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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

The economic “growth” frame – and its opposition

shibuya-graffiti-683-compressedAug 27, 2014 Outside of governments and corporations, the pursuit of economic growth is no longer taken for granted – some commentators are challenging the orthodoxy. But the “growth” concept has deep roots, and in its absence we have what George Lakoff calls “hypocognition”, a lack of established frames enabling us to think differently about the economy. Cognitive-linguistics studies have even suggested that direct opposition to “growth” may be counterproductive for those who oppose it.

Promoters of “economic growth”, together with their opponents (eg “degrowth” and most “post-growth” adherents*), share the same starting premise – that something called “the economy” has a meaningful single measure (“growth”, GDP, etc) which should either be increased or not, depending on the respective view.

Both views (pro- and anti- “growth”) tend to reinforce aspects of market ideology as a consequence of this shared premise. To understand why – particularly in the case of Greens – we need to look closely at what the “growth” frame brings to economic thought.

Since we don’t want “to confuse the map with the territory”, it seems a good idea to briefly recall the human-level terrain – the unthinkably diverse activities, communications, materials (or “resources”), processes, “products”, “services”, skills, know-how, information access, etc – all of which have different, and largely irreconcilable, “measures” – and all of which we contrive to aggregate into a single object, or entity, called “the economy”.

Okay, now back to the abstractions which govern us.

Framing economic “growth”

Economics at a “macro” level is, by necessity, a construct of models and metaphor. The conceptual metaphors we use to think about “the economy” bring their own weird logic to the party – mostly from domains more concrete than macroeconomics. This is no trivial matter, as metaphoric frames define the dominant economic worldviews.

Even the basic notion of economic “growth” shapes our thinking along metaphoric lines – in this case, the “natural” growth of a living organism, which is source domain for the growth-as-increase metaphor (“more is growth”).

“Growth” might seem to be merely a dead metaphor – ie one which is conventionalised (or “lexicalised”). But, as Michael White points out (in Metaphor and economics: the case of growth): “despite this lexicalisation, when economists and journalists deal with economic performance, the metaphoric sense of growth is highly active“. (My emphasis)

This seems an important point – and worth emphasising, particularly for those who aren’t familiar with the field of conceptual metaphor. What it means is that various ideas are imported automatically – and largely unconsciously – from the “growth” metaphor into our attempts to think quantitatively about “the economy”. For example:

  1. Growth tends to be conceptualised as natural and good. This deeply positive sense is universal, and is imported into our conception of quantitative increase in economics via the metaphor. It’s not just a superficial “surface language” matter.
  2. Conversely, absence of growth is conceptualised as bad and unnatural – eg due to adverse conditions, or to interference with the natural process. The list of examples of economic metaphor expressing this fundamentally negative, unnatural aspect of “no-growth” seems endless in our culture. One interesting example I’ve previously written about is economic “flatlining”, in which “flat growth” metaphorically signifies death. The negative connotations of no-growth aren’t overt here – they’re entailments of the metaphor.

So deeply established is the “natural growth” metaphor (and its negative obverse) that we might find it hard to think in positive terms about “the economy” without it. Or, as Anna Gustafsson puts it (in The Metaphor Challenge of Future Economics), “We may even have difficulties in conceptualizing a society not built upon growth; this is visible in our language.”

(Note: There are a few exceptional cases where growth is regarded as bad in its source domain – eg disease and obesity. The phrase, “obese economy”, might have satiric potential, and “cancerous economic growth” makes a point about growth with no end. But I suspect that if Frank Luntz found that his opposition was framing economic growth as “disease” or “cancer”, he’d clap his hands and take the day off. The implication would be of humanity as disease – presumably not a frame that Greens would be keen on promoting.)

“It’s the economy, stupid”, stupid

green-growth-compressedBoth “growth” and “the economy” are what Lakoff calls ontological metaphors. They enable us to think about unthinkably multifarious phenomena (eg all the things “of value” that people do) in terms of “discrete entities or substances of a uniform kind”. This isn’t about “mere language”, but about how people think. The “price we pay” is to be stuck with crude, reductive (eg two-valued) logics, eg growth/no-growth. And it doesn’t help much to change the definition of “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP), or to divide “the economy” into sectors – it simply applies the same binary logic to slightly different, or smaller, entities.

Of course, there have been many conventional criticisms of GDP (and GNP) as a “measure” – eg that it confuses different types of “growth”, and doesn’t reflect (unequal) distribution, environmental damage, etc. These criticisms have been around for a while – some of them were made by Simon Kuznets, the economist who originally developed the ideas behind GDP.

“Economic growth” was first adopted by governments as national policy objective after the introduction of GDP (1940s-1950s) – not for its own sake, but as an approach towards achieving “full employment” (a point I’ll return to). Peter Victor, an ecological economist, has argued (Nature, 18/11/2010) that because “growth”, as a government objective, is a relatively new notion, “dethroning it seems less improbable.”

