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December 12th 2017

Doughnuts and Aircraft

I (Laurence) have been aware of the book Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth for some time - indeed Kate came to the Hay festival this year. But because of various 'life events' in the past few months, I've only recently had the chance to read it from cover to cover. It's excellent stuff, and there's lots about framing, of which more below.

book cover

The main thrust of the book is to point out several ways in which many of the ideas of current "20th century" economics ought to give way to new "21st century" ideas. The old ideas are outdated, or just wrong (empirically, that is: they don't actually accord with the real world). And many of these ideas are frames - hidden assumptions which channel the way people think about things, behind the scenes and without saying so explicitly.

I can wholeheartedly recommend the book. It's very accessibly written and has some nice turns of phrase. Such as:

"Talking about values and goals is a lost art waiting to be revived"


"Economics, it turns out, is not a matter of discovering laws: it is essentially a question of design"

and there is lots on:

"growth, the ubiquitous noun, decked out in a splendid array of aspirational adjectives" ( - the adjectives being sustained, balanced, sustainable, inclusive, green, and so on).

Visual framing

Frames are not only verbal, but also visual.

In academic research "visual framing" usually refers to photographs and video - many studies have looked at the implicit framing and messages conveyed by the choice of photos and film to accompany news items. But diagrams can be an important source of framing too (indeed see pages 5, 26 or 29 of Framespotting for examples).

Doughnut Economics looks at some of the iconic diagrams of classical economics - supply and demand curves; circular flow diagrams; Kuznets curves - and how they frame economic thinking; and it suggests diagrams to replace them.

And then of course there's the graph of economic growth - showing GDP over time as an ever rising curve.


Except that this graph is almost never actually drawn, since doing so would beg the question: does the curve rise, ever more steeply, for ever? It's hard to argue for this on a finite planet but the alternative - to consider growth tailing off - is taboo.


Indeed to draw such a graph of GDP levelling off is an incredibly powerful, subversive act. It immediately relegates growth to a "passing phase" - which of course it is for anything in the natural world. As we say in Framespotting (and see the earlier blog post here), in the natural world of children, trees and so on, growth always gives way to maturity.

An aircraft metaphor

The final chapter of Doughnut Economics makes extensive use of an aircraft metaphor for the economy, and I want to end this blog post with some musings about this aircraft metaphor. The metaphor regards the economy as a plane whose altitude stands for the economy's growth rate. Under conventional economics, the plane never lands, but cruises at a constant growth rate for ever.

Should we consider trying to land the plane? Opinions differ. There's an argument between two mindsets: the 'keep on flying' mindset, advocating 'green growth' (which would require radical decoupling of the economy from ecological impacts); and the 'prepare for landing' mindset, advocating a 'post-growth' economy.

The 'prepare for landing' group claims that "the story cannot end with the plane cruising for ever into the sunset of growth. As much as having the ability to fly, this plane must have the capability to land: the capacity to thrive when growth comes to an end." They point out that every real plane has landing gear, and that even though landing may appear a daunting prospect, so does mastering the daunting controls and instruments of an airliner - but we can do that.

In many ways it's a great metaphor. And yet ... there are a couple of weaknesses.

Firstly, we're looking for a story to represent our human journey. And we want that journey to carry on indefinitely, not to end. So seeking a landing, which brings the flight to an end, is an awkward goal to cheer for. We don't mind a real plane landing, because any flight we take is only a small part of our lives; it's not the whole thing. But while each of us might be mortal, we wish for humanity's story to carry on indefinitely.

Secondly, in the metaphor, a level cruise is seen as something bad, unsustainable: but it doesn't seem so. During cruise flight, everything looks constant, as if nothing is changing. Of course this static veneer masks an ever expanding economy with accelerating material throughput and all its escalating consequences, but none of that is visible in the flying metaphor. We have to resort instead to claiming that the plane might "stall" or "run out of fuel". These appeals don't always sound so convincing.

Is there something lurking underneath these concerns? Well, maybe.

A first-derivative world

In a previous century I worked in industry, and at one point I moved from doing statistics into economic forecasting. I discovered how strongly economics focusses, not on the size of something, but on its growth rate: how fast that size is growing. (In mathematical language, economists seem to live in a first-derivative world).

This is a very growth-biased thing to do, and it makes for language which promotes growth. It leads economists to talk about an economy "slowing down" when its speed is still increasing, or "going into reverse" when it's still moving forward. This has been the subject of a previous blog post here. When looking at material throughput, economic growth is not speed, it's acceleration.

Now, the aircraft metaphor above is well established, and it may be confusing (or unrealistic) to change it now. But it's a metaphor from the first-derivative world. Maybe there's something to be learned from looking at an alternative metaphor, as follows.

Suppose we regard altitude as standing for GDP (instead of its first derivative, growth). Growth then becomes vertical speed, ie how fast the plane is climbing. How do things look with this alternative metaphor in place?

First of all, this is a more natural metaphor. If you look at the two graphs above, you can imagine a tiny plane flying along the curves in those two graphs. The current situation is that the plane is, yes, stuck on autopilot, but in a climb rather than in a cruise. The argument between mindsets is now that a 'keep on growing' mindset wants the plane to keep climbing for ever, attaining ever higher altitudes; whereas a 'postgrowth' mindset looks to level out from the climb into a level cruise.

In retrospect, only a first-derivative mindset would look at the two curves above and label them respectively "levelling off" and "landing".

There are other advantages to this alternative aircraft metaphor.

Recall that we're looking for a story to represent our human journey. The postgrowth aspiration is not to end the flight with a landing, but to transition to sustainable flight. Finishing a climb and entering an indefinite cruise is exactly that; it exactly mirrors the transition from growth to maturity. We have a "happily ever after" ending, as opposed to "and then it all stopped" ending.

Furthermore, whereas in the old metaphor the postgrowth mindset has to argue that the cruise is unsustainable although it doesn't seem so, in the alternative metaphor we can see that things are getting out of hand. The metaphor itself raises various questions - such as, what happens when the air runs out (because we have tried to climb out of the atmosphere)? This is an almost perfect metaphor for trying to transcend planetary boundaries.

Also, we can see that the ever-climbing plane is getting more and more out of touch with the Earth. And that the climb is getting steeper. (It does so because even with a constant growth rate, of say 3% per year, the increase each year is 3% of an ever-higher number).

Finally, if a cruise is established and the passengers and crew are happy that the sky has not fallen, there is then room to consider a gentle descent to a cruise at a lower level (this stands for reducing the throughput of the economy, say to within planetary boundaries). The original metaphor doesn't allow for anything beyond reducing growth to zero.

These are only thoughts and we are all collectively still in the early days of honing our metaphors for this sort of thing. Onwards and upwards! (Oh, on second thoughts ... )

Anyway, there's lots more food for thought in Doughnut Economics. Read it!

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July 12th 2017

Framespotting at the Hay Festival, 2017

Here's a round-up of a few framing-related points to ponder, taken from talks at this year's Hay Festival last month.

Doughnut Economics

hf speakers

Kate Raworth talked about her book Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. This is a lively book attacking the dominant framing of economics.

There's quite a bit about framing in the book, and this includes visual framing as well as verbal framing. The iconic diagrams of economics (as of many other fields) are powerful in framing the way you look at things in that subject area. (There's a famous story about Herman Daly's struggle to get a diagram included in a World Bank report, which showed the economy as a subset of the biosphere). Doughnut Economics looks at several frames in economics and comes up with strong alternatives. Read the book, or in the meantime there's info about it here, including some nice animations.

Framing Climate

hf speakers

Gabrielle Walker gave one of the Reformations series of talks at the Festival. This group of talks, rethinking topics and institutions "from the NHS and the EU, to marriage, honour, peace and citizenship", was put together to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther kickstarting the Reformation.

The reformation in question for this talk was a point-by-point reframing of each aspect of the dominant message from governments and NGOs on climate change. This resonates with us, since - as readers of Framespotting will know - climate change is the major example or case study' we use in the book. And scarcely a day goes by without our Twitter feed containing some reference to the framing of climate.

Gabrielle's reading of the usual climate message is: "Apocalypse is coming; but leaders are useless; so it my be unfair but it's down to you to sort this out; and you do this by giving things up." Along the way, various narratives have been powerful and destructive, such as the message that climate change action is expensive (or impossible). The polarisation into good guys and bad guys ("they want to take something of yours" - either those corporations want to wreck your climate, or conversely those environmentalists want to restrict your freedom) has been unhelpful, to say the least.

Better to say the following. We know there's a problem, and we're going to fix it. It's heroic: there's status to be had from joining in, from contributing. The G19 know this, as do the C40 Cities and the Climate Mayors; the solar cell and electric car industries know this too. The urgency of the climate situation, or the fierce urgency of now' (to borrow a phrase from the civil rights movement), can add an inspirational excitement akin to the 1960's at NASA and, like then, the predominant question should be, "OK, we're gonna do this - now, what will it take?"

By the way, George Marshall was also at the festival, and also talking about framing the climate message. His work points the same way: the message, to be spread conversation by conversation, should go something like this: "People like us, with our values, agree on X; let's do Y and the world will be more like we want it to be." The message should be in terms of from-the-ground-up values, not top-down numbers, and even more important than the message is the messenger. There's much more in Marshall's book Don't Even Think About It.


hf speakers

Yanis Varoufakis gave another stunning performance, this year promoting his book Adults in the Room, which relates his experiences as Greek finance minister and battles with the upper echelons of the EU establishment.

During the discussion, his answer to the question "Why is Europe [ie the EU] important" was striking: "We need a pan-EU approach to tackle the four problems we face: namely sorting out the banks; public debt; private debt; and low investment." Notice anything? These are all firmly within the economics frame.

Well, of course, Yanis is an economics professor, and it'd be wrong to make too much of this taken out of context (after all, he's actively involved in the DiEM25 movement for wider political reform). But far too often, people do think this way: they talk about Europe, or the EU, solely in terms of economics. Where is the talk of Europe in terms of cultural values (of justice for example as well as freedom); or in terms of united strength to counterbalance Russia (China, the USA ...); or in terms of a proving-ground for learning in preparation for global governance?

'Reframing the Geostory'

hf speakers

Nick Crane (of Coast and other TV programmes) told the story of humanity in Britain during the last 12,000 years or so, since the end of the last ice age up to the present, the period known at the Holocene. (A nice moment came when he described the time when a tsunami, caused by a seismic shock off Norway, finally submerged Doggerland - now in the North Sea - and isolated the UK from the continent of Europe. "Now that's what I'd call a hard Brexit").

From early settlements around 9000 BC onwards, we humans had negligible impact on the landscape, until the coming of farming several thousand years later. Nick passed through the megalithic age, iron age, the Romans, middle ages and modernity, telling the story through the lens of the landscape: the clearing of forests, draining of wetlands, and finally industrial impact on habitats and on the climate itself.

"This story both starts and ends with climate change," he said. And while historical narratives are usually divisive, this 'geostory' is collective. "We need to reframe our collective story in terms of habitat and landscape."

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April 27th 2017

Twin to Win

Framespotting is always fun during an election. There's lots of framing around with the forthcoming UK election, from talk of 'saboteurs' to euphemisms for dismantling the NHS. The cartoon below is by @CartoonRalph:


Well it's one thing to stand by and observe all this, but it's always nice if framespotting can lead to new ideas or insights. Here's one, perhaps, for the UK election scene.

There's much talk of a progressive alliance. The idea is that parties which share many 'progressive' values (while differing on other things of course, since they're separate parties) cooperate by agreeing not to stand against each other. A nice idea, but this is difficult to achieve, for a variety of reasons.

In the absence of a formal alliance between parties, voters may take matters into their own hands to try and achieve similar results. (From a framing point of view, it's interesting that the Progressive Alliance organisation calls this 'tactical voting', where a similar and successful campaign in Canada called it 'strategic voting').

If we stand back, there are a lot of frames here. There's the democracy frame, and inside that the more specific frames of representative democracy, a constituency-based First Past The Post (FPTP) system, and big, established political parties. It might be interesting to look outside these frames, but let's not stray too far from current reality: let's stay within those frames.

