The kids are studying food chains this week in science. Last night we had an interesting discussion about the food chain and its implications here on our little farm, and that got me thinking about language, metaphors, and the perpetuation of ideas.
I’ve used chains in a lot of different jobs. Finding a good one is very important. They must be strong. One weak link and the chain will fail. They must resist outside corrosion and forces that would weaken them. They must be anchorable at each end. As a tool they are very useful. They are also something everyone is at least somewhat familiar with. They make a good, easily visualized metaphor for many things. Sometimes our use of metaphor imposes a structure on our thoughts that limits how we think about things. The food chain is a good example of this. Discussing it with my third and fifth grade children I can see how the chain image shapes their thinking. The food chain has a beginning – primary producer (usually a plant that converts sunlight, water, and various elements into food) and a series of consumers ending with a top predator, like a shark, a lion, or a human. By fifth grade this image has been expanded into a food web (or more accurately and net) but each strand, no matter how interlinked, retains its chain-like characteristics. A viable food chain has all the qualities of the good chain I looked for when I needed to do a job. Each link is very strong. It is resistant to outside forces that would weaken it. It is anchored firmly at both ends.
However, when you observe the workings of a natural community, you see something different. Food is not a chain, it is a cycle. The resource cycle. Resources move through the different members of the community, existing for a while in the grass, then in the buffalo, and then in the earth worm, then back to the grass (this is very simplified, but you get the picture.) Each member of the community is really just another manifestation of the resources in that community. There is no waste, just another manifestation of resources that are instantly utilized by some other member of the community. The grass, the buffalo, and the earthworm are all the same thing. The more diverse the community is the more resilient the cycle. Diversity is the measure of strength, not an individual population’s ability to repel all invaders and competition.
The metaphor of the chain breaks that cycle. You can have a strong chain made of only a few links. You can have a chain that starts in one place and ends in a different place, and as long as each of the links is “strong” the chain is strong. Resources get removed from their local cycle and moved great distances where they quickly become toxic waste. The image perpetuates the problem.
The metaphor of the chain shows up many places, chain of command, supply chain, etc. They describe well the structures we use, but perhaps the use of this metaphor also limits our thinking when we look for solutions to problems, causes of problems, or new ways of doing things.