Sunday, March 09, 2008

A work of imagination

Our futures, personal and collective, depend as much on our imagination as the brute facts. The brute facts, unpredictable and unfathomable as they sometimes seem, interact with our imaginations to create the world in which we live.

We can be fooled by imagination, for example, when we blindly follow the literalism of religious dogma; and, we can find transcendence, for example, through the insights of a particularly good novel or from a sudden revelation that solves a problem on which we have been working for months. I think of James Watson's dream of intertwined snakes that helped him to conceptualize the structure of DNA. The imagination never sleeps, but on occasion it seems to work especially well when we do.

Even my cat seems to be able to imagine the future, that is, one without enough food. He is constantly seeking to have his bowl filled when there is already plenty of food in it. And, yet he maintains his trim figure and never eats more than he needs. Does he imagine that I might leave him for too long and that he might run out of food even though that's never actually happened? Surely, many of us have seen dogs and even cats who appear to be dreaming. Muffled barks and howls come out of their mouths as they doze. Are they in some primitive way imagining or reimagining the world?

Is our ability to imagine the future somehow instinctual and thus a survival mechanism, albeit an imperfect one? If so, the question is, survival for whom and in what way? There are many levels of survival: individual survival; the survival of our family, our friends, our community, or our nation--in other words, our various tribal affiliations; and then there is the survival of the human species. The imagination can work for survival on any of these levels.

When it comes to a sustainable future, the purveyors of techno-optimism, such as Cambridge Energy Research Associates, imagine a future of unlimited prospects. They claim that resources, especially oil, are in much greater supply than the pessimists are saying. What the pessimists can't imagine properly, says CERA, is that humans are so clever that they will be able to extract ever larger amounts of energy from the earth. The energy is out there and we will simply learn to get it. Have faith!

One shouldn't be too quick to dismiss these optimists. A vast army of scientists is working on how to extract the last stores of fossil fuel from the earth, and even on how to make burning them less harmful to the climate. And, they are working on a wide array of alternative energy sources as well.

But one should ask who might benefit from this particular strain of imagination. It is largely the existing winners in the current globalized corporate economy. The techno-optimists conveniently imagine these winners winning more and bigger. Not surprisingly, these winners are often clients or employers. Many of these people will say that they are working for the good of all humankind and perhaps some really are. But can we say that most of them fit into the category of imagination that is in the service of tribal affiliation, in this case one formed around wealth and privilege?

There are also those with a dark apocalyptic imagination who see the limits of the biosphere fast approaching and who note our seeming inability to respond adequately. They predict a world of immense suffering and decline--a collapse, but not necessarily a wipeout for humans, something akin to going back to square one. Often, but not always, such people have deep grievances against the status quo. They find the current system profoundly hurtful or they find that they simply don't fit into the categories generally allowed in the modern world. In one sense, their vision is a method of striking back. In another, it is an attempt to return the world to a rudimentary level that might bring with it the possibility of a more equitable and harmonious society.

Here we have perhaps the inverse of the techno-optimists. But this inverted vision still bears the hallmarks of the tribal imagination since it calls for the radical reordering of one's tribe (that is, community or nation) that would destroy current social relations while opening up new possibilities in the aftermath.

Finally, there are those who imagine a world of smaller communities with localized food production and handicraft powered by sunlight. It would be an intentional world brought about through a methodical transition that avoids outright collapse. It is not necessarily a tech-free world, but one that nevertheless can only afford those technical advancements that require very much less power than we produce today. It is one where political authority is dispersed and therefore localized. It would have the potential but not the certainty of being more democratic.

One could, of course, wish for such an outcome just for one's own community or nation. Perhaps the purest form of this kind of imagination is Jay Hanson's "war socialism." But most who imagine such a future believe that the entire world must be brought into it. It does little good to prepare one's own community for a sustainable future only to have neighboring communities who haven't prepared overrun yours when supplies run short. In this sense this vision transcends tribal boundaries. But is it reasonable to imagine such an outcome? Jay Hanson would say no. We humans are genetically wired to take advantage of others, but especially of those outside our own group in order to get what we need. Our tribal instincts are simply too strong.

William James in his essay "Is Life Worth Living?" (which I've cited before) suggests that even if we cannot beforehand justify our faith in our vision:
It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In such a case...the part of wisdom as well as courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled.

Whether they know it not, most of those who imagine a relatively peaceful transition to a world of smaller, sustainable communities have adopted this attitude. And, if there is one thing that imagination makes possible, it is to believe that we are not necessarily limited by our past. We are thereby enabled to imagine a future that is neither merely an extension of present nor a negation of it, but rather an active enterprise in which we can all participate if only we are willing to exercise the imagination to do so.

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