Whether via West Coast wildfires shrouded New York City’s skylineThe climate crisis was evident in 2021 in Germany, with historic floods and smoke. A group of the world’s leading ecologists summarized humanity’s predicament when they recently argued that our main goal now as a species is to “Avoid a terrifying future.”
We have responded to the danger of environmental collapse so far primarily by trying modifications to our technologies, such as moving away from combustion engines or making it more efficient and cheaper to use solar energy. Many scientists, policy makers, and opinion leaders believe we are moving in a positive direction. Their main concern is whether we’ll move fast enough to avoid the greatest environmental catastrophes.
These ideas may sound out of touch. And this is exactly my point: our inability to conceptualize bold changes signals a crisis of political imagination that’s at the root of what political scientist Karen Litfin calls the “mounting socioecological multicrisis.”
I use the term intentionally MulticrisisInstead of Climate Change because what we’re witnessing is a Multiple interconnected crises. The public conversation revolves around cutting down emissions in order to slow down global warming, but the harsh truth is that even if we had a magic button that could stop all emissions overnight, even if we could remain within 1.5 degrees of warming (now an unlikely outcome), we’d still be left with multiple other existential crises. We Keep your faith in ideologiesThese are the things that have led to this mess in the first instance, like extractivism, the belief in the Earth’s resources, and speciesism which holds that humans are superior to all other animals.
Biodiversity declineClimate change is not the only reason for ecosystem collapse. Chemical pollutants are released into the environment, rivers are dammed, and invasive species are transported around the globe through global trade and travel. Each threatened species’ predicament is different, and there is no single tech solution that can solve this crisis. Plus there’s The crisis of phosphate and nitrogen cycles, overdrafting of water reservoirs, overfishing, deforestation—the list goes on and on.
Once we are able to see the complexity of it all, it becomes clear that we must reimagine our society as well as our future. Recognizing that climate changes are just one aspect of a larger multicrisis can seem daunting or even hopeless. But it is actually liberating. It helps us realize that some of our current paradigms are simply not fit for sustainability, and that it’s time to get truly creative.
Because it can transform seemingly impossible ideas into achievable goals, political imagination is powerful. We’ve seen this repeatedly in history: grassroots resistance of political activists helped wear down the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the 1960s-70s, Cold War dissidents imagined democracy in Eastern Europe through clandestine writings known as samizdats. It was only then that their societies began to consider it a possibility. History has shown us that deep change requires radical imagination. It also teaches that change can happen much faster than we might imagine, but it is not always possible overnight. Therefore, we must get started now.
What can we do today with our political imagination? Instead of an economy driven solely by infinite growth, we might steer the course of our economy in the direction of stable-state economics, while preserving markets and healthy competition between business. We might Legislate that recognizes the rights future generations and the rights of other species to autonomy, allowing the judiciary to uphold a much higher standard of environmental protection than what’s possible under current frameworks.
Last summer, a Study of landmarks suggested we might be seeing early signs of the Gulf Stream’s collapse, and the IPCC released its The most direct warning yetClimate change is a serious problem. The urgency of climate change cannot be overemphasized. Radical political imagination is the way forward. It would have a profound impact on how our civilization interacts with the natural world, and to the future. This would lead to a closer solution to the multicrisis.
How can we encourage a new way to think about politics? Diversify media conversations, allowing for other environmental crises than climate change to be discussed. It is equally important to talk seriously about fringe solutions, such as intergenerational Justice and degrowth. In our education system, we can shift the focus from “developing human capital” to “fostering imaginative potential.” And we can fight for voting rights, perhaps even try to bring proportional representation into our politics, to allow pockets of imagination of alternative futures to enter the political mainstream.