… a culture where quality of life, and generative ecological values are the measure of wealth.
How can we participate in a culture which inspires humans to responsibly steward the planet for future generations of all beings? As the tropics of planet earth are home to a rich profusion of diverse and unique life forms, so the tropics of the imagination are the fertile centre from which springs an infinite diversity of unique thought forms. This resource of inspiration and innovation has been a vital fuel in the evolution of human culture to date. At this time, on the bridge between the juggernaut of history and an uncertain future, imaginative contributions to the ongoing quality of life on earth, for all biological life-forms, is undeniably necessary. This paper sets out to explore international and local trends toward a culture of bio-regional, and by extension, planetary ecological protection, where biodiversity and life-viability are recognised as keys to our future. Proposing that by creatively combining our expertise and resources, creative artists, scientists and engineers can work toward supporting cultural change.
Imagine: … a culture where quality of life, and generative ecological values are the measure of wealth. Framing our imagining of a culture where quality of life, and ecological values are the measure of wealth as multiple lines of inquiry has the potential to empower us, as concerned planetary citizens, to find inspiration and purpose in the myriad challenges which we know from our research that we are facing now and in our collective future. The power of imagination can be harnessed in service of long-term beneficial outcomes for not only the human species, but for all life on this beautiful planet. Even if we humans succeed in travelling to and settling upon other planets, as some propose but cannot guarantee, we will need a culture of respect for life and planetary life support systems in order to survive there. So the time is ripe for us to begin taking seriously the challenge of developing and promoting an irresistible and irrefutable alternative to the destructive global paradigm which is currently being proliferated. To frame our inquiry we will need to develop a guiding set of questions. We will need to approach our topic from multiple perspectives in order to glean insight into the possible lines of inquiry that might yield the information we require in order to actualise the imagined scenario.
Taking stock of where we are:
Bruno Latour (2014), French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher of science, known best for his work in the field of Science and Technology Studies, when addressing the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences in Copenhagen in February last year, made a statement that should ring alarm bells for academics everywhere: “’Not thinking’ seems to be the slogan of the day when you consider that in the United States alone something like a billion dollars, yes, one billion, is being spent to generate ignorance about the anthropic origin of climate mutations. In earlier periods, scientists and intellectuals lamented the little money spent on learning, but they never had to witness floods of money spent on unlearning what was already known. While in times past thinking critically was associated with looking ahead and extracting oneself from an older obscurantist past, today money is being spent to become even more obscurantist than yesterday! “Agnotology”, Robert Proctor’s science of generating ignorance, has become the most important discipline of the day.” In Latour’s view, maintaining and enhancing the capacity for well thought out direction in areas of cultural, societal and political influence are the critical points upon which we must focus our efforts or risk extinction as a result of our own inaction. In the same presentation Latour quotes Frederick Jameson as stating: “Nowadays it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. One can see that he points to a failure of imagination which has allowed the current planetary situation to become as dire as it undoubtedly is. The question that arises whilst contemplating this state of affairs is:
What can be done now to effectively counter this trend?
The planetary era we are now in, which has been termed the anthropocene by atmospheric scientists, geologists, political scientists and anthropologists, has as its defining characteristic, the dominance of human impacts upon the earth systems (Clark, 2012). Conferences such as ours, and there are other such conferences being undertaken around the world, are a good place to start. We can inspire and support each other toward undertaking the collaborative, interdisciplinary work necessary in order for us to move forward in addressing the very real dangers we face as a species. It becomes apparent that humanity is in a position to shape the nature of things to come in a way that has never before occurred. This is map-less territory and we are pioneers in an unknown field of activity.
