The Failure of Imagination — Part 1
Up until a warm sunny afternoon in May 2019 I had what I would call a rather ordinary concept of the future. I was 37 back then with two little devils — masquerading as my sons — a wife and decent job. I didn’t give too much thought to the fate of this civilization, but when I did, I thought that by the time I grow old I would still be living under the same government structure, behind the same borders, would have a car (most probably with a petrol engine), and the usual digital gimmickry— all under the same climate, or maximum a couple of tenths of centigrade warmer than today. In other words: everything would be just like it were in 2019.
Knowing what I know today about this civilization’s trajectory, its resources, overshoot, the climate, the state of our ecosystem and the many other predicaments, I had to realize that the future will be a whole lot different than the present or the recent past.
I had to realize that I was a victim of a failed collective imagination.
The current state of affairs starts to remind more and more scholars to the terminal stage of empires long lost. One of the recurring themes in such ages is the ‘failure of imagination’, not only on the side of the elites, but in the case of commoners too. This civilization too, just like the ones preceding it, seems to have lost the capability to imagine any other future for itself other than the continuation of the present, only ‘greener’. The future we are sold would be only slightly different, but certainly better and a whole lot more sustainable than the past (sic!). The alternatives vary around ‘much more’ and ‘helluva lot more’ technology, capitalism and growth.
Less is not an option.
The glaring dissonance with reality was not lost on many contemporary writers either. As Mark Fisher wrote in his book, Capitalist Realism: “it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” — referring to the idea, that even though we somehow have a sense that the story we bought is not going to fly, we cannot imagine anything better. The notion of such a failure of imagination however probably originates from Arnold Toynbee and his seminal work written in the first half on the 20th century: A study of history. He skillfully observed that
“Civilizations, I believe, come to birth and proceed to grow by successfully responding to successive challenges. They break down and go to pieces if and when a challenge confronts them which they fail to meet.”
According to him civilizations crumble when their elite (the ‘Creative Minority’ as he calls them) looses all its creative powers and degenerates into merely a ‘Dominant Minority’. If this reminds you to today’s ruling class, know that this is not a mere coincidence. Members of today’s elite — both in the east and west — have grown increasingly senile and prone to hubris. They, together with their contesters, have become victims of their own success in pushing industrialism and the plundering of this planet — consequences and limits be damned. As Toynbee discerned however:
“Nothing fails like success when you rely on it too much”
Growth slows? — More government stimulus! Inflation rises? — Hike interest rates! Global hegemony is at risk? Material and energy shortages? — Buy more weapons and provoke a war! Limits to growth…? What limits?! There are no limits to human ingenuity!!! I guess you know what I mean…
The signs are everywhere. Now let’s see how this catastrophic failure of imagination could beset such an “enlightened and rational” civilization like ours.
‘Nothing to see here, move on! There is no collapse coming, let alone already happening! Should there be any problems on the way, we will find something out.’ — well, it is hard to argue with that. Naturally, people with such inclinations adopt the ‘Net Zero’, ‘Hydrogen Economy powered by Renewables’, and ‘Sustainable Development’ oxymorons without having a second thought, let alone trying to imagining anything else. I can only wish them good luck relying on their past success.
Drilling an inch deeper though into the contemporary psyche reveals more interesting motives. With recency bias for example, people tend to put too much emphasis on how things were in the recent past — and tend to extrapolate it into the future. Applied to the arc of history, folks generally tend to believe that since life expectancy, wealth, standards of living, technology and so on tended to get better and better over their lifetimes, this trend will (and must) continue indefinitely. Combined with a sheer ignorance of history and global trends objectively pointing into the opposite direction (climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion just to name a few out of the 27 I’ve listed so far…), recency bias is a sure killer of imagination and provides the greatest support for denial.
