Agriculture as a metaphor for social change (part 2)

In a previous post, I wondered if agriculture might be a better metaphor for social change than engineering.

Amy Sample Ward has a nice piece in SSIR about gardening vs. landscaping as metaphors for building communities online. That’s an interesting alternative. The way she describes landscaping sounds akin to what I’m getting at with engineering, the idea that there’s a pre-determined schema that’s being implemented. And of course the term “social engineering” is one that’s used to express skepticism about trying to intentionally shape social outcomes (like, through government).

So, gardening, landscaping, and agriculture. Agriculture is gardening writ large, tied to a purpose beyond an individual family or community. It’s also a livelihood: people are professional landscapers or farmers, but gardening is usually a hobby. (Right?) Agriculture requires inputs and technology, and it’s connected to a supply chain. Hmm, starting to sound more like engineering. But there’s something inherently unpredictable that, while it’s present in engineering because complex systems have their own dynamics that we can’t always understand, sets agriculture apart. Also, the cyclical nature of the growing cycle and the idea of crop rotation and soil management I think are powerful metaphors for what it takes to cultivate (hey, guess where that word comes from) social change.

It’s funny, because agriculture isn’t really about change, it’s about constancy and regular renewal. Cyclical, not linear. Is agriculture an inherently conservative metaphor – not progressive because it goes around in a cycle rather than moving forward? Is agriculture a better metaphor for social continuity than social change?

And of course, there’s always the possibility that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But I suspect not.


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