Developing Lines of Inquiry
Limits to Growth
What was the message of the futures study commissioned by the Club of Rome, conducted in 1972; Limits to Growth? Basically, the report laid out researched findings and simulation analysis which showed that if we continued to grow our population, industries, pollution, food production and resource depletion, the earth would reach it’s limit of capacity to continue supporting life within 100 years, and that the most likely outcome would be a sudden collapse in both population and industry. In short, business as usual will bring and end to our civilisation within our children’s lifetime (Club of Rome, 2012). The report also stated that an ecologically sustainable and economically stable global civilisation can be designed, but that we needed to begin working toward it as soon as possible in order to succeed. Why did we not decide to take the long term sustainable option at that time? What can we do now to bring attention to the facts and to redirect the attention of those who are in a position to implement the necessary changes? There seems to be two broad areas into which our inquiry can usefully delve, one being into the current situation unfolding around us, and especially in regard to questions not being adequately addressed, and the other being into the response so far to that situation through an emerging cultural transformation among people at large. Some of these questions will have at least partial answers already in existence, some of them are conspicuously either unasked or unanswered, some of them will be very difficult to answer indeed. In order to approach this set of questions, we will need cognitive and emotional anchors in the imagined culture of respect for life that want to see realised, and a commitment to achieving positive outcomes.
Questions of cultural transformation
• How can we participate in a culture which inspires humans to responsibly steward the planet for future generations of all beings? There is no doubt that a culture of responsibility for the future is seeking a place of recognition on the world stage. With outcries from as varied sources as NASA (2015), The Union of Concerned Scientists (1968-present), the Dalai Lama (2015) and the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa of Tibet (2008- present), Prince Charles (2015), and Pope Francis of the Catholic church (2015), beseeching both the world’s powerful and apparently ignorant political leaders, and ordinary people alike to make the preservation of life on earth a priority. As an academic, design, engineering, and research community, our participatory contribution can consist of purposeful, interdisciplinary, collaboratively imagined bio-regional specific alternatives to the known current major contributing factors to biodiversity loss and earth systems degradation (Kelleher 2012). This contribution can empower a generation of change agents to experiment with real alternatives, which as a human community we do not yet have access to because they do not yet exist.
• How can the biocultural rights of those who would responsibly steward the planet be upheld and even enforced? This is a difficult question to address. Under international environment law, biocultural rights are acknowledged as “a community’s long established right, in accordance with its customary laws, to steward its lands, waters and resources” (Bavikatte and Bennet, 2015). However these are not upheld as a priority value in the current ‘profit-as-the-measure-of-success’ model of planetary governance. In fact, these and other rights even more basic, are routinely violated through the implementation and enforcement of government sanctioned corporate agendas (Sriskandarajah, 2015). Again, it will be useful to use our combined skills, knowledge and expertise in a transdisciplinary manner in order to design theoretically viable alternative methods of planetary management so that there is potential for experimentation and development in a different direction from current practices (Kelleher, 2012). How we protect these experiments from the machinations 6 Glistening Deepwater – 2015 Tropics of the Imagination Conference Paper of resistant authorities remains to be imagined, which leads us to the very important question of:
• How can those who are willing to preserve and protect life itself, themselves be protected from the intimidating actions of corporate led, military enforceable modes of industrial resource extraction and manufacturing waste production which are currently dominant in our civilisational model? People at large are expressing their willingness to protect and preserve the planet’s life support systems and biodiversity. We can see well documented mass resistance, opposition, defiant obstruction, and class-action legal proceedings against companies engaged in environmentally and ecologically damaging practices. In Australia (ABC 2014) America (Huffington Post, 2015) and the EU (CBC News, 2013) there is an emerging culture of grass-roots driven activism that is sweeping through whole communities in these developed nations as their health, livelihoods and future are directly threatened by toxic industrial processes and byproducts. Unfortunately there is a trend in the USA (Huffington Post, 2013) as there is in Australia (The Guardian, 2015, April 2nd) for legislature to favour large corporate interests, leading to conflict with constituents who find themselves in breach of hurriedly drafted new laws seemingly designed to undermine peoples rights to fair representation. With the recent signing of the fast track for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP, 2015), the rights of governments to represent their constituents interests against those of multinational corporations has been seriously eroded. Are we living in a flawed paradigm when legislation can be bought? (The Guardian, 2015, May 27th).
