Illustration By Reuben Stanton

Back in December, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an article that really caught my attention. It was about how we might rethink the ‘costs’ of carbon drawdown. Yes, it might be expensive and technically complex to actively pull carbon from the atmosphere, but so are many other things that we need to live in a modern society, and we happily pay for them to maintain our way of life.

The sentence that caught my attention was this one:

“Everyone would benefit from a stabilized climate, but if the market remains the only way to calculate value, there’s no way to charge people appropriately for keeping the biosphere viable. The solution here is simply to consider [carbon drawdown] technology a public utility creating a public good, like roads, national defense, fresh water, or sewage disposal—and pay for it as such.”

This is a perfect example of ‘reframing’ – a technique used a lot in strategic design – to open up the conceptual space to think of solutions that don’t fit within a dominant ideology or paradigm.

For a short time, I noticed a similar reframing happening in response to the global pandemic. The economic responses in some countries reduced poverty dramatically, effectively sweeping away the idea that a government can’t address a crisis like economic hardship or homelessness. Of course we can pay people a living wage and prevent loss of dignity during an economic crisis – if we want to. The very idea that any solutions to a crisis must be driven by market forces is actually ridiculous. 

A new framing allows you to reconsider where you are now, where you want to go, and how you might get there.

We are currently stuck in a variety of unhelpful frames. “Capitalism and market forces are the only ways to run society.” “It’s normal for politicians to make decisions in the interests of soon-to-be-extinct industries, not in the interests of the whole of society”.  Those two lead to a third frame: “We have to wait for private markets, and carbon drawdown is not profitable, so we just have to wait.”

If, like Kim Stanley Robinson suggests, we could shift to a frame of “Carbon drawdown is a necessary cost of living in the society and future we want, so just like the sewerage system, we’ll pay for it” we might get somewhere. We could view carbon waste like any other human waste, and treat its removal as a public good. This reframing is both clever and obvious, and opens conceptual space to propose new solutions to our rapidly advancing crisis. 

For this crisis, time is of the essence. Major societal, economic, and structural change is possible, and necessary in the face of a crisis this large. We can do this. But it’s clear that our dominant economic framing is holding us back. We need to reframe our thinking, before it’s too late.

– Dr. Reuben Stanton and the PG Team

Read the rest of issue #78 here