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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Governance: Appropriate metaphors of sustainable development

Metaphor Project

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1. Reframing the challenge of sustainable development

In response to the challenge of sustainable development, the potential of metaphor may be used to redefine that challenge. In both conceptual and policy terms it may be conceived as being one of designing metaphors to give form to a "sustainable ecology of development policies"(Judge, 1989).

In relation to the issues raised by Srivastva and Barrett (1988) and Barrett and Cooperrider (1989), it could prove appropriate to use richer metaphors to integrate (and render comprehensible as sets), the individual metaphors which govern the action of groups over time, or which govern opposing factions during a given period.

2. Levels of relationship between competing policies

A simplistic metaphor of the relationship between "environment" and "development" is that of "having one's cake and eating it too". It makes a critical difference what metaphor is used, whether implicitly or explicitly, to view the relationship between competing policy concepts:

(a) From a particular concept: From any given policy concept other concepts can only be viewed as threatening since that concept provides no sense of context, other than itself. "Enemy" is then an appropriate metaphor. Such defensive postures are not uncommon in policy forums. "Sustainable development" can be perceived in these terms with any other policy perspective as the enemy.

(b) As a group of competing concepts: Here context is provided by the sense of a "marketplace of ideas" in which the most appropriate products survive, if the market mechanism works satisfactorily. A more powerful metaphor is that of the "gladiatorial arena", in which one concept strives to emerge triumphant at the expense of the others, possibly learning from them in order to do so. Metaphors of this type, including those based on competitive sports, are widely used as noted above. "Sustainable development" can then be perceived as a set of competing concepts from which the most appropriate will emerge triumphant -- as the ideal result of a policy forum.

(c) As a homeostatic ecology of concepts: The two previous perspectives can however be perceived as subsystems or processes within an "ecology" of policy concepts. Here there are a variety of relationships between alternative policies (including "predation", "parasitism", and "commensalism"), but these function such as to maintain a balance between the different "species" of policy within the ecology (see following note). "Sustainable development" can then be perceived as a stewardship function of ensuring the stability of an ecology of policy concepts in which each fulfils particular developmental functions under particular conditions and there is a niche for developmental policies of all sizes and orientations.

(d) As an evolving ecology of concepts: Of greater interest is the possibility of perceiving "sustainable development" as an evolving ecology of developmental policies. Here there is a maintenance dimension corresponding to a homeostatic ecology as well as a longer-term evolutionary dimension as the various species adapt and evolve to emerging conditions, with new species emerging as the creative result of mutation processes.

3. Reframing the relationship between competing policies

If "sustainable development" is associated with metaphors of the first two kinds, its long-term value is questionable. If it can be perceived through metaphors of richness equivalent to the last two kinds, it can perform the integrative function necessary to incorporate both the policy priorities of "development" (in its many forms) and of "environment" (in its many forms). Note that only the last kind encompasses the continuing proliferation of alternative interpretations through a recognition of "speciation" processes.

There is an attractive conceptual elegance in endeavouring to use the natural environment as a metaphoric map to provide conceptual handles on the many policy dimensions of sustainable development. It suggests the need for a certain isomorphism between the pattern of development policies and the structure of the natural environment within which (and in response to which) they are implemented (Judge, 1984c). The ecological metaphor is explored in a following note.

4. Implications for policy forums

In any policy forum the question may then be asked as to the nature of the metaphor used to sustain the relationship between the range of policy perspectives represented. If that metaphor is not of requisite variety any result of such a forum can only be of value limited in time and space.

The insight of "sustainable development" cannot be satisfactorily embodied in a single policy or set of policies if no coherent context is provided for those who have to understand or approve it. Whatever the multiple, alternative or competing articulations of "sustainable development" at the conceptual or policy level, the insight integrating their dynamic relationships can only be adequately communicated at the metaphoric level.

If new approaches cannot be effectively implemented so as transform the functioning of international meetings, then they are also of little significance outside that arena. It is for this reason that challenge of transformative conferencing (see Section TC) constitutes an acid test for new proposals.

5. Implications for human development

In the light of the challenge of sustainable development, the question might well be asked as to how many metaphors people need to ensure their survival -- and especially their psychological survival? Is there a problem of metaphor impoverishment and deprivation associated with both ineffectual policies and individual alienation?

Is it possible that a metaphoric measure is necessary as a complement to the questionable value of current social indicators and the questionable educational role played by the exclusive use of the IQ measure of intelligence? To the extent that we ourselves are metaphors, do we need to develop richer metaphors through which to experience and express our self-image?

6. Implications for social development

If individual learning is governed by metaphors (as a number of studies indicate), how is it that metaphors governing societal learning and development have not been studied? In the light of Andreas Fuglesang's severe criticism of western assumptions concerning communication in developing countries (1982), would it not be more useful to conceive of different cultures as operating within different root metaphors?

Is it possible that social transformation is essentially a question of offering people (and empowering them to discover from their own traditions) richer and more meaningful metaphors through which to live, act and empower themselves? 


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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