Imagining the Unimaginable

image by Przemyslaw Puchalski at; licence: Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

A few days ago I received a message from Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins saying he’d enjoyed my 2013 post about imagination. We’ve compared notes since then, and for the last few days I’ve been thinking more about the topic.

Back when I first started blogging, I wrote, intending it ironically:

If we can’t imagine, we can do anything.

What I meant by this is that if we’re unable to imagine the potential consequences of our actions, we can commit the most terrible atrocities. I think psychopaths (and many politicians and other ‘leaders’ qualify here) find a way to shield themselves from imagining. They are driven by their disease to do ghastly things, and they don’t dare imagine what their actions could lead to. In particular, they’ve inured themselves to their own suffering, and as they act out their grief and anger they must also inure themselves to the suffering of others. That’s their nature, the only way they’ve learned to live and cope.

What I have described as an increasingly global culture of homogeneity and immense imaginative poverty is fuelled mostly I think by the simple lack of practice imagining things out of nothing, in a world that essentially leaves nothing to the imagination. Now, the rules of computer games are enforced by the software to ensure you can’t invent your own variations and diversions. War and every type of violence is acted out explicitly and displayed graphically in ‘entertainment’ media down to minute detail in high-definition. Business processes (and the technologies that now enforce them) have become prescriptive and rigid. Everything is organized for children, right down to with whom, and when, they will play. Through lack of practice we have lost the capacity to make things up without a template, a model to copy, and instructions to follow.

Those of us blessed to live affluent lives are now so accustomed to our current way of living that we cannot imagine any other way to live. All over the world privileged people spend most of their waking hours in front of one kind of screen or another (sometimes more than one at a time), distracting themselves with the same homogeneous, derivative content, looking for meaning and direction on what to do next. When the screens go dark, they are at a loss for what to do. When the screens go dark for good, they will be lost forever.

I am blessed, or cursed, with a rich, often overactive imagination. Some of the things I am imagining in our future are clearly unimaginable to most people, and in particular to the young people who have been most deprived of the opportunity to practice imagining.

Here are a few of the things I can now imagine (warning: some of what follows is pretty grim; if you’re sensitive you might want to skip the rest of this post):

  1. I can imagine a world without jobs or employment. The concept of a ‘job’ is anachronistic, even feudal — that one person or entity will provide certain benefits (a salary, health benefits, sick leave etc) to other people in return for those people’s loyalty. Organizational hierarchies offer psychological appeal to both ‘leaders’ who enjoy giving orders to obedient subordinates and reaping disproportionate rewards for what they do for the organization, and ’employees’ who don’t want responsibility, have been brought up to feel dependent and helpless, and are quite content being told what to do and how to do it. But increasingly this co-dependence is no longer required for organizations to do what they do — they can automate, outsource, offshore and contract everything. This is where we are headed, and fast. But the work world has made no provision to transition currently-employed non-executives (most of the ‘labour force’) to this brave new world, and the education system (which only teaches the way things were in the past) is oblivious to it. How will your grandchildren fare? How much longer will we keep pretending that all the people who’ve given up trying to find work are not really unemployed?
  2. I can imagine a world with plenty of resources that no one can afford. With fracking and other reckless, environmentally ruinous extraction methods finding more and more marginal energy resources, many are now saying that ‘peak oil’ was a myth, and energy will always be abundant. But as anyone who’s lived through a depression or in a failed state can attest, it doesn’t matter if there’s an abundance of something if no one can afford it. During the Great Depression (as in most depressions and famines before it), food rotted in the fields while people starved, because no one had jobs and hence no one could pay the struggling farmer to harvest it, or to replant next year or protect their fragile crops from diseases and pests and fertilize their degraded soil with enough chemicals to grow anything. When power lines came down in storms, the power stayed off for weeks or longer because the power company couldn’t pay its workers to fix them. It doesn’t take much to imagine, in our now utterly-dependent (and hence hugely fragile) global economy, a world of apparent natural abundance (and abundance of capacity) which is paradoxically full of starvation, deprivation and scarcity of even the basic necessities of life. But few of us can imagine this.
  3. I can imagine living at peace in a collapsing world. As the flywheel of civilization comes apart, there will be, here and there, now and again, for quite a while, some horrors that we shudder to think of. This is why we cling to and are so addicted to this civilization culture, and why we the desire to preserve it, even if that means befouling other planets or freezing vestiges of it in cyberspace. We can’t, we don’t dare, imagine what collapse might bring. But I can. I can imagine suffering so horrible that many will choose to just go off and die, of thirst and starvation (not a bad way to go, despite the propaganda of religions to the contrary). I can imagine such desperation to escape the hopelessness that millions of people will consume addictive poisons that will give them a brief high even while it rots their flesh. I can imagine the expression of utter misery of millions of humans through self-mutilation to the point of permanent disability and suicide, like battery-caged hens. I can imagine humans dying on doorsteps, ignored by passers-by. I can imagine humans eating our own young. None of this is new to dying civilizations. And I can imagine living at peace through all of this, and living at peace with the knowledge that this is coming. We’re all doing our best. We’re all suffering from civilization disease. This is how civilizations end. After it’s fallen, life will go on, free from the horrors we have wrought on each other and on our world, with the best of intentions. The world left behind will, eventually, once again (abandoned nuclear power plant meltdowns notwithstanding) be as it was for a billion years before humans appeared — wondrous, magical, peaceful (even in the eating of creature by creature).
  4. I can imagine future human cultures that are insignificant to the global web of life as it then exists, and are also free of the undiagnosed endemic human disease of the self. Civilizations (and populations of all creatures that dominate their ecosystems to the detriment of other species) tend to follow a normal curve. We’re currently at the ‘hockey stick’ point of maximum growth of almost everything we are involved with, starting to decelerate before the terrifying plunge down the other side. There’s no reason to believe we’re exceptional. That would suggest that a few millennia in the future there will be mere pockets of humans scattered in the most then-hospitable (without technology) parts of an unimaginably altered planet. Human populations will be nearly stable, but they’ll likely be in the final stage of the long tail of decline, flat-lining towards species extinction. But these final humans may well live wonderful, joyful lives. If that’s so it will be because they’ve lost their ‘selves’ — the well-entrained belief in humans of nearly all current cultures that they are in control of their lives and are responsible for their actions. A human without a self is a wild creature, and most wild creatures, it would seem, live thrilling lives inseparable from their environments, unconcerned with time, death, or responsibility. Yet, freed from these concerns — freed from human culture — they are peaceful, compassionate, accepting, and attuned to the welfare of all life on Earth. They are, in a word, not. There is no ‘them’; there are no identities, egos, beliefs, or concepts — the stuff that only belongs to those with the sense of having separate, individual selves — afflicting them. As for all wild creatures, their behaviour is what has enabled and continues to enable the survival of their tribe. They are as dolphins — they are just oneness, beingness. Miraculous, perfect, needing and aspiring to nothing. All our self-ish mistakes forgotten. True nature remembered. Impossible to imagine anything so different, no? Not for me.
  5. I can imagine seeing the world as a bird sees it. All senses and intuition, living life full-on. Not seeing anything as separate, but instead living in the world as a fetus lives inside the womb, as part of it. Seeing colour, movement, everything as beauty, as love. Living a life of continuous wonder and astonishment. Accepting everything and longing for nothing. Behaving in ways that evolution has rewarded through survival, but not as an individual, but as an expression of all-there-is. Experiencing the astonishing joy of flight, and of freedom. The most horrible thing we can do to any creature, human or more-than-human, is to domesticate it; to persuade it that it is separate, limited, dependent, responsible, mortal, and vulnerable. To teach it suffering.
  6. I can imagine a world without humans. But I no longer imagine such a world as better or worse than one with humans. We don’t really matter, for all our self-centredness and destructiveness. I can imagine a world where the void of our disappearance is filled with creatures we cannot fully imagine — light creatures, creatures that live outside of time and move in and out of space, creatures that are immortal, creatures that show the world that all there is, is this. What is most amazing is that such a world is already here, full of creatures invisible to us and oblivious to our existence, with ways of being beyond our fathoming.

