Envisioning the Dynamics of 'Partnerships for Change'
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Originally produced on the occasion of the follow-up to the Earth
Summit (1992, Rio de Janeiro) held in Manchester (1993)
on the initiative of the
UK Government's Department of the Environment.
There is a real challenge to current capacity to envisage dynamics
appropriate to global strategic events dealing with intractable issues -- especially
if, as some hope, they are to take a more permanent form of relevance to the
This note is therefore one exercise in envisioning how such
a gathering might function. The main interest here lies in the nature of the
dialogue process, and how it may transcend the difficulties usually encountered
in international gatherings that bring together very different perspectives
-- reflecting differences that may be considered quite intractable.
Envisaging as a continuing process
An early trap it is useful to avoid is any desire to produce
a definitive vision designed to condition the future image such dialogue processes
in some particular way. More fruitful would be to focus to a greater degree
on how the envisaging process can continue to evolve and nourish any current
images of the nature of such a dialogue between contrasting interest groups.
From such perspective, the dialogue may be envisaged in several
distinct and seemingly incompatible ways -- provided that such differences are
seen as complementary in a larger sense.
A second trap that it is important to avoid is the expectation
that the history and pattern of inter-sectoral discourse can be forgotten. There
have been many difficulties along the way. Many difficulties remain. Failing
a miracle, a pragmatic approach would suggest that conventional approaches will
continue to give rise to conventional results.
If ideological and doctrinal positions are not about to change
to any significant degree, then there is a case for adopting a more imaginative
approach to dialogue between sectors. Such an approach needs to be able to reframe
the dialogue so that intractable differences are expressed more creatively without
endeavouring to subsume them within an unsustainable consensus -- however attractive.
Communication by metaphor and catalytic imagery
One of the principal features of discourse concerning change
is the extensive use made of metaphors. The use of metaphor in religious discourse
has been extensively studied. One of the merits of this form of discourse is
to articulate subtle insights in a form which can be readily interpreted across
many common barriers to communication. Equivalent investigations with respect
to sustainable development could well give rise to fruitful results.
Whilst much good work may be undertaken to clarify doctrinal
differences using the technical language of scholars, this work will continue
at its own pace. Such technical issues require their own context which is not
that of plenary gatherings -- whether or not they are dealt with in its "plenary
It may be asked whether there is not merit in developing a style
of metaphoric discourse for use in the plenary gatherings in discussions of
sustainable development. This would take advantage of the unique communications
skills of those whose lives are committed to change in one form or another.
What form might metaphoric discourse take? What would be the
guidelines for such discourse? Are there examples of cultures in which this
mode of discourse is favoured relative to more technical forms?
Consider the implications of plenary guidelines such as the
Guideline 1: Doctrinal and ideological positions
should only be expressed through parable and metaphor and imagery.
The intention here is to free plenary discourse from dependence
on well-developed patterns of statements. Whereas the insights conveyed by such
statements may well be widely appreciated, the form through which they are conveyed
may constitute a significant barrier to communication.
Set statements evoke set responses and inhibit the evolution
of a dialogue. Presentation of insights through metaphor and parable involves
the audience in a story which can evoke a variety of insights that can nourish
and sustain a dialogue.
-- Guideline 2: Metaphors and imagery for sustainable
development discourse should be developed using common experience and everyday
roles rather than be structured around symbolic figures with complex connotations.
Is sustainble development discourse about the primacy of particular
symbols or about the insights and understandings to which they point? Can the
two be separated?
To the extent that sustainable development insights are universal
they should lend themselves to articulation through a variety of symbols especially
those common to different cultures.
-- Guideline 3: Differences should be expressed
by questioning the aesthetic design of a metaphor or by the use of counter-metaphors.
There are deep differences between many interests relevant to
sustainable development. Blunt statements of disagreement and opposition do
not necessarily help the dialogue to move forward. However, an understanding
articulated through a metaphor can be encountered by suggesting preferred alternatives
to the structure of that metaphor or to the evolution of the story told by any
Alternatively, a counter-metaphor may be introduced which reflects
a different pattern of insights.
Questions may be asked as to why a metaphor has particular features
and not others which may be put forward as richer, more pertinent, or less restrictive.
Efforts in this direction have been explored in metaphorical theology.
-- Guideline 4: The pattern of discourse is of
greater significance than any particular feature of it -- although each such
feature contributes to the pattern of the whole.
It is not usually helpful to expect that an audience's attention
will be captured by a single perspective. The many dimensions of discourse on
sustainable development constitute a greater challenge.
Differences can usefully be treated as challenges calling for
reconciliation at higher levels of understanding. But these too have to be articulated.
Such articulation should also be done through metaphor -- indeed this may be
all that is possible.
The real challenges of dialogue on sustainable development may
therefore lie in using metaphor and catalytic imagery to hold many differences
and provide subtle constructs to contain or bridge between them. But such metaphorical
"containers" and "bridges" become increasingly subtle as the dialogue evolves.
In effect they become temples of insight. The work of any conference could then
be seen in terms of the construction of such temples of insight. Metaphors of
this kind can be the most valuable product of the work of the conference.
-- Guideline 5: The interplay between perspectives
should allow for challenge.
It is the encounter with seemingly incompatible perspectives
that can often evoke deeper levels of insight. A conference can usefully be
seen as a place of challenge through which more subtle levels of insight are
brought into play -- levels which may be concealed or implicit in more conventional
discourse on sustainable development.