From a cognitive frames perspective, that seems optimistic. “Growth” is a “deep frame” – its use and extension in economics goes back at least as far as 18th century classical economics (although not as government policy). But, most significantly, it’s been a key feature of saturation-level business propaganda for decades, since political strategists first noticed, or vaguely intuited, that “economic growth” and market ideology are mutually reinforcing.

That means the frame has been hammered into our skulls relentlessly, repeatedly – in all kinds of ways, without pause or break – for much of our lives. This is why Lakoff and his colleagues often bring neuroscience and the physical brain into the equation. If it were just a question of “pure”, disembodied ideas, we could drop the idea, or belief system, immediately, erase it from our minds and replace it with a new one. But we know it doesn’t work like that.

“Since the synapses in neural circuits are made stronger the more they are activated, the repetition of ideological language will strengthen the circuits for that ideology in a hearer’s brain. […] ideological language repeated often enough can become ‘normal language’ but still activate that ideology unconsciously in the brains of citizens – and journalists.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)

“Growth” frame reinforces market logic

Market ideology holds profit maximisation to be a moral good, and interference in the market (eg by government) to be a moral ill. Both notions combine easily with the “economic growth” frame. Firstly, with the latter’s entailment of total increase as a “natural” good, regardless of the divisions, precise characteristics or manner of distribution of that increase; and, secondly, of interruptions or interferences with “growth” viewed as unnatural and inherently nefarious.

Market logic on labour is reinforced by the notion of “growth”, also. This logic regards labour as “a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials”, to quote Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors we live by), who argue that uniformity – or interchangeability – is implied by the metaphor of labour as material resource. Overall “productivity growth” is the criterion – the well-being of the worker doesn’t enter into the equation.

trolley-growth-compressedAnother aspect of market ideology reinforced by the “growth” frame is the heroic individualist entrepreneur fairy tale. “Growth” as a personal or individual-business metaphor seems unproblematic, but when we reflexively conceive of “the economy” as an object with an attribute of “growth”, the entrepreneur idea extends to it “naturally” because of the “good growth” frame. This is the myth that practically all wealth/”growth” derives from entrepreneurial enterprise, which is heroically fighting against “unnatural” interference to growth (eg from governments, “do-gooders”, Green activists, etc).

In fact, corporate market ideology and “economic growth” framing seem so closely intertwined that the mutual reinforcement appears seamless and largely invisible – unless it’s pointed out. Perhaps the most obvious example for most people would be “trickle-down economics” – the idea that as long as “the economy” is “growing”, all those minor inconveniences like mass poverty and corporate monopoly will “naturally” sort themselves out.

The inverse is “mutual inhibition” between “economic growth” and policies which oppose corporate-market domination. Perhaps this explains why the idea of a “leisure society” seemed to grow weaker in our society during the period in which the dogmatic pursuit of “economic growth” grew stronger. As mentioned above, “growth” was originally adopted as a government measure/policy for the purpose of achieving “full employment”. This situation now seems to have reversed, with “economic growth” regarded as an end itself, and “job creation” (at all costs) as a putative (and usually dubious) means to serve that end.

“Degrowth” and “post-growth”

Obviously, these terms express little more than negation of “growth”. Lakoff, as we know, advises that direct negation of a frame merely activates that frame, but this might seem like a trite formula to those who fervently oppose any further economic “growth”. And judging by the frequent use of these “de-” and “post-” terms in various Green projects and proposals, the advice has either been overlooked or misunderstood.

Any use of these terms (eg as proposals, without quotes) tends to imply (and communicate) the premises that I’ve described above, which market-ideological views thrive upon. GDP (or any alternative single “measure” of “growth” of “the economy”) is, by definition, bought into. It’s simply a “for” or “against” inversion according to the narrow terms of the worldview which created the problem.

“Green growth”

I’ve seen differing definitions of “green growth”, but they all start with the conventional premise of overall “growth” in “the economy”, and its inherent two-valued logic. Some “de-” and “post-” “growth” adherents oppose “green growth” by using the argument that any society (historic or modelled), regardless of how “green”, will show correlation between rising GDP and environmental damage. (Some studies have indicated that this correlation does indeed apply).

That seems a good argument against continuous pursuit of “growth” (eg rising GDP) in even the most greenly-imagined society – but only if you accept that a single aggregate “measure” of “growth” in “the economy” isn’t a nonsense to begin with.

A better frame? – Wealth as well-being

“[T]here is a crucial movement toward a new economics – an economics of well-being, in which the Gross Domestic Product is replaced by an overall indicator of well-being. This new perspective is directly counter, in many ways, to the narrowly imagined concept of economic growth.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)

Promoting an economics based on well-being and its indicators has the advantage, from a cognitive frames perspective, that wealth as well-being is a very deeply rooted – and universal – metaphoric frame. Our original conceptions of “wealth” are inseparable from expressions of well-being.

