A couple of years back here in Southwest Florida there was a proposal to build a coal power plant in Hendry County to help satisfy the growing need for electricity. Not to worry, we were told, this was a “clean coal” power plant using the most recent technological advances to filter all of the bad stuff from contaminating the local environment.
When environmentalists pointed out that there was really no such thing as “clean” coal, that the best one could hope for was “cleaner” coal the coal industry advocates accepted our knowledge of the science. But they weren’t done with their pitch. Don’t worry, they told us. The smoke stacks would be so high that any pollutants would be carried miles away and would not harm us.
Well, that’s great! Except, of course, the pollutants would be carried somewhere, to someone! What about them?
What the coal advocates were doing was framing their product as clean. On the other hand, even if there’s some dirt, it won’t affect you. Here they were appealing to the NIMBY mentality. So long as the toxins are not in my back yard it’s not toxic.
This goes along with a theory that I have been working on for some time, though there are certainly some kinks that need to be worked out. I call it the Ostrich Theory. In essence, if people can find some way to deny or avoid realities that they do not like they will, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Like the fabled ostrich who hide’s its head in the ground when danger is present, human beings will often use very convoluted reasoning to avoid glaringly obvious dangers in their own lives. These dangers may be physical, psychological, social or ideological. (Yes, I know that using an ostrich to exemplify this theory is scientifically inaccurate. In fact, ostriches do not bury their heads to avoid danger–a strategy that would have made them a very accommodating food source–they run or kick. But the ostrich symbol is still useful in this matter).
This theory explains many phenomena such as those living next to death camps during the holocaust “not knowing” what was going on in their own communities, or global warming deniers (some of whom are noted scientists). It also explains the NIMBY mentality. So long as the bad stuff isn’t happening in my back yard, it’s OK. Yes, I want to have cheep access to electricity. Yes, I’m against adding toxins to my community. So what we will do is take the toxins that allow me access to electricity and put them somewhere else. That way I can turn on my lights without guilt.
Of course, there’s a power element involved in the Ostrich Theory. There are those who make the determination of where things like coal plants go. Since they have to go into somebody’s back yard it will be the back yards of the most dis-empowered, or in places that are secluded from human sight.
How many people have actually seen a coal mine, for instance. The process of mining coal is extremely destructive. If you live in or have traveled through Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and many other states in that area, you’ve almost certainly driven by many coal mines. But you did not see them. They were carefully hidden behind thickly tree-lined roads, or on the other side of a mountain range. The idea is, if you can’t see it, then it’s not something to worry about.
Of course, there are times when the dangers become so obvious that one would think rational individuals could not ignore them. Such was the case last week when over a billion gallons of coal ash broke through their containers in Tennessee. Over 5 million cubic yards of slurry was released into the neighboring rivers and streams creating an ecological disaster many times more severe than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Don’t worry, say the coal experts. The slurry is not toxic. Great news! I’m safe. That is, of course unless you read the EPA report that claims that exposure to coal ash increases ones risk of cancer by as much as 10,000 times!
Framing is an important focus of study for sociologists. A sociologist can take a look at the framing involved in creating the reality of “clean coal,” for instance. But in order for sociologists to truly grasp “frames” we must look beyond the framework. A sociologist must cultivate what I call an omnicosmic perspective. We must be prepared to look at all facets of a social phenomenon and use our knowledge to reveal that which exists beyond the frame.
In essence, a frame is used to focus one’s attention on a small part of a reality. Often, this small part is the area targeted by some powerful group, a group with the resources to create a frame. The omnicosmic perspective endeavors to grasp the reality as a whole regardless of the power elements involved.
The omnicosmic reality of burning coal for energy belies the framed reality of “clean coal.” Even if all of the pollutants could be filtered from the coal as it’s being burned for electricity (which it can’t), there’s the phenomenon of coal in its entirety to think about. Coal must be extracted, stored, transported. Waste from this process must be dealt with, and dealt with in a way that is responsible, as it appears was not the case in Tennessee. The the coal is burned and the pollutants filtered. But what do we do with the filters. Pollution doesn’t just go away. If it’s not going one place, like through the smoke stacks, it must go somewhere else. It doesn’t just disappear.
Clean coal is a myth. Only ostriches would accept such a brittle frame.
But the omnicosmic perspective must probe deeper. In fact, deriving energy from “burning” is never a clean option. Burning is the historical method of generating and using energy. This is understandable. It’s technologically easy to burn. In an agrarian society, burning may be a viable option.
Burning is also a fine way, apparently, of firing an industrial society. But burning can only take us so far. Burning means waste and pollution. The more burning, the more waste and pollution. There comes a point of diminishing returns.
We’ve reached a point in our technological advancement when we must move from the omnicosmic acceptance of burning, to a new consciousness of energy conversion. For instance, converting the energy of the sun or the wind into electrical energy, a process that does not involve burning.
In order to endeavor to change an omnicosmic reality, one that we have always taken for granted, we must be ready to accept its shortcomings. We must look beyond the way reality is being framed for us, as well as why it’s being framed. Framing is a strategy used by entrenched institutions to perpetuate their interests. They are useful for individuals as a way to understand reality in a relatively simple, easy to use form.
As such, frames are notoriously ineffective at convincing people who are already well educated on a topic. If sociology has a purpose in the postmodern world it is to help educate people beyond the accepted frames of entrenched interests.