1.3 A note on the character and role of metaphors

Integrated Product Policy

Both ecological economics and industrial ecology, and indeed, also, the IPP, broadly refer to various metaphors, an example of which is the product life­cycle. To understand them correctly, one has to be aware of their strengths and limitations.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Soanes and Stevenson 2004: 897), a metaphor is ‘a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable’. As a figure of speech, a metaphor constitutes ‘a word or phrase used in a nonliteral sense for rhetorical or vivid effect’ (p. 529). Metaphors are omnipresent in our everyday language but, because of their indirect character, fearing that they might be mis­leading, the scientific community refused to accept them until the twentieth century. Examples of metaphors in economics include great depression, con­sumption of steel, or raw resources and greenhouse effect if one moves in the direction of the environmental discourse. Other examples employed throughout this book include industrial metabolism, the concept of waste in nature and indeed, also, ecological economics, industrial ecology, product life-cycle and life-cycle assessment.

We can explore this issue further, taking the example of industrial ecology. In this case, the metaphor serves to argue that industrial systems function in a similar way to ecosystems and, as such, can be studied following the approach so far restricted to studying the latter. Ecology is not literally applicable to industry, therefore such a construct is used to broaden our understanding of the functioning of industrial systems, using a picturesque comparison to ecosystems. Thus, in an industrial system, one can seek qualities similar to those that are demonstrated in an ecosystem constituting a highly interconnected system of organisms, all of which perform certain functions for other organisms or for the ecosystem as a whole.

Metaphors are based on analogies – ‘a comparison between one thing and another made for the purpose of explanation or clarification’ (Soanes and Stevenson 2004: 46). However, because the latter constitute a broader category, not all analogies are metaphors. For example, toy models of ships, photographs or econometric models, all of which are analogies, cannot be classified as metaphors. Although this distinction is somewhat obscure, it can be claimed that it is based on the degree of similarity between the compared referents. ‘Refer­ents that differ substantially can be called metaphors, whereas those that possess more similarities are analogies’, as Mac Cormac (1985: 24) explained. This is important, as metaphors are often used to demonstrate a link between seemingly very different referents, as with the case of industrial ecology.

In this way, metaphors stretch beyond simple analogies and, as such, they serve to broaden our cognitive perspectives and to help us to go beyond the traditional or mainstream limits of minds et. Furthermore, they can help to change mental models ~ the most deeply rooted convictions people hold.2 Once such a mental model has changed, people are likely to adopt further changes, for example, related to their behaviour, as they can better explain them to them­selves. Thus, changing mental models constitutes one of the highest leverage points, as far as interventions in human behaviour are concerned (Meadows 1999). Again, industrial ecology furnishes an example of such a metaphor that can serve to change our mechanistic perception of industrial systems with a more organistic one, with all of the implications for economy-environment interactions (which will become clearer in further chapters).

Because of their ability to broaden perspectives, metaphors can enhance cre­ativity and innovativeness. They can be powerful in building visions that are not bounded by the constraints of mainstream thinking and, as such, they can help to stimulate intellectual discussions which may then successfully contribute to policy making.

A caveat here is that the metaphors also provide a partial, or biased, percep­tion of the referents. They let us see the similarities but they neglect the differ­ences which divide them (Figure 1.2). When we compare an industrial system to an ecosystem, we do so on the basis of certain features only, and not because of their exact similarity. We focus on issues such as resilience or interconnected­ness, but we neglect, for example, the fact that ecosystems are not subject to the direct command of policy makers and indeed also of industrialists and, thus, that different factors drive their evolution (such as natural selection). Consequently, if taken too literally, a metaphor may lead to distorted and biased opinions. Industrial ecology does not suggest that industrial systems are ecosystems; it only proposes to look at industrial systems differently and suggests that the ecosystem perspective might be an interesting one, especially for those who deal with environmental issues in other disciplines (including economics).

Also, to avoid misunderstandings, those who use metaphors and those who are supposed to decode them should have the same perception of the example to which the discussed item is compared. If they do not, the image may become distorted, which tends to be particularly dangerous in cases such as environ­mental protection discussions, where a significant amount of non-scientific senti­ments, values and emotions is involved (Johansson 2002). An example might be the concept of ‘zero’ or ‘no waste’ which, as we shall see in Chapter 3, is not possible in the light of the laws of physics, but which can serve as a useful metaphor to describe an objective for a company or an economy as a whole.

The success in implementing the new types of laws and regulations (to which the IPP certainly belongs) depends to a large extent on our (scientists’, policy makers’, ordinary people’s) ability to liberate ourselves from the old and adopt new paradigms. Ecological economics and industrial ecology offer a conceptual background for such a paradigm shift, and this, among other things, results from their use of metaphors. They let us stretch our imagination in a way that can create powerful insights, but we should always bear in mind that the metaphors cannot be taken literally, and also that we must be certain that we understand the compared systems appropriately.