catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 9 :: 2007.05.04 — 2007.05.18


Stimulating imagination

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

If you want people to act on climate change, don't just teach them about impending catastrophe and emerging technology, but also help them to hope for a better world.
-Peter Sawtell

I know, I know, Antoine wins the graceful writing contest, hands down.

Al Gore tells us, in An Inconvenient Truth, that many people jump quickly from denial to despair when facing the reality of global climate change. Last week, I suggested that despair and denial become our primary choices when we're not able to imagine—even imagine—that a different way of living is possible. People are not able to work for change if they believe that "the way things are" is "the way things must be."

The first step in moving individuals and society toward any sort of real change involves imagination—the creative and hopeful awareness that things can be different than they are. In this first stage, there's no need for detailed descriptions and fine-tuned policy statements. As we energize people to address climate change, the imagined world doesn't even need to be one where the crisis of global warming is solved. Simply helping folk to the realization that "another world is possible"—any other world—opens the door to fresh awareness and action. Turning on that sort of imagination frees us from the trap of denial and despair.

Imagination is a gift of the Spirit. Like all such gifts, it can be nurtured and cultivated. The list below offers some proven ways to stimulate imagination, and to open minds and hearts to fresh possibilities.

  • Remember—Imagination can be grounded in our life experience. When I lead workshops on voluntary simplicity, we usually start with a quiet time of reflection and conversation. Each participant is asked to remember—vividly and emotionally—a time in their life when they felt centered, fulfilled and joyful. In discussing those experiences, the group comes to a shared realization that those most valuable times in our lives have little to do with possessions. We discover in ourselves the truth that an abundant, fulfilling life isn't tied to affluence. With that realization, they are then able to imagine that the good life of their future does not depend on income and possessions.
  • Explore other cultures—Anthropologist Wade Davis wrote, "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit." My exposure to the Pueblo cultures of the southwestern US—through historical and anthropological reading, and through numerous visits—has opened me to the possibility of non-hierarchical ways of ordering community life, and living in harmonious relationship with the natural world. When we encounter other communities and cultures with respect and on their own terms, not as curiosities, we experience proof that other ways of living are richly possible. Imagination about creative possibilities will be stimulated if you study anthropology, go on a mission trip, or just visit a local co-housing community.
  • Experience limits—Our modern culture is grounded in the expectation of abundant resources and perpetual growth. Accepting the reality of limits in some part of your life can help guide creative thinking about other approaches to living that are joyous. Go on a backpacking trip, where you must carry everything, and reflect on whether "more" is always "better." If you're financially comfortable, try living for a while with a significantly reduced family budget. (Many people, of course, are forced to imagine new ways of living when faced with job loss or huge bills for health care.)
  • Read good literature—Great writing opens our imagination to new realities. Natural history writers expose us to complex ecological relationships which we might not otherwise have seen or appreciated. Imaginative fiction allows us to enter into new sorts of interpersonal and social relationships. Good science fiction does not focus on gadgets, but uses other worlds to explore political, economic and social options. (Try Ursula Le Guin for really mind-expanding writing.)
  • Study the Bible—Do some serious study of the New Testament epistles, and their recurring message that the ways of the Roman Empire do not have to define the ethics and behavior of Christians. Read the Hebrew prophets, and hear anew how turning away from what is wrong is tied to the possibility of turning toward what is right. Discover places where hope for a different world is empowering. (I often use the vivid description of a "shalom community" in Zechariah 8 as an imaginative expression that things can be different. "Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the LORD of hosts?")
  • Imagine specific changes—Picturing a single, dramatic change in our social systems, and then working through the implications of that change, can both critique our current way of living, and break open new possibilities. What would our society look like and feel like if most advertising were banned? What if the power and wealth of corporations were dramatically reduced? What if gasoline cost $20 per gallon?

What about technology? Can we help people imagine a different world by showing them new and amazing inventions? I have mixed feelings about that.

In some ways, a celebration of energy efficiency, new power generating systems, or hybrid cars can hinder imagination. We can be seduced by the idea that new inventions will allow us to live as we have always lived. We don't need to imagine really new ways of living, because scientists can fix the problems for us. Too strong a focus on technology means that we're not challenged to imagine options to private cars and sprawling cities.

On the other hand, the reality of new technologies can help us to imagine an attainable society that is coming to grips with climate change—and to see that it can be better than the world of today. Renewable energy sources allow us to imagine a world not tied to the economics and politics of oil. Technology which changes our values and infrastructure can help stimulate our imagination and hope. (In two weeks, a light rail line starts service two blocks from our home, and I'm overjoyed about the new transportation possibilities, free from traffic jams and parking woes.)

Global climate change is the most urgent and most daunting of the ecological threats to our world. Without imagination, we are likely to fall into either denial or despair.

Personally, and within our churches and community groups, may we stimulate the sort of vivid imagination which will allow us to avoid paralysis, and to work for a new world.

Rev. Peter Sawtell is the director of Eco-Justice Ministries (, an organization that helps churches answer the call to care for all of God's creation, and develop ministries that are faithful, relevant and effective in working toward social justice and environmental sustainability.

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