But here's another frame: that parties have to have a policy on everything, developed at the centre with a top-down approach. In other words that something like a progressive alliance has to be a national policy, adopted by the party leadership and applied nationally, or not at all. What's outside that frame? Local pacts between parties, perhaps. But there are different ways of framing that too.

Take the simplest case of a constituency (or seat for short) A, where the vote is currently Conservative 45%, Labour 40%, LibDem 15% - in other words Conservatives are the largest single party but Labour plus LibDems together outweigh them. Now suppose we seek out a partner seat B (perhaps nearby, though not necessarily) which is similar except that the Labour and the LibDem shares are reversed.

pie charts

We could have a 'progressive alliance' between just this single pair of constituencies. But a lot depends on how we frame things. Instead of talking about a local pact, what if we talked about seats A and B being twinned with each other? Indeed we could talk of a 'tandem constituency' (because it has two seats!).

The logic is the same as that of a wider progressive alliance: voting by the progressive populations of A and B, working together, could achieve a Labour win and a LibDem win, in place of two Conservative wins. But the psychology might be very different.

Labour supporters in seat A, although voting LibDem, can feel that they are working very much towards getting the specific Labour candidate for seat B into the House of Commons. They are working, albeit indirectly, for the Labour party in doing this. In return, back in seat A they'd get a LibDem MP instead of a Conservative, and this new local LibDem MP would feel some affinity for the local Labour voters. But moreover, hopefully the new Labour MP in seat B would be looking out to support Labour issues and interests in seat A too. In other words, the Labour supporters in seat A can feel that their vote has counted: there is now a specific, friendly Labour MP keeping an eye on their interests. And all this works vice versa for the LibDem voters.

This is not a top-down policy. Yes, we could imagine party HQs poring over spreadsheets with lists of possible pairings of constituencies, but it doesn't have to be like that. The LibDem and Labour candidates of seats A and B can agree bilaterally to form a tandem constituency - four candidates around a microphone is all it takes. A single tandem could make headlines, and spread the idea. Ten tandems could swing the election.

And party bosses aren't forced into an all-or-nothing decision. They can approve a small number of tandems. Twinning doesn't need to involve most, or even many, seats. Each pairing helps, independently of what's going on elsewhere.

And notice that while we're still in the FPTP frame here, we've taken a small step towards proportional representation or 'fair votes'. It's almost as if the 'tandem constituency' of A & B is a small island of PR in an FPTP sea.

At the moment much of politics is done seat by seat, with the different seats linked only through party hierarchies. But people and candidates can reach out directly, horizontally, to each other too. To be effective, though, such reaching out has to be done in a politically savvy way: perhaps more grass-roots and local than a full-blown alliance between party chiefs, but more collectively and effectively than vote-swapping on an individual voter basis. It has to work not just logically, but also psychologically.

Postscript: we made a quick-and-dirty 2-minute video about this, which you can see on youtube here.

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January 14th 2017

Framing inequality as a health issue

There was an interesting piece by Julia Lynch of the SSRC (in New York) recently, on how 'framing social inequality as a health issue' can be counterproductive.

The piece illustrates the point that if you're trying to change anything, spotting a frame is only half the battle - the trick is then to escape that frame, to go upstream, and pursue change there. This requires tenacity and courage, not just because of tendencies in human nature, but also because vested interests will push back to keep you firmly inside the frame. Meanwhile, voluntarily jumping into a smaller frame can easily backfire!

Let's take a closer look.

Inequality and the health frame

The starting point of Lynch's piece is the insight that social inequality contributes to health inequality. So if we're looking at health inequality, it's not enough to stay inside the 'health' frame which concentrates on medical issues. We need to escape the health frame and look outside this frame too, at money and power inequality, say.

Indeed, the World Heath Organisation has four recommendations based on this causal link (that social inequality contributes to health inequality). Two of these recommendations are: to go beyond the health ministry when looking to affect health issues; and to reduce social inequality as part of the effort to reduce health inequality. Both of these recommendations are about escaping the health frame, looking at the bigger societal picture.

So far so good. But Lynch points out the gulf between these ideas on the one hand, and actual policy and practice on the other. She points out the health framing of inequality has been widely adopted (rather than escaped from), that is, inequality has indeed tended to focus on health issues. There have been two main effects of this, as discussed below. In looking at these effects, it's instructive to look at climate change as a comparison: a climate change parallel would be the framing of climate change as an emissions problem.

Two effects

One effect Lynch identifies is the fact that focussing on the medical (i.e. strictly health) issues makes the problem seem 'wicked', with many interacting factors, long lead-times and lots of complexity everywhere; an arena dominated by 'experts'. This contrasts with the relative simplicity of treating inequality as an economic problem, which

"comes with a relatively straightforward set of policy tools (taxation, redistribution, labor market regulation) that produce relatively well-understood outcomes in a relatively short period of time."

It's similar for climate change: a focus on emissions rapidly leads to complexity (the EU emissions trading scheme was famously described as being 'more complicated than the German tax system') and all sorts of other distractions; whereas an upstream focus on the root causes leads to simple and transparent proposals such as Cap & Share or carbon taxes.

Another effect is that the medical focus not only puts an emphasis on medical expertise which excludes outsiders, but endows the area with a medical ethos - one aspect of which is an emphasis on the individual:

"But the medical model of health, which posits the individual rather than her surroundings as the unit of analysis, makes action on the social determinants of health less likely. A belief in individualism links neoliberalism and the medical model of health ..."

The climate analogy is an emphasis on an individual's carbon footprint, with the exhortation to 'do your bit', which distracts attention from efforts (or lack of efforts) to tackle the problem as a whole.

So why does it happen?

The framing of 'inequality' as 'health inequality' is a narrowing of focus: contrary to the framespotting principle of stepping back, zooming out, and looking upstream.

So why does this framing happen? OK, one can understand vested interests, keen to protect the status quo, being quite happy; but what of 'progressives' who wish to reduce inequality? Lynch points to the political left in several countries being

"keen to talk about health inequalities providing they don't have to talk about income and wealth inequalities."

Progressives initially found that pointing to health consequences of economic policies was powerful. But then it was easy to get captured in the health frame 'comfort zone' and abandon direct confrontation of root causes as being too difficult or (politically) 'unrealistic'. Analogous factors have meant that the climate movement tended to shy away from confronting fossil fuel companies (never mind neoliberalism) directly - until comparatively recently with the growth of the divestment movement, 'keep in in the ground' campaigns and the like. Yes, these are bigger, more scary battles, but looking upstream can reveal new allies too; and in the end these battles need to be fought.

Fighting to keep the focus upstream is an ongoing struggle. Another example at the moment concerns the UK National Health Service, where there's a visible struggle to reject a narrow focus on A&E department problems, and shift the focus upstream to the root causes. At times it's a battle for clarity against misdirection - and boy is this going to be even more of a problem in any so-called 'post-truth' world. But we have to hope that, as they say, in the end the truth will out.

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August 5th 2016

Framespotting at the Hay Festival, 2016

This year's Hay Festival has come and gone. Each year the town of Hay-on-Wye on the Wales/England border (normal population around two thousand) plays host to two hundred thousand visitors. As in previous years, we acted as volunteer stewards and attended quite a few of the talks. Last year we selected a few talks that mentioned or involved framing (see our previous blog post), and in this post we have this year's selection.

Of course, we mean 'framing' in our sense of the word: the psychological and linguistic framing of issues. But the Hay Festival organisers provided us with a literal (picture) frame as well:

Hay Fest 2016

Increasingly, once you're attuned to the word 'framing', you can spot the word being used all over the place, and we stopped keeping count of explicit references to this or that issue being 'framed' one way or another. But as you know, we're particularly interested in people uncovering hidden assumptions when this leads to a realisation that almost everyone has been looking at some issue in a particular way without being aware of it.

Here are three examples: to do with autism, self-interest and the microbiome respectively.


Steve Silberman gave a powerful talk on autism and social attitudes to it, based on his book Neurotribes. One of the main points he made was that when people think about what to do about autism, the framing of autism affects the responses they come up with.

Framing it as a disorder or disease, or even an epidemic, means that the thing people immediately think is needed is to seek a cure.

Framing it as a disability, however, leads instead to thinking about how to help people with this disability lead healthier and happier lives.

Importantly, the former frame encourages you to think about making things better for 'others' in 'the future' whereas the latter focusses attention on people now.

Even then, both these frames lie within the larger frame that sees autism as 'abnormal'. But maybe we should see it instead as part of a spectrum - and not a spectrum that is labelled 'good' at one end and 'bad' at the other end.

Long-term self-interest

Nicholas Stern interviewed Christiana Figueres, who headed up the climate talks in December 2015 that culminated in the Paris Agreement.

Stern said that in the past countries have seen efforts to contain climate change as 'a horse race, between our own economic development, and the global environment'. A horse race has only one winner. It's like a zero-sum game: if one country wins, another loses. 'We have been mentally locked into a myth that decarbonising means not developing'. Nick Stern claims that Paris showed that we are now seeing beyond this framing.

We would love to think so. One of the long-term frustrations with framing of environmental action in the media is that it too often focuses on a local cost (here, now) but a nebulous benefit (somewhere else, in the future) - crucially, costs to us but benefits to someone else.

You don't need to ditch human nature to escape this frame. You can remain with good old self-interest. All that's needed is the realisation your self-interest depends on a functioning biosphere. Think of your long-term self-interest, as well as your short-term one. But all the time, this long-term is getting closer to home. As a recent article in the Guardian by George Monbiot points out, the climate crisis is with us here and now.

Figueres pointed out, 'Yes, we have to have technological transformation. But much deeper is giving up the need to blame someone else, or to be in competition with someone. We are all interdependent now, not just interconnected.'

The Microbiome

Tim Spector gave a talk on his book The Diet Myth. This is one of a number of recent books on the microbiome (the population of bacteria living in our guts which, it turns out, re not merely parasites or harmless but useless passengers) - other recent books are 10% Human by Alanna Collen and Gut by Giulia Enders.

It's increasingly being accepted that these gut microbes are symbiotic, not parasites: that is, they benefit us just as we benefit them. Our gut microbes synthesise vitamins and other useful chemicals that we can't, they contribute to our ability to get nutrition from food, and they help to attune and regulate our immune system.

Regarding a human being as the collection of human cells is a frame that excludes these microbes, even though this microbe population has evolved with us and is an integral part of us - people are talking about the microbiome being almost like a 'missing organ'. But it hasn't been missing, just invisible. Medicine up to now has been blind to this organ, and perhaps we will look back on 20th century medicine, which ignores this organ, as weirdly old-fashioned and limited, stuck in an out-of-date frame.

Antibiotics can devastate the microbiome with consequences that last much longer than the duration of the course of antibiotics. Scientists concerned about growing antibiotic resistance (where 'bad' bugs evolve to be immune to our antibiotics) have been trying to curb the widespread over-prescription of antibiotics by doctors. But these efforts have met with limited success, perhaps because the message has been framed in terms of the common good of humanity in the future. If the message instead is 'antibiotics can be life-saving, but use them sparingly because they can mess up your microbiome', this may be a more powerful message, concerned with the here and now and with you personally. And it might also lead to heightened concern about the vast amount of antibiotics in the food chain (arising from widespread antibiotic use in intensive farming of animals, for example).

(Incidentally, much of the recent work on the microbiome is finding links to obesity and autism. Quite possibly, changes to eating habits, coupled with food industry practices, have been leading to widespread changes in the microbiomes of people in the West with consequences that are only now coming to light.)

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6th June 2016

Framespotting on Russell Brand's TrewLit book club

Huge thanks to Russell Brand for selecting Framespotting for his online book club 'TrewLit' (the name comes from his long-running series of you-tube videos, 'True News' or 'Trews' for short).

RB reading FS

Amazon UK and Amazon US both sold out as a result - although both are now restocked. Russell's own comments about the book can be found on his Instagram site. Here are a couple:

I found it sincere, non threatening and rational.

