Reflecting on the roles of imaginaries in moving away from extractive capitalism
We want to reflect on the role that social imaginaries play in catalysing and nourishing change. Social imaginaries are the shared backgrounds through which we experience ourselves and the world and form our expectations and projects.
The problem we seek to address here is that the dominant social imaginaries of a climate-changed future currently circulating in capitalist societies fail to afford the ways of thinking and feeling that will encourage and enable us to act effectively. They do not orient us to transform the structures and systems that are driving climate change and that undergird the conditions of life under industrial capitalism. Instead, they tend to engender disengagement, apathy, fantastical thinking, hopelessness and inaction. This, as Mark Fisher notes, is a symptom of ‘capitalist realism’ – where capitalist horizons impede people imagining radical futures as sites of possibility.
And yet, for the vast numbers of people who want change, but feel they have no precedent on which to draw, it is precisely the call to futures offering cultural, political and economic alternatives that is urgently required.
To inspire action, we need imaginaries that are both alive to the realities of the challenge and that challenge the current realities. At the same time, if they are to invite people to take action – and not float untethered as the stuff of fantastical imagination – such imaginaries must flow from experiments in living already being undertaken. That is, they must be material as well as discursive. While offering up the prospect of radical – to the root – transformation, they must also be reachable, mediating paths between the possible and the feasible.
That the seeds of transformation exist within the hegemonic systems they are working against has long been a critical insight of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements. Even as it appears to have a complete hold, the colonial-capitalist system is always contingent, always partial; forever expanding to breach new frontiers. Over time, multiple experiments in subverting the compulsions of capital and its hold on our imaginations have existed. These occur at different scales and iterations: from the ongoing resistance of Indigenous peoples to colonial-capitalist regimes, to historical efforts to transform workplaces and household divisions of labour, to attempts to prevent over-development in frontline communities. They occur within the beating hearts of capitalist empire, and at the peripheries. And yet, even as alternatives seem to challenge hegemonic systems and logics, to prefigure radically different forms of life, there lurks a danger that they function to stabilize those very conditions.
This project seeks to further the historical and existing efforts to build different worlds from within existing ones, with an eye to the ever-contingent question of prefiguration versus stabilisation. We do not yet know what forms these paths may take, nor where they might lead, but the very process of illuminating the prefigurative work communities are already doing affords a way of forging a path towards them. Generating ‘grounded imaginaries’7 is critical because imaginaries enable and constrain what can show up for those who live within their scope and how what shows up occurs to them. Not only do they shape how and what we perceive and think, but also how and what we feel and what we believe we ought to do.
The current horizons
We can define three different, dominant ‘social imaginaries’ shaping how people in the contemporary West relate to a climate-changed future8: ‘business as usual’, or denial; ‘rescue and escape’; and ‘apocalypse or doom’. Most of us are probably interpolated into some part of each, although the balance between them varies among us, and radically different others no doubt already operate within the interstices of already existing capitalist and colonial strongholds9.
The ‘business-as-usual’ social imaginary rests on a refusal to accept that the systems that support the current modes of life of capitalist modernity are in fact unsustainable, or that maintaining them will lead to intolerable conditions. Stabilising this imaginary are the remnants of material concessions won through labour struggles from the early 20th century, which at least in the USA and Australia overwhelmingly benefited the white, male working class10. Within this imaginary, there is no call for transformation: everything is going along quite well for us, thank you. More coal, more gas, new vistas for fossil fuels as polar ice-caps melt, more clearing of forests, more chemical fertilisers, more industrial animal agriculture, more irrigation, deeper deep-sea fishing and mining, more wealth, more growth. Indeed, if change is needed at all, it ought to be regressive, a return to forms of life that are being eroded by the transformations others insist are ethically or practically required. Make America Great Again. The quiet Australians. A gas-led recovery.
The second imaginary, ‘rescue and escape’, conjoins two forms of salvation. These are the ‘techno-fix’ – technology saves, and the ‘theo-fix’ – God saves. At heart, both rely on and appeal to a form of transcendental power which is putatively capable of ‘rescuing’ us from climate change. We might lay out the underlying logic as follows: the systems and structures that have underpinned lives under colonial capitalism are running along in the ways that they do, only now their deleterious side effects (to their souls or their interests) have become clear to their previous beneficiaries. Nevertheless, an unshaken faith in a saving God or saving technology provides staves off a more radical questioning of the systems themselves.
The final dominant capitalist social imaginary, ‘apocalypse’, signals the impotence that our confrontation with what we take to be the unstoppable force of systems provokes.11 The contention here is that even if there existed a time when humans could have made a difference, that time has passed; Earth systems are running towards hell all on their own. The doomist dimension of this imaginary is nurtured both by a belief that the existing systems are on an unstoppable trajectory to disaster and actively promoted by those with an interest in ensuring that they are not stopped.
While these three imaginaries seem completely different, they all orient us towards the future in problematic ways. First, none (save perhaps certain possible versions of the theo-fix) is able to imagine a future in which the forms of life that are driving the climate catastrophe are replaced by radically different but nevertheless worthwhile forms of life. Either certain sectors of human life continue to live off extractive, technologically controlled and commodifying relationships with the Earth and off other (human and more than human) beings, or life is not worth living, or not lived at all. None consistently value different ways of being human, including ways that challenge the arrangements that underpin systematic inequalities among humans on the basis of race, gender, disability and so on. Where concessions may occur to value alternative cultures, places and ways of being – say, for example, halting the development of a piece of culturally significant land – these tend to be incorporated as stabilisers for the broader program of extractive relationships more generally. In short, none show much imagination at all.
