The Garn LeBaron Writing Project

Scholarly Articles About Interesting Subjects

When Tragic and Comic Conflict: Burkean Frames and the Environmental Movement

with one comment

by Garn LeBaron Jr.

copyright © Garn LeBaron Jr., 1992 – 2013, all rights reserved

In 1980, a radical new environmental group calling itself Earth First burst into the pages of the news media by unfurling a 300 foot long sheet of black plastic down the side of the Glen Canyon Dam during a news conference. From a distance, the plastic strip looked like a huge crack in the side of the dam. This act was the first in a series of actions taken by Earth First designed to protect the environment from further degradation at the hands of developmental and government interests. Since that day at Glen Canyon dam, a long running battle over the state of the environment has been waged between the members of Earth First and the agents of governments and developers.

This paper is an attempt to demonstrate that opposing forces, waging a battle from different frames of reference, create conditions for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mutual distrust; an outcome which is beneficial to neither side in the dispute. To illustrate this contention, I will begin with a discussion of the different frames of reference posited by Kenneth Burke and show how these frames are useful devices for analysis of social drama. I will also identify the frames from which each group operates, and show how these conflicting frames have created misunderstanding and recrimination.

Burke (1959) discusses frames of reference as charts for understanding human motives, stating: “Out of such frames we derive our vocabularies for the charting of human motives. And implicit in our theory of motives is a program of action, since we form ourselves and judge others (collaborating with them or against them) in accordance with our attitudes.” (p. 92) The frames of reference are symbolic structures that allow people to impose order on personal and social experiences. They provide perspective for interpretation of events and a chart for deciding what types of social action should be taken. This perspective means that the frames “name both friendly and unfriendly forces, they fix attitudes that prepare for combat. They draw the lines of battle” in a confrontation. A movement arises from the perspective of its members and it is that perspective that determines the frame from which the movement operates. “To view a movement on its own terms requires knowledge of the frame from which it operates.” This statement suggests that the critic can achieve a better understanding of a given movement if the critic is willing to analyze the movement’s frame of reference.

Burke identifies three different frames of reference in his book Attitudes Toward History. These are the acceptance frame, the tragic or debunking frame, and the comic frame. A group operating from the acceptance frame does not have the goal of overthrowing the existing social order. Instead, group members will cast themselves on the side of the existing social order in an attempt to try and change the system from within. The system generally employs casuistic stretching to accommodate challenges and reforms generated from this perspective. A good example of a group operating from the acceptance frame is the Nature Conservancy. This group attempts to preserve the environment by buying environmentally sensitive real estate and donating the land to groups dedicated to preserving the land. The goal of this program is to protect crucial habitat by applying existing property and ownership laws ratified by the existing social order, in a way that will protect important land from the potential abuses of that social order.(1)

The tragic or debunking frame is the perspective that many critics have used to shed light on protest movements. In the tragic drama, a movement which poses a threat to the existing social order injects pollution into the societal discourse. This pollution creates guilt which must be either accepted through casuistic stretching or excised through victimage and purification. Victimage and purification occurs through the identification of a scapegoat, which is sacrificed in order to purify the social order until guilt arises again. Conversely, a movement may identify pollution as caused by the existing social order, and find a scapegoat to sacrifice within the social order so that the pollution of the order may be removed. At times the scapegoat may even be the system itself, in which case the system is overthrown and a new, pure system is implemented to replace the old and corrupted one (Carlson, p. 447).(2)

The comic frame combines elements of both the acceptance and tragic frames (Carlson, p. 447). The goal of a movement operating within the comic frame is to achieve change by pointing to and poking fun at the faults and flaws in the system, and the actors who uphold the system. A comic movement may attempt to merely change the system or it may work to overthrow the system, but it always recognizes the need for social order, and the fact that to be human is to be contradictory. Carlson states that “the social order can be changed, but never at the cost of the humanity of those on the other side. In sum, conflict exists, but it is humanized by the actor’s consciousness of ‘his own foibles’.” (p. 448) The goal of the movement in the comic frame is not to sacrifice or kill the scapegoat, but to chastise the clown. The idea here is to leave the situation open to the response of the clown. If the clown agrees to mend his faults, he is allowed to return as a participant in the system (Carlson, p. 448).

Earth First is a movement which operates from the comic frame. There are a number of specific instances which illustrate this claim. I will begin with a brief history of Earth First and show how the comic frame has been a part of the group’s character from the inception of the movement. Earth First is the product of five disillusioned individuals who found systemic avenues for protecting the wilderness to be lacking. Dave Foreman, Howard Wolke, Mike Roselle, Bart Koehler, and Ron Kezar are all former employees of mainstream environmental groups who found that their efforts with existing agencies were insufficient in protecting the environment from a host of development activities (Malanowski, 1987, p. 568). Operating under the slogan “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!” (Stein, 11/29/90, p.40), Earth First seeks to achieve its goals of significantly expanded wilderness areas and greater biodiversity through the use of a number of interesting protest tactics (Petersen, 1986, p. 8).