The opportunities for the development of such interplay is best
seen in music where instruments and musical themes challenge each other and
are driven to creative responses which move the collective work of the whole
to a higher level of significance. In this sense the conference may perhaps
be better understood as a symphony orchestra.
-- Guideline 6: The intention of plenary discourse
should include the generation of a product significant to wider society.
Whilst much may be accomplished between conference participants
alone, and through them in the inspiration offered to their constituencies,
the world is both weary and impatient. Care should be taken to avoid the production
of wordy declarations that many will perceive as empty of significance for their
In a media-oriented world, there is much to be said for a conference
whose product is in the form of images rather than words -- even if the images
are verbal images.
Can the pressures of conference discourse engender powerful
new metaphors that can empower new forms of action or that can reframe relationships
across ideological divides? It is such metaphors which will travel most effectively
through the media around the world.
-- Guideline 7: Intractable differences cannot
usually be reconciled through a single insight. Rather they call for a pattern
of complementary insights that respect those differences.
Intractable differences emerge as a result of profound differences
in understanding -- differences which may be reinforced by cultural, linguistic
and historical factors. The diversity and reflected in such differences is vital
to the richness of human understanding.
Such complexity in approaching a profound understanding of sustainable
development, acknowledged to be of the utmost simplicity, is a challenge to
the form through which it is represented. A pattern of complementary forms may
prove to be more appropriate to holding together the diversity of insights honoured
by opposing groups in their diversity.
It is through the exploration of such patterns that an appropriate
measure of reconciliation may be progressively achieved. Metaphor provides a
flexible tool for this collective exploration.
A transcendental identity for sustainability
The nature of sustainability may thus be closely associated
with the "gene pool" of metaphors. From this the international community may
draw fruitful metaphors in the formulation of responses to new opportunities
and crises. Culture may be understood in terms of this gene pool.
This vision of international concord does not call for radical
transformation of traditions and institutions. Rather it calls for a shift in
the way of thinking about what is circulated through society's information systems
as the triggering force for any action.
At present policy-making in the international community is haunted
by a form of collective schizophrenia -- a left-brain preoccupation with established
developmental models and traditional procedures and a right-brain preoccupation
with the proclivities of people avid for "meaningful" action (even if "sensational").
This quarrel between frameworks and metaphors could be transformed by focusing
more effectively on the metaphoric dimensions already so vital to any sustainable
motivation of public opinion.
A higher order of international concord should not be so closely
linked to the seemingly impossible task of maintaining a consensus on particular
responses to dilemmas as appropriate, and therefore "correct". The collective
insight to cultivate could well be detached from this level of short and medium
term preoccupation. This focus favours tokenism and unimplemented resolutions
which in turn reinforce cynicism, alienation and loss of credibility. In these
times all simple solutions eventually become problems, just all problems are
in effect unpleasant solutions. The creative opportunity is to cultivate instead
an understanding of how incompatible solutions can be woven together as phases
over time in a cycle of policies. It is metaphors -- such as crop rotation --
which make comprehensible and credible such a complex approach. It is at this
level of conservation and generation of metaphors that may be found a dynamic
cultural identity appropriate to a sustainable development.
How to proceed ?
What approach should be taken to the possibility of choosing
a metaphor to better articulate the diverse elements of international concord
in such circumstances? Five criteria could be considered:
(a) Adequate to capture the variety of options: Clearly
a metaphor must be rich enough so that each may find in it the dimensions to
which he or she is sensitive. There is therefore advantage in highlighting those
which reflect the most advanced thinking of our civilization -- those touching
the frontiers of aspiration to explore our potential and articulating our comprehension
of the most complex domains. But, although of necessary complexity, these metaphors
must allow for simple comprehension, preferably permitting clarification by
rich and evocative imagery.
(b) Opening options: A useful metaphor must avoid the
problem of over-deterministic drameworks which leave no "free space" for the
imagination to explore and make discoveries. Better than static metaphors, those
which embody a dynamic reality open more possibilities to the imagination. They
lessen the impression of exhaustiveness and determinism -- having less of a
function of a conceptual straitjacket. Such metaphors "seduce" and enchant the
spirit. Their meaning can be "mined" according to people's degree of need and
(c) Recognition of limitations: As with every framework,
a metaphor can only give a partial image of a complex reality. And like a model,
a given metaphor may not be to the taste of everyone. A metaphor has a limited
audience (or a "market") which may be a function of culture, education or age.
Consequently any effort to impose a single metaphor is therefore destined to
failure (even though this may be disguised to the extent that there may be resistance
to the meaning carried by the metaphor, which is then seen as a sterile ideological
(d) Dynamic system of complementary metaphors: The limitations
of any given metaphor may be compensated, provided that it is seen as forming
part of a set of complementary metaphors. Then the weaknesses of one are compensated
by the strengths of others, and the dominating points any one metaphor is constrained
or checked by the insights brought by others. In such a system of metaphors,
each has more chance of finding an appropriate, and even seductive, perspective
than through any single metaphor.
(e) Recursive nature of metaphors selected: A complex
belief system is always a challenge to comprehension. This is also true in the
case of a system of metaphors. Such metaphors should therefore be chosen on
the basis of their individual capacity to provide some comprehension of the
system of which they are part. This criterion guarantees, to some degree at
least, the integrity and the coherence of the system.
Texts such as the above need to be worked and reworked to refine
and extend the guidelines and to enrich the image of the dynamics of such a
This could be done in working groups, or by the confrontation
of alternative visions of what may prove possible.