Questions of late modern civilisation
• Does it make sense to use fresh water to produce fuel? What will biological organisms use to maintain hydration in this model? From an economic and business perspective, utilising free water to produce income earning fuels makes sense. The global demand for energy to grow industries and the pressure to maximise corporate shareholder profits has led to a situation where no bio-region on earth is safe from the threat of environmentally destructive and polluting fuel extraction processes. As a prime yet by no means lone example, the massive scale of surface water extraction and groundwater contamination from unconventional gas mining is a problem causing justifiable public health and safety concerns across the globe (Cooley and Donnelly, 2012). Whole bio-regional water security is threatened by the global gas mining industry with full government approval, demonstrably against the wishes of, and seemingly without regard for the welfare of the people (ABC News, 20th May 2014) and other animals and plants which depend upon that water supply. Coal and shale oil mining are also implicated as serious threats to watersheds with toxic by-products and copious water consumption integral to their operations. What kind of future can we imagine that has no available fresh water in it? If this has not been taken in to account, does this also point to a failure of the imagination? What can we do in defence of Earth’s dwindling supplies of fresh water? How can a culture of responsibility for ethical stewardship of fresh water sources be inspired, encouraged and supported? Another questions that needs to be addressed on a global scale, that we don’t have time to unpack today is:
• How long can we realistically continue to extract and refine resources with high toxicity component before the planet becomes unfit for life? Who can or will simulate scenarios to illustrate what our options look like in practice? The prime question that must be asked at this juncture however is,
What can we imagine that we could do INSTEAD of continuing these destructive practices?
Academic stewardship of the information commons
People at large are willing to support scientists, researchers, designers and creative visionaries in our efforts towards understanding and responding to the needs of our collective future. In response to having their work dismissed by the Australian government, the Australian Climate Council (2013) have successfully crowd-funded their operation. With the support of the public their work toward an understanding of what our earthly situation entails, and what we might do about it continues in spite of the government intending to shut them down. The interdisciplinary collaboration of artists, designers, foresight strategists, scientists and engineers required to undertake a task such as that which our inquiry suggests has emerged as a field in its own right, calling itself Imagineering.
A Masters Program in Imagineering has been offered through Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands since 2008, specifically focussing on preparing academics and professionals to be proficient in designing and inspiring organisational transformation through the narrative tradition in response to turbulent and challenging times. This program responds to the insight that “a new way of thinking and a new kind of professional as organizational and societal innovator and developer is needed” and, in the words of the program director Diane Nijs that “organizations and institutions in the 21st century can adapt, change and survive as happier, more effective and more profitable operations, if they embrace lessons learned from the natural world” (Imagineering Academy 2015).
The Imagineering Institute Lab which has formed in Malasia this year is a collaboration between City University London, Osaka University Japan, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), and Multimedia University (MMU). This institute is offering supported PhD fellowships with a view to inventing the future of internet. Given the potential scope for the design and development of influential technologies with far reaching impact, this is an important, if still partial model for the future of interdisciplinary practice. Potentially, this exciting, emerging multidisciplinary field may be able to help facilitate the necessary research and development, invention and application of both technologies and cultural influences required for the type of regenerative cultural practices and long-term viable planetary life-support systems which need both imagining and implementing.
• Why are we, as a culture, currently basing our assumptions for our future possibilities on an extrapolation of today’s problems? Is this an indication of lack of applied imagination?
