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We need a new metaphor

There’s a bumper sticker from the sunsetting Dubya Bush era that I just love: “At Least the War on the Environment is Going Well.” Kinda sums up a lot of issues in one short phrase.

It also makes me think about our tendency to use combat imagery for difficult social issues: the War on Terror, the Battle for Human Rights, the ubiquitous “we won the battle but lost the war” – shorthand for a Pyrrhic victory in everything from natural disasters to office politics.

Language shapes the way we think, the concepts we discuss and what we acknowledge about the world. If we don’t have a word for something we may dismiss or overlook it – even fail to see that it exists.

The “environmental crisis” and our response to it are like an elephant’s trunk sticking out of a lake. We may think the trunk is all, but the elephant is there – something larger and more complex than we see on the surface.

The elephant in this case is a sea change in how we as human beings view ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. Using war imagery may keep us focused on the trunk so much that we miss the elephant altogether.

After all, war is episodic: a victory here, a loss there, ground gained and given up. Few if any participants are in a position to see the big picture, and those who are seldom tell the truth about it.

Such imagery also frames the change as a hostile conflict. To have conflict we must have sides to take and enemies to fight. If we don’t have them, the drama requires us to create them.

The language keeps us from seeing the whole elephant in all its complexity. This global social change is really about coming together, breaking down artificial barriers, finding ways to work with the planet and each other that are “organic” in the living sense.

We need a metaphor that isn’t so fraught with divisive subtext. If we look without prejudging at what is happening in the world, other images arise to help express the change that is in process.

I see connections everywhere – tiny, individual drops of water if you look at them one by one.

Just this week I’ve heard about an organic cooperative in Denmark with 45,000 subscribers; midwives who travel to disaster and conflict areas to assist pregnant women; increasing use of holistic techniques in conventional medicine; skunky beer turned into ethanol in a home-fuel station; a financial school for social entrepreneurs; and much more.

Is each a small, separate battle in an overwhelming conflict against incalculable odds? Or are they, perhaps, tiny drops of water flowing into streams and rivers on the way to a sea change?

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