The problems of hypocognition posed by negation of “growth” thus seem partly averted when we envisage a system of economic indicators based on the existing deep frame of wealth as well-being.

To give a ‘concrete’ example: Work evaluated in terms of the well-being of the worker, as opposed to employment policy made on the sole basis of boosting “growth”. If economic ends are primarily framed in terms of well-being, not abstract “growth”, this makes sense. The subjective experience of the worker is barely considered at all by governments and corporations fixated on “growth”.

With well-being central to economic thinking, things like leisure and quality of life “naturally” come to the fore. Policies previously avoided because they don’t provide “growth” will be considered if they boost well-being. Interestingly, some of the research into how societies might function without “growth” have found that greater leisure and reduction of poverty may be key elements (together with reduction in the use of fossil fuels, materials, etc) – even without any focus on well-being as a criterion.

More leisure, less anxiety

In the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin predicted we’d soon work a 4-hour week. In 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour work week by 1985, and a mere 14 hours by 2000. Paul and Percival Goodman, in the 1960s, estimated that just 5% of the work being done would satisfy our food, clothing and shelter needs.

What happened to the dream of a leisure society made possible by more-for-less efficiencies in know-how and technology? The conventional answer is that productivity increases were channeled into a spiral of greater consumerism and more work, rather than into increased leisure. And the conventional reason is the massive propaganda push from big business to sell the consumerist culture.

Less conventional a reason, but probably just as important, is the moral framing of work in our society. As David Graeber puts it, “there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. Which is constantly being reinforced by the larger society. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and the feeling that it is best avoided whenever possible.”

Economic “growth” is tied into the “full employment” narrative, and has been since the 1950s. This is where I see an interesting leverage point for change – in terms of broad public acceptance of a new economic worldview. Not in terms of “growth” abstractions (for or against), but towards a greater emphasis on free time, leisure, contentment, happiness, fulfilment – rather than more work, more stuff to buy.

That, and less anxiety. Anxiety seems epidemic in our society – much of it related to work and income. That’s why I see a need for something like a Universal Basic Income to accompany a shift in attitudes away from “more work at all costs” consumerism (or “growth”), and towards an embrace of a time-rich leisure society for all.

* Note: Some “post-growth” and “degrowth” adherents do question the validity of GDP, and argue for alternative measures, etc. But the post-growth and degrowth literature typically proposes reduction or stabilisation of overall “growth” of “the economy” (in other words, it accepts the premise of a single measure of “growth”). 1/9/2014

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

August 27, 2014 at 8:37 am

35 Responses

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  1. For more on how “growth” functions as a positive embodied metaphor in our culture, see Matt Wootton’s insightful piece: http://www.greenwordsworkshop.org/node/40

    See also Rupert Read’s “Post-growth Common Sense” report (for Green House thinktank): http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/files/greenhouse/home/Post_growth_commonsense_inside.pdf

    News Frames (@NewsFrames)

    August 27, 2014 at 10:08 am

  2. Very interesting article. I think some Greens do lose sight of the way their objection to growth per se plays into the mainstream opinion. It’s as if they conform to the stereotype, rather than going beyond it. And with it being such an urgent, important debate, the issues you raise don’t register as they’re seen as just language and pr strategy.

    Samantha Caldwell

    August 27, 2014 at 11:43 am

  3. Yes, thoughtful and v. interesting. I’d like to see more on “Green Growth”, although I understand its critics take the line that it’s prone to co-option by vested interests of big business – a fair enough criticism, but one that’s already well-trodden, so perhaps not worth revisiting above (and your thesis about market logic being served by the for-and-against ‘growth’ framing essentially covers an important aspect of it).

    George Lakoff hasn’t written much on the growth ‘frame’, possibly for all the reasons you give against using it. So thanks for what seems to be the most in-depth piece on the subject that I’ve seen so far!

    Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

    August 27, 2014 at 12:24 pm

  4. I like this a lot. It is different and I’ll find it more difficult to process than my usual approach to the subject (stats and fact figure based work) but its definitely something to think about, and you make a good case. You appear to have a more logically grounded take on it than many writers on the language side.


    August 27, 2014 at 2:11 pm

  5. Great piece! Something I think you could have mentioned was the idea of competition. Take this from Thatchers 1987 conservative manifesto “Britain today is in the seventh successive year of steady economic growth. We have moved from the bottom to the top of the growth league of major European countries”. This makes sense for conservatives as according to Lakoff’s strict father model “It is through competion that we discover who is moral and, that is, who has been properly self-displined”. The ‘economy as competitor’ metaphor is apparent today when George Osbourne stresses the need for the UK to ‘compete in the global race’. It’s easy to see why ideas like ‘global race’ are beating Milliband’s ‘One Nation economy’. What the hell is a ‘One Nation economy’!


