The Tilt
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The Tilt

Reimagining the future

Why imagination activism, meme-making and myths are vital tools for addressing climate change

Art by Anna De Nardin

Invitation to put on this playlist whilst you read this article

Let’s imagine for a moment that we have travelled forwards in time to the year 2050. What does the place you live now look like? Smell like sound like? How does it feel to be there?

I see urban streets planted with edible herbs and plants, the hum of bees, the sparkle of collectively-owned solar panels, and affordable homes retrofitted for energy conservation.

I imagine a care-centered city, with well-funded and reliable public services. Where the quality of your life is not determined by how much money you have, where everyone gets to feel joy, and where all services and utilities — from water to mobility — are designed not to be destructive to our environment, but support its regeneration.

Sensing into this future relaxes the knot I sometimes carry in my stomach when I read about coral reefs dying, ocean plastics and climate disasters. It helps me to feel hopeful, and to orient my grief toward action.

“As the climate crisis intensifies, the tectonic plates that underpin our lives and systems are shifting.”

The conclusions of the most recent IPCC report were clear: we need to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The industrial growth society clearly won’t last another 200 years. As the climate crisis intensifies, the tectonic plates that underpin our lives and systems are shifting. As the “master-myths” of perpetual economic growth and the onward march of progress start to break down, what will take their place?

Our lifestyles are so deeply intertwined with colonial-era systems of extraction and excess that a transition will require a restructuring. Inventing and implementing new infrastructures, scaling existing solutions in an equitable way, and creating new cultural narratives that support the mutual thriving of humans and the rest of the natural world is work that requires innovative thinking and effort; not in the distant future — but now.

“Resistance to the status-quo is driven by the ability to imagine alternative ways of being.”

The weight of this challenge has become so overwhelming that, according to one global study, 56% of young people now believe that “humanity is doomed”. This message is spreading virally throughout our culture, from the UNDP “Don’t Choose Extinction” campaign to the Netflix film Don’t Look Up. These existential warnings might be well-meaning, but they contribute to a culture where panic and catastrophe has become the norm. Interestingly, some scholars have looked into the catastrophe narrative as having a colonial inheritance, predicated on a linear conception of time.

Fear is not the nourishment we need to begin the hard work of rebalancing the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. Finding hopeful memes, myths and frameworks to mobilize behind is key. Researcher Kimberley Camrass has written about the importance of positive narratives about the future if we are to make the kinds of societal changes we need. “These must overcome increasingly entrenched feelings of overwhelm and futility to deliver a message of hope and empowerment,” she writes. “New ways of thinking and acting that embrace the notion of hope, thereby driving meaningful action.”

Phoebe Tickell is one of a growing number of activists, systems designers, facilitators, technologists and artists mobilizing around this challenge. She is the founder of Moral Imaginations, an organization working to democratize imagination, by leading schools, universities, local councils, businesses, funders and policy-makers in collective imagination exercises and practices.

Building on a body of work from futurists and thinkers such as Joanna Macy and Sohail Inayatullah, Phoebe coined the term “imagination activist” to describe the community leaders and civil society organizers working to help transition our social systems and promote radical, positive and equitable visions of a future beyond the Anthropocene.

“Cultural transformation happens at the level of myth and story, through joy, healing trauma and pleasure.”

As has been so often the case throughout history, change begins with the alchemical mix of art and activism; resistance to the status quo is driven by the ability to imagine alternative ways of being. Finding the steps to put vision into action is at the heart of imagination activism. It is a collective practice, rooted in a physical location. Phoebe says some of the best imagination activists she’s worked with are artists and community leaders who have both vision and imagination, and the necessary practical tools to bring it to life.

As we grapple with the reality that the systems we’ve inherited are dysfunctional by design, as we are being urged not to choose extinction, what do we choose instead? Maybe after the great resignation comes the great restructuring. In Berlin, an example of collective imagining in action comes from groups like Donut Berlin, who are exploring new models for a sustainable and ecologically viable city economy.

Still from “Water Me,” a three act ritual of grief by cy x

Imagination activists in cities and towns across the world are reforming ownership models, transforming their food systems, reimagining energy grids, and pushing for policy-level changes to scale these visions. These forms of organizing, as one study recently found, could be the antidote to pervasive eco-anxiety, helping us to rebuild a sense of agency and rekindle the kind of resilient local networks that got lost somewhere along the path to industrial modernity. There are many ways to get involved, but all of them start with relationship building; connecting to people with similar interests at workshops, events or online.

This doing-focus is not the only kind of imagination activism, though. In a chronically burnt-out world, art, poetry, music, fiction and dance are vital tools of resistance. Cultural transformation happens at the level of myth and story, through joy, healing trauma and pleasure, and through art that challenges our established ways of thinking — like cy x, whose work explores blackness, capitalism, the body and technology; creating their own “myths of infinite possibilities”. Or the Amish Futurist, who aimlessly wanders around tech conferences to raise questions on the narrative of technological progress.

“A regenerative future is not a destination, it is an ongoing community and place based process of learning.”

As a community activist friend of mine recently said, “finding our way in the structures that exist is hard, forging our own paths is even harder.” New narratives will have to look outside of the narrow techno-economic frameworks that we’ve grown to associate with innovation. Decolonial thinking asks us to unlearn and relearn patterns of relating to the natural world, reposition humans as interconnected with each other and embedded within the broader web of life, and remember the primacy of traditional ecological knowledge.

If any of this seems hard to imagine right now, that’s because it is. The key thing to remember is that none of this is something that one person alone can take responsibility for. As a wise person once said, change only happens at the speed of trust. Take solace in the fact that a regenerative future is not a destination, it is an ongoing community and place-based process of learning. It won’t be easy, but in this beckoning era of disruption it’s probably the most important work there is.

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Tarn Rodgers Johns

Tarn Rodgers Johns

I am a Berlin-based writer and creator exploring how to create a thriving, just future worth living for. www.tarnrodgersjohns.com