While in some quarters we are engaging with big questions, and earnestly seeking to understand better ways forward than may even seem possible given the current macro-scale planetary situation, there is definitely room for creative imagineering in many areas. The London business school Global Leadership Summit of 2015 asked some inspiring “what if?” questions of its panel; “What if you could see into the future? What if the game changes? What if the future was simulated? What if business could solve the world’s biggest problems?” Asking these kinds of questions, and inviting futurists to work with business, could be a doorway to transforming culture, but without guiding principles that uphold the sanctity of life and that demand life affirming and generative systems development, the future direction taken by captains of industry could easily continue the current trend toward ecological disaster. What appears to be missing in the futures discourse is enough informed foresight to engender a basic respect for the finitude of life sustaining planetary resources, and the willingness to acknowledge our proven incapacity to safely dispose of the wastes and by-products created by the ‘progess-at-any-cost’ mentality prevalent in the business world.
The Centre for Australian Foresight (2015) supports business, policy makers, researchers, and academics across the Australasian and Asia Pacific regions through various services and initiatives focussed on developing and providing culturally transformative resources and access to information. The Centre aspires to support the creation of pathways toward a worthwhile future for all people everywhere, however, much of their work seems to also suffer from a failure of imagination illustrated in assumptions of the maintenance of a systemic status-quo which given the projected trajectory of the anthopocene, appears highly unlikely. The Malasian Imagineering Institute (2015), which aspires to “Extrapolation of recent and present technological developments, making imaginative but credible (do-able) scenarios, and simulating the future” apparently fails to acknowledge the vital points of maintaining planetary life-support systems, addressing finitude in resource extraction and waste production, respecting biological systems health and biodiversity as vital for existence of life itself. The Imagineering Academy (2015) in The Netherlands embraces the concept of applying natural systems insights to organisational and societal structures, yet is still focussed in the areas of leisure tourism, entrepreneurial development, and business profitability. Potentially, utilising our tropical regions as experimental locales for applied Imagineering we could provide the future with so much more than simply a business incubator based in primarily economic considerations.
We can do better!
Generating unique and diverse thought forms By imagining a culture of planetary protection and maintenance of ecological viability we can turn the challenges of the anthropocene era into opportunities for responsible stewardship of the planet for future generations of all beings (Steffen & Young, 2009). By combining ecologically informed strategic foresight with visionary design based in scientific research and eco-friendly engineering practices we have a hope of forestalling the demise into extinction of our own, and myriad other species. The challenges may seem insurmountable when taken as a whole, yet if we play our part in addressing the issues that are present in our own bioregions we are directly contributing to the reduction of the overall problem situation. This opens up the possibility of addressing the situation at the macro-scale through our locally implementable models. Examples of Imagineered, open source templates for best practice in planet friendly human scale living systems are in active development. Life affirming, regenerative, whole system solutions such as the One Community Global Civilisation Design Suite (2013-present) represent the genius of transdiciplinarity at work. Bioregional initiatives such as the Instituteo Terra in Brazil (2000-2015) have demonstrated how a concerted effort to regenerate large tracts of degraded Earth into flourishing forests with spontaneously restored diverse populations of native fauna is possible given effort and the will to do so.
I believe that JCU, as a ground-breaking university in the field of ecological sustainability, could gain much benefit for its research fellows, faculty, and post graduate students by embracing the discipline of Imagineering and by incorporating it into the curriculum. I also believe that the discipline of Imagineering would benefit from being expanded to include our vital area of focus, sustainable ecology. I humbly suggest that JCU seek to establish relationships with the Centre for Australian Foresight, who have an extensive network of cutting edge researchers and information resources relevant to our bio-region, as well as with the existing Imagineering Academy in the Netherlands and Imagineering Institute in Malaysia with a view to developing professional rapport and personnel exchange models. I am hopeful that in doing so, we will be empowered to create compelling, entertaining, educational materials and networked, interactive technologies that will inspire and support the implementation of much needed cultural transformation, manifesting as the adjusted attitude and behaviour of both the people at large, and importantly also, in those occupants of the halls of global power who need it most.
Together, we can help lay the foundations of a culture where quality of life, and ecological values are the measure of wealth. I know we can.
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