For many, society has become synonymous with cognitive dissonance. Those of us who pay attention to the larger state of human and natural affairs are bombarded daily with truly horrific news. It comes relentlessly, through the media, from scientists and activists, in conversation with friends and neighbors. Things, they say, are hopeless. As author and activist Paul Hawken declared to graduates at the beginning of a college commencement address this spring, “you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating.”
And yet each day most Americans do what all life does every day: wake up and go about the business of living. For most of us, that business includes looking to the future, often with great hope and expectation. That anticipation is one of the traits that makes us most human, for it requires the ability to imagine. And while imagination in this era can lead us to frightening places, it also can lead to beautiful ones.
Put yourself in the shoes of an American or European in 1860. Imagine that this person had been able to see what would happen in the coming century: the slaughter of mechanized war, firebombing and nuclear destruction of cities, pandemic disease, the near-starvation of post-war Europe, the terrors of fascism and communism. If you’re standing in 1860 and told that’s the future, you might take an understandably bleak view of civilization’s prospects. Yet a century later, in 1960, most Americans and Europeans probably felt pretty good about their lives and optimistic about the future.
This is not to whitewash the horrors of the twentieth century, but to suggest that there is a complex alchemy between what we imagine will happen, what does happen, and how it turns out in the end. We are at a point in American culture where the force of imagination can be brought to bear on shaping a future that is — despite current fears — positive.
Several of the articles in the following pages seek to capture the chrysalis of this moment. An inspiring example of the power of imagination lies in Erik Reece’s “Hell Yeah, We Want Windmills.” Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) is one of the most in-your-face practices of no-holds-barred modern capitalism. It has become, in the eyes of many, the poster child for what is wrong with our relationship to the Earth. So it is both extraordinary and encouraging that a groundswell has arisen in the heart of West Virginia that is not simply opposed to MTR, but is actively in favor of a different future for the land and its citizens. These are people who understand that you can’t create a different outcome until you imagine it. The idea that anyone can be empowered in the face of terrible odds also lies at the heart of Jay Griffiths’ article “The Transition Initiative.” And Bill Fox’s essay on Karen Halverson’s photography, “Mulholland’s Drive,” considers how we choose to see what we see. These stories tap into questions of perception, imagination, and choice.
There is bleakness all around us. There is also extraordinary opportunity to remake the world. “If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data,” Paul Hawken said in that commencement address. “But if you meet the people who are working to restore this Earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
We will shape this moment, and every moment, by how we choose to see, and to act on, what we know.