Celebrating the Radical Imagination

If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives. Eco-poet, Helen Moore, provides a glimpse of a change of thinking that points to us visioning a new ecological age… to be continued in a future issue.

“Just imagine the world without… [insert brand]!”  Today, our capacity to imagine is frequently co-opted, advertising endlessly fuelling our sense of ourselves as consumers, rather than citizens of this Earth community.  Industrial growth society systematically reinforces ‘monocultures of the mind’, marginalising dissenting voices and burying histories of resistance.  And with the capitalist system’s inevitability deeply entrenched, apocalypse is now widely projected as our collective future (Hollywood’s disaster scenarios doubtless influencing this), while fictions elaborating ‘magic bullet’ solutions of colonising outer space alternately fuel the popular imagination.

Where the effects of capitalist globalisation on ourselves and our planet are acknowledged, industrial growth society promotes the view that we can consume our way to social and ecological change.  However, as Einstein reminds us: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

In witnessing the beginning of the industrial revolution, William Blake saw how ‘reason’ (what we might now call ‘scientific materialism’) had come to dominate consciousness.  Personifying it as ‘Urizen’, a patriarchal figure wielding his compass, Blake’s epic poem, Jerusalem, explores the near annihilation that occurs when Albion (‘universal humanity’) is subject to urizenic tyranny.  The remaining ‘zoas’, which together constitute the human – ‘Tharmas’ (the body), ‘Luvah’ (the heart) and ‘Urthona’ (the imagination) – are nearly destroyed; significantly, however, it’s the imagination, embodied as Los, the prophet/blacksmith, and Jerusalem, the feminine embodiment of forgiveness, who resist, and finally secure humanity’s redemption.

Although Blake’s mythology is complex (codified to conceal the dangerously revolutionary implications of his worldview), I believe that his work points to the power of the imagination in addressing the crisis we face.  The Blakean vision of the rebalanced ‘four zoas’ reminds us that the imagination is embodied, connected with the heart and able to get to the root of systemic problems, i.e. radical.  In this way, fear and limited thinking can fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and collectively we sense the shapes our evolving futures may take. “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” (Arundhati Roy)

Accommodating ‘heart and soul’ (Inner Transition), and deploying imaginative strategies such as ‘back-casting’ (imaginatively working back from a projected future to explore how to achieve it), communities around the world are engaging with the Transition Movement and already co-creating alternatives, addressing local issues such the production of energy and food security, with biodigesters, solar water heating systems, urban agriculture projects and the creation of ‘edible landscapes’.  Simultaneously, the global anti-austerity movement is experimenting with forms of direct democracy, critiquing power and privilege, and organising ‘horizontal’ spaces where everyone can participate in collective decision-making.  In The Democracy Project, David Graeber talks about “the opening up of the radical imagination that Occupy allowed.”  And he elaborates the experience, familiar to me, of how participation introduces “the skills, habits and experience that would make an entirely new conception of politics come to life.”

Central to the successful development of future life-sustaining societies are the stories we tell, which counter the dominant narratives of capitalism.  When we consider human history, we usually do so in isolation from other species, and rarely considering our evolution in the context of the universe.  As a corrective, cosmologist Brian Swimme’s ‘Universe Story’, developed in collaboration with American ecotheologian Thomas Berry, brings a meaningful narrative to the 13.7 billion year trajectory of the universe, and supports us in perceiving industrial growth society as a blip in time.

A ‘deep-time’ perspective also reveals that human development originally unfolded in interconnection with the natural world, and embedded within an anarchistic ‘organic society’, based on natural laws, co-operation and the self-organising capacity of ecosystems.  Most powerfully, this perspective can assist us in visioning a new ecological age, perhaps Berry’s ‘Ecozoic Era’, where we live in harmony “with the Earth as our community”. But this demands our collective labour; Berry’s vision, in The Great Work, Our Way into the Future, is one “we must will into being”.

A version of this article was originally written for the Transition Free Press spring/summer issue 2014: http://transitionfreepress.org/

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