Recently, my attention was drawn to an article by Stan Stalnaker in the Harvard Business Review. In it, Stalnaker outlines a model for sustainable economies using cells as a biological analogy. It's a wonderful and inspiring piece that calls for a much-needed shift in our economic thinking, akin to a reframing of Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful".
As a wake-up call and economic model, I applaud it: we desperately need more thinking (and application of such thinking) like this. However, from an environmental science perspective, the analogy doesn't quite work for me, which is unfortunate as it, arguably, undermines somewhat the scaffolding Stalnaker has constructed on which to hang his ideas, while presenting a strained application of biological principles — something I assume the author of an environmental economic model would wish to avoid.
For example, do the "cells" represent individual businesses and the "body" the larger economy, or is the body a business and each cell a surrogate for one of the various desirable qualities pursued by a business — "sustainable" growth, skills development, product or service diversity? The terminology here is unclear to me.
The analogy falls apart when cycles and waste reduction are brought into the picture.
At the ecosystem or community scale, this is fine — wastes get recycled by decomposer organisms into the building blocks for a new generation of plants and animals. But Stalnaker's cellular analogy is at the wrong scale: the operation of cells and organisms is essentially linear: food in, waste out. The materials loop is not closed until one considers the larger scale of the biological community or ecosystem — these are the scales at which sustainability starts to become possible, and why the cellular analogy is such an awkward one. An ecosystem analogy for economics is more appropriate in this instance and has already proven both popular and useful.
So, are analogical flaws a concern? Seung Sahn would go as far as to say, "Open mouth, already big mistake!" Certainly the message is what is ultimately important — agreed; but, from an education perspective, how we get there — the process of constructing understanding, the language we use — is vitally important, too.
If we are to communicate, we should do so in a way in which understanding is furthered, but not at the expense of understanding elsewhere.
At a time when biological imagery and principles are (mis)appropriated to sell any number of goods and services, when poor scientific understanding leads to the perpetuation of dangerous myths, and when levels of ecological literacy are considered inadequate, then yes, how we deliver messages is important.
Analogies are useful tools, but we have to make sure they are sound. To not do so undermines their usefulness and risks unnecessary misunderstanding. They may get stretched a little to make a point, but their author should be aware of their limits. In Stalnaker's model, a change of scale is all that is needed: the same welcome economic blueprint he presents is left intact, the biological analogy is not distorted, and a teachable moment on the principles of ecology — and sound business — is provided: the purpose of the insightful model all along.