On the failure of imagination

What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty…

William Blake, Vision of the Last Judgment

One of the many crises that industrial civilisation is currently facing, and to my mind one of the most serious, is a crisis of imagination. Indeed, an active imagination is something we fear, to the point of declaring it pathological. If William Blake were alive today he would almost certainly be on some fairly heavy-duty medication.

Part of this is down to a cumbersome literal-mindedness that stems, I suspect, from the feeling that scientific discourse is the only vehicle of truth. Now the language of science is plain to the point of sterility – a scientific instrument 27 km (over 19 miles) across can only garner the adjective “large” even in a language unusually rich in adjectives denoting size (Ginormous Hadron Collider, anyone?). There is no room for ambiguity, let alone metaphor; it is like the Republic from which Plato wished to banish poets. But this is itself a rhetorical stance. When Julius Caesar wished to cultivate the image of a plain-speaking soldier, he published accounts of his wars in langage so simple that they are still used as introductory texts for students of Latin. This wasn’t because he was a plain-speaking soldier; he just wished to be taken for one.

In the same way, the authors of scientific papers wish to be taken for infallible oracles of truth. That’s fine so long as we realise that that’s what they’re doing. Certainly there are other ways of thinking, speaking and writing that also provide access to truths, not necessarily the same kinds of truths they are looking for at CERN, but nevertheless of value. And these are the truths we are lacking today, or so it seems to me.

When Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced, not only was Othello played by a white actor but all the female parts were played by men. Contemporary audiences nevertheless had no difficulty in believing in Romeo’s passion for Juliet, or Antony’s obsession with Cleopatra. You’d have a hard time staging a Shakespeare play that way now. (Having all the male parts played by women is apparently fine, though.)

All this would be merely sad – very sad, granted, but nothing more – except for the way this lack of imagination deprives us of possibilities for life and indeed survival. If there was ever a moment in our history when we needed to think outside the proverbial box, this is it. Because if we don’t, this is our situation:

You are here.

Industrial civilisation is predicated on consuming resources and turning them into unusable waste. That is what it does, always has done, and as far as I can see always will do. Some of those resources are intrinsically finite, like petroleum, and those that could be renewed in principle it tends to consume at rates that exceed replacement levels, like fish. “Decoupling” economic growth is a fantasy born of wishful thinking and blind faith that accounting tricks can accomplish things in the physical universe.

Continuing in a straight line along the same path – or, to use the popular word, “progress” – is not a viable option. As I write this, COP 26 has just begun in Glasgow. This is an international conference intended to address the issue of climate change. As its name suggests, there have already been twenty-five of these, and climate change is still merrily trucking along. And of course climate change is just one of the issues we face at the present time. We are not even holding ineffectual talking-shops when it comes to ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, or pollution.

So there are fundamental questions about the way we live that need to be addressed, and addressed quickly. We’ve been kicking the can down the road for a long time now, and it has been joined by plenty of other cans, to the point where we now have to kick this down the road:

This is just going to hurt your toe.

There’s an old saying that if you find yourself in a hole you should stop digging. That’s certainly true, and anything we can do, individually or collectively, to slow down the insanity has to be the first step. And I do not mean buying a Tesla: I mean consuming less, consuming more responsibly, and if at all possible giving the living world some breathing-room. We can’t all be Isabella Tree, but that must be the correct direction of travel.

And this is going to mean discarding many of the assumptions we have all grown up taking for granted. A “good job” is not one that facilitates the extraction and consumption of resources – what with rich if unconscious irony we call “productivity.” Not is it one that allows us to consume more of those resources ourselves. Maybe the individual is not the be-all and end-all. Maybe you don’t actually need that new iPhone. Maybe your life would be better if you didn’t own a smartphone at all.

People have lived sustainable lives on this planet for many millennia – at least two hundred of them. It can be done. The mere fact that you and I are alive today proves that. More than that, it can be done in ways that are at least as pleasant and fulfilling as driving a van for Amazon or developing pointless smartphone apps or writing reports. We have been mis-educated to imagine that all human life prior to the Industrial Revolution was so miserable as not to have been worth living. Arguably much human life during and after that revolution might deserve that description, but a lot of people before and outside industrial civilisation have been, and are, a good deal happier than we like to admit.

Because consuming stuff is not, ultimately, very satisfying. This is one of the few points on which all the major religions agree, and frankly it’s amply confirmed by experience. We don’t need industrial capitalism. Certainly, if the choice is between that and the extinction of most life on this planet – and I believe it is – it’s hardly a difficult one.

The difficulty lies in untangling ourselves from the mind-bogglingly complex web in which this way of living has enmeshed us. But that web is already starting to unravel. We can help that process along by buying less, making do, learning skills so that we can do more for ourselves rather than depending on the industrial economy to provide. The ongoing supply chain issues should already be teaching us that, but of course we can’t imagine a world in which the shelves are not magically refilled. But that’s the world we’re going to be living in.

All of this is going to require creative thinking and adaptability, which are qualities our culture has taken pains to educate out of us for many years now. The good news, so far as it goes, is that the process has only been partially successful. We still have imagination; and to quote Blake once more: “Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.”

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

2 thoughts on “On the failure of imagination

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