Moral imagination won’t kill you, but the denial of it will, both literally and spiritually. — Rowan Williams.
If you don’t know it already, the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity is an ESRC funded centre, directed by Professor Tim Jackson, based at the University of Surrey, with multiple strands of inquiry and a range of academic and non-academic partners. ‘CUSP’ is looking deep, wide, within and between to piece together a vision of an economy and society thriving within ecological limits — an increasingly exacting task in the current cultural and political context. The centre is a source of inspiration for those who grasp that prevailing evidence on humanity’s only viable habitat gives little cause for optimism, but still feel the duty to hope.
On Monday I attended CUSP’s second main public event called ‘The Audacity of Hope’ in an impressively capacious and womb-like circular room in Church House, where one of my intellectual heroes, the Philosopher, Theologian and Poet Rowan Williams was giving the keynote. The fact that such a figure, and not, say, an Economist or environmental activist gave the keynote tells you something about the intellectual openness and depth of commitment of the centre.
CUSP asks a lot from ‘prosperity’, which is conventionally understood in terms of abundant material wealth. I have been impressed by the importance of questioning what prosperity means ever since reading Tim Jackson’s classic book ‘Prosperity without Growth’ and reflecting on The Understandable Madness of Economic Growth as my response.
Prosperity can mean many things, but in an ecological sense we can’t allow it to mean indefinite and unrestricted consumption-based economic growth. Equally though, we can’t just casually and suddenly abandon the growth imperative without building alternative economic models and credible visions of broadly just and safe social and technological transitions. CUSP’s strategic position, I believe, is neither to be dogmatically opposed to economic growth in principle nor to accept that only growth-based models are viable or wise. For good reason many struggle to differentiate between the competing value of models that are ‘steady state’, ‘degrowth’, ‘post-growth’, ‘low-growth’ and so forth. Against this backdrop I enjoyed Rowan William’s line: “What we are looking not for is not static poise but dynamic balance.”
At this point we typically say something like: ‘leave the economic modellers to sort out the details’, but the whole point of CUSP is that we should not and must not. The challenge is deeper than economic modelling because it’s about what goes into the equations and why when you look at the equations with all their implicit value judgments and in their fullest possible context. What is at stake is nothing less than the kind of world we want to live in, and how we want to bring it about, given what we know about the disastrous trajectory of business as usual that will hit the world’s poorest the hardest.
In public policy a growth based and materialist view of prosperity currently functions as a cultural and political lodestar and therefore tacitly shapes political and economic decisions. It therefore needs to be reimagined. The point, however, is not so much to cobble together a quick alternative. The aim is to use ‘prosperity’ reflexively as a conceptual holding pattern that is optimally meaningful — sturdy, but roomy and pliable enough for competing visions of the good life to coalesce around.
What marks CUSP out, as Rowan Williams indicated, is that they recognise the challenges we face are as much philosophical as ecological or economic. As Williams put it, the question of how we collectively survive and thrive is “a large cultural question”.
You will soon be able to listen to the talk on the CUSP website, but for me the main points of emphasis were the nature of hope as something grounded in a deep acceptance of reality, not a turning away from it; the need for moral imagination that means a promising future for others and not just ourselves; the importance of institutional safeguarding and creation for the cultivation of moral imagination, and the resonant question: what kind of imagination do we need to bring about prosperity? Williams also seemed to imply that for moral imagination to be culturally salient was part of prosperity not merely a means to achieve it. He referred to the need to ‘inhabit’ the world, and to resist the temptation to flee our challenges (eg ‘move to Canada’). Again the key to hope lies in a kind of radical openness and acceptance prior to acting, including the pain that might entail.
To illustrate this point, allow me to share the huge question I didn’t, alas, manage to ask Rowan Williams on Monday: How do you understand the connection between climate change and death?
Cheery, I know, and a full answer would be several books in the making, but it is precisely this kind of eco-existential question that helps us get a feel for what understanding prosperity with respect to realist hope and moral imagination might mean.
Death is that inevitable thing that must nonetheless be prevented at all costs. Climate change very often feels like that too. Both induce anxiety and evoke denial, and we act out this denial in various ways (I wrote an RSA report on ‘Stealth Denial’ in 2013). Whatever our vision of prosperity is, I think it has to represent an antidote to ecological denial and existential flight, because the two are closely related.
A range of philosophical, theological and psychological sources suggest many lives are defined by a failure to properly confront and accept death (see pages 60–66 of my 2014 RSA report Spiritualise). We flail around indefinitely as if it could be prevented, because emotionally accepting that it can’t would oblige many of us to try to live a different life. So it goes with climate change. We often talk as if it was something we could ‘stop’, while sensing and knowing that it isn’t, really, because it’s already here and will continue for decades. Death can be deferred, and climate change can be mitigated, but both problems are, as economists might put it, endogenous.
In a range of spiritual traditions the pathway to a more wakeful and authentic life lies in forms of commitment to communities and practices that remind us of our mortality, and help us stay focussed on what really matters. Relatedly, Williams spoke of the need “not to be hypnotized by the large scale of the challenge” and the fundamental challenge of “the closing down of the imagination in times of crisis”. There is an attendant need, he felt, for ‘the institutions of the imagination’ — places and patterns that support the cultivation of moral imagination.
My take on ‘the pattern that connects’ Williams’s insights is that enduring prosperity requires both that we sense the objective urgency of the situation and recognise the imperative of a subjective response that is grounded in hope, which also means not grounded in delusion or panic. I am founding director of Perspectiva, a new research institute built around this commitment to connect systemic, subjective and societal responses.
The relationship between death and climate change is helpful in making sense of sustainable prosperity because it highlights how easily we can effectively turn away from the problem while pretending to face it head on. Indeed, those who haven’t grasped the wicked nature of our systemic conundrums, particularly climate change, often betray a relatively naive form of optimism in the familiar refrain: “We” “must” “stop” ‘it”.
Those who have looked into the monstrous complexity of climate change see it differently. Philosopher John Gray, for instance reminds us that humanity as such doesn’t really have agency. In so far as ‘we’ are in the climate challenge together, it is a plural and perspectival we, defined by and through competing interests.
The force of ‘must’ is often paralysing — the gap between our own sense of agency and the scale of the challenge makes it hard, perhaps even absurd, to operationalise. And whose ‘must’? Who is to say, and what does it mean when it comes to quantities and timings and costs?
‘Stop’ is not right either, because we are are already committed to a certain amount of warming (1 degree celsius above pre industrial levels) and cannot prevent quite a bit more (approximately 0.6 degrees celsius) even if we achieved net zero emissions tomorrow. We can’t meaningfully stop more generally. The climate crisis is confounding precisely because we are on a treadmill without the failsafe button. The economy is currently structured in a way that we have to keep running.
And ‘it’ — what is it? In my own research I use a framework of seven dimensions of climate change (science, technology, law, economy, democracy, culture, behaviour) to make the issue ‘as simple as possible, but not simpler’ as Einstein once put it…and that’s ‘just’ climate change, and even then not as simple as many would like.
All of the above just scratches part of the surface of the enormous intellectual landscape on which the question of prosperity is played out. The value of Rowan Williams’s talk is in helping us juxtapose the urgency of acting with the futility of acting in a purely reactive manner. CUSP is giving people licence to rethink the world through an orchestrated response that is not merely technologically sophisticated, culturally resonant and politically viable but also morally imaginative, philosophically astute and psychologically sane.
I am grateful both to Rowan Williams and CUSP. The audacity called for in ‘the audacity of hope’ is about summoning the will to imagine a future, daring to believe in it, and generating the infectious courage we need to start building it together.