    August 27, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    • Great points. Yes, it fits the strict-father competition thing and also the related faux Darwinist aspect – I wrote about those in my piece on war framing and the “nation as person” metaphor that Lakoff talks about. And it’s the same with “the national economy”. I forgot about those aspects when writing the above – I should’ve included them. Thanks for taking the time to comment (same applies to Samantha, Andre & Eric for their comments).

      News Frames (@NewsFrames)

      August 27, 2014 at 10:39 pm

  6. I’m very glad you’ve opened a debate on this. As with many things in conventional economics, it’s an “Emperor’s New Clothes” issue. Environmentalists, on the whole, have been too shy to directly question the “economic growth” concept, preferring instead to campaign for less growth or growth stabilization, not realizing that in doing so they are underlining – not undermining – the validity of economic growth as a real quantitative thing.

    Some of them critique GDP, but don’t go as far as undermining the whole conceptual basis of growth. It always comes back to proposals to cut or freeze overall growth. The illusion of the emperor’s clothes re-materializing in their minds. Others are already committed to “de-growth” and “post-growth” and have set up projects, web and Facebook presences using those labels as titles. They are good people but I wonder if the effect is simply polarization and preaching to the choir, rather than the kind of radical understanding needed to reach a wider base.

    Jan Lubrano

    August 28, 2014 at 5:16 am

  7. Just a note – in case anyone was confused – on the paragraph where I write of the “growth-as-increase metaphor (‘more is growth’).”

    Two different notations are used in the academic literature for conceptual metaphors. So, for the metaphor of a destination for a life goal, they’ll say either:

    “Life Goals Are Destinations”, or:
    “Destinations —> Life Goals”

    In this metaphor, destination is the “source domain”, and life goal the “target domain”.

    I tend not to use these academic notations, but stick with what sounds right to me in “normal” English. But please drop me a line if my usage confuses you, or if you think it’s wrong.


    August 28, 2014 at 9:26 am

    • Growth seems a more complex metaphor than first appears. In the original sensorimotor domain we associate growth with increase in size, length, height, etc – but there are other things too, including the social variables we associate with our own growth. As you rightly point out, there’s a rich set of inferences (not just simple ones) transferred from the organic domain to areas such as economics – and so it’s not something we should just take for granted.

      Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

      August 28, 2014 at 10:43 am

  8. Thanks – useful work. But there are some important errors or misunderstandings here. e.g. Right at the start, you say: “Promoters of “economic growth”, together with their opponents (eg “degrowth” and “post-growth” adherents), share the same starting premise – that something called “the economy” has a meaningful single measure (“growth”, GDP, etc) which should either be increased or not, depending on the respective view.” This is not true. I’ve written explicitly against this – including in my report that you cite: http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/files/greenhouse/home/Post_growth_commonsense_inside.pdf . See also my discussion here: http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2397606/lets_build_a_postgrowth_economy_that_works_for_the_99.html
    We post-growthists do NOT (most of us) accept the meaningfulness of GDP. What we accept/maintain, as I make clear, is (1) That GDP is CORRELATED with something meaningful: material throughput. (Of course ‘material throughput’ too is a gross over-simplification/coagulation; but amount of CO2, amount of uranium mined etc are perfectly meaningful and indeed crucially so). And (2) That the grave risk of any attempt to quit the growth / de-growth / post-growth game entirely is that you tacitly encouraging fantasising otherwise: you tacitly encourage the denialist nonsense that we can have more and more economic activity while staying within planetary boundaries.
    The ‘limits to growth’ / planetary boundaries are perfectly real. They are what matter.
    Whenever we get tempted to try to soft-pedal, whenever we get tempted to give up (by thoughts about how deeply hegemonic the ‘growth’ paradigm is), whenever we get tempted to simply find clever alternative ways of thinking about the economy etc., this is what we need to remind ourselves of. That we live on a finite planet, and that there is no way of saving life on that planet (or rather: no way of saving human civilisation) that does not bring us sharply back toward one-planet-living.

    The really outrageous thing about the ‘growth’ frame is that it imports a biological metaphor into a process that results in the destruction of the biosphere. That is one way that we have to keep banging away against ‘economic growthism’: Unearth the sheer dubiety of the metaphor, and make clear that the only things that can actually grow are things that are alive. ‘There is no wealth but life’, as Ruskin wonderfully put it. (Iain McGIlchrist’s work in this area is fascinating, useful. See e.g. my https://www.academia.edu/1006424/Iain_McGilchrist_review_by_RR_proofs

    I agree with your thoughts on well-being. Citizens Basic Income has long been Green Party policy: it is a key ingredient in the move toward a viable post-growth society.

    Rupert Read

    August 30, 2014 at 10:07 am

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rupert. My impression from reading a lot of “degrowth” and “post-growth” literature is that there is indeed awareness of the dubiousness of the GDP/”growth” measure. But this awareness then seems completely lost in the proposals for reductions in GDP/”growth” which follow. And almost completely ignored in the framing. (Your report was an exception). I don’t think I’m guilty of any errors or misunderstandings on this.

