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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 21st century.

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.

Acknowledging differences

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 committees".

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.

Metaphoric discourse

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 following:

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 parable.

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 lives.

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 curiosity.

(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 dogma).

(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.

Next steps

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 conference.

This could be done in working groups, or by the confrontation of alternative visions of what may prove possible.

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