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Elizabeth Kolbert created an evocative image in a recent New Yorker editorial: she described the auto executives in Washington as men with explosives strapped to their chests, bringing nothing to the table but the promise that if forced to suffer, they won’t suffer alone.
Imagine, instead, that an auto executive had come to Washington armed with a vision – such as a new line of ultraefficient cars leveraging carbon-fiber technology a la Amory Lovins.
We are having a crisis – the Econaclypse, the Great Decession, call it what you will – and like the Great Depression it will define an entire generation. But it really is a crisis of imagination, not of economics. Wendell Berry:
We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper, or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimmingpools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations. An excerpt from “In the Presence of Fear” by Wendell Berry
This is important, so I’m going to say it again: We are in a crisis because too many people have lacked a certain kind of imagination. We all know that everything exists in an ecosystem, but it’s possible to pretend that it doesn’t, or that the system will be able to suck up whatever abuse you happen to do to it. The people who made the sub-prime epidemic happen did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of credit. The people who made gas guzzlers did not imagine that they were destroying the ecosystem of energy evolution.
Now, however, those connections have been made clear. Now the thing we cannot afford is for people to strap on their unimagination like bodybelts of explosives and demand that the unimagined consequences of their destructive actions be allowed to continue. What they are failing to see is that their terrorist demand – for life not to change – is impossible. And what they are failing to imagine is that change can create a better life, both for them and the entire ecosystem they live in.
This is why serious games such as World Without Oil and Superstruct are such an important development. These games get at the root of the problem: they encourage imagination and the massive building and sharing of future visions. They put our collective intelligence to work on figuring out what’s happening, what’s possible and what’s fair. And they open-source this vision so that anyone can understand and participate. Wouldn’t it be grand if the legacy of our current economic crisis is not survival, but leadership in imagining how we can all make the future better? Photo by brndnprkns via Flickr.
No one has epitomized our yo-yo economic thinking lately than Thomas Friedman, who followed a column urging let’s go shopping with another urging thrift. This is the dilemma du jour: which companies do we bail out, and which do we leave to drown?
Phrased another way, how do we have a smart recession?
The answer I think is pretty commonsensically clear: we bail out those things that lead to the future we want to have, and let the others paddle on their own.
Case in point: U.S. automakers. Are they leading us to the future? This is a no-brainer: one glance at their sales figures answers this question. If any question remains, consult The Economist, which states flatly that the future for automakers are how well they sell in India and China. Bad news, Ford and GM: China has fuel efficiency standards and India is implementing them. Turns out the years the Big Three spent opposing fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. were a bad career move and the argument that they needed low standards to be competitive was exactly wrong.
There’s a crowdsourced component to this as well. In these econocalyptic times, people are being more cautious with their money. There’s a commonsense logic at work, which is why people aren’t buying gas-guzzling American cars or cheap lead-encrusted Chinese cra- uh, goods. The econocalypse has forced people to begin thinking ahead and making the future part of their calculations. Now, if we can just extend this thinking into what sort of economy we stimulate going forward (and what kind we don’t waste our dollars on), the recession will not be another example of “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Photo by oxmour via Flickr.