The Imagination and its Uses
Updated: Mar 8
Below is an excerpt from my book Global Hive - What The Bee Crisis Teaches Us About Building a Sustainable World referring to the use of the imagination in the economic sphere:
... In Switzerland recently I was impressed by the high level of direct democracy. There are voting booths everywhere and everyone is ready to participate in public affairs. The alpine republic exemplifies civil rule. Minor matters and major affairs are decided upon by a population prepared to shape its own future. Laws are made by the people for the people. Regulations are localised to suit the situation at hand. I would like to see a voting booth for global concerns such as the protection of our environment, the salvation of the bee: a means to directly participate in decisions relevant to us all. The environmental crisis is a global concern demanding global action: deforestation of one part of the world affects all others and rising sea levels encroach on all coasts. Pollution is never just local and climate change is ubiquitous. As problems cross borders our national structures are powerless. A worldwide crisis demands worldwide eco-democracy. A global voting booth for planetary concerns would provide the means to engage the economist, politician and visionary in every one of us.
To the intellectual mindset this might seem impossible on logistic and political grounds. There is no infrastructure in place to deal with the administrative complexities, nor is there a unified political body to implement the results. But what seems utopian to the intellect is well within reach for the imagination.
To the imaginal mind eco-democracy is not only possible, it is already established. The global voting booths are already there. The infrastructure is in place and well equipped to accommodate all levels of civil participation. I am talking about the most widespread, effective, sophisticated and powerful of all voting booths: the cash register. This is the global voting booth: an unequalled tool to take responsibility and vote for the better or worse of this planet.
Here our daily choices have immediate effect. Every one of our decisions subtly alters the world. We can buy coffee or fair-trade coffee, or coffee that is fair-trade and organic or even biodynamic. Every purchase is a vote. Our dollar is our most political tool. What we spend flows back to the product’s origins, and contributes to the proper or improper treatment of land, of workers, farmers, societies. With our daily decisions we endorse better or worse ways of transport, more or less trustworthy companies, wholesalers, retailers. We say yes or no to artificial fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides. We prevent or promote sustainable farming, support or neglect fair returns. We have a hand in what happens to the land, the seas, the air: we put our ten cents worth of opinion on one side or another of the global scale.
The cashier registers our global care. It is our thermostat of environmental awareness. Compared to this our political choices leave us powerless because they hand responsibility to parties, politicians and governments. The true political arena is the global voting booth. In the parliament of dollars our opinions are registered and put into action. Here every one of our choices changes the world: we join the battle against economics without care, and commerce without conscience.
As consumers we are intimately connected to the world. This tin made in Poland contains sardines from Norway, olive oil from Italy, garlic from Spain and spices from all over the world. Every week our shopping trolleys fill with olives from Portugal, cheeses from Holland, sugar from Brazil, butter from New Zealand, tea from Taiwan and rice from India. What we purchase in Perth today becomes reality in Indonesia tomorrow. Every shopping trip is a tour around the world, every meal a culinary circumnavigation of the earth. It is the same with all products. Wool from Australia may be spun in England, dyed in Italy and manufactured in China. Complexity increases when we step from simple products to elaborate machinery. Everything comes from everywhere. Every car is an assembly of the world. ‘Made in China’ is a partial truth, ‘Made on Earth’ the complete reality.
This makes conscious consumption a worldwide feedback loop, while thoughtless consumption tightens a noose around the neck of this earth. Whatever we choose, we support. A conventional product may be farmed without regard for the earth: it may deplete the topsoil, spoil the water, pollute the air, diminish biodiversity, impact on forests. It may have travelled halfway around the world, accumulated unnecessary food-miles, wasted fuel and lost much of its freshness. When we buy a burger from a food chain we salivate on unsavoury practices, social exploitation, monoculture, artificial fertilizers and pesticides that burden our stomach as they burden the earth. Through every financial transaction we become poison or nutrient for the earth, engage ourselves in monoculture or diversity, suppression or liberation. We need to ask the compassionate questions. Is this a spoonful of honey poison for the world? Does this jar seal the destiny of bees? Will saving these forty cents pollute a river? Will this additional cost sustain topsoil, this cheque save a forest, this transaction counter climate change?
The answer to these questions must not remain abstract. Knowledge may stir our conscience but not alter our action. The mindset that allows beekeepers who love their bees to treat them cruelly will likely encourage us to continue with consumption without care. What is needed is economic imagination. The more accurately we imagine pesticides penetrating the soil, polluting the groundwater and entering plants, bugs, bees, birds and beasts, the more we feel responsible. The moment I imagine in detail, I am connected. And the moment I feel connected I care: the possibility of conscience turns into actual compassion and compassion into action.
This picture can be developed further: we can picture the circulation of goods as an exterior circulation of our blood. In this picture we become the perceptive heart mediating between what we take and what we give. Products lose abstraction if we can see, feel and sense them all the way back to their origin. We need to imagine the money for a bottle of milk flowing back to the udder of the cow, to the farmer and the land he cares for, the soil he treats, the landscape he maintains, the culture he upholds. And we need to feel ourselves as part of this money flow and all its effects. The taste on our tongue is the lesser part of our transaction. What matters is how our actions taste to the world. While it is important to buy healthy food for our well-being, it is more important to buy it for the benefit of the earth. When we consider the latter we become the heart of the global economic circulation, the sense organ that maintains the world.
This awareness is the morality we need to maintain our planet. In the Middle ages morality centred around synagogues, mosques, churches. There were few choices and everyone lived, worked, prayed and died inside a close circle of circumstance. The world is local no more. Every one of our actions has worldwide effects. Morality is in the market place. The department store is the cathedral and the shopping mall the congregation hall.
Without imagination, consumption is ignorant egoism, a selfish and ultimately destructive cult. With imagination the necessity of self-care becomes the opportunity to care for the world, and the shopping mall of consumption transforms into a global hive.