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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Governance: Enhancing policy through powerful metaphors

Metaphor Project


To a large extent the patterns of understanding appropriate to social innovations for global management cannot be effectively presented in the conventional linear mode (of which this text is an example). It is indeed possible to present a highly articulated argument, but the exercise bears some resemblance to the classic attempt to describe a spiral staircase verbally. The description, although exact, is not meaningful.

To be consistent with the argument, the kinds of insights to be gained from metaphors are presented using selected metaphors as examples of relevance to global management. Three such metaphors are presented below. A fourth, based on traffic, is presented in the following note. Section MP represents a sophisticated pattern of metaphors based on building design. Section TP may also be considered as an exercise in metaphor development to clarify issues of sustainable policy cycles.

1. Natural ecosystems as a source of policy insights

It is unfortunate that those claiming to be most sensitive to the need for sustainable development, namely the "greens", are unable to organize policy forums that reconcile policy differences in a significantly new way. It is worth exploring whether they at least could make creative use of an ecological metaphor to integrate their factions in a manner from which others could benefit. However, it is especially ironic that they seem to have felt no need to apply insights from their extremely valuable ecological thinking to new understanding of their own policy processes.

(a) Interacting species: Any policy forum constitutes a social system. Such a social system can be likened to an ecosystem with a range of interacting species. Each policy faction can be perceived as a species with varying numbers of members. The relationship between such factions can be observed in the light of the ways in which species may interact (symbiosis, commensalism, parasitism, allopathy, synnecrosis, amensalism, predation, allotropy, or none). It is clear that some policies are "predatory" and that complementary policies may be perceived as "symbiotic". Such relationships may effectively vary over time. Predation only takes place when the predator needs to eat. At other times the relationship is "peaceful".

(b) Food webs: A major ecological insight is that every species is some other species "lunch". It is not useful to think in terms of "good" species and "bad" species -- although members of any given species are obliged to perceive those that threaten them as "bad" to give focus to their fight for survival. Nor is it helpful to aim naively to have only symbiotic relationships between species -- eliminating the carnivores. Species are woven together in food chains. It is not helpful to focus attention solely on the top of any food chain (however magnificent the species there may appear) -- it is the food chain as a whole that needs to be understood. An endangered species is an important indicator of dangers to the ecosystem as a whole. On the other hand the cyclic rise and fall in numbers of particular species under different environmental conditions is a dynamic to which a resilient ecosystem responds appropriately -- any such rise or fall may be neither "good" nor "bad".

(c) Endangered ecosystems: In this light, a policy is naturally experienced as "bad" by other policies to which it is a threat. It is in turn experienced as "bad" and "good" by other policies. This level of perception does not help to understand the dynamics of the ecosystem of policies. At the ecosystemic level the issue is whether the numbers and dynamics of the species are destabilizing the ecosystem irreversibly and in what way. Excessive proliferation of any species, "swarming", endangers the ecosystem. This suggests that the predominance of any particular policy might have disastrous consequences. The health of the ecosystem lies in the healthy relationship between the species, even though this involves many predatory relationships.

(d) Shifting the level of debate: Through this metaphor, the level of debate is shifted. The natural tendency of any species to proliferate must be constrained by other species. The necessary "consumption" of some "innocent" policy by "predatory" interests needs to be explored in this light, as with the "regrettable decline" of other "predatory" policies for lack of resources. Any short-sighted effort to prevent the "nice" herbivores from being so "cruelly" consumed by the "nasty" carnivores invokes the need to "cull" their numbers periodically or prevent them breeding.

(e) Enriching the ecosystem: In these terms it is possible to shift the debate from consideration of species to consideration of whether the ecosystem could be usefully enriched: which ecosystems are "unhealthy", when should swamps be drained and arid zones "irrigated" ? The difficulty here is that with the prevailing emphasis on monoculture, there is little shared understanding of how to diversify an ecosystem in ways such as those recommended by the Permaculture Movement. It is no wonder that many policy initiatives amount to a form of policy monoculture, fertilized by inappropriate use of resources and leading to pollution of the food chain.

(f) Designing systems of policies: An ecosystem calling for enrichment might be one that had been degraded by excesses of the past. The system of policies currently prevailing there would need to be redesigned. But note that it is the system of policies that needs to be redesigned, which does not imply that some single policy should prevail -- and the design needs to be an organic rather than a mechanistic one. It may mean that new "predators" should be introduced and that some population of "herbivores" should be cut back. Enrichment may involve introduction of many smaller species -- a reminder that the answer does not necessarily lie in mega-policies at the top of the food chain.

(g) Constraining species of policy: It should be noted that this metaphor does not suggest a form of policy relativism -- a tolerance of all policies. It suggests that any policy is dangerous in excess and needs counter-acting policies to contain. It suggests that whether a policy has a function depends on the ecosystem and that many policies may have a function within a policy ecosystem of a variety necessary to make it sustainable. This may mean that some policies can be usefully perceived as "prehistoric" but it does not deny that some prehistoric species (such as sharks) may still have a function, perhaps only in certain special niches.

Within this metaphor the many development policies are represented by species, each contributing to the health of the ecosystem. That ecosystem can be enriched by introducing new species to improve its sustainability. But members of those species, in the form of particular programmes and proposals may have a "life and death" relationship to one another -- reflected in such common phrases as "they killed our programme" or "they got our budget allocation".

Both in a policy forum and in the organized initiatives to which it gives rise, the information system needs to be designed to facilitate initiatives which sustain the ecosystem as a whole and which contribute to its redesign. In this sense the system of development policies should have a self-organizing dimension. Such an information system is in many ways a reflection of the food chain. Through it meaning is passed to nourish initiatives at different levels.