      Of course, I mentioned the point about correlation. My view was that it doesn’t help to base an argument/approach on a correlation with something you regard as “not meaningful” to begin with.

      I understand your point about the “grave risk of any attempt to quit the growth / de-growth / post-growth game entirely”.

      My argument is that a preferable approach is to counter that whole narrative with one’s own, not with the dominant single aggregate “growth”/GDP frame (which, by definition, would include “degrowth” and “post-growth”). I don’t think it follows that alternative framing (ie avoiding GDP/”growth” narrative) must necessarily encourage denialism about damage to the planet. On the contrary, I think the fixation on GDP/”growth” from both “sides” is a dead end. Then again, I’m not the “framing police”! It would be absurd to say: “never, ever say ‘growth’ in an economic context”. The point is about the underlying premises, the buying into a whole “growth” narrative.

      You write that the risk is that: “you tacitly encourage the denialist nonsense that we can have more and more economic activity while staying within planetary boundaries. The ‘limits to growth’ / planetary boundaries are perfectly real. They are what matter.”

      What do you mean by “economic activity” and “growth” here? It seems to me that you refer to, or imply, a single aggregate “sum” or “measure” of “growth”. Which, for me, is the problem of this approach.


      August 30, 2014 at 1:30 pm

      • It’s a tough one. That’s the problem with politics – even Green politics – there’s always a tendency to enter the debate on existing grounds (“growth” and GDP). But in this case that’s a losing battle. I agree with your analysis of the Green literature: they don’t seem convinced by their own arguments against GDP and “net growth” (as metrics). Their language is full of statements that reify these abstractions, even while they protest them. And that’s what framing is all about – not being taken for a sucker.

        Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

        August 30, 2014 at 3:01 pm

  9. I read this on the recommendation of the folk at Common Cause, and I’m not disappointed. A very useful dissection of the thinking that constitutes so-called “economic growth”. Applied to all human activity the idea of a singular growth is so obviously an absurdity, with the exception of statistical abstract purposes, but people are so stuck on it. Degrowth, for goodness sake! Talk about vote killers. Greens need to up their game on this, and then some. Not convinced about Citizen’s Income entirely, but at least it’s going in the right direction, i.e. positive and hopeful.

    Mike Healy

    September 1, 2014 at 2:12 pm

  10. Another comment on Rupert Read’s remarks above – having now read the second piece he links to (a blog in The Ecologist) –

    Rupert, you make some good points in it, eg on “the proper valuing of leisure”. And you rightly say we should talk less about “the economy” (you put the term in quotes). But throughout the piece you talk repeatedly about the main attribute of “the economy”, namely “growth” (which you almost never put in quotes). In fact it’s one of your main focuses, and (to use a term of another commenter, above) you reify it, you talk as if it’s real and meaningful (and bad, of course) in its conventionally understood sense. You argue that we should deliberately pursue “no-growth”, which wouldn’t be possible unless one accepted that single aggregate “growth” was meaningful/valid in the first place. It seems a fundamental contradiction with what you posed above.

    You quoted Ruskin (‘There is no wealth but life’). If one is to talk less about “the economy”, but still promote an overarching debate about environmental damage, it would make more sense to replace the “growth”/”no-growth” logic with Ruskin’s “wealth”/”illth” or similar qualitative (rather than solely quantitative) logic. The problem with “growth”/”no-growth”/”post-growth” is that they conflate the life-affirming and the life-destroying in one big aggregate abstraction. And I think most people (outside Green politics) intuitively get this and regard the aggregate “no-growth” stuff as BS.


    September 1, 2014 at 7:19 pm

  11. Most people are simply desperately looking for an excuse not to change their practices. I made clear above what the position is: it is that there needs to be substantial reduction in _material throughput_, down to one-planet-living levels. That is non-negotiable: you can’t negotiate with the atmosphere.
    As a matter of fact, the levels of reduction that are needed are not compatible with what is called ‘economic growth’. That’s all.
    If all that one does is say that one isn’t going to talk about growth any more, and substitutes talking about wealth vs illth or whatever, then one encourages the illusion on the quiet that what is called ‘green [economic] growth’ may be possible at the level of macroeconomics. Which it isn’t. That’s all. It’s that tendency that I am seeking to combat. As detailed in my report.


    September 2, 2014 at 9:07 am

    • That’s disappointing. You’ve completely missed my point, which was reasonably substantial and about framing. It’s ironic given that your report, and much else that you’ve written, was also about the framing of the issue. But I get it: “That’s all”. You have spoken. (I’ll put it down to early morning exasperation or something).


      September 2, 2014 at 9:53 am

    • rupertread1: “As a matter of fact, the levels of reduction that are needed are not compatible with what is called ‘economic growth’. That’s all.”

      They’re probably “not compatible with” Gaia’s colourless green abstractions, either. But that’s not an argument for making a policy about Gaia, You want to reduce so-called “material throughput”? Then say +that+, not “degrowth” or whatever.

