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Our environmental crisis requires political solutions, not technological ones

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Whether it be through the wildfires on the West Coast enveloped the New York skyline smoke or historic floods in Germany in 2021, the signs of the climate crisis were everywhere. A group of the world’s leading environmentalists summed up humanity’s predicament when they recently argued that our ultimate goal now as a species is to “avoid a horrible future.”

Until now, we have responded to the threat of ecological collapse primarily by trying to change our technology by moving away from internal combustion engines or by making solar energy cheaper and more efficient. Many politicians, scientists and opinion leaders believe that we are moving in the right direction. Their main concern is whether we will move fast enough to avoid the greatest environmental disasters.

These ideas may seem incompatible with reality. And that’s exactly what I mean: our inability to conceptualize bold change points to a crisis of political imagination at the root of what political scientist Karen Litfin calls “a growing socio-ecological multi-crisis.”

And I refer to the term on purpose multi-crisis and not climate change because what we observe is a many interconnected crises. The public debate revolves around cutting emissions to slow global warming, but the harsh truth is that even if we had a magic button that could stop all emissions overnight, even if we could stay within 1.5 degrees of warming (now an unlikely outcome), we will still be left with a host of other existential crises. we remain attached to ideologies that caused this mess in the first place, such as extractivism, the belief that the Earth is ours to exploit, and landscapeism, the idea that humans are superior to all other species.

Loss of biodiversity and ecosystem collapse caused by countless causes beyond climate change, from chemical pollutants entering the environment to damming rivers and invasive species carried around the world through global trade and travel. The plight of each endangered species is different, and there is no single technical solution that can solve this crisis. There is a plus phosphate crisis nitrogen cycles, overfishing of reservoirs, overfishing, deforestation – the list goes on and on.

Once we understand this complexity, it becomes clear that we need to rethink our society and our future. Recognizing that climate change is just one facet of a larger multi-crisis can seem paralyzing or even hopeless; but it is, in fact, liberating. It helps us realize that some of our current paradigms are simply not suitable for sustainable development, and that it’s time to get really creative.

Political imagination is powerful because it can turn seemingly radical ideas into achievable goals. We have seen this many times in history: the mass resistance of political activists helped to wear down the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cold War dissidents first imagined democracy in Eastern Europe in underground works called self-published works, before their societies began to see it as a real possibility. History teaches us that the path to profound change is paved with radical imagination. It also teaches us that while change can happen faster than we can expect, it rarely happens overnight, so we need to start now.

What can political imagination allow us to do differently today? Instead of an economy driven by the dictates of endless growth, we could steer our trajectory in the direction of a stable economy, even while preserving markets and healthy competition between businesses. We can pass legislation that recognizes the rights of future generations and the rights of other species to autonomy, allowing the judiciary to uphold a much higher standard of environmental protection than is possible under the current framework.

Last summer a landmark study suggested that we are seeing early signs of a collapsing Gulf Stream, and the IPCC published its the most important warning about the seriousness of climate change. The urgency could hardly be greater. Adopting a radical political imagination as a way forward would have a dramatic impact on how our civilization relates to the natural world and the future, which in turn would bring us closer to solving the multicrisis.

So how do we foster a new way of thinking politically? Diversify the media conversation, giving way to environmental crises other than climate change that are less likely to benefit from linear technological solutions that fit into our current economic framework. It is equally important to talk seriously about complementary solutions, such as intergenerational equity and reducing growth. In our education system, we can shift the focus from “human capital development” to “education of imaginative potential.” And we can fight for voting rights, maybe even try to introduce proportional representation into our politics, to allow pockets of imagining alternative futures to enter the political mainstream.

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