Now, that we have dealt with the usual suspects lets descend one level deeper. Imagining a future greatly different from the mainstream narrative usually involves taking on new habits and letting old ones go. The problem is: most people really don’t like change. It requires effort, sacrifice, the hardship of getting used to doing things differently. Brains need to be rewired. Plus, it’s scary too! As it was observed by Jiddu Krishnamurti:
“One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end”
When it comes to the end of privileges however, that is when the real screaming and kicking starts. No more holidays overseas. No more McMansions in the suburbs. No more giant pick-up trucks or SUV-s. No more cars at all. And that’s the easy part. Should the desired change threaten the livelihood of individuals — without having the feeling that the well-to-do share their losses — then we are into serious trouble. This is when the rioting starts… Rightfully so, but let’s not just get ahead of ourselves.
Coming back to imagination, this fear of change leads us to the territory of nightmares. Movies — our way of having common dreams — readily depict us a world of destruction and losses. Zombie apocalypse. Dystopic movies like Mad Max and Hunger Games.
Notice the narrative trap here though: they all portray a world, where people are deprived from all of their privileges, comfort and human rights. A tiny despotic elite lives a luxurious but precarious life, while enjoying absolute sovereignty: standing above the law, and having the right to kill or torture anyone they wish.
If you have read David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s Dawn of Everything then you know, that while it is entirely possible that some people will be forced to live this way, it is far from being the only way to live as part of an organized society. One of the core arguments of the book is that ‘heroic societies’ — like ours — led by ‘paternalistic leaders’, and held together by standing armies has become so widespread these days, and the eradication of alternative ways of governance was so successful, that we are now really left nothing else with to imagine, but a bitter of sweeter version of the same old narrative.
This is not a coincidence either. It is of the best interests of the current ruling class to make sure no one can imagine a better future than what we have today. The underlying message is that should they lose power or be overthrown, tyranny would rule over the world with only a small branch of rag-tag survivors resisting it, while hiding in caves and chewing on dead rats in their free time. Not the kind of future you would choose for your children.
As a result we are stuck in a world, where everyone is trembling to hold on to their privileges: better food, bigger houses, faster cars, more freedom. Who wants to imagine losing them, let alone voluntarily giving them up…?
This is where psychological wizardry kicks in: it acts to prevent serious thinking (and serious imaginative work) from happening and reassures the wielder that everything will be just fine. Magical thinking works by providing people with thought stoppers like: ‘We will recycle then’ or ‘We will remove carbon from the atmosphere’ or ‘We will switch to renewables’ and so on. ‘No need to worry: the technocratic elite will figure it out and we will be fine’ (we just need the right kind of technocratic elite of course).
Sorry to disappoint you, but we are not going to be fine: we neither have the resources nor the energy or enough biosphere left to invoke these powerful magic spells on a scale necessary to save civilization as we know it. Yes, attempts will be made, then duly forgotten. Some wealthy individuals, and small nations will manage to perform a transition of sorts — but not nearly to an extent of 100%. Just wait a couple of years, when peak oil (happened in 2018) will really start to show its teeth. (Those who regularly follow my work might already know that the process is already well underway.)
No, magical thinking is neither going to save you, nor help you imagining a better future. You have to try harder than that.
The end of this civilization hallmarked by high-energy modernity will not mean the end of the world. It will be the end to our way of life. It will not mean instant death for billions of people on one really bad day (save for nuclear war), although we will be certainly less than a billion by the end of this century. It will mean constant change, strife, challenges, struggles and success. Life will change drastically in the coming decades, and people will do whatever they can to adapt. They have will have no other choice.
The future will be a whole lot different than the past, and getting there won’t be easy.
Thus I urge you, Dear Reader, to think outside the box. Look past the current hardships and serious challenges yet to come while you can still enjoy the relative safety and calmness of the last years of empire. Envision a future on the other side of the coming dissolution of civilization. Think of it as an unprecedented opportunity to try completely new things and completely different ways of organizing life.
No corporations. No nation states. No borders. No standing armies. No containers. No cheap shit from the other side of the planet.
Small self governing city states. Some are being democratic, some are being based on free labor for the common good. New trade routes filled with wanderers, merchants and vehicles propelled with truly renewable energy.
And many more.
In order to get there however, we have to deal with and liberate our minds from some pretty though myths. Stories that are deeply engraved into our collective unconsciousness, which we now have to leave behind in order to move forward — but more on that next time.