These are, of course, just possibilities, imaginings. They are not predictions, which are impossible, and pointless. We will see.

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2 Responses to Imagining the Unimaginable

  1. 1 – I can also see that possibility, and where that has been and is present in the current civilisation. People creating their own jobs with ideas to earn money. Many of these may be based on the system that holds the internet up, but the principles are the same. Networking with customers instead of trying to exploit them using social media.
    I’d also say that many employees are not in jobs which involve following fixed instructions. Particularly in my line of work I see people take on responsibilities that aren’t theirs because of their character. The responsibility is not rewarded and euphemisms are used to describe the extra effort – “going the extra mile”. Actually this is a way to extract more effort from employees where it would actually be better to provide more people. Cheaper in the long run but short term financial targets lead to stupid decisions and people being criticised for not doing the impossible by managers operating at some distance from reality. The exploitation has been hidden by getting people into a position where it’s “voluntary”.
    2 – This can happen but only if people are stuck not being able to imagine trading in labour or bartering goods. Food rotting in fields that no-one can afford with money can be paid for in labour. Do some of my harvesting and keep half for yourself. That depression “problem” is actually a case of arbitrary property conventions and blindness to other concepts of value. In many cases where people try to make use of abandoned factories they get kicked out by the police.
    3 – I would imagine you’d have to find a way to stay out of the way of violence and fights over the corpse of civilisation.
    4 – I don’t think we have to imagine them as these cultures already exist, even if marginalised to the most remote and “unproductive” areas. I don’t think it’s possible to say which cultures will be peaceful and which will be crazy. Humans would have to evolve away from their tendency for creating “attractive” mutilations like earlobe-lengthening, tooth carving, neck lengthening, foot binding and so on. Maybe that’s a further leap of imagination. These cultures may not be “human”. Either humans will go extinct or develop into something more sustainable. I’ve just realised extinction has to happen for Homo Sapiens, because it will move on to something else, one way or another.
    5 – I’m not convinced this is possible for Homo Sapiens. Is the species really going to drop language and rational analysis? The world is the way it is because humans are the way they are.
    6 – I can too. As I just realised above, there will be a world without humans, but there may be descendant species of humans or perhaps not.

    I enjoyed writing all that, thanks for providing the points!

  2. Catie Moore says:

    I have thought many of the same things, myself. Beautifully written and inspiring, as are all of your posts, Dave. Keep up the good work.

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