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Imagine – guest blog by Dirk Philipsen, Duke University

Tags: blog, guest blog, research
Published on June 18, 2019

We can sense it.  A watershed moment in history.  A growing realization, among young people in particular, that the old systems are failing us. The grown-ups asleep at the wheel, or, worse, racing toward the cliff in full knowledge of the consequences. Or trying to fool us with the promise of returning to some mythical bygone era.  Or all of the above.

Established parties are folding, students are marching, and experts emerge from behind computer screens to tell us with near unanimous voice:  continue on our old path and we may well perish.

In the U.S., high school valedictorians get censored for wanting to address climate change, while young people force aspiring politicians to endorse a Green New Deal.  In Germany, a blogger gets 15 million views on YouTube (that’s one out of six Germans) with an hour-long video explaining how established parties are betraying future generations by promoting a crash course with nature and society. From Sweden to England and France and Germany, what unites millions of students is their fight for a viable future. Meanwhile, crusty elites admonish with a cynical “leave it to the experts.” Scientists, the real experts, come out to side with the young – by the tens of thousands.  Established politics no longer follows best available knowledge.  It slavishly obeys money and power instead, the future be damned.

Time, it seems, is running out on our human experiment. At least the one based on currently dominant ideas and paradigms, almost all based on exclusion, domination, plunder, and exhaustion—homo economicus run amok.

Missing almost entirely from mainstream debates is the fact that this is not just a moment of existential crisis.  It is also a moment of unprecedented opportunities.  Around the world, millions of people are engaged in finding alternatives to models of plunder and exploitation, individual utility maximization and loneliness.  They build sharing economies and design cyclical production methods.  They begin to learn from, rather than dominate nature. They understand the world to be a system, one form of life inseparable from the other.  Above all, they rediscover what reciprocity and kindness and meaningful work could look like once we ditch the pathological addiction to ever More; once we replace artificial scarcity and fear with community and belonging; once we conquer crippling inequality with respect and opportunities for everyone.  Once we start building a society that provides wellbeing for people and planet.

The freshest perspectives, overwhelming in their logic, come from the young.  They start with fundamental questions – “How can you continue to do what will destroy us?  How can you so thoroughly ignore what experts keep telling you?” They lead to logical follow-ups – “Why are we not all rolling up our proverbial sleeves and get to work on solutions that are inclusive and regenerative and just?  Why not listen to those who have transformative ideas, and ignore those intent on leaving the young behind in a sinking boat?”

We can only achieve what we can imagine.  And imagine we must.  Imagine not just reforms and improvements to the old, self-destructive corpse. Rather, imagine development that doesn’t depend on ongoing depletion and growth.  Imagine cities no longer built around the needs of cars, but around the needs of people – cities in which everyone can walk or bike in safety to everything they need. Imagine work in the name of prosperity, not output or profit. Imagine growing food in ways that regenerate soil and communities. Imagine energy production that is decentralized, local, renewable, and clean. Imagine governing that actually represents people and their experiences.  And, not least of all, imagine we power down our screens and build communities where everyone feels a sense of belonging.

No one has all the answers, and lots still needs to be figured out.  Yet we actually do know a lot. We know how to avoid the “uninhabitable world.” Above all, we have to start.  Start by saying a clear and decisive “no” to the old model of ever more plunder and depletion, and “yes” to each other and the environment we inhabit.

There are lots of opportunities – every day.

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