American Culture

Imagination – the Green Constitutional Congress, part 3

While awareness and externalities were memes in the Green Constitutional Congress, they weren’t the only ones. For that matter, neither was the most important one. Bruce Mau made that abundantly clear with his repetition of a single phrase in every question he asked by way of introduction to the panelists’ monologues: “Can we imagine…” Imagination was the defining meme of the Green Constitutional Congress, and it ran through the content of every monologue in some way.

Charlie Cannon imagines a world where our bridges, electricity transmission lines, sewer systems, etc. aren’t invisible externalities we only care about when they abruptly fail. He imagines opportunity where others see only a financial black hole. With all the infrastructure that is close to the end of its useful lifetime, the United States will have no choice but replace bridges, dams, roads, water mains, and so on. And with the need for tens of billions of dollars of public investment over the next several decades, Cannon thinks that we have the chance to rebuild infrastructure in sustainable ways. What that means for him is increased efficiency or modeling our infrastructure off natural systems. But Cannon also thinks that the first step is rethinking the relationships that have, in the past, led to confrontations between environmentalists, environmental justice activists, public and municipal utilities, developers, and elected officials. Cannon proposes that the best way to do that is to design the infrastructure from the very beginning with the awareness of all the interested parties and how they are affected by now included externalities.

Jonathan Greenblatt imagines the end of the need for corporate social responsibility because every corporation has so totally internalized the need to be responsible corporations that it underlies everything they do. Greenblatt also imagines that the markets can be used to create good, to generate businesses who focus on the long term instead of short term profits, and that entrepreneurs can create products that are fundamentally “rooted in authenticity”, that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability throughout their entire supply chain, that are disruptive to the existing markets, and that are transparent to the public and others. The best companies are this already, but most aren’t even remotely close. But perhaps the most imaginative suggestion that Greenblatt had was that the public, corporations, government entities, and non-profits work together in a bottom-up collaborative fashion instead of the failing top down, paternalistic paradigm.

Majora Carter, on the other hand, has dared to imagine something that is arguably even more impressive than Greenblatt’s paradigm shift. Carter imagines a world where sustainability is the foundation, not the penthouse. Instead, she imagines a world where green jobs help solve unemployment, where awareness of the supposed externalities of places like the South Bronx leads to cleaner neighborhoods and thus fewer poisons messing with our bodies and minds. Essentially, Carter imagines sustainabilty as the foundation upon which a building of opportunity will be constructed.

David Orr’s imagination focuses on education and how to fix the problems of education instead of the problems in education. He wants education to be the source of a “more rational rationality, a more scientific science” than the present, Enlightenment-based education system. He sees an education system so sick that mere antibiotics can’t help it anymore, but that major surgery is required to save the patient. Orr imagines an educational system that is inclusive instead of riven by divisive battles over useless testing. But perhaps most importantly, he understands that solving global heating requires new ideas and that new ideas are the domain of education.

Bill Becker imagines a new economy to replace the old, failing carbon-based economy. He imagines that the new economy can be redefined from mere exchange of goods and services to include every way we relate to each other and the natural world. And he believes that we are finally reaching an understanding of the unpleasant realities of peak oil, the rising costs of centralized industrial energy contrasted with the falling prices for distributed renewable energy, the global nature of pollution, the long-term security implications of protecting our carbon energy sources and producers, and humanity’s interconnectedness with the rest of the Earth’s biosphere.

The person who perhaps understands imagination the best is Paul Miller, aka artist DJ Spooky, imagines the United States not struck down by global heating as Ozymandius was by the desert. He imagines a world where the commons of our air, water, and earth are no longer subject to tragedy, and where the oil age is ended before we run out of oil. And perhaps his greatest feat of imagination is his ability to imagine that people like his fellow panelists have sufficient imagination themselves to balance technology, development, economy, and the commons in a way that is sustainable, that creates opportunities where none existed before, and where ideological statements like Reagan’s removal of the solar panels from the roof of the White House are replaced by rational actions.