      Mike Healy

      September 2, 2014 at 11:54 am

      • Yeah, because everyone knows what ‘material throughput’ means, so talking only about that will be instantly comprehensible.

        Rupert Read

        September 9, 2014 at 10:21 am

      • Sigh. Perhaps you forget what you wrote above, Rupert: “That GDP is CORRELATED with something meaningful: material throughput.” You were saying that whereas you didn’t find GDP or “growth” meaningful, you did find “material throughput” meaningful. Therefore it would make sense to refer to the meaningful “reduction of material throughput” in preference to meaningless “degrowth”.

        Mike Healy

        September 9, 2014 at 6:39 pm

  12. >The problem with “growth”/”no-growth”/”post-growth” is that they conflate the life-affirming and the life-destroying in one big aggregate abstraction.

    Those who are questioning the growth consensus are pretty clear on this: challenging ‘growth’ means challenging ‘economic growth’ as defined by GDP when it has passed an optimal point and become ‘uneconomic growth’ (where it creates decline in the quality of life). It does not mean that there are no other conceptions of ‘growth’. If anything, it was economic growth proponents who conflated the meanings – as Rupert said:

    ‘The really outrageous thing about the ‘growth’ frame is that it imports a biological metaphor into a process that results in the destruction of the biosphere.’

    >And I think most people (outside Green politics) intuitively get this and regard the “no-growth” stuff as BS.

    I don’t know about that last bit – I think more and more people are joining the dots. They see the current system is not serving them so well as it once may have, as well as being destructive to planetary life support systems.

    What Rupert is saying in his follow-up comment is: the planet doesn’t give a rat’s about frames. You cannot negotiate with biophysical limits – that is *not* an abstraction, unlike GDP or economic growth which are human constructs.

    The response to Read’s point, in which you patronisingly accuse him of missing yours, is ironic – as you have missed his.


    September 2, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    • Well, it’s a blog about framing, and the links discussed were about framing. The point about frames not affecting the physical world *directly* is obvious & redundant – nobody is saying otherwise. It’s not really a point worth responding to, frankly.

      It’s also obvious that there are several conceptions of “growth”. The NewsFrames article was clear on this – its arguments were about “growth” as a “single aggregate measure” applied to “the economy”. This could be GDP or other variants of “growth” defined by ecological economists, etc. As long as it’s a single aggregate measure of all kinds of different activities, products, services, etc, then the problems apply with the “growth” frame, as outlined above,

      Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

      September 2, 2014 at 4:30 pm

  13. Thanks Maggie.
    Yes, Andre, it’s a blog about framing: but we framesters have to ensure that the tail doesn’t wag the dog. One always has to consider questions of framing; but sometimes it is a grievous mistake to BEGIN AND END with them. Sometimes, thinking first and last from a framing perspective is a mistake; sometimes, something has to be FACED.
    We have to face the fact that GDP is correlated with material throughput to such an extent that it is absurd to dream of ‘green growth’, economy-wide, and absurd to say ‘Maybe there can be green growth, maybe not; let’s ignore the question; let’s just focus on generating green jobs, etc.’. For we have to face the fact that material throughput must be reduced. End of.

    Rupert Read

    September 3, 2014 at 9:58 am

    • I’m reminded of a question that an environmental journal asked George Lakoff:

      “Some say focusing on language, visual rhetoric, or communication more broadly distracts people from ‘the real crisis’ of global climate change. Do you believe there is any ethical, political, or conceptual risk in a communicative approach to global climate change?”

      Lakoff, of course, responded that it was a misconception to think of framing in this way. To the extent that we think about the “real crisis” at all, we think in frames. It’s not optional. Those of us who take a serious interest have to guard against the notion that it’s just some language-layer separate from “real facts/truth”.

      One doesn’t need to talk explicitly about frames all the time (which would be a bore), but when such important matters are being decided on the basis of absurd abstractions like “growth” being constantly repeated, it’s important. And it’s not as if we’re swamped with frames-based perspectives on “economic growth”. The above article is one of the very few I’ve seen that do it properly. (Compare the crowded field at the “face facts” level you’re suggesting).

      “Green growth” is a nonsense of course. But the ‘correlation’ argument that you’ve used seems logically ridiculous to me. There’s probably a correlation with seagull population as well. So what? You need to go up a level, question the premise of the abstract aggregate. Moving from “growth” to “material throughput” seems the right direction to move in. As the NewsFrames blog said at the beginning, we don’t want to “confuse the map with the territory”. “Growth” is a very dodgy map, green or not. But it’s very deeply imprinted in our conceptual systems as something natural and good. You can’t fight that at the level you’re arguing at.

      Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

      September 3, 2014 at 4:04 pm

  14. This is a very good piece. The cognitive revolution envisaged by people like Kahneman and Lakoff has a long way to go before its insights permeate into public awareness and policy. There’s too much resistance at present, not just from the obvious reactionaries, but also from our own side (as is noticeable from a few of the comments above). It’s a general problem with new ideas – they need to be repeated over and over before we thoroughly internalise them and start to apply them to real issues. Before then, they just remain as intellectual ‘objects’ that we “know all about” (but quickly lose sight of when in the midst of issues that we’re emotionally invested in). Lakoff stesses repetition as the only way to strengthen the new models. But for many people (especially those who only had superficial interest in the first place) this quickly becomes a tedious effort, and they soon revert to the reactionary clichés (comparable to: “that’s enough of this intellectual talk, we need action!”).

    Steve H

    September 4, 2014 at 10:51 am

  15. Here’s my contribution to this fascinating ‘reframing growth’ discussion: go for ‘maturity’.

    To explain: I too have been looking for a ‘good’ positive frame to push, rather than just relying on pointing out the ‘bad’ frame of growthism. Lakoff recommends this, of course – pointing to a ‘bad’ frame only tends to reinforce it. So postgrowth or degrowth aren’t ideal, in that they define themselves in relation to growth. We need a self-standing alternative frame.
    Rupert Read’s Green House report asks for such an alternative frame. I wholly endorse his conclusions: that we should talk less about the economy, more about society embedded in ecology; put emphasis on the commons, sharing and other positive aspects of ‘wellbeing’. But if the growth frame is still out there (and as the discussion here has confirmed, as long as it is uncontested then people will somehow think we can have ‘green growth’), then what’s the single, simple, headline-grabbing frame we can rally round instead? My candidate for this is maturity or adulthood.
    I buy in to the idea that much of our thinking is grounded in the experience of living in a physical body, and that we build up more abstract concepts from more concrete ones (as described in Lakoff & Johnson’s ‘Metaphors We Live By’). Growth is a basic embodied metaphor in this sense. And growth is good here. So let’s not try to fight that. But we can work with it, in a jujitsu sort of way.
    Because, in our physical bodies, of course growth *does* stop. Yes, growth is good for a time, but when you reach adulthood you stop growing physically. Physical growth isn’t bad: we do want children to grow. But not adults.
    This all leads to a positive metaphor which I have been using for a while. Humanity’s bumping up against the limits of a finite planet is the point where we have to stop growing physically (in terms of our physical demands on the planet). And when does this process, of stopping growing, always happen in life? On reaching maturity. This transition, where we shuck off growth, is humanity’s Coming of Age.

    This has 2 entailments:
    (1) After reaching maturity, growth is not just unnecessary, it can be wrong and dangerous (with all the ‘cancer’ connotations). So, growthism is unhealthy.
    (2) Physical growth is largely something that happens in childhood. It’s a sign of immaturity to want to cling to childhood. To move on, to be ‘progressive’, we have to leave physical growth behind. Proponents of ‘growth forever’ don’t want to move on. They want to stay in arrested development as children. So, growthism is childish.
    Indeed I feel we can construct a powerful framing which I dub ‘Playground Thinking’ – the attitude of some elites and the large corporations, who wish for a limitless world without any need to take responsibility for one’s actions, is like that of spoilt children in a playground. They always want more. They don’t want to share their toys. They don’t want anyone telling them that they can’t just go around hitting the other children; or that they mustn’t play with matches that might burn down the whole school.
    Children are of course proud of growth: adults measure a child’s height up door frames, and exclaim, “How you’ve grown!” But adults move on to other things, and leave growth behind. As an adult, you don’t feel the need to demonise growth – it’s simply not a concern any more. In other words, adult concerns don’t define themselves in relation to growth; growth is simply irrelevant.

    So to sum up, the framing I would like to create is one of childhood and maturity. Physical growth is positive, like childhood, but it’s something that you outgrow. Clinging to it is unhealthy and childish.

    Laurence Matthews


    September 8, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    • I completely agree with this. I like the idea of going beyond maturity = industrialisation and understanding a mature nation as one which achieves its aims with a respect, awareness and realism towards its surroundings. However a full page ad I saw yesterday in the Observer put out by Heathrow to promote their ’third runway vision’ (http://your.heathrow.com/new-adverts-release-taking-britain/) I thought was a perfect example of how the arguments of the ‘growth forever’ people are so effective. It was very powerful in terms of its depth of logic and simplicity. The underlying assumption was that ‘every country is trying to maximise its self interest and since the world has limited resources there is a natural competition between nation-states’, without this assumption growthism arguments usually can’t get off the ground. Anyway, you have a really interesting website and I just placed an order for a copy of framespotting as it looks like it has tons of interesting ideas, Thank you!


      September 8, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    • Really helpful. Thanks Laurence!
      You are taking forward what I’ve done and what Lakoff has done. 🙂

      Rupert Read

      September 9, 2014 at 10:21 am

  16. Also, I’d encourage people to dwell more on the most important, central proposal of my report. Which is that we talk LESS about the economy, full stop. We constantly seek instead to place society centrally, and to nest it always in ecology.