This book shows us how we can alter our perception. It shows us this is important because much (all?) of what we believe has been constructed, some in a manner to prevent us from interfering with the interests of the powerful. The book is simple, heartfelt and has drawings in it. I read it in a day and felt all the better for it.

We hope this meant Framespotting has reached some readers we wouldn't have reached otherwise. If Russell Brand and Rowan Williams both like it, we feel we've got quite a few bases covered ...

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May 12th 2016

Framespotting in the Guardian this week

Framespotters aren't going to run short of material any time soon, it seems.

And it's not just spotting the frames being used in news reports. It's also instructive to look in the opinion pieces, and to spot arguments over the framing of issues (even if the protagonists don't use that phrase). For example, if you picked up the Guardian on Tuesday (May 10th), you'd find several examples of framing battles going on.

Framing of the EU debate

The piece by Polly Toynbee, and the leader on the previous page, both examine the framing of the current UK debate on whether or not to leave the EU. Up to now, there have been two major framings of this debate: one that sees it as purely an economic and financial question, and one revolving about immigration.

Barely mentioned up to now have been the larger, more sweeping issues: how we see ourselves in the world, and whether we want to work together with other countries on common problems from terrorism to climate change.


The piece by Aditya Chakrabortty examines the definition of a single word, 'corruption' (and the framing that naturally follows, which regards corruption as essentially a third world problem or a first world one).

Biological clocks

The 'Long Read' piece by Moira Weigel describes the 'biological clock' metaphor, which refers to declining fertility (with age) in women. Men's fertility declines with age too - but that is then referred to as 'the male biological clock', the adjective 'male' reinforcing the idea that the biological clock is primarily a female issue. Behind this is a framing of reproduction as a female issue, with the corollary that women should take on the work and financial burden of managing reproduction. Framing reproduction as of concern only to women, and individual women at that, means that the way society is organised, and the world of work in particular, falls neatly outside the frame.

The 'growth mindset' in education

A piece by Susanna Rustin looking at Carol Dweck's 'growth mindset' idea, quotes academics who comment on the 'desperation to unearth evidence that anything other than inequality explains the attainment gap', and the 'search for individually focused explanations' when 'of course a lot of our problems are structural and institutional'.

This is all rather reminiscent of the framing of obesity in public debate.

And finally ...

On a lighter note, framespotters will smile at the framing battles over the various ways to label pensioners, discussed in the 'Pass Notes' column.

All this, in a single day in one newspaper.

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April 3rd 2016

Framespotting workshop in Gloucestershire

We're delighted to have been invited to run a Framespotting workshop in May at University of Gloucestershire. The aim of the workshop is to explore, rethink and reframe ideas around sustainability.

The workshop will be hosted by UNU RCE Severn, a Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) in Sustainability Education endorsed by the United Nations University, and one of 136 such RCEs globally.

RCE poster

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November 14th 2015

We'll always have Paris

OK, so Laurence will be in Paris for the December 'COP21' climate talks, as part of the 'Cap Global Carbon' team promoting Cap and Share, filling in for someone on the team who is ill. So we'll be off the air for a while ....

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October 15th 2015

Framing in the NHS

One of the techniques we recommend for spotting frames and getting to root causes is to keep asking "why?" - over and over, like an annoying child.

Let's try this with the current headlines about the NHS, which focus on waiting times in A&E. So, waiting times in hospital accident and emergency departments are too long. Why?

Well, there are a number of 'obvious' answers that spring to mind:

(1) lack of staff

(2) lack of beds

(3) too many people arriving who aren't genuine emergencies

(4) tipping point emergencies - cases that would not be critical if they had been dealt with sooner

Take the first answer; that staffing levels are not adequate. Why? Bad planning or recruitment maybe, but more likely a lack of funding.

Or take the second answer: there's a lack of beds in the hospital. Why? Because there's a priority on full bed occupancy. Why? To save money. Why? Because of a lack of funding.

You tend to reach the same final conclusion from the other routes too. Too many people use A&E for non-emergencies. Why? Certainly there's a lack of awareness of what constitutes an emergency(which could be helped by spending in schools on lessons for life), but there's also a lack of real alternatives, especially out of hours. Tipping point emergencies are also often the result of a lack of availability of care in the community by GPs, care services and care homes. So a major cause is that alternatives to A&E are not available. Why? Well, local minor injury units have been closed and local council services have been cut back. Why? Because of a lack of funding.

What it comes down to it that the root cause, by and large, is a lack of funding. Notice that we are now outside the framing of 'a problem in A & E' (which somehow seeks to focus blame on the A&E staff and set-up): A&E is highly visible, but it's the pressure valve for a system under pressure all round.

And now we have a final Big Why. So there's a lack of funding - why?

Our answer to this is: Because it was felt more important to bail out the banks than to ensure good, consistent healthcare for the majority. (The money that went to the bankers was, we were told, to prevent the country being brought to its knees. It was so that the banks would start lending to small businesses which would, in turn, generate jobs and improve the economy. But where did the money really go? To the banks, yes. But that's where it stayed - with the banks and in the pockets of the bankers, the banks and their shareholders). This is the real reason for austerity and the decline of the NHS - it's a political choice reflecting political values. The result, and the aim, is that the richest 1%, who already own a wildly disproportionate percentage of the nation's wealth, can cream off ever more for themselves.

Something to think about while you're waiting to see the doctor ...

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September 5th 2015

Refugees and Migrants

We don't have a lot to say about this: the issues, and the news items, speak for themselves.

But the insistence by most sections of the media to refer to 'migrants' instead of 'refugees' speaks volumes, and is a perfect example of framing.

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August 6th 2015

Cap & Share - a name to change the world?

A big thank you for all the replies to the blog post and tweets about a snappy name. After some debate we decided to simply go with the name ‘Cap & Share’. As David Thorpe pointed out, it sums up the basic ideas of keeping the fossil fuel in the ground (the cap) and doing this in a fair way (the share). ‘Cap & Share’ is also an established brand name, at least in policy-wonk circles, and it’s the name we use in the book of course. And it’s reasonably short and snappy.

Other suggestions won’t go to waste, however: a lot of them will make great slogans when tweeting about Cap & Share, for example. We’ll also be making connections with several other campaigns, such as the Basic Income movement.

So. We’ve revamped the Cap & Share website and Laurence will be trying to publicise Cap & Share during the run-up to Paris - the first salvo in this campaign is a piece for RTCC here.

We’ve set up a new Twitter account @CapandShare for this, so that everyone following @goframespotting on Twitter doesn’t get swamped by Cap & Share tweets. Framespotting will continue to tweet about framing in general, with occasional mentions of Cap & Share.

If you’re interested in framing in general, and not so much about climate change particularly, you may be wondering why there has been so much about C&S on this blog (and in the book) anyway. Partly it’s that we got into framing through C&S: we were finding C&S was running into ‘mental stumbling blocks’ and realised after a while that framing was the problem. In fact C&S is a great example of seeing how framing affects not just people’s outlook on life, but their ability to see anything outside a frame even when it’s pointed out to them. The idea of C&S is simple, but people are so ‘stuck’ in looking at things a certain way that they find it hard to stand back and see how C&S works, because they are trying to fit it in to that way of looking at things.

There’s an old story of a Russian official visiting London during the cold war, and asking who was in charge of the supply of bread to the city. Of course, there wasn’t anybody: the market sorted it out. But the Russian couldn’t accept that, and kept asking: surely someone was organising things?

In the same way, people are used to thinking of controlling emissions by capping those emissions - and so can’t see how capping carbon upstream could possibly work. (So one of the questions we get a lot is this: “What’s to stop people just buying more petrol (and so busting the cap)?” This is answered on the C&S FAQ page towards the bottom). A similar mental stumbling block hinders people understanding a global approach. It’s easy to accept the idea at face value and yet to keep wondering how national shares would be worked out, for example.

Anyway, the next blog post here will be a non-climate one!

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July 13th 2015

Wanted - a name to change the world

In this blog post we’re asking for your help. No, not donations. Inspiration.

Climate Action Now!
Absolutely what we need, but what action exactly?

We have an answer - but we need your help to name it.

You’ll have noticed that lots of people, from the Pope to One Direction, are calling for strong action on climate change. But there's always something missing - they never say what action and we feel that reduces the impact. We need to be pushing for something specific to be done. Calling for ‘action’ by itself is too vague.

Meanwhile the global Cap & Share approach, mentioned in Framespotting and outlined in a previous blog post (Jan 12, 2015), is a simple, fair and effective way to reduce global carbon emissions. It’s a specific plan of action.

So we have campaigners without a specific action, and a specific action seeking a lot more campaigners and exposure. We need to bring the two together.

And we need a better name.

Global Cap and Share is not a new idea - at least two groups are already calling for it under the names ‘Cap Global Carbon’ and ‘the Earth Atmosphere Trust’. But these are jargon-based names. We need a name that will catch the public imagination, get the blood pumping, and help raise awareness of the idea.

Technically, in the climate policy jargon, it would be called Global Cap & Dividend (GCD). But can you imagine being on a climate march, shouting ‘Global Cap & Dividend Now!’ ?

By any other name

So, while we'll use GCD in explaining what we're talking about in a bit more detail here, it's only as a placeholder.

GCD simply auctions global permits for fossil fuel extraction, generating funds which are then distributed equally to the people of the world. It combines three principles:

An upstream focus. The only reason we have emissions is that fossil fuels are extracted from the ground and subsequently burnt. Slow down the fossil fuel extraction and you slow down the emissions. GCD implements the ‘keep it in the ground’ idea.

A single global process. The 2 degrees target (say) is a global one. GCD determines what is necessary to meet such a target, and then does it. Globally. GCD acts on behalf of humanity as a whole, bypassing all the international bargaining.

An equal sharing of the money raised. GCD chimes with a view of the sky as a global commons shared by all humanity. This automatically transfers wealth from high carbon users (the rich) to low carbon users (the poor), addressing inequality both between nations and within nations, and simultaneously levels the playing field for renewables.

Each of the three principles is simple but the combination is powerful. They are all described in slightly more detail - and in direct and simple language - in a prototype website here.

The idea is to circulate this ‘manifesto’ widely, to NGOs and prominent people, in the next month or so. We want GCD to act like a condensation nucleus in a cloud, to be the action that the huge numbers of environmental and social justice groups around the world can unite in supporting and calling for.

Where you come in

Now, we’d welcome comments on these documents, or on the whole idea, but what we really need is a snappy name to replace the phrase ‘GCD’ in all this. As an analogy, the Tobin tax (named after its inventor) is a proposed tax on financial transactions, but campaigners use the name ‘Robin Hood Tax’ - invoking the name of a popular hero known for taking from the rich and giving to the poor - a concept that is entirely appropriate for the proposed tax.

We don’t want a technical name (Global Cap & Dividend) or an acronym (like GCD). We want something simpler, more positive, more inspiring. Maybe something more like Sky Trust (the name Peter Barnes coined for an institution to run C&D in a single country), except that we’re looking to name the mechanism here, not the institution.

The Sky Solution? Fair Fossil Phase-out? It needs to be simple, snappy, catchy, and something you can shout on a climate march; but it also, ideally, needs to evoke the three principles above ...

We'd love to hear your ideas, please send an email to hi{AT} or tweet @goframespotting

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June 18th 2015

That (second) Guardian piece

Here are some notes about our second article for the Guardian’s Rethinking Prosperity section, on the framing of economic growth (our first piece, on framing climate change, is here)

Frame 1 in our article is the dominant story about growth, alternatives to which get very little air-time in the press or in statements by CEOs or politicians. In fact this basic frame - that growth is good - verges on the absolutist: not only is growth good, but it’s essential, the only game in town, and questioning it is unthinkable. One of our previous blog posts gave examples of this.

Frame 2 comments on one aspect of this. There’s a widespread feeling that if growth stalls then we need to get the economy going again. Now look at that previous sentence: it frames growth as speed, as progress. But growth isn’t speed, it’s acceleration (see another of our earlier blog posts for more on this).

