Metaphors we think with – of orchards, pies, eating and energy

Somewhere along the line I learnt that metaphors are very powerful things, in shaping/directing/preventing thought. So a for instance – if you frame a crime as a virus or crime as beast, it leads people to support different sets of responses.

Autocrats and demagogues know this, instinctively, of course, and those of us who think that the simple responses are probably going to lead to catastrophe need ways of busting open these metaphors, exposing what they do.

Which brings me to the question of orchards.

Recently I read a BLOODY FANTASTIC short book called Energy Fables (1) (review submitted to academic journal).  In it Elizabeth Shove (one of the volume’s editors) and Noel Cass have a chapter on “picking the low-hanging fruit”, which is one of those bits of how-could-you-possibly-argue common sense you hear all the time from “sensible” and “practical” people who wouldn’t know a transformation if it bit them on the ass.

Shove and Cass surfaces questions such as ‘what are the fruits?’, ‘what kinds of tree do they grow on’ and ‘what does the picking involve’, while acknowledging the topic is hardly new. 

They write (p.63)

“… the language of low hanging fruit emphasises two seemingly common features. One core assumption is that members of all these different ‘picking communities’ have the capacity to act: in other words, each is able to reach up, grab a fruit and reap the benefit. A second uniting factor is that the basis for selecting one fruit rather than another is essentially the same. In all cases, picking strategies are assumed to depend on bounded (individualised) forms of cost-benefit analysis in which the efforts of climbing and harvesting are weighted against the gains that follow. One further feature is that imagined pickers implicitly act alone, and of their own volition In other words, there is no collusion in the orchard, no jumping up to bend the branches down for someone else, and no conscripted labour either.”

I mention this because when I read it, I instantly thought of Bertram Gross’s wonderful book “Friendly Fascism”, which contains this excellent metaphor-buster.

“If we just enlarge the pie, everyone will get more”. This has been the imagery of Capitalist growthmanship since the end of World War II- and I once did my share in propagating it. But the growth of the pie did not change the way the slices were distributed except to enlarge the absolute gap between the lion’s share and the ant’s. And whether the pie grows, or stops growing, or shrinks, there are always people who suffer from the behaviour of the cooks, the effluents from the oven, the junkiness of the pie, and the fact that they needed something more nutritious than pie anyway.”

Two is not a trend, but it seems to me that there is something in eating/food as a way of doing this work of exposing how metaphors work. And hey, I’m adding a new category to this website – metaphor work: the revolution is surely at hand…


(1) Energy Fables: Challenging Ideas in the Energy Sector edited by Jenny Rinkinen, Elizabet Shove and Jacopo Torriti, Earthscan from Routledge, 2019, xi + 130 pp.;  index,  £96 (hardback); £19,99 (paperback); £19.99 (eBook), ISBN 978 0 367 02779 7 and 978 0 367 02779 7

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