Enhancing Policy Forums through Ecological Metaphors
Natural ecosystems as a source of policy insights
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Annex 2 to Innovative Global Management through Metaphor
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
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
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.