Frame 3 is another aspect: that growth is natural. This blurs the distinction between growth in a particular place at a particular time, and endless unquestioned growth. We’ll come back to that below.

All this framing does seem compelling. So what’s the problem? It's not that growth is evil; it’s just that growth simply can’t go on forever on a finite planet. This argument is to do with physical throughputs. An economy is embedded in a physical ecosystem, something which mainstream economics tries its best to ignore. And here it’s not the lack of resources which is the main problem (price mechanisms drive a search for substitutes etc - although try substituting for fresh water); more pressing is that the outputs, in the form of wastes such as greenhouse gases, are overloading the planet’s recycling capacity. These are treated by mainstream economics mainly as externalities (i.e. ignored). If they were priced in, then we’d be much better off and much nearer to sustainability. In fact if the physical demands on Earth’s systems were sustainable, then economic growth could carry on, in theory. But for this to happen we’d have to decouple economic growth from the growth of physical wastes in a way that’s only been hinted at so far.

Anyway, the point is that to think about this sort of thing more clearly, we have to let go of the ‘yes, but we must have growth’ frame that shuts down any serious discussion of alternatives.

If growth is problematic, are there alternative frames we can turn to?

Simply portraying growth as ‘bad’ doesn’t seem very promising. The most obvious alternative to the ‘growth is good’ frame, the cancer frame (Frame 4 in our article), is very negative. Not only does it portray us as the villains of the story, but it’s also impractical, not to mention unfair, to argue against growth for some of the poorest people and countries.

[An interesting aside here - Does this mean all countries in the world need to have a Western-type binge of economic growth before they ‘mature’? Surely not. Like Africa leapfrogging landlines and going straight to mobile phones, they will probably take a different and better path than we did. Some growth in these countries will be needed to alleviate desperate poverty, but for the world as a whole, overall global growth has to slow right down, and that means that many Western economies will need to ‘degrow’ - anything else would be grossly unfair. From this long-game viewpoint, many indigenous societies are already there; more mature than us!]

Frame 5 in our article gives a more nuanced alternative - growth is good at some times, but not at others. The Biblical quote is apt here, for three reasons: it’s a perfect expression of the idea; there’s the subtext of tapping into ancient wisdom, and of bringing in a wider perspective than the economic frame; and it underlines our view that chasing after endless growth should be viewed as childish (rather than, say, evil).

That’s not to say that morality isn’t the key. None of this can happen if, here in the West, we cling to growth out of greed and fear because we’ve been told that it’s essential. That’s what people said about slavery, child labour, and many other things we’ve come to reject as simply wrong.

We’re better than this. We can be grown up about growth. Our main task is to persuade those politicians, economists and CEO's who are still clinging to childhood to join us in creating a mature future.

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June 9th 2015

Framespotting at the Hay Festival

The 10-day Hay Festival of Literature is over for another year. As volunteer stewards we are at the site most days organising queues, checking tickets, and running microphones for the likes of Paddy O'Connell. But we also chat to the people in the queues and end up hearing some interesting talks on subjects that we wouldn't normally take an interest in, as well as going to the ones we really do want to hear. Everyone seems to be there, from the Astronomer Royal and a few Nobel prize winners, through Sandi Toksvig and Neil Gaiman, to Shaun the Sheep (a particular favourite of ours).

hay bookshop picture

The festival bookshop even stocked Framespotting (because we are Festival authors, having spoken at the Winter Festival) and people were buying them!

But there was also another sense in which framespotting was at the festival: many of the talks referred to frames, either explicitly or implicitly. Here are just four examples.

Andrew Solomon

This was a powerful talk on the book ‘Far from the Tree’ about children who differ profoundly from their parents. Whereas ‘vertical identities’ (including ethnicity, usually language, often religion) are inherited from parents, ‘horizontal identities’ (being gay, deafness) are usually alien to parents, and these children must find a cultural identity through a peer group instead.

Much depends on whether these conditions are viewed through the frame of illness or the frame of an identity or culture. Each frame seems to rule out the other, but as with the ‘light is a wave’ and ‘light is a particle’ frames of quantum mechanics, the need is for a ‘bigger picture’ to allow both viewpoints to exist as complementary.

Katrine Marçal

The book ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’ is an account of one of the main frames in mainstream economics - viewing humans as rational ‘economic man’. Books like ‘Freakonomics’ encourage us to see not just economic decisions but also social arrangements through the economics frame of individualistic, rational, short-term self-interest. More generally the ‘masculine’ frame of autonomous individuals and reason unbound from nature contrasts with the ‘feminine’ frame based on relationships and dependency embodied in nature. Far too often we still take the masculine frame as default.

Nick Stern

Lord Stern said that climate change was for far too long an issue boxed up in the environment frame: we needed to bring in economists and policy people (and of course he and his team wrote the Stern report on the economics of climate change). He agreed wholeheartedly with a point from the audience, that the need now now for psychologists more than anything else. Good, then, that we’re seeing books by George Marshall, Per Espen Stoknes and others on this.

Phil Hammond

Phil, a doctor in the UK National Health Service who is also a writer and comedian, talked about his book ‘Staying Alive - How to get the Best from the NHS’ and was easily one of the best talks at Hay this year. Here’s a quote from the book:

‘In the NHS, the staff spend so much time diving into the river of illness, pulling people out and trying to put them back together, that no-one has time to wander upstream and look at who’s pushing them in.’

Looking upstream features prominently in Framespotting of course.

We’re still digesting these and other talks - while having a few days off to recover from all the excitement...

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April 16th 2015

Are you better off, worse off, or just being framed?

In the midst of a general election campaign in the UK, it’s interesting to watch the different methods being used to frame the election as being all about the economy (the Scottish referendum last year was also heavily framed in economic terms).

So, for example, as the party manifestos have appeared during the week, the BBC radio news has reported each one and then handed over to the economics editor to comment. This implicitly gives out the message that this is how we should judge manifestos. It privileges economics over other aspects of life. What if the BBC handed over instead to the health correspondent, or the education correspondent? Not to mention the environment correspondent?

As another example, the media have latched on to the various claims and counter-claims as to whether various pledges are ‘fully costed’. Again there’s an economics frame, but it’s even more blatant here, since economics is notorious for ignoring ‘externalities’ which are precisely the things not costed. The ‘costing’ may look at the effects on some Whitehall department’s budget, but what about the other costs? The costs of pollution? What about the effects on health and the knock-on costs there, both in terms of money and in terms of human misery? How can any energy policy be ‘fully costed’ if the costs of climate change are simply ignored?

It’s all very reminiscent of those articles in the newspapers following a budget in the UK, which ask ‘Are you better off?’ and typically tot up the effects of the tax changes on a single worker, a family of four, a pensioner couple and so on. In itself that’s one thing to consider, of course. But the message is that this is all that matters to answer the question, ‘are you better off?’ You can benefit from a tax change and yet be worse off (because your local hospital just shut, say). But once more the focus is all on the money, with everything else left outside the frame.

It pays (!) to look outside the economics frame, perhaps particularly at an election. Money has its place, but there’s so much more to politics, indeed to life.

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February 26th 2015

About that Guardian piece

This blog post amplifies, and gives some background to, our recent piece in the Guardian Sustainable Business.

Is framing deliberate?

Not always, no.

Sure, there’s plenty of deliberate framing going on in the world (it’s more than ‘spin’, or trying to ensure that things are talked about in a particular way: framing tries to corner the debate so that certain things don’t get talked about at all). There might then be people who unthinkingly adopt other peoples’ framing, and so the frame spreads.

But in addition to any deliberate framing, a lot of framing just seems to happen without anybody being ‘behind it’. The idea that the world is a collection of countries, for example, seems such an obvious and ingrained idea that it’s hard to even notice that we make this assumption every day.

Our Guardian piece uses climate change to illustrate this ‘inadvertent framing’. With climate change, framing abounds as CEOs, politicians, NGOs and many others vie to frame the debate to suit their agendas. But even with the best intentions, frames can still be present: we look at five. And noticing these frames is important because until we notice a frame, it’s hard to look outside it.

So we’re not out to criticise what Obama and the others are saying - far from it. Even less are we claiming we can see things more clearly than these people: these are bright people backed up by expert staffs. But perhaps it pays sometimes to stand right back: only then can we sometimes notice unstated assumptions that everyone seems to be making, because questioning those assumptions might lead to solutions that we might be missing. We give an example, for each of the five frames, of what thinking outside that frame might involve.

Commercial break

These examples and many others feature in more detail in the book. You should buy it! :)

Why should you buy it? Because we wrote it for you! Our aim in writing it is to spread these ideas around, and raise a more general awareness of framing. To this end we made it as punchy, friendly, and jargon-free as possible, so that you can give it to your friends. Especially those friends who roll their eyes when you talk about the environment, consumerism, inequality, social justice, or the problems with economic growth. The book tries to lead people gently into the ideas without being preachy, earnest or scary. Look at the sample pages on this website (or ‘Look Inside’ on Amazon) and you’ll see the style we use. End of advert.

Spreading the word

What would happen if there was a better awareness of framing? Well, people looking at the UK government website and reading the following:

“The government is working at home and abroad to adapt to the effects of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by investing in low-carbon energy sources, improving fuel standards in cars and increasing energy efficiency wherever possible”

could immediately say to themselves, “Aha, the ‘adapting to it’ frame - but we need to stop climate change, not just adapt to it,” and, “Aha, the ‘efficiency’ frame - but we need to cap the emissions, somehow or other, otherwise something else will just take up the slack.”

We need awareness like this in order to generate public support for strong and effective policies to tackle climate change - and for many other things besides.

Cap & Share

The mechanism proposed at the end of the article, when talking about the Paris climate talks, is also covered in the book. The general approach is to look ‘upstream’ to focus on the root cause of emissions - namely the extraction of fossil fuels from the ground in the first place - and to do this in a simple and fair way that appeals to notions of global justice and equity.

This approach, coupling an upstream cap with a fair sharing out of the money generated, goes under various names: Cap & Share or Cap & Prosper (not to be confused with Cap & Trade); Kyoto2; or Fee & Dividend.

Several people have proposed such ideas for various countries, but it’s a global problem and so our suggestion would be to look at a single global mechanism for the world (rather than trying to piece together national efforts). We aim to write a blog post about this shortly.

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February 2nd 2015

Climate Change is a Football Issue

And you thought that climate change was an environmental issue.

Well, yes, but if we frame climate change as an environmental issue, we shouldn't be surprised if only 'environmentalists’ are interested in it. After all, it's only ‘football fans’ who are interested in football.

Naomi Klein, in her recent book This Changes Everything, says that climate change isn't an environmental issue - it’s a capitalism issue. Capitalism is the root of the problem, in that it fuels (and requires) endless growth regardless of the consequences for our planetary life-support systems. And that means that we’ll have to rein in capitalism somewhat if we’re going to avert climate chaos.

Or perhaps climate change is a security issue? The military strategists seem to think so.

Or maybe it’s a justice issue - after all, it’s intertwined with equity, within and between nations.

In fact it’s all of these and more. And a football issue.

What? Why should football fans care about climate change?

Because it threatens football, that’s why.

So why don't the football fans realise this? Because in their daily experience everything seems fine and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to be unduly worried. But our daily experience is the wrong place to look. We need to zoom out. If a foreign army was planning to invade, you wouldn’t know by looking for signs in your backyard. Day-to-day life can seem completely unaffected until suddenly it’s swept away as the foundations collapse.

tower picture

If we keep our focus inside a frame, there’s always the danger that something from the big world outside that frame will come crashing in and sweep everything away - football included.

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January 22th 2015

Night train to Laos

Reading Framespotting on the night train from Bangkok to Vientiane.

train to Laos


January 15th 2015

Cakes and Lifeboats

If you’re adrift at sea in a lifeboat, life is suddenly different. In the rations box there’s only enough for one cake per day. How do you share it out each morning? Should the rich passengers get bigger slices? You’d probably agree that the right thing to do would be to share the cake out equally.

