Re-writing the ecological metaphor
Peter Wells and P Nieuwenhuis, Cardiff University, United Kingdom
Biological, evolutionary or ecological metaphors, both explicit and implicit, underpin much of theorisation in the social sciences in general, and the theme of inter-firm competition and technological change in particular (Nelson and Winter, 1982; Henderson, 1990). The social Darwinianism embedded in the contemporary neo-conservative ideologies promulgated by, for example, the resource-based view of the firm reveals the power of this quasi-scientific rationalisation (Prahalad and Hamel, 1990).

The argument advanced in this paper is that the use of ecological metaphors has been highly partial and selective. In industrial ecology, long-wave theories of techno-economic growth, eco-efficiency, and ecological modernisation the problem of selectivity has generated theoretical and empirical bias.

A different selection of ecological metaphors can result in different implications for our understanding of sustainable business and the limitations of such metaphors to the attainment of sustainability. As an example, there’s the literature on waste minimisation in business. Such practices are held to be more sustainable because of increased material efficiency, and this may well be so. However, profligacy is the very basis of ecosystems: how much life does an oak tree support merely through the chronic over-production of acorns? Similarly, the implication of such developments as the ‘eco-industrial park’ is that primary firm waste should become institutionalised because it supports the ‘ecosystem’ of secondary firms.

In contrast, the paper will therefore explore the latent possibilities in ecological concepts such as diversity, co-existence and inter-mutualism as they might be applied to business and economic analysis. Attention will be given to the notion of diversity and its contribution to economic resilience, in counterpoint to the monoculture of globalisation. The paper will be speculative but will illustrate the concepts with examples where possible as well as suggest future research agendas.

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