Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
Laetus in Praesens Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos


Enhancing Policy Forums through Ecological Metaphors

Natural ecosystems as a source of policy insights

-- / --

Annex 2 to Innovative Global Management through Metaphor (1989)


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 which 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.

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, allotrophy, or none), as indicated in A1nnex 3. 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".

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".

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.

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 "regretable 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.

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 inapproriate use of resources and leading to pollution of the food chain.

An ecosystem calling for enrichment might be one which 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.

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.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

For further updates on this site, subscribe here