Money doesn’t count for much in a lifeboat. The situation demands a new frame. But it can take a drastic change in our circumstances like this before we lift our eyes from our everyday concerns to see what might be really important in life. Or to see that we've been taking some ideas for granted without quite realising.

Take economic growth. We know that growth can’t go on forever on a finite planet, but despite that, we go along with the claim that growth must continue, that it’s essential. Stop and ask why. Why, exactly, do we feel that growth is not just desirable, but totally, self-evidently and unarguably necessary? Well, I hear you say, we need growth to generate wealth, help the poor, and create jobs. Do we? Before jumping into that discussion, ask whether that immediate, knee-jerk reaction might be a sign of a swallowed assumption. Perhaps there's something much deeper going on here.

Achieving prosperity without growth (to use the title of Tim Jackson’s book) is an ecological imperative: something a finite planet will simply force us to do whether we like it or not. But while it will be technically difficult, it should be a walk in the park for a species that can build hadron colliders. Once we try, that is. At the moment we’re not trying, and the first job is to clear away the emotional obstacles which block us from even thinking about the problem, never mind getting started. We need to give ourselves permission to stand back and see our predicament clearly.

One root cause for the obsession with growth is, to put it bluntly, that the rich want ever more cake. A growing daily cake is good from this point of view: not only will the rich get lots more cake but they can argue that everyone will have more too. In other words, growth is used to defend and excuse inequality. The poor watch the rich get richer, but they buy into the dream that there will soon be more crumbs for them too. Concerns over inequality aside, this could go on forever if the world were infinite. But in a finite world, something has to give.

Fast-forward to a post-growth world, truly sustainable in the sense that our economy is no longer degrading our life-support systems. A world to be proud of. But in a post-growth world, the daily cake stops getting bigger. We’re in the lifeboat, and life is different. With a fixed daily cake, people will demand that it be shared out more fairly.

Rewind to today. Well, we can’t have that, say the rich to themselves. And so they’ve created a propaganda system that pushes endless growth like there’s no tomorrow. This system requires that we believe in a make-believe world without limits. It drowns out or trivialises any serious questioning of the growth dogma. And in a savage twist, it claims that we need growth to help the poor.

The way the rich can help the poor is actually very simple. The poor need a basic level of wealth to survive. They don’t need more acceleration of the production line of our economy (for that’s what economic growth is); just a fairer share of the output. We should make sure that they get it.

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January 12th 2015

The Root of the Problem

Sometimes you have to get radical. The word ‘radical’ comes from the Latin word for ‘root’: being radical means getting to the root of a problem, rather than messing about at a more superficial level.

There was a great example of this last week with an important scientific paper in the journal Nature (with coverage in the Guardian, the BBC and elsewhere). The paper looked at the amount of fossil fuel we can’t dig up (because digging it all up would push us well over the tipping points into runaway climate change) and where this fossil fuel is located - that is, the geographical distribution of this ‘unburnable carbon’.

We simply need to stop digging. Every ton of oil, coal or gas dug up will be burned by someone, somewhere, and so digging it up commits us to the emissions. The climate negotiations may be couched in terms of countries’ emissions, but the root cause of the problem is digging up the fossil fuels in the first place.

And if we can’t afford to burn much of current reserves, why on earth look for even more? Yet this is what oil companies and others are doing: they’re shutting their minds to the wider suicidal implications for our civilisation (and they’d prefer that you shut your minds too and that you didn’t make the connection). As George Monbiot (quoting George Marshall) pointed out in the Guardian, fossil fuel production is outside the frame of the climate negotiations, which are doggedly focussed on the emissions themselves.

Aha! Frames! You knew we wouldn’t get far in this blog post before frames popped up!


We use the same example in Framespotting (page 76). The standard argument is that if we want to cap, or limit, carbon emissions at a safe level, then clearly we need to regulate the factories, power stations, vehicles and homes responsible for those emissions. But this is a frame, which focuses attention on where the emissions take place. ‘Cap and Trade’ schemes work in this ‘emissions frame’: such an approach is even called ‘emissions trading’. The ‘Do Your Bit’ appeal to cut personal carbon footprints, and proposals for carbon rationing, are both inside that frame too.

This framing is part of a general pattern: deflect attention from the root causes, draw a frame around the downstream problem and try to stop people from looking upstream to where the root causes may be found. It’s used a lot by people who are making a lot of money from an activity and who want to escape responsibility for the consequences of that activity.

So, what are we missing if we stay inside the emissions frame? Let’s look outside this frame and see. Huge benefits come from doing this, both practical and psychological.

First the practical. Well, what would an ‘outside the frame’ approach to capping carbon look like?

For a start, it’s simpler. As we say in the book, think about the following situation: if you had a garden hose connected to a sprinkler, then to save water you wouldn’t try to block up the sprinkler holes; you’d simply turn off the tap a bit. Now, think of fossil fuels going into the hose from the tap, and emissions coming out of the sprinkler holes. Controlling the fossil fuels coming into the system (the tap), simply and automatically controls the emissions created further down the line (the sprinkler holes). This is capping emissions ‘upstream’.

The simplest way to do this is to specify the desired CO2 limit (based on the science), and then to sell CO2 permits for that amount. This determines ‘the amount of water to be allowed out of the tap’. The fossil fuel suppliers (the oil, gas and coal corporations) buy the permits, for example in an auction. They can then dig up and sell the amount of fossil fuel covered by the permits they’ve bought. The sprinkler holes take care of themselves because the tap does the work. Simple.

And it raises a huge amount of money - the money from selling the permits. That can be shared out to us: every adult gets an equal share, say. After all, it’s our system and it’s our money. This ‘carbon cashback’ money compensates us for any increase in fuel prices (in fact, most people would make a profit). The system is like a strong carbon tax, strong enough to do the job; except that we get the money, not the government. Or we can use some of the money to help fund adaptation measures for poor communities or nations.

And this could be a single, global system, which could sidestep all the country-versus-country deadlocks and game-playing at a stroke. Nobody needs to care about national emissions any more.

In the same way, nobody would need to care about their individual emissions or ‘carbon footprints’. We can largely forget the system’s even there, and get on with our lives. The market would work everything out (see footnote). Contrast that to the emissions frame, where things quickly become complicated, bureaucratic, expensive and full of loopholes. Tackling emissions at source by capping fossil fuel production is so much easier. There are only a small number of fossil fuel companies to deal with, there are far fewer complications, no loopholes. It just feels like the right solution, in the same sense that it’s better to cure (or even prevent) a disease than to tackle the symptoms.

Which brings us to the psychological issues. As well as the simpler practicalities, a focus on fossil fuel production concentrates minds on the real problem. To face this head on (as the fossil free movement and the divestment campaign run by are doing) is honest. It may be a struggle but we know it’s the right one. We escape the blame, guilt and divisiveness of the ‘Do Your Bit’ approach, and the deep psychological problems of denial we have at the moment (Monbiot talks about Jekyll and Hyde), where we know we’re heading for disaster but we feel trapped in the system and helpless to do anything about it.

If we knew we were tackling this problem head-on, we could hold our heads up that much higher (as when we stopped apartheid or slavery); we could face our children again. Without being (too) melodramatic, tackling this frame is one of the most important tools for securing the future of humanity. Framespotting can (help) save the world!


Footnote: The simple statement “the market would work everything out” probably needs some explanation (thanks to @Eco_melon for pointing this out). The point is simply that IF ground rules are set (in this case, a hard upstream cap on carbon emissions) then WITHIN this setting, market rules can determine how things evolve, as opposed to governments trying to ‘pick winners’ in a command-and-control sense or otherwise interfering with regulations, taxes, subsidies, nudges or anything else.

By setting ground rules and then letting go, Cap & Share (Fee & Dividend) works with the grain of market forces and individual freedom. However this is very different from a total ‘free-market capitalism’ which doesn’t set the ground rules in the first place. In essence, the market ought to be our servant, not our master. It can do its thing, but within a set of ground rules WE determine, to achieve things WE humans want but which the market, through ‘market failures’, wouldn't do on its own. Such ground rules can include a carbon cap as easily as any other regulation.

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December 17th 2014

Freaks and Framespotting

There’s a lot that framespotters will like in the recent book Think Like a Freak, the third in the series of ‘Freakonomics’ books by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

Several ideas in the book resonate with Framespotting. In particular, Chapters 3 & 4 of Think Like a Freak are all about standing back to see the bigger picture and looking for root causes, which are two of the main themes in Framespotting. Levitt and Dubner use the example of education, which is often framed as “what happens in schools”. Within that frame, the words “education reform” trigger thoughts about tackling what happens in schools (class sizes, curricula, teacher training). But what does that frame leave out? It excludes, for example, looking at the role parents play in preparing children for school and supporting and encouraging their children’s learning.

Frames are also mentioned explicitly in Chapter 6 of Think Like a Freak, in a discussion of interactions between people. This sort of framing echoes the pioneering study by Ervine Goffman in his book Frame Analysis (and we’ll return to this in a later blog post).

So what’s not to like?

Not a lot. But as always, the question to ask is: what isn’t mentioned?

The main focus of the book - taking a close look at the incentives faced by people - can lead to a better understanding of how the world works. Tim Harford does similar things in his ‘Undercover Economist’ books. The examples from microeconomics are interesting and informative, and all the more convincing for being based on the modern view of human beings (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis or Thomas Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow) rather than the old view of ‘rational economic man’.

But there’s a frame here of encouraging us to look at people as individuals, making individual choices and taking individual actions. Microeconomics (and the clue is in the name) concentrates on microcosms and studiously ignores the big picture. It’s vital to get the big picture right too.

Take a concern for the environment: we can “nudge” people into making choices which help the environment, but this is reinforcing the frame that “action on the environment is down to individuals”. Unless we’re careful, actions at a national or global level - involving regulation for example - will get ignored. We need both approaches, local and global. Many people are focusing on local environments and communities, local food production and so on. But this must work hand in hand with global thinking and action: without global policies (such as limiting fossil fuel extraction) to tie everything together, the global situation will deteriorate and will come crashing in to overwhelm any local efforts.

Note to Levitt & Dubner - we urgently need to know how Freaks can help us to address global issues - not just by individual actions, but collectively.

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December 11th 2014

Calling a Speed a Speed

This is scary. Looking across from the passenger seat, I can see the glazed expression on the driver’s face. The car speeds along the foggy road, and the driver is peering ahead. Suddenly he cries, “Oh no, we’ve slowed to a crawl!”

What? We’re hurtling along at sixty in fog, which is already too fast for me. I’m increasingly alarmed here. What can I say to him, before we end up crashing?

“I’ve got to get the car going again,” my driver mutters. “We can’t stay stalled like this.”

I look again at the countryside speeding by. Am I missing something? I’m afraid now: is he mad? At the very least, he seems dangerously detached from reality.

He’s an economist.


When I first worked in economic forecasting, I was struck by the way people were less interested in how big something was than in how fast it was growing. Talk was of growth rates and percentage changes. People didn’t seem to care about the amount of anything quite so much as they cared whether that amount was going up or down.

I’ve come to think that this habit is dangerous, and has tricked us into a serious misunderstanding of the world. Let me explain.

The economy is like a machine in a factory turning out toys. Let’s ground our discussion in real, physical stuff. Toys are real stuff: look, here they are, on the conveyor belt; you can touch them, pick them up. Something like GDP is a more abstract thing. It’s a measure of the speed of production: how many toys per year roll off the production line. And if GDP is the speed, then what is economic growth? It’s acceleration: how fast we’re increasing the speed of the production line.

Now, when a factory machine starts up operations it needs to accelerate to get going, but it then settles down to run at a steady operating speed. Just like cars which accelerate to get going, but which then tend to cruise along at a steady speed.

Ah, yes: cars. Back to my demented driver: he is talking about acceleration as if it were speed. When he says the car (or the economy) “has slowed to a crawl”, it’s simply not true. To “slow down” means to decrease speed, but the car’s speed hasn’t decreased: it’s only the acceleration that has decreased. The car is still accelerating, just not so much as before. The speed is still increasing.

