Stephen Leahy, International Environmental Journalist

Discovering Global Environmental Interconnections

Imagination, Not Science, Is The Key To Solving Climate Change

with 7 comments

Artists Impressions- Human Perturbation Of Carbon Cycle. © Global Carbon Project I Glynn Gorick

This article has been picked up and widely reported around the web and that’s great as long as it continues to have my name on it with a link to my website.  (And if you like it, please help this work continue) — Stephen

By Stephen Leahy

VANCOUVER, Canada, Feb 20, 2012 (IPS)

Humanity’s failure to halt the deepening planetary emergency of climate change, extinctions of species and overconsumption of resources is a failure of imagination and mistaken beliefs that we act rationally.

The path to a truly sustainable future is through the muddy waters of emotions, values, ethics and most importantly, imagination, said artists and social scientists at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference here in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“We don’t live in the real world but live only in the world we imagine,” said David Maggs, a concert pianist and Phd student at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Our perception of reality is filtered by our personal experiences and values. That’s why the “if we only knew better, we’d do better” education and communication paradigm isn’t working, Maggs said. The underlying assumption that a failure to become more sustainable is the result of a lack of information is flawed, he told attendees at what is the world’s largest general science meeting.

“We live in our heads. We live in storyland,” agrees John Robinson of UBC’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

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“When we talk about sustainability we are talking about the future, how things could be. This is the landscape of imagination,” Robinson told IPS. “If we can’t imagine a better world we won’t get it.”

This imagining will be complex and difficult. Sustainability encompasses far more than just scientific facts – it also incorporates the idea of how we relate to nature and to ourselves, he said.

“We haven’t yet grasped the depth of changes that are coming.”

Because human decisions and behavior are the result of ethics, values and emotion, and because sustainability directly involves our values and ethical concerns, science alone is insufficient to make decisions about sustainability, said Thomas Dietz, assistant vice president for environmental research at Michigan State University.

Information plays a much smaller role than we like to think, Dietz explained. In order to truly address big issues like climate change or sustainability, we need to talk at a society-wide scale about our values and reach mutual understanding about the values needed for sustainability.

“However, we don’t like to talk about our values or feelings, because it threatens our personal identity.”

Engaging the public

Treating nature as an object, separate and distinct from us, is part of the problem, said Sacha Kagan, sociologist at Leuphana University in Germany. The current environmental crisis results from technological thinking and a fear of complexity that science alone cannot help us with, Kagan said.

The objectification of the natural world began during the Age of Enlightenment about 300 years ago. People saw the world and their place in it in very different ways before that, said Robinson.

Today, he said, sustainability will not be achieved without “engaging people in numbers and at levels that have never been done before”.

New social media tools like Facebook may help with such a monumental task, as “people certainly don’t like to come to public meetings”.

Current approaches to help the public understand the implications of climate change, such as graphs or iconic pictures of polar bears, have limitations and are ineffective, said Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

“We need to find new ways to think about the future under climate change,” said Hulme.

Art could be one such approach, suggested Dietz. It would serve not as propaganda but as a creative way to engage our imaginations. “Art can provoke thinking and actually change people’s perceptions of the complex issues associated with sustainability science,” he argued.

“When we’re considering questions about preserving biodiversity versus creating jobs, art can help us examine our values and have a discussion that’s broader than just scientific facts.”

It is tempting to believe the arts can help by softening and ‘pretty-fying’ the message and bringing it to a wider audience, said award-winning photographer Joe Zammit-Lucia.

“We need to go much further to provide a different worldview that can help us re-frame the issues,” said Zammit-Lucia.

Society’s choices are driven by people’s cultural perceptions of reality, which in turn are based on their values and their cultural context, he said. While helpful, scientific knowledge and experts are also part of the problem: by dominating the sustainability discourse, they narrow people’s visions of what’s possible.

“I also don’t buy in the idea we need to make the right decisions. What we need is the right process, ways in which the public can fully participate,” he concluded.

via Imagining a Better World Is First Step to Sustainability – IPS ipsnews.net.

7 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on emmageraln.

    emmageraln

    17/04/2012 at 7:45 am

  2. This is such a powerfully on-the-point piece Stephen – the whole edifice of our self-destructive system is birthed in our minds. If we can only open up our minds to reimagining the world as we truly want it, the whole ridiculous charade could come crashing down. Not only could catasrophe be averted, but we might dare to breathe in that most simple, yet rarefied of emotions – true human happiness.

    What we need are modern-day story-tellers who can paint out the new world in colors, with a vibrancy that will light up the jaded masses..

    Martin Leggett

    29/12/2012 at 1:49 pm

    • Thanks Martin – 100% agree about need for story tellers, including artists of all kinds envisioning a world of life and living instead of one devoted to consumption of ever more stuff.

      Stephen

      29/12/2012 at 3:12 pm

  3. I am glad to have stumbled upon this excellent article. I agree with Maggs and: more facts, presented without personal context, will not lead to fundamental change and self-sustaining action. Sometimes I think there is no way to overcome entrenched barriers with the brute force of rationality, and that we must either bypass or undermine them in sneaky, indirect ways – through stories and art and music that have the ability to resonate and shake the core of identity. I’m actually trying to work on that through my own blog, Ekostories: connecting narratives to nature, culture, and self.

    Joe Zammit Lucia actually manages an annual essay contest through the Web of Life Foundation that encourages non-conventional thinking on socio-environmental issues. You should check out the free e-book of essays from last year’s winners. :)

    Cheers,
    Isaac Yuen

    Isaac

    18/01/2013 at 2:02 am

    • Thanks Isaac, As you say there are more ways of understanding the world than facts alone. That’s a lovely blog you have and am glad to see it. Didn’t know about Joe’s essay effort – I will ck it out, he’s a very interesting guy.

  4. […] social media with the model of Crowd Funding. Sustainability will not be achieved without “engaging people in numbers and at levels that have never been done before”. New social media tools like Facebook may help with such a monumental task, as “people […]

  5. […] Humanity’s failure to halt the deepening planetary emergency of climate change, extinctions of species and overconsumption of resources is a failure of imagination and mistaken beliefs that we act rationally. Perhaps the path to a truly sustainable future is through the muddy waters of emotions, values, ethics and most importantly, imagination. […]


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