Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.
The aviation industry has spent billions over decades to paint itself in a positive light, and it is easy for people to fall into the trap of discussing the future of the industry on its own, rigged terms.
This guide seeks to help escape this trap and provide readers with a toolkit to cast aviation in a light that illuminates its realities: the inequality of aviation within and across borders, the lives and livelihoods destroyed through airport expansion and industry offset schemes, the greenwashing efforts of an embattled aviation industry hanging onto the status quo, and – most importantly – what is to be gained from laying the tracks for more equitable and climate-safe mobility systems around the world.
The pages of this guide serve as a toolkit for campaigners and organisers to help reframe our collective understanding of aviation in the global economy. It aims to support better storytelling about air transport and the wider impacts of aviation on people and the planet. It is about driving change, and connecting with diverse and various audiences in a positive and meaningful way. And finally, it is about showing that a better world is possible and that there are alternatives: to air transport, to the current exploitative economic system, and to unsustainable ways of life.
What do we mean by ‘reframe’? We mean that if the commonly held mental image of flying is one that is alluring, our task is to shift that frame of thinking to one that realistically incorporates the harm aviation is causing to people, workers, communities and the planet. This means carefully considering how to speak, write and visualise the aviation industry in order to enable people to make a deliberate choice of how they think, feel and act in relation to it.
We all have images in our minds that can incite strong emotional feelings, including those related to the aviation industry and flying. These feelings can be positive, neutral or negative, but they can also be complex, conflicted and change over time in response to social pressures, political moments or our understanding of the world. The point is that what shapes how we feel about something has certain roots; it has been shaped or ‘framed’, often by things that we might not be consciously aware of, like media coverage, advertising and marketing.
Now is the time to embark on a reframing journey. In 2020, air traffic came to a near halt for some months due to the pandemic, and airlines were plunged into crisis. During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of daily flights fell from almost 110,000 to less than 50,000, on average. 1 Instead of using taxpayers’ money to bail out airlines, it would have been a perfect chance for the world’s governments to pull the ripcord and change course towards a fairer and more sustainable mobility system. If you weigh the harmfulness of air transport against its benefits, and if you take the urgency of addressing the climate crisis seriously, there should have been no other choice. Yet governments didn’t take this opportunity.
But why? While air traffic is not unique in receiving government support during the pandemic, the amount of public funds it did receive is a reflection of the wider flaws of our current economic and mobility systems. Many of these bailouts were handed to the industry without any requirements to change, despite the aviation industry embodying so many of the injustices behind the climate crisis and social inequality. It is an industry that is constantly accelerating and expanding, primarily serving a small and wealthy fraction of humanity to the detriment of the majority.
In 2022, Russia’s war against Ukraine and its economic and energy supply consequences show once again how vulnerable to shocks and crises the fossil fuel-based energy system and the capitalist economic system as a whole are. We need more cooperation and solidarity to reach our common destination: a peaceful, just and sustainable world. Yet aviation has become a core part of a mobility system that is detached from the needs of most people and the limits of the living planet. With this guide, we hope to equip as many people as possible with the tools to reframe aviation and share empowering, positive stories about how to steer aviation towards a safe landing approach and lay the groundwork for a new economy.
OUR THEORY OF CHANGE
A theory of change describes what we think needs to be done to bring about desired changes in society, and what our role is in this process. It is helpful for activists and civil society organisations when they are drawing up big strategies and deciding on concrete actions. The theory underlying this guide focuses strongly on the power of discourse, the importance of big narratives: how do we think and talk about the world and what influence does this have on concrete political and social change? Our world is not determined by thoughts and language alone. Concrete actions, real institutions and physical infrastructures matter. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: we must first have a vision of what a better world could look like before we can build it.
We do not subscribe to the false division of individual behaviour change and system change. The urgency of the climate crisis, and the scale of change that is required, means that the privilege of choosing one over the other has long since passed, especially for those in the Global North.*
We need both – not only because they are both impactful and important in driving change, but because they reinforce each other: how individuals act and how our systems look like are inherently linked; systemic change is in part constituted by many acts of individual change, via social and cultural dynamics, while systems in turn reinforce certain types of behaviours and circumscribe the scope for individual change. Individuals are embedded within and across multiple systems, and are shaped by them as well as exerting influence on them as citizens, users and, crucially, social actors. Our approach seeks to enhance agency by empowering and connecting communities across regions and contexts, triggering systemic change.
* The conceptual Global South/Global North terminology to describe early industrialised regions respectively poorer regions of the world originates from an academic discourse and is ambiguous, which is why we ourselves recommend avoiding it where possible and suggest naming specific countries or places instead. Moreover, justified criticism can be made of the rhetorical division of the world into two parts. Nevertheless, because of its analytical value, we resort to the terms in a few cases.
