Do leading policy makers ‘think like ecologists?’

I thought we had a very good discussion on Thursday.  And Alex sent me an email , which I have reprinted here in full.  Please comment on this excellent point that Alex has made … (and note how ot relates to our discussion of your own training here at Midd …)

Professor Isham
I was just thinking on the way out of class about the point that policy makers/designers should think like an ecologist; this made me consider what disciplines and professions have been most involved with the development process and it immediately struck me that the wrong people are in it. Consider this list
Obviously, each of these professions plays a different part, but the thing that stood out to me is that the first two, which I bolded, are probably the least equipped to help build sustainable community, and would be least in tune with Metis, and unfortunately probably have the largest stake at present. Even though Bill Gates’ intentions seem pure, think of what his training is and what his skills are… global domination of the software market, or Bill Clinton as we also mentioned (political manuevering).

4 Responses to “Do leading policy makers ‘think like ecologists?’”

  1. Alex makes a legitimate point that the professionals involved in the development process appear to be the least equipped to build sustainable communities. The professions listed do not do a good job of thinking like ecologists. But I would argue that there exists a new development profession, just as their exists a development industry. Those people, no matter what their background, must and should be in tune with sustainable communities.

    The problem, as pointed out in the video lecture of Michael Woolcock, is that certain people think they are “development experts” when in reality it doesn’t take much to call yourself that title. Development experts are sometimes just politicians and businessmen in disguise. That said, I think people like Bill Gates have made the jump from software CEO to development expert. Gates has removed himself from Microsoft and now is full-time with his foundation. I don’t think Gates could ever use metis in his decision making, but he can put his trust and money in people who do.

    More broadly, it’s worth discussing how do you train people to be development professionals? Can you? Or do people always enter other professions and then cross over?

  2. Do you think politicians and businessmen/capitalists have to be unequipped to participate in the building of sustainable communities? Although many people in these professions may seem out of touch with the concept of metis, perhaps our criticism should not be of these individual people and professions, but of our system of education and ideologies that basically teaches these individuals to be out of tune with metis. I think much of the success of American communities can be attributed to the innovation of their people – including that of politicians and businessmen. Although I can’t deny that today it seems many politicians and businessmen are significantly less open to the innovation, versatility, etc. that may be necessary to establish more sustainable communities, this does not mean that these individuals can’t learn the benefits of a metis-based approach to these endeavors just as we are currently learning. Generally, I think politicians and businessmen can be encouraged to think like ecologists and play a very important role in community-building.

  3. Do leading policy makers think like ecologists? Probably not.

    However, once leading policy makers realize that there is a problem of unsustainable communities, they can gather information and hopefully surround themselves with experts know more about the problems, such as biologists, ecologists and chemists (who are at the bottom of the list right now).

    I credit much of Bill Gates’ and Bill Clinton’s success on the fact that they realized there is much to work on, and at the same time, they leaned on people who know more about these problems. Much of the power of Gates and Clinton lies in their influence, their affluence, and in their well-known names – and by using their names for PR they can get more investors and also great people behind them, who are probably not famous, but nevertheless essential to the projects.

  4. One of the most important things I’ve learned as a student of ecology and evolution at Middlebury is that in order to understand the complexity of living systems, you have to think creatively. You have to take a step in and a step back to understand the narrow as well as the grand picture. Thinking like an ecologist seems to me to be a contemplative and meditative form of creativity that requires intensive thought about all of the possible consequences or outcomes of an action. Policy makers and businessmen may not have the time in their busy schedules to think creatively, as an ecologist would, about every possible interaction or process that their legislation or project will affect. However, that’s not to say that their input is not important or that their role should be diverted to so-called “development experts.” Part of thinking like an ecologist is also the synthesis of ideas from all sectors in order to mirror the complexity of the whole.

    As a sidenote: our discussion about “thinking like an ecologist” made me think of Aldo Leopold’s essay, “Thinking Like A Mountain” (, which serves as an eloquent reminder that ecological systems are highly interdependent and rely on the sum of all parts to function properly.

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