‘Just imagine the world without … [insert brand]!’ Today, our capacity to imagine is frequently coopted, with advertising endlessly fuelling our sense of ourselves as consumers, rather than citizens of this Earth community. Industrial growth society systematically reinforces ‘monocultures of the mind’, marginalising dissenting voices, burying histories of resistance, and dividing us. With the capitalist system now deeply entrenched as the only viable economic system, apocalypse is widely projected as our collective future – Hollywood’s disaster scenarios no doubt influencing this. Aside from these dystopian narratives, the major alternative fuelling the popular imagination is the mental universe inhabited by Stephen Hawking and a host of sci-fi writers, who contrive scenarios of the human race leaving our devastated planet to colonise outer space.
Of course these ‘magic bullet’ solutions to our ecological crisis have little basis in reality; and despite the scientific consensus on climate change and growing evidence of ecocide, governments, multinationals, and the corporate media continue to promote ‘business as usual’ – the insane and contradictory path of infinite growth on a finite planet, Where the effects of capitalist globalisation on ourselves and our planet are acknowledged, industrial growth society promotes the view that we can consume our way to social and ecological change. However, as Einstein reminds us, ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.’
And yet, poetry has the power to restore the imagination. In witnessing the beginning of the industrial revolution, William Blake saw how ‘reason’ (what we might now call ‘scientific materialism’) had come to dominate consciousness. Personifying it as ‘Urizen’, a patriarchal figure wielding his compass, Blake’s epic poem Jerusalem explores the near annihilation that occurs when Albion (‘universal humanity’) is subject to urizenic tyranny. The remaining ‘zoas’ – Tharmas (the body), Luvah (the heart), and Urthona (the imagination), which together constitute the human – are nearly destroyed. Significantly, however, it’s the imagination, embodied as Los, the prophet/blacksmith, and Jerusalem, the feminine embodiment of forgiveness, who resist, and finally secure humanity’s redemption.
Although Blake’s mythology is complex (codified to conceal the dangerously revolutionary implications of his worldview), I believe that his work points to the power of the poetic imagination in addressing the crisis we face. Blake’s vision of our four rebalanced zoas reminds us that the imagination is embodied, connected with the heart, and able to get to the root of systemic problems, i.e. radical. In this way, fear and limited thinking can fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and collectively we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.
Fortunately, the work of the radical imagination is visible in contemporary social movements. Transition Town groups often deploy strategies such as ‘back-casting’, imaginatively working back from a projected future to explore how to achieve it, enabling Transition communities to engage in co-creating alternative, more sustainable structures for local food production, generating energy, reusing waste, etc. Simultaneously, the global anti-austerity movement is experimenting with forms of direct democracy, critiquing power and privilege, and organising ‘horizontal’ spaces for collective decision-making. In The Democracy Project, David Graeber talks about ‘the opening up of the radical imagination that Occupy allowed’. And he elaborates the experience of how participation introduces ‘the skills, habits and experience that would make an entirely new conception of politics come to life’.
Central to the successful development of life-sustaining societies are the stories we tell, which counter the dominant narratives of capitalism. When we consider human history, we usually do so in isolation from other species, and rarely considering our evolution in the context of the universe. As a corrective, cosmologist Brian Swimme’s ‘Universe Story’, developed in collaboration with American ecotheologian Thomas Berry, brings a meaningful narrative to our understanding of the 13.7-billion-year trajectory of the universe, and supports us in perceiving industrial growth society as a blip in time.
A deep-time perspective can also reveal that human development originally unfolded in interconnection with the natural world, and embedded within an anarchistic ‘organic society’, based on natural laws, cooperation, and the self-organising capacity of ecosystems. Most powerfully, this insight can assist us in visioning a new ecological age, perhaps Berry’s ‘Ecozoic Era’, where we live in harmony ‘with the Earth as our community’. But this demands our collective labour; Berry’s vision, in The Great Work, Our Way into the Future, is one ‘we must will into being’.
About Helen Moore
Helen Moore is an award-winning ecopoet and socially engaged artist based in Somerset. Her debut poetry collection, Hedge Fund, and Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books, 2012), was described by Alasdair Paterson as being ‘in the great tradition of visionary politics in British poetry’. Her second collection, ECOZOA (Permanent Publications 2015), which responds to Blake’s Four Zoas and Thomas Berry’s vision of the ‘Ecozoic Era’, has already been acclaimed by John Kinsella as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’: http://permanentpublications.co.uk/port/ecozoa-by-helen-moore/