Suppose, a bit later on, that the car does stop accelerating. All that means is that the car is now cruising at a constant speed. It hasn’t “stalled” or “faltered” or “ground to a halt”.

Even in a recession, when my driver would say that economy is “going backwards”, it isn’t. It may have slowed down a touch, but it’s still going forwards, and at high speed too.

We should recognise economic growth for what it is: acceleration. It is not speed.


So why does all this matter? Because the world of real, physical stuff is where we live. And in this world, our factories produce waste products as well as toys, and the waste products are real stuff too. Toxins, pollutants and greenhouse gases roll off the production line of our economy too, escaping into the soil, sea and sky. The oceans are turning acidic as the planet heats up. This is getting worse all the time: economic growth is the acceleration of this process.

If we’re going to halt this destruction, then we (in the rich countries, most of all) need to take our foot off the pedal (and if you think that would be painful, try a crash). Perhaps we should even start looking around for the brake.

And this is where language can be dangerous. If taking our foot off the pedal is framed in terms of “going backwards” rather than “slowing down”, we’ll be scared away from even thinking about it. Nobody likes the idea of “going backwards”: it goes against our deeply-held desire for progress. That’s why, any time that growth-for-ever is questioned, there’s an immediate reaction in terms of going back to the seventies or back to “living in caves”.

Thinking about growth is hard enough as it is. We know that growth can’t go on forever on a finite planet, but we wriggle frantically to avoid facing up to this. Any excuse (surely we need growth for wealth and jobs?) is enough to let us off the hook and turn to other things. So let’s not make it even harder for ourselves.

We need to get our language straight, just as scientists did long ago when they learned to distinguish between temperature and heat. Until we do, it will be hard to think properly about the problems we face and to get down to the serious business of solving them.

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December 1st 2014

Christmas sorted!

Fed up with banging on about climate change, social justice, health issues, consumerism - but not getting through to people? Do some of your friends, neighbours or relatives roll their eyes and look the other way?

How do we reach these people? We need something beyond facts and figures, if we’re to get beyond preaching to the converted. We need to reach hearts and minds, without making people feel scared or guilty.

Try giving them Framespotting for Christmas! It’s fun, it’s jargon-free, it’ll make them think; but it DOESN’T lecture, hector, or blame them for the worlds’ ills. The book will give them aha! moments as they spot frames; it’s upbeat and outlines a positive, deep story of who we are.

Rowan Williams likes it, Peter Hain likes it, Jonathon Porritt likes it; so might your friends.

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November 27th 2014

Are You a Motorist? Really?

Several organisations (the AA and RAC in the UK, the AAA in the USA) claim to be “the voice of the motorist” or even “the motorist’s champion”.

Is there a frame here? Yes. The frame is to think that there is such a thing as a “motorist”. It encourages us to think: ”Yes, I have a car, so I’m a motorist - those organisations speak for me!”

What’s wrong with seeing things through this frame? Two things.

Firstly, yes, if I have a car, I’m a motorist in that sense. But not full time. Sometimes I’m a motorist, sometimes a pedestrian, sometimes a cyclist or a bus passenger. And that’s just my mobility; that’s not what defines me. I may also wear many other hats: a teacher, a parent, a climber, a footballer or whatever. Wearing my motorist hat, I might like the idea of cheap petrol, but wearing some of my other hats I may wish petrol prices to be higher (to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and preserve a habitable planet for our children).

The motorist frame wants me to concentrate on just one hat. If I am a motorist but I want higher petrol prices - well, that doesn’t fit the frame.

Secondly, if I see myself as a motorist, the idea is set up that there are others out there who are not motorists, and perhaps opposed to motorists in some way (after all, we motorists need a “champion”, it seems). Who are these non-motorists? Politicians collect tax on my petrol - but hang on, aren’t they motorists too? Local councillors block off my roads to make pedestrian areas - but hang on, aren’t the councillors motorists too? Who are these non-motorists? You probably know people without cars - but are they really a threat to you? The motorist frame is whipping up resentment by hinting at fictitious enemies. Why, do you think?

Many other organisations apply this type of framing too. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, to take just one example, invites you to see yourself as a taxpayer first and foremost. A taxpayer who wants higher taxes - well, that doesn’t fit the frame.

Beware of being framed and pigeonholed in terms of a single hat. Don’t forget your other hats, especially the important hats labelled ‘citizen’ and ‘human being’.

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November 25th 2014

Business As Usual

Discussions about climate change often mention the BAU, or ‘Business As Usual’ option. The lines on graphs, showing what might happen under various climate policies, often include a BAU line. BAU is code for ‘no action taken to avert climate change’, that is, companies continue to be allowed to dump greenhouse gases into the sky for free.

Business As Usual seems a simple enough concept - a baseline from which to judge competing climate policies. But in using those particular words we’re in danger of unwittingly setting up a frame which can subtly influence our thinking.

The phrase Business As Usual suggests continuity, that nothing much changes. It seems almost benign, in a ‘better the devil you know’ sense. If things are working, then changing them smacks of rocking the boat somehow. Business As Usual sounds comforting by comparison.

Of course, the climate scientists are warning us that if we carry on as usual, business will be anything but usual. One of the main points made in Naomi Klein’s recent book “This Changes Everything” is that there are no non-radical options left. We have a choice of three futures, and each of them is radical:

  • do nothing and get radical climate change, with increased droughts, storms, flooding and the resulting mass migrations, wars and deaths;
  • resort to radical technical solutions (‘geo-engineering’): tinkering with humanity’s planetary life-support system with unknown side-effects; or
  • radically change our attitudes to corporations and the financial system.

The BAU frame implies that the 3rd option is the radical one: leaving things alone is safer even if it prioritises finance over life itself. But the third option is really the least radical solution on offer. Very little needs to change, apart from our attitudes and our political will to tackle the problem.

It’s the third option that strives to maintain our life-support system running as usual, and to preserve civilisation as usual - even business as usual.

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November 6th 2014

Russell Brand, framespotter

Wow! A stunning display of framespotting from Russell Brand over the last couple of weeks, most strikingly in the interview on Newsnight with Evan Davis. Love or hate Russell Brand, it was great to hear him talking so plainly about how corporations and the elites reinforce inequality, trashing the planet and the climate as they go; and the way he managed to resist such persistent attempts to frame him was even more impressive.

Framespotting is all to do with standing back, seeing the bigger picture, and refusing to go along with some of the frames you see: daring to look outside them. And this is difficult enough without people trying their hardest to keep you inside those frames.

Let’s look at some of the accusations and frames that he dodged.

Telling people not to vote is irresponsible

One of the main attacks is to criticise Russell Brand’s “don’t vote, it’s condoning all this” stance.

The frame here is that citizens are consumers. Specifically, your job is to choose from items on the shelves, without any say over what items get to be on the shelves in the first place. If you’re locked into the frame of political ‘business as usual’ which confines the citizen’s role to periodic voting, then the only allowed question is, who do you vote for - or maybe you don’t vote at all? In that case, you’re bound to regard Russell Brand’s stance as advocating apathy.

But this consumer frame is dangerous and corrosive (see our previous blog post): we’re much more than consumers. To see this more clearly, suppose we go along with this frame. Suppose that voting is like shopping, shopping for cars, say. Suppose you’re presented with three shoddy cars for sale: a red one, a blue one and a yellow one. You might want to ask ask, why are there no good cars? Whose fault is that, yours or the manufacturers’? But never mind that, you’re told: concentrate on which one to buy. What Russell Brand is saying is that you don’t need to buy any of those cars. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to wait until someone comes along with a green car, say, that you do want - or maybe stand back and look at alternatives such as bikes or buses?

The consumer frame tries to shut down this sort of question, and confine us inside the frame of selecting from the choices presented to us. This frame rules out looking at the bigger issue: that none of the choices on offer promises a route out of the financial, social or ecological mess we’re in. This bigger issue has to be part of any meaningful discussion about how, or whether, to vote.

There is no alternative

For a moment, step back and take a deep breath. Step right back, until you can see the planet and the sweep of history in your wide-angle lens. From this viewpoint, humanity as a species is in trouble, busily wrecking its own life support systems. Zoom in a bit, and you see apathy towards this situation. For a start, many people are desperately fighting to survive; and most of the others are kept largely uninformed, distracted by consumerism and cowed by fear.

This is enough to keep a dominant frame (which our book calls “playground thinking”) in place, despite the fact that it clearly doesn’t work. It doesn’t work even on its own terms: it keeps needing to be bailed out. Beyond that, it keeps siphoning our money off to the 1%, and it completely ignores the ecological crisis. We desperately need an alternative; but the standard way of defending a frame (if the tactic of hiding its very existence has failed) is to deny that any alternative is possible. The current system, although it has ‘a lot of flaws’ as Evan Davis puts it, is basically the only game in town. And if there’s no alternative, then it follows that anyone questioning the system must be crazy or ignorant.

Which leads on to the personal attacks. In psychology it’s called ‘projection’ when people accuse others of something that they do themselves. It’s interesting how often this comes up in the interviews with Russell Brand. Evan Davis poses silly and provocative questions to trivialise the debate, yet claims he is ‘trying to take you seriously’ as if Russell Brand is the frivolous one. Evan Davis accuses Russell Brand of ‘lacking imagination’ while not having the imagination himself to stand back and see clearly what his line of questioning reveals.

Trying to change things is dangerous and irresponsible

The other main line of attack is to ask, “What’s your answer then?” The subtext here is, “there may be problems, but if you have no better ideas then we should stick with the current frame.” Better the devil you know; indeed anything that smacks of revolution is dangerous and unpredictable.

Is this projection again, by any chance? Let’s ask this same question of supporters of the current system. Let’s ask: “look, we have a global crisis here - a feverish planet, acidic oceans, half of all vertebrate life gone in the last 40 years, never mind any economic problems - so what’s your answer then?”

Does the current system of playground thinking have an answer? Does it even acknowledge the problem? No. The current track we’re on is the dangerous one.

We might disagree about the best way forward, but something needs to change, and to make this happen we’ll need courage and political organisation, outside the current system as well as within it. We have to see these frames for what they are and then refuse to be kept inside them. If Russell Brand can help us glimpse the wider issues through a momentary chink in the smothering curtain of media framing, then that’s a very good thing. Go him!

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November 6th 2014

The Consumer and the Citizen

A 15-minute talk on the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Four Thought’ last week, by Jon Alexander of the New Citizenship Project, was an excellent and powerful explanation of the ubiquitous ‘consumer’ frame and its dangers. In the talk Jon doesn’t use the word ‘frame’ but he gives a good explanation of how framing works.

The word ‘consumer’ is not just a word, an innocent part of the language. It triggers a frame - a whole set of inter-related ideas - about roles and expected behaviour, and this includes moral ideas. In this frame, your job as a consumer is simply to choose between menu items; you don’t get to have any say over what’s on the menu in the first place. Making decisions in life (and this includes your contribution to deciding on how our society should run) is framed as shopping.

This has consequences. Firstly, if you concentrate on the menu items you can often fail to notice what isn’t on the menu. In our book Framespotting we use the well-known analogy that you can choose to buy a red car, or a blue car, but not a good bus service. This example neatly illustrates three aspects of consumer choice that are underlined by Jon Alexander in his talk:

  • your choice is an economic one, measured in terms of material standard of living (your choice of car is based on what features you can get for your money);
  • it’s your individual choice (in choosing your car, you don’t care how other people get around - let alone any wider effects on society as a whole, such as pollution);
  • and it’s a short term choice (never mind your children’s future - effects on climate change, say, are well outside the frame).

There are other consequences too. You shop using money, and this means that the rich get more say. The poor may not be able to afford any choices at all.

In Framespotting we also point out the issue of blame. The ‘consumer’ frame, as well as focusing on markets, also implicitly blames us for problems. If we all want cars, or to fly, then climate change is all our fault, really.

