A new monthly column by writer Patricia Robertson. As an antidote to gloom-and-doom, she’ll explore the role of imagination in creating a new world. She’ll also investigate how individuals, organizations, and communities, in Canada and around the globe, are tackling today’s problems in inventive and innovative ways.
‘A global failure of imagination.” That’s how the Guardian newspaper described the worldwide economic crisis this week.
“In a sense,” says the Guardian, “there was a failure of imagination across the globe – no one stopped to think, ‘what if.’” Now bankers and regulators are asking themselves what the Guardian calls “the trillion-pound question”: why did no one see the coming crisis, and what could we have done to prevent it?
The truth is that a few people – George Soros, the American financier and philanthropist, is one example – did see it coming, but weren’t believed. Why believe something that seems unimaginable? Perhaps a better question to ask now would be: How do we encourage our bankers and regulators to entertain the unimaginable in their planning?
Arlene Goldbard might have an answer to that question. She’s the American writer and social activist I mentioned in my first column last month. At a conference I attended last fall, she gave a speech describing how an old way of thinking and being is gradually giving way to a new one. “An old way of understanding our lives and societies – one that I call Datastan – is giving way to a very different paradigm – I call it Storyland…. Culture and culture-makers can play (a critical role) in helping the new paradigm into being.”
What does Goldbard mean by the metaphors of Datastan and Storyland? She calls Datastan “that flatland nightmare of an old paradigm that worships hyper-efficiency, hyper-rationality, hyper-materialism and domination,” while Storyland is “a multi-dimensional, numinous landscape infused with multiple types of knowledge deriving from body, mind, emotion and spirit.”
Datastan, she goes on to say, is characterized by “scientism,” or a reductive approach to science: “taking methods and ways of thinking that work very well in the physical sciences and misapplying them to highly complex human endeavours, where they don’t work at all.” She gives the example of the financial meltdown. “All the financial forecasting that drove stocks higher and higher was conditioned on the serene confidence that computer modelling could foretell the future,” she says.
Storyland, on the other hand, is characterized by the human qualities of “cultural creativity and social imagination,” by imagining new narratives of our future rather than allowing that future to be determined by prior conditioning. “If our higher purpose is to develop societies grounded in possibility, compassion, and connection, we need to deepen our ability to imagine these things, and there is no more powerful way to do that than by making art that rehearses the future we wish to help into being,” Goldbard says.
It’s easy to sneer at the idea of Storyland as an unachievable utopia, though Goldbard gives numerous examples of projects that are already enacting aspects of Storyland. Goldbard herself says she’s afraid of utopias and emphasizes that, like our lives, Storyland will be “messy and imperfect.”
One skeptic in her audience at the conference pointed out that we still need plumbers and financial advisers and teachers; we can’t live in a world of pure imagination. Goldbard responded, rightly enough, that Storyland is a metaphor and her critic was interpreting it too literally.
We live in a material world, of course, but that world – its houses and offices, its cities and bridges – must be imagined before it can be created. We imagined being able to fly long before airplanes were invented.
It’s telling, I think, that a number of other writers and thinkers are predicting the same paradigm shift at work, though they use different metaphors.
Daniel Pink, once Al Gore’s chief speechwriter, uses the two sides of the brain as his metaphor for the new world we’re entering. “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind,” he says. “The era of ‘left brain’ dominance, and the Information Age that it engendered, are giving way to a new world in which ‘right brain’ qualities – inventiveness, empathy, meaning – predominate.” The qualities he sees as necessary in our future world bear a startling similarity to those Goldbard emphasizes.
Then there’s Joanna Macy, a writer and Buddhist philosopher brought to my attention by a friend. Macy’s term is “The Great Turning,” which she describes as “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”
Macy argues that this requires “a profound shift in our perception of reality – and that shift is happening now, both as cognitive revolution and spiritual awakening.” Perhaps the most visible dimension of the Great Turning, she says, is the environmental movement and the many actions undertaken to slow the damage to our planet.
For me, a profound lesson in how imagination might transform our world came on my first visit to Paris. I remember walking through the streets marvelling at how even the smallest window display was a gem of design, and how that attention to colour and line reflected the aesthetic beauty of the city itself, with the river flowing through its heart.
How amazing, I thought, that a city could give such priority to beauty! What a different vision of a city than one in which functionality and cost – all too common in North America – are the main criteria. To me, it was an incontestable example of how what a society perceives as important gets translated into a real-world environment.
Storyland isn’t going to arrive all in one piece, of course. And Datastan isn’t going to be thrown out the window entirely. It’s a question of balance, of imagining into being a world that nourishes us on many levels, that values the intangible as well as the tangible.
Goldbard quotes the 18th-century teacher Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov, who says, “The antidote to despair is to remember the world to come.” A paradox, of course: how do we remember the future? Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that we only remember the past by using our imaginations to picture our memories. That picturing is just as necessary for the future to come into being, too.
If you’d like to read Arlene Goldbard’s speech in full, go to http://www.icasc.ca/Creative_Conversations_story and click on the PDF entitled “Datastan Storyland” at the bottom of the page. For more information on Daniel Pink and Joanna Macy, visit www.danpink.com and www.joannamacy.net.
Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s
latest book is The Goldfish Dancer:
Stories and Novellas.