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  • Writer's pictureJen Ann Simmons

Climate Change is an Imagination Issue

Everyone influences and is affected by climate change, whether aware of it or not, because the biosphere, all ecosystems of earth in sum, is a closed-loop system.

Business-as-usual operations, with little or no value given to the natural world, is a fantasy with grave, global repercussions - ongoing bushfires in Australia, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, flooding in the South/Midwest U.S., unrelenting drought in Syria and Brazil, and worsening.

Responding to environmental degradation, Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (2015 ed., p. 7) represents earth as an abused sister:

“This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse… this is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of the poor.”

In the imagery, we are the abuser and the abused sister, the harmful and harmed, the persecutor and persecuted. But if we imagine earth as a scientist, as neither male, female, nor even cast as human, but physics, biology, change, death, growth; then who are we in relation to earth?

The good news is that the world’s scientists have solved what we need to do about human-induced climate change: reduce carbon emissions; stop burning fossil fuels.

The truly intimidating task, however, is how to do it, and fast enough according to the pathways outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To break from the business-as-usual course of emissions without recourse, we need imagination.

In section C.2 of the IPCC Special Report, to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels,

“would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure...and industrial systems…These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors.”

‘Unprecedented’ is the word we hear so much it has lost power; however, the ‘unprecedented’ part of the climate crisis is the very crux that our collective action depends upon.

The scale of the solution, as the IPCC reports, is without precedent, because “all sectors” of the economy, built with infrastructure to exploit fossil fuels in perpetuity, must transition off fossil fuels now, requiring a worldwide transformation of infrastructure.

Beware the savior complex here: CEOs and world leaders claiming to wield enough power to “save” the planet. Humans are not gods; we are biological agents within one connected system and the earth and its inhabitants, cannot be saved, only self-regulated.

Transitioning to a fossil-fuel-free economy, therefore, requires an unthinkable number of people, across industries, across the world, disillusioning to business-as-usual fantasies, awakening and declaring: enough of the unabashed extortion of earth; what are our alternatives?

And for that, we need imagination, which is, of course, housed and exercised in the individual.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in Words are my Matter (2019 ed., p. 108-9) explains best the difference between fantasy (wishful thinking) and imagination:

“Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous… Imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to it to enrich it. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.”

Wishful thinking is perpetual economic growth without accounting for earth’s physical limits; imagination starts from the physical limits, and expands what is possible, but only when our fantasies diminish.

Climate change is an imagination issue. Holding to the fantasy of financial gain at all costs, we lose the ability to imagine other ways to relate to earth and conduct business that are more regenerative and just.

As Greta Thunberg stated at the Austrian World Summit, “we now need to change practically everything. We now need a whole new way of thinking.”

Yes; we need imagination.

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