Second, none of the dominant three envisages that transformative action might be seeded and nurtured in creative, authentically democratic and inclusive conversations, decisions and collaborations occurring at the level of communities themselves. Unless they feature as the inventors or magnate funders of new technologies, ‘the people’ are cast as relatively passive. Even in the third imaginary, survivors are generally individuals or fragmented collectives. There is no imaginary space for recognising how collectives are working out futures together in messy, iterative but collectively committed ways; nor how these might interact, recombine and move to scale.
For this reason, and this is their third common feature, while the first and second imaginaries might promise a passive fantasy that gets sold under the name of hope, none inspires hope as action. If we place ourselves in the futures they lay out for us, we do not find ourselves called to, or participating in the type of bold, considered and challenging action that is surely the sine qua non of authentic transformation.
If that call to transformative action is to be made, an alternative imaginary is needed – one that does not turn away from the inevitability of difficult futures, does not fantasise an intervention from above, and does not catapult us from anxiety to a cataclysmic end.
Building different social imaginaries
The project currently underway at SEI and our partner institutions seeks to illuminate existing responses to the systematic destabilisations already triggered by climate change. A crucial part of this work is critically (re)positioning what may otherwise appear as fragmented attempts to hold the line against a crumbling order as sites of prefiguration and prefigurative potential. These are grounded imaginaries.
Sometimes such actions follow from a transformative vision, but sometimes they arise from the more mundane need to address breakdowns in the systems on which lives depend. In doing so, and often in the absence of government-led policy frameworks or resourcing, communities – both geographically located communities and communities of practice, such as regenerative farmers – are figuring out how to address the practical challenges posed by living in a climate-challenged world. These efforts are inextricably linked to the innumerable other grounded imaginaries which have emerged over centuries, in response to the compulsions of capitalism and associated social and ecological crisis tendencies.12
Contrary to dominant narratives that pitch pragmatism and the need to meet actual needs on the one hand against more radical transformation of systems and attention to justice and ethics on the other, it is in finding ways to meet present and anticipated everyday needs that communities have historically and are presently developing alternative practices that generate radically different and resilient systems. In this regard, the imaginaries they are engendering connect with people’s everyday lives and provide living rebuttals to the accusations of elitism that have been deployed to undermine alternatives to fossil fuelled systems.
How can we build further from these? What needs to happen for these grounded imaginaries to take hold?
As a starting point, we can look to challenge the discursive dominance and ‘common sense’ character of the three social imaginaries outlined above. Recognising the need to change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, in 2021, a team comprising researchers from the Sydney Environment Institute, the Social Entre¬preneur¬ship Association based in Auroville, South India, and India and Bharat Together, based in Delhi and working primarily in the Himalayan region, has been turning the thinking we have laid out in this essay into practice.
Our project aims to draw out, network, creatively recount and amplify stories about how actual communities are experimenting with transforming systems that support their lives as climate change destabilises existing ones. We hope to show a range of audiences that such transformations are neither impractical nor the stuff of abstract speculation, but are feasible and already being lived. And we hope that once these types of narratives take hold, they will further engender narratives and ongoing, transformative action and, in turn, contribute to the systems change required. That the prefiguration already occurring and the stories about how communities are prefiguring a radically different future will nurture a new, action orienting imaginary for a climate changed world.
This is a condensed and edited version of Danielle Celermajer’s article published in the Griffith Review.
You can find out more about the Grounded Imaginaries project here.
1. Taylor, C. (2004). Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University Press, p. 23.
2. Fisher, M. And Gilbert. J. (2013). ‘Capitalist realism and neoliberal hegemony: A Dialogue’, New Formations, 80:80, 89-101.
3. Here it is vital to note that we do not speak in totalising generalities: this is an attempt to grapple with the changes which must occur from within capitalist societies, and in particular we refer to mobilisation of people who are several generations into life structured by real subsumption to the capital relation.
4. Coulthard, G. S. (2014). Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. University of Minnesota Press.
5. Federici, S. (2012). Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Common Notions.
6. Heenan, N. And Sturman, A. (2020). ‘Labour, Nature, Capitalism and COVID-19’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 85, 193-199.
7. The term ‘grounded imaginaries’ was coined in collaborative conversations between Danielle Celermajer and David Schlosberg around these ideas in preparation of the project discussed towards the end of the article.
8. For a somewhat different, but compatible approach to climate imaginaries, including a historical analysis of the rise and fall of different imaginaries and in particular, their economic dimensions, see David Levy, & Andre Spicer, ‘Contested imaginaries and the cultural political economy of climate change’, Organization, 20 (5), 2013, 659-678.
9. Coulthard’s ‘grounded normativity’ speaks to the enduring social imaginaries of many Indigenous peoples in the face of imperialism and genocide.
10. Dalla Costa, M. (2015). Family, Welfare, and the State: Between Progressivism and the Green New Deal. Common Notions.
11. Doomism is well illustrated by Wallace-Wells, D. 2019. The Uninhabitable Earth. Penguin Books.
12. Mellor, M. (1997). Feminism & Ecology. New York University Press; Foster, J. B. (2009). The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet. Monthly Review Press; Moore, J. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso.
13. For a discussion of the political deployment of discourses linking elitism with green transformations in the US, see Levy and Spicer. For a spirited argument for an ecological politics grounded in decommodification of basic needs, directly counter-posed to an elitist consumption-based ‘green’ politics, see Huber (2019).
Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, Acting Director of the Sydney Environment Institute and the Research Lead on Concepts and Practices of Multispecies Justice. Her books include Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future (Penguin 2021).
Anna Sturman completed her PhD, Capital, the State and Climate Change in Aotearoa New Zealand, in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney as a SEI Doctoral Fellow. Her primary research focus is the political economy of climate change, particularly theorisations of political power and socio-ecological transformation from an eco-Marxist perspective.