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Parable: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The following was adapted from the first chapter of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James Scott, 1988 - read an extract here. Adapted by Art of Festivals for the Arts Engage Learning Community.

How do we shift our mindset? How do we get to see through a different lens? How do we measure change and appraise value with an eye to the larger picture, not just to what meets our immediate interests?

This is a story about the consequences of the questions we ask, to illustrate what evaluation is and does.

Forests in Germany were, up to when our story starts, messy. With many tree species of different ages and heights and thick underwoods, the authorities had trouble estimating how many planks they could yield to build ships and houses, make paper and other activities that they could value in monetary terms.

They tried taking samples. The woods were too unpredictable, too complex, too organic.

So their next idea was to make the woods fit with their evaluation framework.

They cleared the old forest and replanted it with mostly one type of tree, the Norway spruce - Normalbaum - in straight lines. They created the scientific forest, where everything conformed to the intention of making planks.

It worked according to plan for one generation.

The second rotation’s yield, about 100 years later, was down by 20-30%. A new word was invented to describe “forest death”: Waldsterben. Before the scientific forest, death was not a possibility for the forest - its diversity and its complex interlinked ecosystems made it strong and resilient. The new “scientific” forest was hostile to diversity - insects, mammals, snakes, fungi, other plant species - which made it vulnerable to pretty much anything that could be thrown at it - storms, disease, drought…

What does all this have to do with evaluation?

To appraise value, we ask questions. Here the question was solely focused on one type of value: how many planks can these trees produce? This blinkered logic wiped out all the other elements in the ecology that made the woods healthy and polyvalent. The question asked acted as a negative lens that blocked out all other value systems also at play in the healthy forest.

This was also of course detrimental to the humans living near and off the forest, now deprived of valuable - and renewable - sources of food, kindling for their fire, foliage for their roofs, herbs for their medicine, sap for their resin… because no one asked them: what is the value of the forest for you? Why does the forest matter to you and your community? 

The questions we ask, the measurements we use, are not neutral. They shape our world. The questions we ask ourselves shape us. The questions we ask our children shape them.

When we ask ourselves why our project matters and we start working at the value level, we’re taking our first step towards establishing an evaluation lens. A good question can illuminate change around the values that are driving us. It’s important for the artists & producers initiating or driving the project, who should engage in self-reflection at all stages of development, because with action comes responsibility.

It’s even more important for participants in our projects and for the community at large. By asking the right question, we are expressing the values that matter to us and inviting them to join us. We are also saying to participants that we care about how the project goes for them, not just for a third party like a “passive” audience or a funder.

Evaluation is not something we do at the end - it is a lens throughout a project. If we want to know what is changing, we need to know how it really is for other people: we can’t just assume. Embedding the evaluation process into the project development is like holding up a mirror to the community so that they can see themselves in all their glorious complexity - not as planks, but as the myriad of elements that form a complex and resilient ecosystem.

Our thanks to the Department of Canadian Heritage for their support of the ArtsEngage Learning Community!

Funded by the Government of Canada



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