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Learning to imagine ourselves.


Here we are, a good half-century into the environmental movement. This half-century could also be described as tens of millions of hours devoted by citizens to lobbying on behalf of the environment, protesting, calling for change. And we haven’t advanced very far. Enormous efforts have been made. Enormous numbers of wonderful people have dedicated their lives to environmental change, overseeing as it were, 50 years of planetary siege. Of course, there have been some changes. Here and there. Small, specific changes. Perhaps most important, the environmental cause has occupied the public language. Several generations now talk with these ideas as an integral part of their assumptions. But on any big question we seem to just slip along in the same old dangerous direction, the breakthroughs too small to affect what is happening. And at the same time, those who oppose the environmental movement have succeeded in making changes which actually worsen our situation.

How could this be happening? Is it inevitable? are our possibilities doomed by our condition? The answer – the blame – cannot be placed primarily on politics. Or financial structures. Or narrow, short-term self-interest.

There must have been some basic mistake in strategy – trip lines we set across our own path decades, maybe centuries, ago. I can think of three, and each of them has to do with how we imagine ourselves. After all, how we see ourselves shapes what we can do. And what we think we can do. We believe we live in an era of facts and of proofs. Yet what we don’t feel able to take on has little to do with those facts and proofs. It has everything to do with a failure of imagination.

The first error has to do with misunderstanding the nature of power. The environmental era mirrors almost exactly that of the rise of the NGOs. Why? The central characteristic of the globalist era is that we came to believe the power of the citizenry had been weakened by the power of economics. We gradually accepted that the power of national politics was therefore limited. It followed that the power to ignore the public good was international and amorphous in the sense that it had to do with broad economic assumptions. In that case, the best way to fight back was also international. And since there were no international representative legislative institutions devoted to the public good, well then, we would devote ourselves to creating institutions that would set the global agenda, our contemporary NGO army.

These new institutions would not have actual power – the power to act. But they would speak for us all, for the shared public good. And those devoted to the international economic interests would have to listen. We convinced ourselves that the persistent sound would be too loud to be ignored by those with power.

Except they didn’t listen to these NGOs. And they didn’t – don’t – have to listen. After all, economics is power. Real power. The NGOs – the new institutions of the public good – have only influence. Influence can have periodic successes. But this is a weak hand to play if you have other options. Imagine if the tens of millions of hours devoted to influencing power and opposing power had been devoted to taking power. Imagine if the millions of NGO members had joined political parties and virtually taken them over. That is how change is actually made – through political parties, elections, governments and laws.

Our reality is that several generations have refused to imagine themselves as making changes. Instead, in the role of the angry outsiders, they have called for the people they do not respect to make the changes on their behalf. This is the traditional role of writers, including of course journalists, not of the engaged population as a whole. You could call this a strategic error with enormous political consequences.

Along with this there was a belief that experts with facts would shape the debate, giving the NGOs support, and so force the hand of power.

That was to misjudge the endless number of facts. Endless and shapeless. And to forget the ease with which such a jumble could create any argument or simply create a confusion which would make action impossible.

Ethics can serve the public good, as can humanist ideas, as can a clear belief in that public good. Facts and expertise are just as likely to be the whores of interest groups, whether public or private, as they are to serve the public good. This was the second strategic error.

And it leads to the third, but also to an opportunity for profound change.

Modern society is built on a war between rationality and superstition. Logic and religion. Method and habit. And a myriad of other supposed opposites. A Manichean dreamland.

The rational, logical methodological column expresses itself through facts and experts. That is, those same facts and experts which have not been clearing our minds or solving our problems. And their failure to deliver has produced a revival of the second column – superstitions and religion beliefs. With this comes a growing desire for stability – for old habits. Why? Because we now live in an atmosphere of instability which most citizens find impossible to handle. Unstable employment. Unstable funding for old age. Unstable housing. All of this in the name of an inevitable, logical progress which does not include people. So people fight back in unpredictable ways. The explosion in evangelical churches is just one of these.

But the real point here is that the either/or version of life – of how we imagine ourselves – doesn’t work. There are other options. Other ways of looking at ourselves and our choices. Spiritual ways, which is not to say religious ways.

For example, the Aboriginal message to our society is quite different to the European-derived view. In Canada, Aboriginal society, in all its complexity, is growing in numbers, in political weight and in legal power. And it is raising its voices in an increasingly sustained way. We do everything we can not to pay attention, but they are speaking clearly.

The foundations of this message involve a very different way of imagining ourselves; so different that our education system, our state structures, our elites, all have difficulty digesting the implications.

Why? Because the established system in the West – the one I have been describing – is profoundly linear. The Aboriginal, on the other hand, is deeply circular or spatial. When they speak of the spiritual, they are talking about the wholeness of existence. They are speaking about humans as an integral part of the physical.

And when you look at something like our environmental crisis you can easily see that our errors come from our linear approach; one in which humans are intellectually and morally separated out and placed on a higher level. This sets us in an artificial position when it comes to the survival of the world. The Aboriginal theory, on the other hand, takes a more inclusive approach; one in which humans are an integrated part of the whole physical process. Richard Atleo has written about this as Tsawalk. Cree theory talks of Witaskewin. There are Aboriginal intellectuals in universities across the country writing about this. Some of them are legal scholars. Others literary historians. Philosophers. There are remarkable leaders. A growing variety of new, young intellectual voices. Political leaders. They are putting forward propositions which make sense for our time and place.

The point is that their approach radically changes the way humans imagine themselves, and therefore what they can do, or not do. This is not idealistic or romantic. It is a different way of thinking. And when you look at the environmental crises, it is obvious that we need a sophisticated, inclusive, tough and modern way of thinking. The linear either/or approach is simplistic compared to the circular. The latter takes human interests into account, but not in isolation from the rest.

An expert might say, “This is hardly a way to get on with things urgently in the middle of a crisis.” The reality is that humans often solve crises by escaping the intellectual prison they have created for themselves. They do this by reimagining themselves. And because of the power and influence that Aboriginal peoples will increasingly have over land in Canada, there is a real opportunity to attempt one of those profound intellectual changes of mind, by seeing how we could adapt to their approach, with their help. This would involve a revolution in our educational system, in the methodology of our experts, and in the fabric of our thinking, from logical understandings to forgotten possibilities.

John Ralston Saul is one of Canada’s leading public intellectuals and President of PEN International, an organization dedicated to promoting literature and freedom of expression. His recent books include The Collapse of Globalism and A Fair Country. His latest work, Dark Diversions, is his first novel in fifteen years, and comes out this autumn.[cherry_banner image=”4901″ title=”Adbusters #102″ url=”″ template=”issue.tmpl”]Spiritual Insurrection[/cherry_banner]