(Lost in) A Forest

Continuing from yesterday on the theme of agriculture vs. engineering as a metaphor for social change, and the role of innovation in philanthropy.

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (which should be required reading for anyone in philanthropy) opens with a metaphor about forestry (which I know isn’t the same as agriculture, but anyway). A set of loggers looked at a forest, with all of its messy complexity – trees of different sizes, ferns, moss, shrubs, bushes, underbrush, fungi, rotting fallen logs, etc., etc. – and thought, how can we most rationally extract as much timber as possible? Well, we need to clear away all the underbrush, and turn the forest into as close an approximation as possible of evenly spaced, easily cut-down-able logs that just happen to be vertical until we can cut them down. To rationalize the extraction of timber.

That’s a plan, as far as it goes. But the problem is, without the underbrush, and the bushes, and the shrubs, and the other trees of varying sizes – the timber trees couldn’t survive. They needed the whole complex ecosystem of the forest for sustenance. So in the end, the loggers got less lumber than if they had worked within the “constraints” of the existing ecosystem.

How often are we like those loggers in philanthropy? How often do we not see the forest (of sustainability) for the trees (of impact or innovation)?

P.S. My first post on this blog was April 21, 2010; happy blog-o-versary to me! I’m on the road for work next week, but I’ll do my best to celebrate with a look back at some of the topics I’ve covered, and begin thinking about what lies ahead…

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One Response to “(Lost in) A Forest”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Don’t Want to Work on Maggie’s Farm No More Says:

    […] written previously on agriculture as a metaphor for social change, and the idea of funding […]

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