Starry night against a dark horizon. Image by Mathew Schwartz

Future imaginaries in times of crisis

16 March 2022
How do we imagine our future in a warming world? In this collaborative piece, Maria Paula Cardoso and Sacha Shaw, SEI Youth Fellows for the Grounded Imaginaries project, consider the power of imagination in contemplating and transforming a world altered by climate change.
By Maria Paula Cardoso and Sacha Shaw

The Grounded Imaginaries project explores community-led responses to the climate crisis. It draws out the narratives and stories around community practices and considers how climate change poses a crisis of imagination, and therefore, of action. It aims to equip young people with the ability to effectively communicate actions taken to tackle the climate emergency.

Maria Paula Cardoso writes to fellow work colleagues.

To my friends at work,  

After these last few years of uncertainty and constant change, it is common for me to seek refuge in the seemingly unchanging nature that surrounds me. I have laid under the same tree, in the same park, listening to the birds and observing a similar background. But while nature seems stable around me, this is not the case for many other people in the world. We are witnessing more intense extreme weather events with terrible consequences. In the last few years alone, we have seen bushfires and floods in Australia, an increase in the number of environmental migrants globally, and many animals and plants becoming extinct.  

This can certainly be overwhelming. 

Every day a great deal of information is disseminated through diverse media channels about the effects of climate change in different parts of the world. Some people believe it, while others find alternative explanations for these ‘natural’ phenomena. Personally, I can only see one possible explanation. Our planet is warming due to human activity. It is a response to the way we have related to the resources that nature provides us with. Perhaps there are different approaches we can consider when thinking about our new reality? I believe we have not recognised that we are all part of the same environment; we are all one, and we must learn to live with respectful practices and behaviours towards each other. 

New and varied initiatives have emerged to address the challenges of climate change. There are different activist groups confronting large corporations trying to counteract the damage caused by our economic practices, civil organisations trying to put climate change on the political agenda, groups creating and spreading environmentally friendly practices in their local territories, as well as volunteers saving animals or planting trees in their communities. However, for some of us, these initiatives might seem like small efforts with no impact on the impending reality. It is easy to feel fatalistic, to believe that there is nothing we can do to solve such a global problem. 

I have found myself having conversations with friends about not having children solely for environmental reasons. Sometimes it is easy to lose perspective and do nothing because we don’t see the point in even trying. Most of us agree that a real solution requires a structural change in our current values and in the economic, social and cultural systems that dominate the planet today. However, if we only think that this change requires exclusively global action, it may seem impossible for anyone to achieve that goal as an individual. So, what else can we do?  

We can hope for the best. But what does that mean? 

As naturalist and conservationist Jane Goodall says in The Book of Hope, it is not just about sitting passively waiting for something to happen but believing that change is possible and taking small actions towards that goal. So, my own contribution matters, and with it, it is possible to inspire others and eventually bring about significant change one by one, step by step, drop by drop. After all, as the famous saying goes, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.”. 

Sacha Shaw writes to an audience of university students using a range of metaphors.

Imagination is conceptually sticky. It is so hard to pin down and say with any sense of satisfaction: “ah ha! Yes, that is what I had in-mind.”. But perhaps like me, you think of it as a very personal, a very private expression of your consciousness and innermost world. Something intimately bound up in your hopes, dreams, fears and dreads. And so often too, imagination is about the future, expectations of tomorrow’s events, anticipation, and anxiety of what is to come.

Three bronze figures of children play with marbles

Play by cea via Flickr.

Yet imagination is not necessarily solely an individual act. Especially if you delve into the annals of sociology, imagination can also be thought of as a collective activity – be that amongst a family or even as a form of national self-imagining.  

The term ‘social imaginaries’ has been important to the vocabulary of many academic disciplines from psychology, anthropology, to media studies and philosophy. And because of this, the definition of social imaginaries is not exactly fixed.

For the purposes of this article though and keeping it simple, I will follow Samantha Earle and suggest that social imaginaries are systems of practices, orientations and ideas that make group activities coherent. 

It could be any game, but let’s take Snakes and Ladders as our metaphor. In the imaginary system of Snakes and Ladders there are rules and expectations, and there is even a goal and methods to achieve it. 

Roll a six? “Oh no! You landed on a snake – down you go.” 

Similarly, in the multiplicity of roles we inhabit and live out: game-player, individual, citizen, consumer, academic, student – whatever, there is a logic mediated through gestures, symbols and institutions that directs us towards ways of being in the world.

And although you may not want to slide down the snake you just landed on, there is an imaginary system, manifested in social, cultural, discursive and economic norms, structures and institutions, that make opting-out quite difficult. 

Critical for my interests is that these imaginary systems, the shared backgrounds about ourselves and the world, are not fixed. Far from it. Because despite the overbearingness of certain social imaginaries, there is far more diversity than is given credit or provided for.

When it comes to climate change, how we imagine the future is particularly relevant, especially if the goal is an ethical and sustainable world.

The dominant imaginaries in the contemporary West fall spectacularly short: either there is no problem, so move along now (climate denialism) or, there is a problem, but it will be fixed with technology or God, destination heaven or Mars – but again, no need to worry. Or literally the end of the world, so there is little point in imagining a future at all (apocalypse and doom). 

As Professor Danielle Celermajer notes in an article published for the Griffith Review, “[social] imaginaries enable and constrain” what shows up and how it shows up. Therefore, we need to cultivate imaginaries that will orientate us towards seeing, thinking, feeling and acting in ways that both hold the possibility for life-flourishing whilst also being cognisant to the multi-systemic destabilisation that is occurring around us. 

Finding ways to fulfil the present and anticipated needs for sustainable and ethical forms of living is of vital importance.

A question worth considering then, what would life-affirming social imaginaries about climate change look like? And if I might hint at an answer, such radical and transformative social imaginaries may be closer than you expect. 

Maria Paula Cardoso is a Colombian student of the Master of Public Policy at the University of Sydney and a Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. Maria has a background in law and sociocultural studies with an interest in community action and social justice. She has previously contributed to the development of evidence-based policy in matters of Indigenous and youth education (Colombia) and domestic violence (Australia). Currently, she is working on projects related to community action research in environmental matters.  

Sacha Shaw is an SEI Youth Fellow for the Grounded Imaginaries project, researching community-led responses to the climate crisis. He has an academic background in environments and society, specifically investigating novel international law formation at UNSW Canberra. Additionally, he has a keen interest in journalism and civil society in Australia and internationally. 

Header image: Sproul Forest the Milky Way comes over the mountain by Mathew Schwartz via Unsplash.

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