Seeing ourselves as merely consumers like this is a shallow and impoverished view of who we are. It’s not worthy of us: there’s much more to being human than being a consumer. Framespotting is all about seeing the bigger picture, and looking outside and beyond the frames we spot is often liberating. On their blog, the New Citizenship Project say that people leaving feedback after Jon Alexander’s talk were positive but also daunted at the prospect of trying to change the frame. The good news is that escaping from the consumer frame leads to a grander sense of what it means to be human: a positive and attractive vision that’s easier to sell (oops - there’s that consumer frame again!) than environmental scare stories or exhortations to austerity.

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October 31st 2014

Today's the Day!

Framespotting is officially published today. The ebook is now available too and can be ordered from the independent bookshops ebook site as well as Amazon. All bookshops can now order it and Amazon in the UK and US have stock. Buy it, read it, review it and recommend it to your friends and contacts. This is important stuff we're trying to get out there.

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October 24th 2014

Framing 'solar' in Scientific American

An article in the November 2014 edition of Scientific American is interesting for its framing of household rooftop solar power in the USA.

Frame 1: Solar is a battle over money
The article starts and ends with consumers delighted at the cost savings on their utility bills. Utility companies are not so delighted: they are trying to levy extra charges on solar households, branding solar households as ‘freeloaders’, and even blocking further solar installation. Solar households are fighting back, and the battle is joined.

Frame 2: Solar is a path to freedom
Another frame is emerging strongly: renewable power at household or community level gives a measure of freedom from quasi-monopolistic utility companies. This framing, stressing energy independence, has led to an unlikely coalition of environmentalists and elements of the political right (while other portions of the political right, backed by oil, remain hostile to solar).

Each of these frames downplays issues that are a major focus of the other. In the money frame, winning or losing out financially is all that matters: all other concerns are secondary at best (compare the recent debate in the UK on Scottish independence). The freedom frame is more emotional: rugged self-reliance is a virtue in its own right, regardless of cost. (There’s emotion at the utility end too: the future the utilities fear is not only less lucrative, but also sees them reduced to humdrum grid-minders rather than heroic builders of power plants).

Both sides engage in framing of their own. The utilities accuse solar households of ‘imposing an economic burden on non-solar households’ (since solar households now pay less towards the costs of running the grid). Solar households, however, claim to be ‘easing the burden on the power grid’ (cutting transmission losses and delaying the need for new infrastructure). Without getting into the relative merits of these claims, from the framing standpoint it’s interesting to see how readily each side reaches for framing in terms of ‘burdens’.

Is there anything that both these frames leave out? Well yes, of course. Significantly, both frames focus heavily on individual households, downplaying any wider context of society as a whole. One could view solar as part of the global effort to divert human civilisation onto a survival path; in this campaign, squabbles over short term gain are obstacles to be negotiated, finessed or opposed. But this viewpoint hardly figures in the discussion: climate change gets a single mention on the final page of a 5-page article. Interesting.

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October 20th 2014

Book Launch a Huge Success!

More then 60 people attended the official launch of Framespotting on Friday evening at Richard Booth's Bookshop.

There was a fantastic atmosphere and our talk was very well received (especially the jokes). We must have done a reasonable job of making the book sound appealing because we then sold 40 copies!

T Shirts

Book Launch

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October 13th 2014

Framing growth in this week’s Economist

The Economist magazine excels itself this week in the number of frames and metaphors to extol economic growth it uses in a leader article. In just 700 words it manages to cram in all the following:

growth is good
This basic frame is hardly news but, as with almost all framing, it is never stated explicitly. Instead we have phrases such as ‘worried’, ‘spate of bad news’, ‘trouble’ and ‘grim’ applied to low growth. Conversely we can be ‘flattered’ by higher growth. But this is just the beginning. We also have a range of more specific metaphors to reinforce this frame.

growth is progress
Growth is movement forwards: countries with lower growth are ‘laggards’. The euro zone is falling ‘back’ into recession (‘recession’, of course, means to cede ground, fall back). Higher growth is a ‘surge’ while less growth is ‘slowing’. This metaphor also holds that zero growth is ‘stalled’ or ‘stagnant’; a country even ‘hits the skids’.

growth is strength
Hence a lack of growth is ‘feeble’, ‘weak’, or even ‘shockingly weak’. Growth that is increasing is said to ‘strengthen’; countries with lower growth are ‘weaklings’.

growth is health
Indeed resumption of growth is a ‘recovery’. Explicitly, the ‘prescription’ for the weaklings is to ‘heal thyself’. Meanwhile a lack of growth is equated with physical harm; taxes are ‘hurting’ economies, which can even ‘get clobbered’.

growth is buoyancy
America ‘buoys’ other places; without growth we can ‘fall’, even into a deflationary ‘spiral’.

growth is escape
The piece starts with a road ‘out of the woods’ and ends with a fear of being ‘dragged back into those woods’.

growth is hope
Spooking financial markets would ‘darken the outlook’

growth is reasonable
The euro area ‘needs’ a stimulus but Germans are ‘pigheadedly’ opposed to it.

growth is competence
Without it we have a ‘mess’.

As always, drawing attention to these frames is helpful if we want to see clearly what we’re up against in trying to consider the ‘growth paradigm’ dispassionately. In addressing a wider audience, however, we need to move beyond this. Drawing attention to the frames only strengthens them: we need to use ‘our’ frames instead. Dethroning growth is survival; maturity; health; justice; realism; sanity.

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October 9th 2014

Framespotting makes the press ....

Framespotting is featured in this week’s Brecon and Radnor Express, with a piece by Anita Howells. Her 600-word article is accompanied by a photo of the authors (appropriately posing with a frame), and describes the book as “a real eye opener” which is “endorsed by some of the UK’s biggest thinkers”.

(The picture is a deliberately low-res image of the article; the article and photo themselves are copyright Brecon & Radnor Express)

Brecon & Radnor article

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October 2nd 2014


Ever since the days of Aesop (or the biblical Parables), short stories or fables have been a way of communicating ideas in a way which makes the ideas memorable. They can capture an idea, and give it a label - such as ‘sour grapes’ - and we can then use these names as building blocks in conversations.

We included some short animal fables in the early versions of Framespotting.

Unfortunately, the feedback from several sources was that they would put some readers off. Fables would give people the impression the book was for children, we were told (although interestingly they were a hit with most of the adults we tried them out with). So, with regret, we left the fables out of the final version of the book.

They're not lost, though. We use some of them in the talks we give, and we still have the idea of publishing them in some form or other one day. In the meantime, four of them are here, on a site we're calling (after one of the fables) 'No Dodo'.

Here's an example of one of our fables ...

Daily Flowers

Rabbit got up as usual at dawn and headed towards the Common, greeting the other rabbits as they emerged from their burrows, all intent on getting their share of the Daily Flowers.

Rabbit was just thinking about how the flowers would taste today when - bump! Badger! Oh No, thought Rabbit. Badger was always complaining about rabbits getting in the way. And now Rabbit would miss the best flowers while Badger had a rant. Badger was big and powerful, and Rabbit waited nervously to see what Badger would do.

But Badger just paused, and then asked mildly, 'Have you ever thought that if you got up half an hour earlier you'd have the pick of these Daily Flowers you're so fond of? You'd have the Common to yourself.'

Rabbit was surprised by this idea and not a little relieved at being let off so lightly. Rabbit thanked Badger politely before hurrying off to the Common. The best flowers had been eaten of course, but Rabbit was thinking about the delicious flowers which would be there for the eating the next morning.

And sure enough, when Rabbit crept sleepily down to the Common the next day, the best flowers were there for the choosing before the other rabbits arrived.

So the following morning Rabbit arrived early again. But this time many other rabbits arrived early too.

And the day after that all the rabbits were there early ...

Rabbit had a worrying thought: If all the others come early every day, I'll have to keep coming early too, or I'll miss out.

Meanwhile the other rabbits were all thinking the same thing ...

And sure enough, from that day on, all the rabbits crept sleepily down to the field half an hour before dawn, and munched the Daily Flowers as usual, even though they didn't taste quite as nice as when the sun was up.

And Badger watched from the hill and smiled.

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September 29th 2014

Book Launch, 17 Oct, 6-7pm

Framespotting is getting a proper Hay-on-Wye launch on 17th October at Richard Booth's Bookshop (which became famous as the world's largest secondhand bookshop) in Lion Street. If you're in the area do come and join us - we'll say a few words, read a couple of extracts, have a glass of wine, and then there'll be the chance (but no obligation) to buy signed copies.

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September 11th 2014

Framespotting 3.1

Most books go through several drafts, and Framespotting had several prior incarnations before settling on its current form. You might be interested in some of its history, and how it came to be the way it is.

It was never a conventional book consisting of a stream of words - we like pictures and stories too much for that. An initial model was the ‘Head First’ series of computer books, which use lots of explanatory devices: different fonts; lots of pictures, diagrams and cartoons; even ‘interviews’ between anthropomorphised chunks of computer code. On the surface, this can all seem like an attempt to look wacky and hip, but as the authors point out, visual layout and other tricks can all help readers to fix and remember ideas. We totally agree with this, and used a lot of memory techniques ourselves for our Chinese book.

In the end, though, we felt the design was too unfocussed for us and we decided to simplify the style a bit: we decided to have ‘nuggets’ of about a page, interspersed with interludes and fables. This was the second major version of the book (what you might call Framespotting 2.0). The nuggets, fables and other ‘boxes’ were all semi-independent entities, which made it easier to revise the order in which we presented the information (there’ll be a post about this, and ‘story structure’, in the future). During this time, though, we were getting feedback that the stories and fables got in the way for a proportion of our readers, and in the end we reluctantly decided to drop them (but they live on elsewhere: there’ll be a future post about the fables, too, and also a post about the evolution of some of the names and titles we’ve used).

The final form of the book then followed: we made the nuggets a uniform length, to fit onto a half-page each, so that each page could have a chunk of text accompanied by a picture or diagram - and a title. This is a more standardised format but still fresh enough; the pages are self-contained, bite-sized chunks, and the pictures and titles are still an important feature of the book. Both the pictures and the titles are often humorous or ironic - sometimes provocative - they are powerful devices that can help to fix an idea in you mind, and give emotional resonance to it. The pictures can also stand as little icons to recall the basic argument of each page: we use them as such in the Pictorial Recap at the end of the book.

If that was Framespotting 3.0, then the final version after editing was Framespotting 3.1 - and we think that’s a good place to stop, before we get anywhere near Framespotting XP or Framespotting Vista!

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September 1st 2014

Jonathon Porritt endorses Framespotting

"A very enjoyable read. I loved the simple, crisp language, and the illustrations work really well. There's a refreshing determination here to change the whole 'mood music' behind the way we address important issues."

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August 28th 2014

Framing on your credit card

Did you know that you can earn rewards by using your credit card? A smiling customer in a magazine advert waves her airline credit card and says, “I use it every day to earn miles.”

Notice any frames?

Well, what’s going on with that word ‘earn’? You earn money by doing work. Using your credit card isn’t earning money; it’s spending it. But talking about ‘earning’ conjures up the frame that spending is doing work - which is virtuous, useful, productive. You should feel good about all that spending.

And if consuming is work, then your job is to get on with consuming.

You wouldn't fall for that, would you?

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August 26th 2014

Zoom Control

‘Zoom Control’ was an earlier, working title for the book before we finally decided on Framespotting. We didn't let it disappear altogether though - we still use it as a chapter title.

The idea is that a frame is like a camera or computer screen where the view is zoomed right in: it shows something in great detail, but it only shows part of the big picture. If you zoom out, you’ll see more of the picture. But zooming out doesn’t usually occur to us; in fact we often don’t see that we have a zoom control at all.


As you'll see from the picture, Zoom Control lent itself to a nice logo which we used on the front cover of the copies we had printed when we were seeking endorsements.

Framing can be a way of limiting the debate. Like a Trojan horse, it can smuggle in hidden assumptions - ruling out alternative ways of looking at things. If the assumptions are hidden, you don’t question them because you don’t even see them. But you’ll see them if you zoom out.

So who’s in charge of your zoom control?