As a protest organization, Earth First is very decentralized with no stated leadership or organizational structure. Membership lists are not kept, and the only indicator of how large the membership of the group is, comes from the approximately 15,000 subscriptions to the Earth First Journal, formerly edited by Dave Foreman (Stein, 11/29/87, p. 41, Foote, 1990, p. 24). The rhetoric of Earth First is uncompromising and radical. It rejects the rhetoric and strategies of more mainstream environmental groups (known as the Big Ten) like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, and the Wilderness Society; arguing that these groups are too willing to compromise and concede large areas of wilderness in favor of short term, small scale protection (Sale, p. 32). Earth First advocates an immediate halt to all commercial development of wilderness areas, and has presented a detailed plan for reclaiming millions of acres of already developed areas and returning them to genetically diverse wilderness areas (Foreman, 1991).

The rhetoric of Earth First is not limited only to words and plans. These activists have participated in some very high profile events designed to attract media attention to their cause. Tactics advocated by members of Earth First for defending the environment include letter writing, lawsuits, demonstrations, picketing, sit ins, monkeywrenching (destruction of equipment and property) (Foreman, 1987), tree spiking, blockades (Stein, 8/15/89, p. 14), and anything else that will slow or halt the progress of planned development in wilderness areas (Sale, 1986, p. 58). Members have painted cracks on dams accompanied by statements like “Free The Rivers” (Parfit, 1990, p. 190); they have chained themselves to trees, bulldozers, cranes (Foote, p. 25), and national park visitor centers (Kane, 1987, p. 106) in attempts to protect and publicize the plight of various species; they have cut down billboards and power line towers (Feldman & Meyer, 6/1/89, p. 1, 20), spiked trees (Kane, p. 98, 102), decommissioned bulldozers and other heavy equipment (Russell, 1989, p. 77); they have perched themselves in condemned redwood groves for weeks at a time (Stein, 11/29/87, p. 40); they have diverted desert motorcycle races (Stein & Stein, 12/2/87, p. 31), dug huge trenches across mountain roads (Talbot, 1990, p. 77), and staged numerous rallies, demonstrations, and blockades (Stein, 9/2/90, p. A3, A34).

Foreman and others have been outspokenly critical on many occasions toward the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of the Interior. They have also castigated oil companies, real estate developers, timber companies, farmers and ranchers, and mining companies (See Foreman, 1987, 1991). The members of Earth First argue for the morality of their cause by drawing parallels with the Boston Tea Party patriots, the Luddites, the Bolt Weevils, the European Underground of World War II, the abolitionists of the Underground Railroad, fence cutting groups of the old west, and Native American saboteurs (Foreman, 1987). They invoke these groups as others who have fought the injustices of the larger society, and hold them forth as beacons of positive social change for guiding their own cause.

In using these strategies, Earth First has clearly rejected the socially accepted and governmentally sanctioned methods of protecting the environment as unsound, unworkable, and dangerous. Earth First has embraced protest, action outside the system and against the system, for a variety of reasons. Foreman says he was tired of getting screwed by the system (Malanowski, p. 568), he thinks that direct action against the perpetrators of environmental destruction will make such action so costly that they will give up; and Wolke argues that one aim of Earth First is to light a fire under other traditional conservation groups (Malanowski, p. 570).

Members of Earth First see the system as fatally flawed. Foreman clearly argues that to fix the planet, we must refuse to accept rationality as the only legitimate way to think. He also contends that the group should have no desire to gain credibility in the eyes of those who control the levers of economic power. On of Foreman’s key arguments is that the activist must make a commitment to maintaining a sense of humor. He states:

“Most radicals are a dour, holier-than-thou, humorless lot. Earth Firsters strive to be different. We aren’t rebelling against the system because we’re losing in it. We’re fighting for beauty, for life, for joy. We kick up our heels in delight in the wilderness, we smile at a flower and a hummingbird. We laugh. We laugh at our opponents–and, more important, we laugh at ourselves.” (Foreman, 1991, p. 33)

Earth First is committed philosophically and in terms of action to working outside of the current system that has been established to protect the environment. Members believe that both the philosophical assumptions and the physical structure of our society are fatally flawed. The philosophy of Deep Ecology which informs the movement, is fundamentally at odds with the humanist, nature domination philosophy which guides our current society. There is no doubt that Earth First is a protest group dedicated to radical change and is unwilling to compromise with the forces of development, but the group is also committed to accomplishing this change through the comic frame. The humorous approach taken by Earth First helps to dramatize ecological threats and make developers look foolish.