WE WANT TO …
achieve real social change that moves us towards a society and economy that allow everyone to thrive for generations to come. We focus on aviation as a particularly grave example of harmful climate injustice;
shift what is politically possible, what is considered beneficial in society and what needs to be left behind;
strengthen and connect narratives that can contribute to such change;
increase and strengthen the knowledge and skills need- ed in our networks to communicate effectively;
help and work together with communities living on the frontlines of the climate crisis;
support the most affected groups in spreading their stories and winning their struggles
TO ACHIEVE THAT WE …
scrutinise dominant narratives and highlight which values, beliefs and stories are underlying them;
create positive narratives that strengthen our own values, visions and goals in a way that resonates with people;
collaborate with partners who all have their unique experiences and strengths and learn from each other;
work with and listen carefully to people and groups who have been marginalised, learn from them and try not to reproduce inequalities;
create spaces for exchange and mutual learning, in our networks and projects and beyond; and
spark and perform concrete actions to make our narratives tangible and draw attention to our stories and struggles
ABOUT STAY GROUNDED
Stay Grounded is a global network consisting of more than 180 member organisations. These include local airport opposition initiatives, climate justice groups, NGOs, trade unions, academics, groups fostering alternatives to flying, and organisations that support communities struggling against on-the- ground offsetting projects or agrofuel plantations.
The network started to form in 2016, the year in which a very weak global strategy to target aviation’s climate impact (CORSIA) was launched by the UN’s aviation body ICAO: At different airports around the world, protests were organised simultaneously, and it became clear that building alliances is hugely important in order to exchange experiences, support each other, come out of the shadows and involve more stakeholders. It showed that local airport struggles (often framed as ‘not in my backyard’ conflicts) are not isolated cases, but that they are connected with the massive growth of aviation globally, the unfair subsidies of its industry and the proposal of false solutions like offsetting and agrofuels.
A modal shift of mobility can only be achieved by involving more and more groups and individuals to build pressure from below both locally and on a bigger scale by resisting, transforming and creating alternatives. In 2018, the network went public and since then it has grown steadily and has organised several international campaigns and days of actions.
Find out more at: stay-grounded.org
ABOUT THE PROJECT
The Reframe, Rethink, Reshape project is led by Stay Grounded and aims to bring together the experience, diversity and breadth of the Stay Grounded network with insights on transformative climate communication. This guide was written by Stay Grounded together with the New Weather Institute. Partners in Spain (Ecologistas en Acción), France (Résistance Climatique) and Germany (ROBIN WOOD) supported the process with their expertise and have also translated the guide into Spanish, French and German while adapting the content to their particular needs and local context.
From the beginning, it was important that this project be oriented towards the requirements and needs of those who will work with the guide, and that it includes their expertise. While this project is Europe-focused, we also wanted to take as global a perspective as possible on the issues to ensure the guide is useful for a diverse and expansive movement of active citizens, community leaders, change makers, and climate communicators. We are, however, conscious of our limitations. As such, much care was taken to include perspectives outside of the project’s European partners, and to acknowledge the realities of frontline communities globally. This was accomplished in part through multiple feedback rounds and interviews with additional experts, with a focus on voices from countries in the Global South.
A NOTE ON REFRAMING
What are we talking about when we talk about reframing?
Language matters: it is how we make sense of the world around us. All social and political struggles are competitions over people’s hearts and minds, and language is key to winning. Facts are important too, of course. But when presented without considering the bigger picture they are part of, even the most shocking statistics are ineffective – no matter how much they reinforce our own ideas and goals.
Throughout this guide we use some terms frequently. They are: narrative, story, framing, and metaphor. All these terms are important for campaigners and activists but they are often understood differently, play into each other and sometimes overlap.
A narrative is a system of stories that is based around some central ideas and beliefs. Narratives are created through stories and have to be actively sustained. They are extremely powerful: people understand narratives at gut level and they do not need to be explained. Unlike stories, narratives do not have a concrete start or finish: they are ongoing, developing and open to interpretation. One narrative we often see is that economic growth can become “green”, a claim which is not supported by evidence. 2
Some narratives are deeply rooted in our cultures and are vital to how whole societies and economies are structured and organised. These are often referred to as meta-narratives, grand narratives, world views or common sense. One example of a meta-narrative is ‘progress’: the belief that ‘humanity’ is constantly improving and that this happens primarily through technological developments, innovation and entrepreneurialism. It is some of these narratives that play into ‘discourses of climate delay’ which are used to delay action against the destruction of our planet, research shows. 3
A story is a concrete account of an event that happened to someone or something, real or imaginary. It touches on the how, when and where of a situation. Unlike a narrative, a story is a closed account with a clear beginning and end. Stories have protagonists and antagonists, they can describe struggles of good over evil, and can include lessons and advice for those that hear them. They can draw images and foreshadow the future. 4 Stories can convey ideas, values, beliefs and emotions. They also can – and should – be entertaining, engaging and fulfil the human urge to re-tell them, over and over again.
