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Don't Beat Plastic Pollution

Don't Beat Plastic Pollution

“Monster wildfire destroys hundreds of homes.” “New laws in the war against drugs.” “Regional towns swept by a wave of youth crime.”

Metaphors are powerful tools of behaviour change in science communication and the media. They can evoke vivid imagery, emotional responses, and shape the way we perceive and respond to the world around us.

In behavioural science, metaphors are an example of a framing effect, in which people act differently based on the way information is presented through different wording or reference points. These subtle changes in language can greatly impact the way people reason and address real-world problems. 

For example, people who read about a “monster wildfire” reported greater risk and were more willing to evacuate their homes than those reading identical information about a “major wildfire”. One reason for this, is that the monster metaphor conjures up vivid associations with threat, harm, and destruction, and stirs up emotions such as fear and anxiety.

In another study, people either read about crime described as a “beast”  or a “virus”, followed by the same crime statistics. However those reading about the “beast” were more likely to suggest solutions such as harsher penalties and enforcement, while those reading about the “virus” were more likely to suggest social reform and understanding of root causes.

In other areas, metaphors have successfully been used to communicate risk and severity and to encourage climate action, evacuation from natural disasters, and flu vaccinations.

Metaphors thus demonstrate their ability to transcend mere figures of speech, offering a compelling means of framing narratives and influencing perceptions surrounding critical matters.

The Impact and Problem of Military Metaphors

Military language is a particular example of metaphors that refer to specialised terms, phrases, and jargon used within the armed forces.

The use of military language and metaphors can evoke a sense of urgency and heighten the perceived threat of a number of different issues and can even motivate people to change their behaviours to take action on an issue. For example, describing climate change as a war conveyed a greater sense of urgency and risk, and greater willingness to take up personal behaviours to mitigate its effects.

However, military metaphors are frequently imbued with an inherent adversarial nature, reflecting the combative essence of warfare. Terms such as "battle," "attack," "defend," and "victory" permeate discussions, transforming complex problems into adversarial arenas. Thus, this language creates a dichotomy between opposing sides, framing issues as a win-or-lose proposition.

According to research from the University of Southern California, the use of military language to describe cancer can have detrimental effects on individuals. It frames cancer as a win-or-lose proposition, instilling a sense of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness among patients, leading to increased stress levels and potential avoidance of seeking medical help.

Cancer patients don’t “lose” the “battle”. Cancer treatments fail. Modern medicine fails. People do not.

When it comes to crime, few phrases are as ubiquitous as the War on Drugs. Introduced to the public narrative by the United States’ President Nixon in 1971, drug abuse was declared as “public enemy number one”, calling for a comprehensive approach to tackle drug addiction and trafficking. The infamous speech had a significant impact on public perception, ultimately leading to widespread acceptance of harsher drug sentences and increased rates of incarceration. This rhetorical approach effectively garnered support for policies that prioritised punitive measures over alternative approaches, such as treatment and rehabilitation.

Should we Beat Plastic Pollution?

Whether future campaigns drive to ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’, ‘Fight Climate Change’ or go to ‘War on Waste’ it is important to critically examine the potential drawbacks of such language. While military metaphors can evoke a sense of urgency and encourage the public to “take up arms”, they also carry certain limitations and risks.

By framing environmental challenges as battles or wars, do such narratives oversimplify the complexities of the issues at hand - such is the case of cancer? Can it overshadow the importance of long-term systemic changes and sustainable practices, focusing more on short-term victories? 

As humans, we’re much better at responding to threats when there is an enemy present. Abstract dangers, like gradual atmospheric changes, not so much. An us-versus-them narrative can simplify complex issues such as climate change and make it more accessible to populations. Nonetheless, it turns people away from logic and attaches emotions and personal values to this shared problem.

By framing problems as adversarial, we risk adopting a defeatist mindset - creating a sense of hopelessness with people drawing back from personal responsibilities and becoming avoidant of solving the issue. 

As an alternative, we can explore metaphors and narratives that emphasise unity, shared responsibility and the need for holistic approaches, encouraging a more inclusive and collaborative path toward environmental stewardship.

Authors: Kun Zhao and Malaika Jaovisidha

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