Whether via the west coast wildfires that shrouded the New York skyline in smoke or historic floods in Germany, in 2021, the signs of the climate crisis were everywhere. A group of the world’s leading conservationists summed up humanity’s predicament when they recently argued that our main purpose now as a species is to “avoid a terrifying future.”
So far, we’ve responded to the threat of environmental collapse mostly by trying to change our technologies, whether that’s moving away from combustion engines or making solar power cheaper and more efficient. Many policy makers, scientists and opinion leaders think we are headed in the right direction. Their main concern is whether we will move fast enough to avoid the greatest environmental disasters.
These ideas may seem disconnected from reality. And that’s exactly what I mean: our failure to conceptualize bold change signals a crisis of political imagination that is at the root of what political scientist Karen Litfin calls the “growing socioecological multicrisis.”
And I deliberately refer to the term multicrisis rather than climate change because what we are witnessing is a multitude of interconnected crises. The public conversation revolves around cutting emissions to slow global warming, but the hard truth is that even if we had a magic button that could stop all emissions overnight, even if we could stay below 1 .5 degrees of warming (now an unlikely outcome), we would still be left with multiple other existential crises. We stick to ideologies that caused this mess in the first place, such as extractivism, the belief that the Earth is ours to exploit, and speciesism, the idea that humans are superior to all other species.
Loss of biodiversity and ecosystem collapse are caused by a myriad of reasons other than climate change, from chemical pollutants released into the environment to damming of rivers to invasive species carried around the world through global trade and travel. The plight of each endangered species is different, and there is no single technological solution that can solve this crisis. Also there is the phosphate crisis and nitrogen cycles, overuse of water reservoirs, overfishing, deforestation – the list goes on and on.
Once we grasp this complexity, it becomes clear that we need to rethink our society and our future. Recognizing that climate change is only one facet of a larger multi-crisis can seem paralyzing or even hopeless; but it is, in fact, liberating. It helps us realize that some of our current paradigms just aren’t fit for sustainability and it’s time to get really creative.
Political imagination is powerful because it can turn seemingly radical ideas into achievable goals. We have seen this many times in history: grassroots resistance by political activists helped to wear down the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cold War dissidents first imagined democracy in Eastern Europe in clandestine writings, called samizdats, before their societies began to see it as a realistic possibility. History teaches us that the path to profound change is paved with radical imagination. It also teaches us that while change can happen faster than expected, it rarely happens overnight, which is why we need to start now.
What could the political imagination allow us to do differently today? Instead of an economy driven by the diktat of infinite growth, we could direct our trajectory towards stable economies, while preserving markets and healthy competition between companies. We could pass a law that recognizes the rights of future generations and the rights of other species to autonomy, allowing the judiciary to maintain a much higher standard of environmental protection than is possible within current frameworks.
Last summer, a historical study suggested that we may be seeing the first signs of the Gulf Stream collapsing, and the IPCC has released its sharpest warning yet about the severity of climate change. The urgency could hardly be greater. Embracing radical political imagination as the way forward would have a dramatic impact on how our civilization relates to the natural world and the future, which in turn would bring us closer to resolving the Multi-Crisis.
So how do we facilitate a new way of thinking about politics? Diversify the conversation in the media, giving space to environmental crises other than climate change that are less likely to benefit from linear technological solutions that fit into our current economic frameworks. Talking seriously about marginal solutions like intergenerational justice and degrowth is just as important. In our education system, we can shift the emphasis from ‘development of human capital’ to ‘promotion of imaginative potential’. And we can fight for the right to vote, maybe even try to introduce proportional representation into our politics, to allow pockets of imagination of alternative futures to enter the political mainstream.