The organisation Narrative Initiative explains the relation between narratives and stories like this:
“What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives. The relationship is symbiotic; stories bring narratives to life by making them relatable and accessible, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning.ˮ 5
Framing describes the process of embedding information, events and topics within interpretive structures. Done consciously, framing can present facts in accordance with certain values and narratives. 6 The effect of frames has been extensively studied, from neuropsychology to applied linguistics, and shows that certain terms and expressions activate patterns of interpretation and connections in our brains. These patterns determine how we perceive information: for example, the way a question in an opinion poll is phrased may lead respondents to answer it in a certain way. 7 As this happens subconsciously, it is highly relevant for political communication to express messages in a way that aligns with values and campaign demands. But, unfortunately, this is often hard to do. Powerful actors, with substantial resources, are often able to push their frames, almost unchallenged and uninhibited. This has a pervasive impact, where the frames of powerful actors are reinforced and reproduced carelessly.
According to the theory of collective action frames, social movements must win people over through three different types of frames: diagnostic frames that explain what constitutes the problem, prognostic frames that explain how things could be better, and motivational frames that call people to participate in collective action. 8 Successful campaigns need all three.
The story is not in the plot but in the telling.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly refers to one thing in terms of another. It can provide clarity, disguise or show hidden similarities between two different ideas. Metaphors can make things which are otherwise abstract or unrelatable, tangible, understandable and relatable to people. Metaphors are not only important stylistically, but also cognitively. In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson show that there are many metaphors running through our society that are born from a particular worldview. Examples include “argument is war” or “time is money” – both can be “spent” and “wasted”. 9
A simile, on the other hand, is a figure of speech that directly compares two things, connected through the words “as” or “like”. Like metaphors, similes can also make things more vivid, accessible and relatable. An example could be: his chewing was as loud as an aircraft engine.
The practice of reframing was popularised by George Lakoff in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant 10, which explored how political framing can be used to sway and shape public opinion and people’s political allegiances. It has roots in the 1970s and early 1980s interest in linguistics and postmodern theory that through ‘deconstruction’ sought to reveal the particular underlying mechanisms that create our sense of reality and why we think of some things as ‘normal’. For example, imagine if every work of great philosophy used the pronoun “she” to represent a typical person.
When reframing something, we are trying to change the discourse surrounding it and all the meanings attached to that specific way of seeing the world. Reframing is a process where you help others to think and understand subjects, issues or ideas in a different way. It is an invitation to see the world from a new perspective as our imaginations are freed from the constraints of the status quo. To change the world, we must be able to identify ways that it can be different – and often it can just be a matter of perspective.
The story is not in the plot but in the telling.
New narratives require a collective effort. Discussion during Stay Grounded’s Degrowth of Aviation conference 2019 in Barcelona. © Christine Tyler
We use two metaphors throughout this publication: guiding aviation towards a safe landing* and laying the tracks for a fair planet** with sustainable mobility and economic systems.
With the first metaphor, we describe how the aviation industry must come down from its current altitude and that a safe landing, including a just transition for people working in the industry, is still possible. The alternative – if we continue flying as high and as fast we are – is an inevitable crash. In other words, the intended growth of the aviation industry is not sustainable and it must shrink, either by design – or by disaster.
A safe landing means leaving no one behind in the transformation.
The second metaphor makes clear that our mobility and economic systems are something that people can actively shape, and not something that is unchangeable: we can lay down new tracks that lead us toward a sustainable and livea- ble future for all – it is up to us.
* The purpose and effects of this metaphor have been described in the highly recommended report “Reframing the Economy” by the New Economics Foundation. 11 It was also inspired by years of campaigning with similar framing by Stay Grounded and members in various languages.
** This metaphor was inspired by the initiative Safe Landing, which connects air transport workers working to sustainably reduce their industry and its climate impact.
Laying new tracks means that together we can actively shape our society and economy.
1 IATA (2021): Industry Statistics Fact Sheet. bit.ly/IndustryFactSheets
2 Hickel & Kallis (2019): Is Green Growth Possible? bit.ly/IsGreenGrowthPossible
3 Lamb et al. (2020): Discourses of climate delay.
4 Canning & Reinsborough (2017): Re:Imagining Change.
5 Narrative Initiative (2017): Toward New Gravity.
6 Lakoff (2010): Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.
7 Tversky & Kahneman (1981): The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.
8 Benford & Snow (2000): Framing Processes and Social Movements.
9 Lakoff & Johnson (1980): Metaphors We Live By.
10 Lakoff (2004): Don’t Think of an Elephant!
11 New Economics Foundation (2018): Framing the Economy.
- IATA (2021): Industry Statistics Fact Sheet. bit.ly/IndustryFactSheets[↩]
- Hickel & Kallis (2019): Is Green Growth Possible? bit.ly/IsGreenGrowthPossible[↩]
- Lamb et al. (2020): Discourses of climate delay.[↩]
- Canning & Reinsborough (2017): Re:Imagining Change.[↩]
- Narrative Initiative (2017): Toward New Gravity.[↩]
- Lakoff (2010): Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.[↩]
- Tversky & Kahneman (1981): The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.[↩]
- Benford & Snow (2000): Framing Processes and Social Movements.[↩]
- Lakoff & Johnson (1980): Metaphors We Live By.[↩]
- Lakoff (2004): Don’t Think of an Elephant![↩]
- New Economics Foundation (2018): Framing the Economy.[↩]