Shifting Overton Windows

Wednesday, 16 March 2022
By Patricia Lustig & Gill Ringland


The Overton Window is a model for how ideas change over time and how these ideas influence what happens in politics. It is named after Joseph P Overton, who stated that an idea's political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within this range, rather than on politicians' individual preferences. According to Overton, the window contains the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office in the current climate of public opinion. It can shift and expand as societal norms and values change.

The model is based on people sharing ideas by talking about them and relating these to policies of governments. But some societies developed euphemisms so that ideas were masked – and policies, that would not be acceptable if spoken about, were able to fly under the radar.

We have written before about Overton Windows[i] and how they can shift quickly, as public opinion is informed by global media. We have commented on the shift of the window in relation to global warming[ii]. Over the last two years there has been a shift from public awareness of global warming towards asking how MUCH it will cost to address climate change and global warming[iii]. This reflects a change - those asking the price are considering DOING something about it. Recently we have seen two more examples of Overton window shifts.

The first is in connection with Ecocide. “Ecocide means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and other widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”[iv]. I (PL) first came across the concept of Ecocide when I was at a talk given by late barrister Polly Higgins about 10 years ago. She raised the question, what would it take to make the concept of Ecocide mainstream? One idea was getting Ecocide listed as a crime in the statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC). When lawyers drafted the founding document of the ICC in 1998, there was discussion on criminalising environmental destruction[v]. However, this was not in the Overton window at the time and so was not included.

Fast forward a decade, what has changed? The ICC announced in 2016 that it would prioritise criminal cases linked to land grabbing, illegal resource extraction, or environmental degradation caused by corporate activity[vi]. At the time, it did not have jurisdiction over this. Things began to move significantly in 2017 when Stop Ecocide International (SEI) was co-founded by Polly Higgins and Jojo Mehta. It is the driving force behind - and central communications hub for - the growing global movement to make Ecocide an international crime. The proposed crime of Ecocide would have jurisdiction over corporations as well as governments[vii]. By the end of 2021, an expert panel of international criminal lawyers had drafted a definition of Ecocide. SEI are now working to amend the Statute of the ICC to make Ecocide a crime together with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. The plan is to put it to a vote by member countries at the end of 2022.

This is a remarkable shift of an Overton window from no political support for Ecology in the late 90’s[viii], to the situation at the time of writing. Now, damage to the environment is coming onto the agenda as an international criminal offense.

The discussions that are taking place now, and the countries that have lined up in support[ix], are shifting the Overton window. For directors of companies and management teams, this could be a wakeup call. The ICC prosecutes internationally. This is particularly important for small countries affected by the operations of multi-nationals. If the ICC finds a company guilty of Ecocide, it could choose to prosecute the individuals responsible for the actions the company has taken. So boards and managements of companies that are at risk of committing Ecocide will need to develop a plan of action. If this new crime is included in the remit of the ICC they could be held accountable. “A CEO doesn’t want to be seen in the same bracket as a genocidal maniac,” says Mehta[x].

The third example is very current. The Overton window in this case, has shifted even faster. In early 2022, Russian troops were 'training' on the Ukraine border. Ukrainians, NATO, the EU, the US, all assumed that the purpose of the build-up of troops on the border was to blackmail Ukraine into becoming more closely joined economically and socially to Russia rather than Europe.

soviet putin.JPG

Today, in March 2022, Russian forces are circling Kyiv and claiming to have captured several other Ukrainian cities. As we write, Putin has explained his wider and deeper objectives: to use any means to incorporate Belarus and Ukraine into a greater Russia[xi][xii][xiii]. There is speculation that he has ambitions to restore the immediate post-World War II boundaries in Europe; that he is “bent on reconstructing an old Soviet sphere of influence[xiv].

Within two months the Overton window in the West has moved radically, particularly in Germany and Finland. Germany is strengthening her defences, Finland is considering joining NATO. NATO has been revitalised and the EU is united as seldom before[xv][xvi]. Across the West, sanctions and no-fly zones are disrupting life. The measures imposed on Russia have triggered chaos in its economy and prompted nuclear threats[xvii]. Life has changed for everybody, and the politicians are reflecting the new reality. And all this in the matter of a few weeks.

Watch this space for what else may shift. We think that many of the assumptions of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers and Gen X[xviii] will need to be re-examined in the next few years. The challenge is to make robust decisions in this changed and changing world.

Patricia Lustig and Gill Ringland, March 2022