Stan Rowe is one of my favorite authors and thinkers when it comes to living sustainably. Through a long and influential career as an ecologist, spent mostly at the University of Saskatchewan, he drew attention to the increasing pace and scale of human activities and the importance of understanding and managing ourselves as parts of larger, living systems. 

Rowe’s ideas come through loud and clear in his writings, including an insightful set of essays published in 1990, calledHome Place. His arguments still resonate 20 years later, partly because we continue to face many of the same issues, and partly because of his poetic writing style. In a 2000 paper, he pointed out that “we think by means of metaphor … they are the tools of the mind and imagination.”

The leaky bucket is a useful metaphor where sustainability is concerned. In this case, the bucket represents a local economy that attracts and distributes resources, i.e., water. The idea is to keep the bucket filled to a certain point, assuming enough water is available and you have some control over the inflow. The metaphor can also be extended to reflect supply and demand by imagining that the amount of water available and the size of holes in the bucket are always changing. 

It only takes a few moments with a real or imaginary bucket to realize that keeping it full can be a challenging task. Success depends on observation, systems thinking, and the ability to respond as conditions change. That’s the power of a good metaphor. Instead of accounting for everything that goes into an economy, the bucket is a simplified stand-in that gives us a sense of cause and effect. It also gives us feedback about the choices we make, allowing us to anticipate, learn, and adapt.

Getting back to Rowe, it’s intriguing to think that ALL of our thoughts might be supported by some sort of metaphor. If that’s the case, and if we could reduce the power of metaphors that are keeping humanity on an unsustainable path, e.g., Nature is a machine, we might be better equipped to deal with climate change and other concerns.

If you’re interested, I have more to say about buckets and sustainability in a publication from the Museums Association of Saskatchewan called The Sustainability Challenge.