The figure running away with the 'zoom out' control in the picture indicates that there are people trying to keep you from zooming out. Frames often come with an agenda, and can be used to manipulate and exploit you. Finding your zoom control, and learning how to use it, is the first step towards defending yourself.

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August 20th 2014

Writing Together

We’re a husband-and-wife writing team - which is rare, but not unknown. (Other examples are Nicci French, the pen name of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, who write crime novels; and Allan and Barbara Pease, who wrote ‘Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps’).

Writing as a team is interesting - there’ll be later posts on this - but don’t imagine us sitting side by side fighting over a keyboard - we tried that a few times and it really doesn't work!

We work best by tossing things back and forth: one of us (usually Laurence) puts together a draft of something (anything!) to get us started, then the other one hacks it around, then the first one tweaks that, the second one re-tweaks and so on. This works because we trust each other and realize that edits are not a criticism of the other's work (and certainly not of the person!) After doing this a few times in the early days we could both see how much better the end result was than if either one of us had done it alone.

We do work in the same room though, which means we can help each other avoid one of the main pitfalls of working from home: the constant temptation to wander off and do odd jobs or make cups of coffee instead!

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August 15th 2014

Fracking and Framespotting

Here's a nice little exercise in framespotting - let's look at the documents accompanying the UK government’s consultation on 'underground access', which ends today (it seeks to allow oil companies to drill under private land without needing the landowner's consent).

Set aside the bundling together of geothermal energy (a renewable energy source) with fracking (which will add to emissions and postpone the day when we get serious about curbing fossil fuel extraction), and other aspects of the way the questions are posed. There’s a telling example of deeper framing in there: and it illustrates perfectly how the fossil fuel industry smuggles in hidden assumptions by the use of particular words.

The document talks about the “recovery of the UK’s unconventional reserves of gas and oil”.

Look at the language: in particular that word “recovery”. What picture has it set up in your mind, probably without you really noticing? “Recovery” in this context implies getting something back, something that is lost or has been taken from us, something that is rightfully ours. It sets up a frame that implies we have a right to go and get this gas and oil. Any suggestion that it is best left in the ground is ignored: it’s outside the frame.

And what about the word “reserves”? What frame do you think that sets up?

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August 14th 2014

The Spoilt Tycoon

What’s that tycoon doing on the back cover? And why is he bawling?


Well, as we said in the post about ‘playground thinking’, some major corporations behave a lot like spoilt children in a school playground. So we thought - why not have a picture to illustrate that? It’s so much more vivid and memorable than mere words.

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August 11th 2014

Our copies of the book have arrived!


We're so pleased - they look really great :)

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August 7th 2014

Playground Thinking 101

Some people, especially the very rich and large corporations, seem to have an outlook on life which reminded us of spoilt children in a school playground. We decided to call this mindset 'Playground Thinking'. This is how we describe it in the book: “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.”

These people and many corporations feel they should be free to do anything they want, without any limits or restrictions of any sort. It’s not just that they’re never satisfied (they always want more): they also hate any regulations which might protect others from their activities (they don’t want anyone telling them that they can’t just go around hitting the other children). They want stuff for free and think they have a right to it - to use common assets like roads but not to pay taxes to pay for them - in fact any talk of ‘sharing’ things or ‘common assets’ is distasteful to them (they don’t want to share their toys).

And finally, they want to keep the physical world at a distance, just like they try to keep other people at bay, and to exploit it without any restrictions. They hate any regulations aimed at protecting our planetary life-support systems (they don’t want anyone telling them that they mustn’t play with matches that might burn down the whole school).

They need a bit of firm parenting.

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August 6th 2014

Why we wrote the book

How did we come to write a book about ‘framing’?

Well Laurence first came across the concept when he was reading books by George Lakoff, but it seemed to apply mostly to politics. But then he arrived at it from another direction (climate change), and realised how pervasive it is in all sorts of other areas of life too, and how strongly it influences us.

Here’s what happened.

In looking at climate change, Laurence had started uncovering the many layers between what it is and why we're not tackling it.

Initially, we tend to think of climate change as being a science problem - there are all those graphs and technical jargon words. Fortunately there have been plenty of people looking at the technical stuff, and the overall picture is now pretty clear. So if the vast majority of scientists now say climate change is happening, it's a serious threat and we're the cause, why are we not doing something about it? And, in fact, what is it that we should be doing?

That's the next layer and it involves things like economics and policy debates. There are far fewer people working away at this. The policy debates can get pretty technical too, but one approach stands out as clearly superior: it’s effective, efficient, simple and fair, and goes under such names Cap & Share or Fee & Dividend. It gets the ethics, the economics and the psychology right, instead of making everyone feel frightened and guilty. But nothing effective like this is being implemented. Why?

That's the next layer down and, of course, it's politics. It's about politicians who are unwilling to look at anything long-term, combined with the lobbying power of vested interests. How on earth did we end up with this situation? And why are we standing for it? How do they get away with it, and why don’t we seem to care?

So a really deep layer asks why people think and act the way they do, and this is where frames come in. Laurence had found frames playing a role when he was talking to policy experts, activists, academics and politicians - and when you start to look, frames are everywhere. Obesity, tax, how you think about your job: topics in health, economics, politics, and everyday life. People so often have the wrong picture or story at the back of their minds when they think about these things, without realising it.

Clearly this is important stuff, but in general people don’t know about it. Yes, there are books on framing, but nothing that explains, simply and clearly, what frames are, how to recognise them and what to do when you see them. And there certainly aren't any that are positive, up-beat and fun.

And that, folks, is how ‘Framespotting’ came about. It's our attempt to put everyone in charge of how they see things. We hope you enjoy that 'aha' feeling that comes from understanding something you didn’t realise before; the 'wow' feeling from seeing and recognising the examples of framing behind everyday situations; the surprise from seeing when you’re being duped - by politicians and corporations, or simply unwittingly by the language we use; and the 'yes!' feeling from the freedom this gives you to see things in a completely different way.

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August 4th 2014

We've gone international

You can now order Framespotting in the US from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Waterstones as well as from Amazon in Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Spain.

It makes an ideal Christmas or birthday present :)

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July 31st 2014

Framing at Gatwick Airport

From time to time in these posts we’ll be drawing attention to framing in the world about us, often in the news or media. To get started, let's look at an advert Gatwick airport ran recently (for example in the New Statesman last week). The headline reads:

“Fly an extra 130,000 planes over London, or build a new runway at Gatwick instead?”

In its simplest form, this is what framing is about: it directs your attention to what’s inside a frame, and downplays anything outside the frame. In this case, the frame is a world where we have to meet increasing ‘demand’ for air travel, come what may and no matter what the consequences might be. Inside the frame, the only question is how to meet this demand. Once you focus attention on this question and get caught up in a debate between options, it’s easy to lose sight of the frame and even forget it’s there.

Notice how it happens, though. The advert doesn’t mention a frame, or any assumptions. Your attention is simply directed to a choice between two options. If you go along with this and start thinking about the options, you’re already thinking inside the frame. Job done.

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July 30th 2014

What’s that sheep doing on the front cover?

The clever sheep is actually multi-tasking - it’s doing two things at once.

Firstly, it’s illustrating what often happens in framing. The sheep is very interested in the letters ‘ram’ and is inclined to overlook the bigger picture which also includes some other letters. In the same way, we find it very easy to have our attention drawn to focus on parts of a picture. If, say, a headline about ‘benefit cheats’ catches our attention we often focus on that, and suppose (without really thinking about it) that ‘benefit cheats’ must be a big problem. We might miss the bigger picture: corporate tax avoidance costs us, the taxpayers, many many times as much.

And secondly of course, having a sheep on your book cover is fun, and signals to readers that the book is going to be light-hearted. Finding that words can hide inside other words, like ‘ram’ in ‘frame’, is a bit of fun too. Did you realise that there’s an ant in ‘meantime’ - or that ‘homeowner’ contains ‘meow’? Good examples are hard to find, but if you allow a word to hide inside a group of two or three words (like ‘normal’ hiding in ‘minor malfunction’), then it happens all the time and is frequently used in cryptic crosswords.

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July 24th 2014

So - who are we?

Well, we're a husband and wife team who really like helping people to understand things which look complicated but which can, in fact, be understood by anybody if put across in the right way.

Our backgrounds as university lecturers (teaching statistics and ‘operational research’ aka industrial maths) mean we’re not afraid of complicated or technical ideas. But more importantly it means we know a bit about how to explain things ‘painlessly’ and without using jargon. Also, because we've worked for many years in industry we know how people in large corporations think and act.

And while we were doing all that we learned, from bringing up children and years spent as a gliding instructor, how to focus on what’s important in life.

Since the turn of the century when we got together and stopped 'proper' jobs we’ve turned our talents to other uses including writing, the Bowen Technique and lots of volunteering.

Our biggest project together was the book ‘Learning Chinese Characters’ which has become a bestseller. It uses pictures, short stories and other memory devices to help people learn and remember Chinese characters - even if they know nothing about the Chinese language. And it illustrates perfectly our view that (while a bit of hard work helps from time to time) learning things ought to be painless, fascinating and fun.

‘Framespotting’ has a similar outlook, except that we’re not trying to help people to memorise things. Instead, we want to help everyone SEE what’s going on around us, which often involves uncovering assumptions we all make without realising we’re doing it. And, while this process can be fun too, there’s a very serious point behind it - we need to see some of the big stuff that's going on so that we can avoid various catastrophes that are coming our way. Even so, we reckon that all this needs explaining in a way that’s interesting, humorous - and even inspiring, and that's exactly what 'Framespotting' aims to do.

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July 21st 2014

Hello World!

This blog accompanies our new book Framespotting, which will be published by IFF Books on 31 October 2014. Later posts will let you know a little about us (we are a husband-and-wife writing team) and how we got into all this; we’ll tell you about the ‘Bonus Features’ you can see on the website; and point out frames we spot in the news and elsewhere.

For now, just a brief introduction. Framespotting is an informal, jargon-free introduction to ‘framing’: how our view of life is often ‘framed’ or restricted so that we focus on a small area without realising it; and how to take control of this process and see the bigger picture. Doing this often reveals ways we’re being hoodwinked, and can also uncover new and better ideas than the ones we’re usually presented with. And doing this can be surprisingly upbeat and hopeful, when there’s all too much doom and gloom about.

If you feel confused, apprehensive, disempowered and increasingly apathetic about many of our biggest problems, you might enjoy the ‘aha’ feeling that comes from recognising the examples of framing behind everyday situations (which we refer to as seeing ‘behind the scenes’), and come to feel, like we do, that humankind is capable of tackling these problems (both technically and politically), and to feel part of all this.

And it’s short and easy to read. If you don’t feel like picking up a thick and ‘worthy’ book about ‘serious’ things, then you’re in luck, because it’s a book of one-page ‘nuggets’ written in a friendly and down-to-earth manner.

That’s all for now - see you next time.




Doughnuts and Aircraft

Framespotting at the Hay Festival, 2017

Twin to Win

Framing inequality as a health issue

Framespotting at the Hay Festival, 2016

Framespotting on Russell Brand's TrewLit book club

Framespotting in the Guardian this week

Framespotting workshop in Gloucestershire

We'll always have Paris

Framing in the NHS

Refugees and Migrants

Cap & Share - a name to change the world?

Wanted - a name to change the world

That (second) Guardian piece

Framespotting at the Hay Festival

Are you better off, worse off, or just being framed?

About that Guardian piece

Climate Change is a Football Issue

Night train to Laos

Cakes and Lifeboats

The Root of the Problem

Freaks and Framespotting

Calling a Speed a Speed

Christmas sorted!

Are You a Motorist? Really?

Business As Usual

Russell Brand, framespotter

The Consumer and the Citizen

Today's the Day

Framing ‘solar’ in Scientific American

Book launch a success

Framing growth in this week's Economist

Framespotting makes the press


Book launch date

Framespotting 3.1

Framing on your credit card

Zoom Control

Writing together

Fracking and framespotting

The Spoilt Tycoon

Playground Thinking

Why we wrote the book

Framing at Gatwick airport

Why the sheep?

Who are we?

Hello world


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