    Rupert Read

    September 9, 2014 at 10:23 am

    • What you don’t seem to get is that you can’t talk less about the economy while you talk continually about the growth or degrowth or post-growth of that economy.

      Mike Healy

      September 10, 2014 at 10:18 am

      • *Sigh.* I _don’t_ talk continually about the growth or whatever of the economy. Not at all. I seek to reframe the debate: e.g. by talking less about the economy, period. That’s the point of my report. ‘Post-growth’, as I say there, is mainly a placeholder, a moment in a debate that we need to get away from. One might put it thus: A truly post-growth society will not talk about post-growth or growth or degrowth.
        _But_ when others talk about the economy and talk about growth, then I don’t just evade the issue. If, when others talk about growth, one responds to them in a way that simply refuses to talk about growth at all, one gives the impression that green growth is (overall) possible, etc. . But it isn’t. So, when others talk about growth (as they endlessly do, unfortunately), then among other things I respond by pointing this out (i.e. by pointing out that it is a delusion to think that what is called economic growth can be green), and also by pointing out that endless growth implies endless immaturity or cancerousness etc., and by pointing out that it is obscene to use a biological metaphor for a process that involves the destruction and commodification of biology, etc.
        I hope I may have finally made myself clear…

        Rupert Read

        September 10, 2014 at 1:48 pm

      • Rupert, your brief Ecologist piece reinforces the conventional meaning of “growth” in “the economy” around 20 times, not including your use of the ‘placeholder’ term “post-growth”. (Ironically you linked to this piece in support of your assertion that the NewsFrames blog was wrong on this very point!). So don’t be too quick to sigh back at me. 😉

        Mike Healy

        September 10, 2014 at 5:17 pm

  17. Thanks for the further comments. One thing I’d like to reiterate is the original point about single aggregate quantitative framing reinforcing market ideology. Whether it’s “The Economy” or its attribute, “growth” (or flip side, “degrowth”, “post-growth”, etc) one is talking about this abstract aggregate. This is the one reservation I’d have with anthropomorphizing “The Economy” (eg in terms of child, adult, maturity, etc). In fact it’s already done in the context of conventional economic framing of “growth” to some extent (isomorphic in some ways to the State-as-person metaphor which Lakoff writes about in the context of international conflict). Michael White noted some examples in his work on economic metaphor. It’s why I prefer pluralistic, bottom-up approaches (“wealth as well-being” lends itself to multifarious takes on human economic activity; its “value” or otherwise, but not as part of a single aggregate “economy”).

    Great to see another frames-based project (Framespotting), btw.

    Here’s a bit of additional comment about my article from the Facebook accounts of others:


    September 9, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    • Useful.
      BUT: as I noted earlier, it isn’t altogether misleading to seek to have some kind of measure of ecological footprint. People do it, and I’m glad that they do it. And that’s what economic growth is correlated with. I.e. There are no cases of economic growth simultaneous with footprint decreasing at the rate required in order for us to prevent climate catastrophe etc., and no models of how an economy could pull off that impossible trick.
      I agree about the dangers of aggregation and abstraction, and of reinforcing market ideology. Molly Scott Cato MEP and I have a piece on this in the immediately forthcoming issue of JHRE: our piece is called “The natural capital controversy”. Plus there’s my argument here, referred to above, specifically against GDP: http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2397606/lets_build_a_postgrowth_economy_that_works_for_the_99.html But there is also a danger in puristically resisting any invocation whatsoever of such aggregations and abstractions. A danger of not engaging with the hegemonic terms of debate, in such a way that you allow the impression to continue that perhaps we can have our cake and eat it: perhaps we can have what is called GDP-growth, whether or not we worry about it or not, and still save the planet for human civilisation. But: we can’t. And that’s worth saying. If we have to dally with a dangerous abstraction while saying it, then so be it.

      Rupert Read

      September 10, 2014 at 2:01 pm

  18. Thanks for your thought-provoking essay, Brian You always provide intriguing perspectives on these controversial subjects. Keep up the excellent work, and don’t let the self-important bastards get you down! 🙂

    Harriet Holloway

    September 10, 2014 at 12:03 am

  19. As for the notion that my old mate Frank Luntz will be laughing all the way to the polling booth if we point out that endless growth in size is the ideology of the cancer cell: I don’t think so. The point of pointing out – following Polanyi and Daly – that economy is merely a subset of society, which is in turn utterly dependent on the ecology of which it is one component, is in part to point up that growth in size, let alone endless growth in size, is hardly an apogee of human aspiration or achievement. It is hardly tantamount to framing humans as a disease, when one emphasises that real social progress, against a background of harmony with nature, is what one ought to care about. Real improvement in how human beings are, and in our wisdom, is hardly an anti-human goal.

    Rupert Read

    September 10, 2014 at 2:19 pm

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