Changing the Framing of our Lands and Forests …. and Hedgehogs – and Foxes

“The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.”

Sarah Smith Fantasy City - Waitakere to Auckland

Sarah Smith – Fantasy City

The Parliamentary Commission for the Environment (PCE) report Farms, Forests and Fossil Fuels: The next Great Landscape Transformation was released 26th March 2019. Amidst all the calls for clarity and angst over change, or even civil dialogue, a number of key ideas lay buried, or tossed aside, or even stomped to death. We do need to think differently. And that involves paradigm shifts in framing. A point made by the PCE in this report, as it was made by ex PCE Commissioner Morgan Williams in the 2004 PCE report Growing for Good.

That – 15 long years ago – was a response against the rising energy intensification of increasingly industrialised, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitting, high energy input, irrigated and monocultural dairy.  And a parallel shift from often moderately irrigated (or not at all) rotational mixed cropping to heavy nitrogenous fertiliser continuous cropping.  No need to restore the soil with a rotation of legumes and pasture, just add more N.  What soil & water degradation?  What GHG?  What climate change?  What increasing corporatisation, shelterbelt removal, migrant labour, indebtedness?  What continuing decline in real commodity prices?  What technology treadmill?

Why the relatively low input hill country sheep and beef sector doesn’t differentiate itself from the polluting, energy hungry and increasingly corporate intensive dairy and cropping I cannot fathom.  If the PCE could have done anything better, it might have been to make some qualitative differentiations between the various agricultural sub-sectors.

Michael Hodgkins - Near Dunedin

Michael Hodgkins – Near Dunedin

That is one point that needs to be acknowledged. The need to think differently about land. Forestry has a ‘keystone’ role in that paradigm shift from the nonsense colonial paradigm of ‘produce more to feed the world’ by producing bulk commodities that don’t use adjectives in their marketing. Landscapes need to be considered as agro-ecological systems (and socio-ecological systems) that include woodlands, wetlands, and healthy functioning soils.

Contrary to the current industrial paradigm that cannot think beyond one thing (the Hedgehog mode), such systems lead to synergies across environmental, social and economic outcomes. But you need to be able to think like a Fox. Think in systems, not machines, in multiple functions and shifting dynamics, not the single and the static. Think in adaptability, not in any stubborn Vogon mode. Think in Post-Industrial Economies of Scope of patterns designed into being, not Fordist Economies of Scale of the one, big, unthinking thing.

foxs & hedgehogs.png

There can also be no doubt that much more needs to be done by the major GHG emitters of fossil transport fuel. The PCE is trying to create that wake up moment. And there can be no doubt that New Zealand having forestry as an offset has done very little to encourage … why weasel the words – it has discouraged – either of the emitting sectors to fundamentally change, for the moment.

Motorways & industrial agThey haven’t had to. Business as usual. Motorways, irrigation, de-electrifying and discouraging rail, public transport the poor cousin still, Auckland trying to emulate the radial multilane structure of Los Angeles with Treasury urging ‘more land supply’ because they cannot think beyond their two-dimensional charts to anything as complex as urban design. Car-motorway suburbs as a nonsense faith in “land and energy are infinite, and technology will save us” are being replaced around the world by decentralised multiple village structures linked by walking, cycling and public transport. Yet we stick to our usual “this is what we do” Hedgehog mode – don’t adapt, think or dialogue, just roll into a ball and hunker down.

But Simon Upton also has another message. Historically, he has argued that forestry should not define or promote itself through the few simplistic lens – all money measures, including carbon.

And that message is what a number of us tried to get across to the hedgehog thinkers in MPI when the ETS was first being developed as the market mechanism for encouraging tree planting 15 odd years ago. There are multiple benefits from planting trees in landscapes, multiple reasons all beneficial to land owners, landscapes, communities and local economies, multiple dynamics and patterns and potentials in multiple contexts, multiple connections to hold in our heads at any one time – and they don’t have to be blanket forestry blocks of bland non-adaptive single function – the Hedgehog ideal.

The scope of potential in having woodlands as part of the patchwork quilt mix within predominately pastoral hill country systems is right there waiting for the Fox to come along – see the connections and possibilities, happy to extend into any domain, observing of patterns and place, changing with conditions – and replace the Hedgehog.

The_Hedgehog,_the_Fox,_and_Magister's_Pox.jpgAnd that’s the biggest change we need, away from the narrow and mechanical thinking and toward the integration of many things by design to create something new.  Something that actually works.  It’s also why we need to shift from our current belief that any strict STEM specialist is in any way a thought leader within complex contexts.  They’re not.  We need something more.  Synthesis is vital as a context for analysis.  Without the former, there is zero wisdom as a base for the latter.

I’ll leave the last word to Richard Lewontin, one of the most brilliant integrative thinking scientists you could ever read.

“The problem is to construct a third view. One that sees the whole world neither as an indissoluble whole, nor with the equally incorrect, but presently dominant view, that at every level the world is made up of bits and pieces that can be isolated and that have properties that can be studied in isolation. Both of these ideologies, one that mirrors the pre-modern feudal social world, and the other that mirrors the modern, competitive, individualistic entrepreneurial world, prevent us from seeing the full richness of interaction in nature. In the end, they prevent a real understanding of nature and prevent us from solving the problems to which science is supposed to apply itself.”

Richard Lewontin, Massey Lecture 1: Biology as Ideology

Biblio on Hedgehogs & Foxes

The Concept of Hedgehogs & Foxes in the Post-Industrial Thought
The same argument of accepting complexity and connection when making judgments, managing, etc. is highlighted by research and practice in:


Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a philosophy, governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and natural systems.

About Chris Perley

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This entry was posted in agricultural strategy, Alternative Vision, Building Regional Economies, Land Use, Land use policy, Land use strategy, Landscape function, Reimagining, Thought Pieces. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Changing the Framing of our Lands and Forests …. and Hedgehogs – and Foxes

  1. anarkaytie says:

    Hmm, it seems I’m a distinctly Foxy policy thinker.

    This would explain why I got rejected by the Hedgehogs in Policy Program who didn’t like me bringing new ideas into their old models, & pointing out that political will was not present to solve some of the ‘wicked problems’ like Housing, in 2015.

    They exposed their Blue colours in their refusal to accept any critique of Government positions, too.
    Now times (& staff…) have changed, and they are singing a different tune. 😀

    • cjkperley says:

      Highly relevant observations. The Hedgehogs have taken over since the Grand Master Hedgehog (Treasury) wreaked thought diversity, open questioning dialogue, and the dynamic high social capital nature of the public service by imposing self-interested corporate hierarchical models.

      I updated the blog post with references to some of that stuff.

      I’m happy you think things are changing, but the structure of the public service still means that Treasury (Hedgehog non-thought) will hunker down (as they did under Clark) before rejoicing when they get another Key in power. We have to change the structure of the public sector and the power wielded by Treasury (I’ll call them autistic, because that gives them more credit than calling them morons)

      • anarkaytie says:

        Yes, I shied away from naming particular ways of thinking; but my ex-husband, a high-functioning autist, work on IT projects for various Ministries as a contractor 1990’s through to 2014. A lot of the baseline thinking was about hard-coding biases into the system, & neoliberal economic thinking at that.

        I applied for a few Policy jobs in 2018, just to test the system. Ministries are bringing policy advisory back in-house, after a decade of consultancies run by right-wingers at arms’ length, so as that process completes & matures, the changes of perspective will mount up.
        Then it’s just a matter of Treasury having to put up & shut up!

        Foxes are far more tricky than hedgehogs suspect!

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