s sudden attention to Germany after Fukushima, myth-busting was needed (we started with Myths and Facts: The German Switch from Nuclear to Renewables for the first anniversary of Fukushima), but so was telling the story our own way. Subsequent publications like German energy freedom (PDF) of February 2013 contained statements like, “Germans have freedoms Americans don’t even know they lack.” (Later that year, Lakoff started telling environmentalists to “use the f-word”: freedom.)
By that time, this website had also been launched in the fall of 2012. Its structure may not seem unusual, focusing as it does on technologies and policies, but we created a separate Q&A for myth-busting to get those points out of the main text. And the inclusion of a history section was indispensable towards emphasizing society’s role in the Energiewende, which began as a grassroots movement for greater citizen input in the energy sector (which we call “energy democracy”). Usually, Germany’s energy transition is presented simply as the technical implementation (by experts) of a national energy policy (drawn up by experts), not by citizens who forced their government to let people make and sell their own energy profitably.
To understand how rare our emphasis on society remains, take this amazingly detailed chart (PDF unfortunately only in German) by think tank Agora Energiewende from 2016, which leaves out society altogether – no mention of any grassroots movement!
In 2013, I then made a documentary entitled Welcome to the Energiewende. The inviting title was partly in response to a well known German documentary called Leben mit der Energiewende, or Living with the Energiewende. In both languages, the title sounds like “living with cancer” – although the film aims to promote the transition. What’s worse, the Germans did not even realize how bad the title is until I pointed it out…
My documentary includes two music videos: one celebrating the central role that conservatives have played; the other, pointing out that the Energiewende will at least answer a question everyone has – can we switch to renewables? What’s there not to like about experiments?
Last but not least, there’s the new book I coauthored, whose title says it all: Energy democracy.
So I’ve been working to follow Lakoff’s advice all along and get my communication of the Energiewende into the frame I want. I wasn’t reading him, but I knew his work from my studies of linguistics back in the early 1990s, before he became overtly political. But we need to go further: my excursions into videos and graphics are an attempt to reach a wider audience, something Lakoff does not emphasize.
Nonetheless, there is a role for myth-busting and setting the record straight. I frequently get requests from colleagues in the US who are knowledgeable about energy issues, but not about the German specifics. They need to react to some claim, so they turn to me for answers. If they have just a quick meeting with policymakers, sticking to the topic is crucial; forcing the conversation into some other frame is likely to seem evasive. (There’s nothing wrong, however, with adding to the end of your rebuttal: “And let’s not forget freedom.”)
What Lakoff proposes is thus mainly good advice for a general, long-term debate addressing the public. But there is one more aspect about Lakoff’s focus on framing: it is a response to a uniquely American school of conservatism, making it of limited applicability in Germany and possibly elsewhere, as I will explain in a future post.