How Human Imagination Will Help us Address Climate Change

Alexi Barnstone - Culture & Philosophy

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The Climatized was founded in 2020 because of a rather simple belief. We believed that imagining how the future could be, and how it ought to be, are both critical for and lacking in the climate change narrative. Some work on this front has already been done. Literature and film has begun to tap into this space, with authors and directors channelling their creative energy toward it. Works such as Omar El Akkad’s American War, a novel that builds a picture of a near-future where the US has descended into a second civil war over the use of fossil fuels, use fiction as a medium. Other authors address the future more directly, though with similar despair. In The Uninhabitable Earth David Wallace-Wells explores the myriad consequences of climate inaction. Short, concise, and well researched chapters titled Heat Death, Drowning, Wildfire, and Hunger (among many many more) paint a bleak and terrifying vision of the near-future. The Climatized was founded with the ambition of furthering this narrative. Of helping people imagine what the future could be like. But why is imagining a valuable practice to engage in? What good does it do us?

What does Thinking about the Future do?

These literary works do more than simply paint a picture of the future. They reflect back on our own agency, our own lives in the now. Crucially, they not only give us a sense of what could be, but also a sense of what we do and don’t want to let occur. We do not just look at these bleak futurisms with resignation, but with motivation. Wallace-Wells’ deep dive into the concatenated social, political, and environmental catastrophes, or Akkad’s splintered and bloody American vision, violently shake us out of our complacency. They don’t just get us to imagine the future, they wake us up in the now. And they do this, through the power of the imagination. 

In the future, in order to address the threat of climate change, we must engage our imaginations. 

The Role of the Imagination

Many contemporary philosophers have discussed the role of the imagination in influencing our moral sense and political agency. “Imagination is not false or what is pretend, it is a powerful positing of possibility.” Challis Professor of Philosophy Moira Gatens of the University of Sydney explains in our interview. “We use it all the time, I am going to see a friend tonight, and it is all imagined. I know I have got to get to the station, catch the train. So even at that trivial level, in order to have a future at all, you have to be able to imagine it - you have to be able to have some plan. And in order to do that you have to have some confidence that you are going to be able to do it.” 

Crucially, this positing of possibility influences how we act. When we imagine how to get to our friends house - to borrow Professor Gatens’ example - we imagine all the steps we need to take in order to get there. Then we do them. We use our imaginings about the future to prepare ourselves for how we act in the present. So when we imagine what the future could look like because of climate change, we also develop an understanding of how we should act in the now to prevent that future. 

Shared Imaginings

Furthermore, ways of imagining are socially embedded. We don’t just engage in imagining by ourselves, we share collective imaginings about the world around us with others in our communities. As Professor Gatens said, “The interesting thing about the imagination in social and political life is that images become associated, and so far as they become associated they form systems, and so far as that happens you aren’t talking about an image or an imagination but you are talking about imaginaries, systematically linked notions, ideas, about the way things work. That is when it becomes the crucible of social and political life.” 

Imagining Climate-Changed Futures

So what specific role should the imagination play in the fight for climate justice? For one, Professor Gatens argued we must reconfigure our understanding of humanity’s position in the world. 

“Whether we are atheist, agnostic or committed, it is deeply embedded in our culture and in our belief systems that we are the centre of creation. There is us and there is nature, and that we are somehow the pinnacle of this and it is all made for us somehow. So, I think the biggest challenge in climate change is to shift that anthropocentric arrogance, the narcissism.” Said Professor Gatens, “There is an astonishing ignorance about our place in nature. I think you need these counter imaginaries that challenge that notion of ‘we are the pinnacle of nature’ and ‘we can manage nature’. No, we are nature, we are not separate.” 

Utopias or Dystopias?

Perhaps one of the reasons there is a lack of imagination in the climate narrative is because it all seems so dire. Why would we want to imagine what the world could be like, when opening our minds to these possibilities seem to inevitably lead down the road of despair? To that, Gatens replies:

“We are all aware of the dystopic visions. But there isn’t just dystopia on one hand and utopia on the other, there is imagining from where we are now to where we want to be. And in order to do that we have to have confidence that we can do it, and in order to have confidence we have to have hope.”

 

Alexi Barnstone is an Editor at the Climatized.

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