2. Crop rotation as a metaphor for a sustainable cycle of policies

Linear thinking encourages adoption of policies without thought to the nature of the policies that will have to follow them to remedy the havoc they cause, however incidentally. Given the many cycles essential to the coherence of the natural environment, a non-linear approach would suggest the exploration of "policy cycles" -- within which any "linear" policies are perceived as phases.

In searching for appropriate metaphors to illustrate the need for cycles of policies, there is a certain appropriateness to using a process which has traditionally been considered basic to sustaining the productivity of the land, namely crop rotation. The rotation of agricultural crops is an interesting "earthy" practice to explore in the light of the mind-set that it has required of farmers for several thousand years.

Crop rotation is the alternation of different crops in the same field in some (more or less) regular sequence. It differs from the haphazard change of crops from time to time, in that a deliberately chosen set of crops is grown in succession in cycles over a period of years. Rotations may be of any length, being dependent on soil, climate, and crop. They are commonly of 3 to 7 years duration, usually with 4 crops (some of which may be grown twice in succession). The different crop rotations on each of the fields of the set making up the farm as a whole constitute a "crop rotation system" when integrated optimally. Long before crop rotation became a science, practice demonstrated that crop yields decline if the same crop is grown continuously in the same place. There are therefore many benefits, both direct and indirect to be obtained from good rotational cycles.

(a) Control of pests: With each crop grown the emergence of characteristic weeds, insects and diseases is facilitated. Changing to another crop inhibits the spread of such pests that would otherwise become uncontrollable.

(b) Maintenance of organic matter: Some crops deplete the organic matter in the soil, other increase it.

(c) Maintenance of soil nitrogen supply: No single cropping system will ordinarily maintain the nitrogen supply unless leguminous crops are alternated with others.

(d) Economy of labour: Several crops may be grown in succession with only one soil preparation (ploughing). For example: the land is ploughed for maize, the maize stubble is disked for wheat, then grass and clover are seeded in the wheat.

(e) Protection of soil: It was once believed necessary to leave land fallow for part of the cycle. Now it is known that a proper rotation of crops, with due attention to maintaining the balance of nutrients, is more successful than leaving the land bare and exposed to leaching and erosion.

(f) Complete use of soil: By alternation between deep and shallow-rooted crops the soil may be utilized more completely.

(g) Balanced use of plant nutrients: When appropriately alternated, crops reduce the different nutrient materials of the soil in more desirable proportions.

(h) Orderly farming: Work is more evenly distributed throughout the year. The farm layout is usually simplified and costs of production are reduced. The rushed work characteristic of haphazard cropping is avoided.

(i) Risk reduction: Risks are distributed among several crops as a guarantee against complete failure.

There is a striking parallel between the rotation of crops and the succession of (governmental) policies applied in a society. The contrast is also striking because of the essentially haphazard switch between "right" and "left" policies. There is little explicit awareness of the need for any rotation to correct for negative consequences ("pests") encouraged by each and to replenish the resources of society ("nutrients", "soil structure") which each policy so characteristically depletes.

There is no awareness, for example, of the number of distinct policies or modes of organization through which it is useful to rotate. Nor is it known how many such distinct cycles are necessary for an optimally integrated world society in which the temporary failure of one paradigm or mode of organization, due to adverse circumstances (disaster), is compensated by the success of others. It is also interesting that during a period of increasing complaints regarding cultural homogenization ("monoculture"), voters are either confronted with single-party systems or are frustrated by the lack of real choice between the alternatives offered.

There is something to be learnt from the mind-sets and social organizations associated with the stages in the history of crop rotation which evolved, beyond the slash-and-burn stage, through a 2-year crop-fallow rotation, to more complex 3 and 4-year rotations. Given the widespread sense of increasing impoverishment of the quality-of-life, consideration of crop rotation may clarify ways of thinking about what is being depleted, how to counteract this process, and the nature of the resources that are so vainly (and expensively) used as "fertilizer" and "pesticide" to keep the system going in the short-term. The "yield" to be maximized is presumably human and social development. The concern is whether current approaches are a dangerous "policy monoculture" trap.

3. Configuration of incommensurable policies as a resonance hybrid

In a world community characterized by distinct and often opposing views, the possibility of interrelating them so as to form the basis for an overarching structure, without denying the distinctness of those structures, can be usefully illustrated by a concept from chemistry. Chemical resonance hybrids are in fact basic to the molecular structures characteristic of living organisms.

Some chemical molecules cannot be satisfactorily described by a single configuration of bonded atoms. The theory of resonance is concerned with the representation of such molecules by a dynamic combination of several alternative structures, rather than by any one alone. The molecule is then conceived as "resonating" among the several structures and is said to be a "resonance hybrid" of them. The classic example is the benzene molecule (see Figure 2) with 6 carbon atoms. This is one of the basic components of many larger molecules essential to life. Its cyclic form only became credible when Kekulé showed that it oscillated between structures A and B. Linus Pauling later showed that it in fact alternates between all five forms above (and as such requires less energy than for any one of them).

This insight could be used in designing, describing or operating organizations, especially fragile coalitions or volatile meetings, and in giving form to complex agreements and policy configurations which would otherwise not exist. It may provide a key to the successful "marriage" between hierarchies and networks, or between centrally-planned and market-economies. It could also be used to interrelate alternative definitions (or theories, paradigms, policies, etc), especially where none of them is completely satisfactory in isolation. The underlying significance -- in contrast to the essentially unsustainable significance of each in isolation -- emerges through the resonance between the set of alternatives.

Figure 2: Resonance hybrid: alternation between distinct structures

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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