The response to the actions of Earth First has come from the government and from companies engaged in resource extraction and development in the western United States. The response from these pro-development forces is cast in the tragic frame. Earth First pollutes the discourse and process of pro-development forces by challenging their actions. These forces recognize the economic threat posed by Earth First. They know that these resources are worthless unless they are accessible, and that they must protect their access to these resources in order for them to be profitable. When Earth First attempts to impede access to resources, the group becomes pollution. The pro-development forces have responded by making Earth First the scapegoat which must be sacrificed in order to purify the development process once again. To this end, pro-development forces have undertaken the job of destroying Earth First as a means of purifying and legitimizing themselves. Whether planned or unplanned, a two-pronged attack for pro-development forces has literally ripped the movement apart.

Earth First was primarily operating in two different theaters in 1990. Dave Foreman and his members were primarily engaged in protecting wilderness in the intermountain region, while Judi Bari and her members were largely operating on the Pacific Coast in an attempt to protect old growth timber from lumber companies. On May 24, 1990, Earth First activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were nearly killed when a bomb exploded under the seat of the car they were driving to an organizing meeting for the “Redwood Summer” protest (Stein, 5/25/90, p. A3, A26) (Stein, 5/26/90, p. A1, A39). When the bomb exploded in Bari’s car, the FBI held Bari and Cherney as the main suspects in the blast. Activists strenuously protested, pointing out the numerous death threats that had been made against Bari, and arguing that the bomb was probably planted by the lumber companies or by the FBI itself. Although the Oakland Police and the FBI dropped the charges against Bari and Cherney, members say that they have failed to pursue any other leads in the investigation (Stein, 6/4/90, p. A3, A23) (Littman, 1990, p. 87).

Dave Foreman and four other Earth First activists were arrested by the FBI and tried for conspiring to damage power lines near the Diablo Canyon and Palos Verde nuclear generating stations, and the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility (Feldman & Meyer, p. 20). When Foreman
was arrested, he argued that the FBI had invested over $2 million to frame him in an attempt to discredit the movement (Bookchin & Foreman, 1991). Foreman eventually plea bargained the conspiracy charges into a misdemeanor charge where his sentencing is delayed for five years. To
accomplish this, he disavowed Earth First, left the organization, and denounced their tactics. He also pledged to work with more mainstream groups like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy (Backpacker, April 1992, p.6), groups which he recently attacked as to compliant. Other members have complained of harassment by loggers, Forest Service officials, local police and the FBI. Many contend that the government is expending a great deal of energy in an effort to discredit and disband the group (Rauber, 1991).

With these actions, the two most effective voices of the movement have been silenced. The organization of Earth First is in disarray, and we probably won’t see too many direct actions sponsored by Earth First in the near future. Earth First, operating in the comic frame, has clearly
angered forces arrayed against the movement and the results have been tragic. Opposing forces, each coming from different frames of reference with vastly different world views have failed to see the situation in the same terms, they have refused to compromise, and violence has begun.


1. For other examples of Burkean analysis from the acceptance frame, see Smith, R. & Windes, R. (1975). “The innovational movement: A rhetorical theory,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 61, 140-153.

2. For a more detailed discussion of the tragic frame, see Cathcart, R. (1972). “New approaches to the study of movements: Defining movements rhetorically,” Western Journal of Speech Communication, 36, 82-88. Also, Cathcart, R. (1978). “Movements: Confrontation as rhetorical form,” The Southern Speech Communication Journal, 43, 233-247. See also, Klumpp, J. & Hollihan, T. (1979). “Debunking the resignation of Earl Butz: Sacrificing an official racist,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 65, 1-11.


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Bookchin, M. & Foreman, D. (1990, Winter). Defending the Earth and burying the hatchet. Whole Earth Review, pp. 108-114.

Burke, K. (1961). Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press.

Carlson, A. C. (1986). Ghandi and the comic frame: Ad bellum purificandum. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 72, 446-455.

Feldman, P. & Meyer, R. (1989, June 1). 4 held in plot to cut lines near nuclear plants. The Los Angeles Times, pp. 1, 20.

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Sale, K. (1986, November). The forest for the trees: can today’s environmentalists tell the difference?. Mother Jones, pp. 25-35, 58.

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Stein, M. (1990, June 4). Activists put safety first after blast. The Los Angeles Times, pp. A3, A23.

Stein, M. (1990, May 26). Police hold Earth First pair in blast. The Los Angeles Times, pp. A1, A39.

Stein, M. (1990, May 25). Car blast injures two Earth First activists. The Los Angeles Times, pp. A3, A26.

Stein, M. (1989, August 15). Radical environmentalists in trees disrupt logging across west. The Los Angeles Times, p.14.

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Written by Garn LeBaron

June 1, 2010 at 12:30 pm

One Response

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  1. Hi Garn–

    I ran across your site–interesting stuff. Where are you and what are you up to? Kathy G.

    Kathy German

    November 4, 2010 at 4:41 pm

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