Transforming freshwater politics through metaphors: struggles over ecosystem health, legal personhood, and invasive species in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Published online
11 Aug 2023
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
People and Nature

Tadaki, M. & Clapcott, J. & Holmes, R. & MacNeil, C. & Young, R.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
New Zealand


Metaphor, defined as the linguistic substitution of one phenomenon for another, is ubiquitous in environmental science and policy. In science, when used well, metaphors help to make complex and abstract ideas familiar and relatable, while also helping people orient ethically to the natural world. In freshwater science, metaphors structure many aspects of scientific and lay understanding. Yet, while metaphors are often used in environmental science and advocacy, there is a need to join up our currently diffuse understandings about how metaphors can help achieve social transformation for sustainability. Here, we focus on how metaphors are enshrined into institutions, giving them permanence and force as tools for social transformation. We explore three examples of metaphors in environmental science and activism that have 'gone public' to shape freshwater politics and governance in Aotearoa New Zealand (henceforth Aotearoa NZ). We focus on the origins, strategic purposes and limitations of the metaphors, the ways they have been institutionalised, and the roles that scientists in particular have played in shaping metaphorical meanings. Metaphors perform diverse political tasks, from mobilising popular support for species removal, to reorienting human obligations to rivers, through to expanding the scope of vision for river management. Scientists play key roles in shaping both regulatory institutions as well as informal norms that affect metaphor implementation. Finally, what makes a 'good' metaphor needs to be evaluated in context of who is mobilising the metaphor and what their broader sustainability values and objectives are.

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