You have a choice to make. You must choose what to imagine. In the next 50 years, we will be forced in every aspect of our societies to come to grips with the realities of planetary limits and global interconnectedness. And for a variety of reasons, the next 15 years will largely draw the outline for what we can accomplish over that time. What we do, or don’t do, over the next decade and a half – to increase the options available to humanity, to build a civilisation that thrives within our planetary limits, to manage the disasters we’ve already set in motion – may be the most important set of decisions humanity has ever made.
If you’re reading this, I assume you want to make the most powerful contribution you can to meet this crisis. You’ve stumbled across an awkward reality, though: while we have an ever-growing set of solutions, no one really knows exactly what we should do, and how to get it done in the face of economic inertia, cultural denial and political opposition. The problems we face are systemic ones, made worse by a massive cognitive gap between the world as described in our media and public debate, and the world as it actually exists. Our worst problems are all, at least to some extent, rooted in our thinking. If we want to make change, we need to think better. We need keen insight into the systems we’re working with, the ability to anticipate change in order to frame solutions and tools for getting things done under difficult circumstances. But most of all, we need awakened imaginations.
The things we need to do are huge, and accomplishing them often feels impossible. We then become tempted to hope that smaller aims may somehow achieve our goals. They won’t. If what we need to do seems out of our reach, we must first become people who can reach farther. And to reach farther, we must first dream better. This begins with acts of comprehension and imagination. "Free your mind and your ass will follow," George Clinton said. To become people who can do the extraordinary, we must first free our minds from broken ways of seeing the world. We must imagine solving the problems in front of us. There’s nothing airy or vague about wilful imagination. Indeed, in a world partially paralysed by cynicism and despair, optimistic imagination is a political act.
While the next 15 years are bound to be ones of growing crisis, they’re also likely to be ones of exhilarating possibility, invention, collaboration, political reform, civic renewal, entrepreneurial impact and social innovation. It’s a race, for sure, between reinvention and collapse, and what you do matters; what you imagine matters. Imagine planetary success. Imagine playing a part in building it. Free your mind, and your future will follow.
Alex Steffen is currently Planetary Futurist in Residence at the design and innovation firm IDEO.
Image credit: Flickr Andy Morffew