The Collective Imagination

by Deborah Curtis

Deborah Curtis

As I type these words I feel the arc of history weighing heavily on my keys. As individuals within our human species, each one of us profoundly knows somewhere deep down, we are either in our final hour or our finest.1

Our own mortality is what makes life really precious and glitteringly magical - but to cause the mortality of our species? As well as the millions of species that we share our life on the planet with? That is a huge responsibility on all of us – and we must stand up and face this challenge or give up and face the consequences.2


Last Friday I spent a profound day with the willowy-wise Jonathan Olwenyi. An environmentalist still in his 20s, his organisation AYOWECCA Uganda restores ecosystems and runs education programmes which are building resilience in his people against the impending ravages of climate change. Jonathan is from an indigenous community of semi-nomadic agriculturalists and only he and one of his sisters have received a formal education (out of 7 siblings). Two weeks ago, he put his trust in the universe. For the first time he left his country and found his way to the concrete flyovers of Glasgow to enter COP26 with no planned invitation or accommodation or even travel money. He was on a mission to speak to any government ministers, policy makers and journalists who would listen to his story, on behalf of his community who would otherwise not be heard.

Our conversations that day fed our imaginations, giving us both a powerful glimpse into the world views of fellow humans, from every continent, who are using our intelligence, wisdom, energy and growing cultural power to influence those who are open to listen, hear and take action.

The power of imagination

In this short musing on where we are in the trajectory of human experience, I am going to champion the idea that human imagination – real freedom of thought and invention is the highest leverage point in transforming the dysfunctional systems that are threatening our very existence.3 Opening up our minds will empower us to collaborate and work together. This moment of extreme danger where for the first time in history all 8 billion of us share a common enemy in our extractive and destructive systems within our collective power to transform: especially those of us implicated within the exploitative structures of our fossil fuel addicted societies. We have a responsibility to listen, learn and build empathy for those most affected by our behaviours and who, ironically, have the lightest carbon footprint.

To get to this place of cooperation and collaboration our minds must be not only able to paradigm shift – to change our beliefs, traditions and habits, indeed our whole mindset – but also to see that all beliefs, realities and experiences are in a continual state of flux and that is to be celebrated and embraced, not feared and resisted. When we can free ourselves from the constraints of our mindsets, like the search for the holy grail in the lore of the ancients, we will realise that this cup of abundance is already in our hands - if only we could but be fully alive to it.

Skills needed to transform our present and build our future

These crucial days require a recalibration of our priorities. These must start with understanding the kind of soft skills and tools we will all need to create a future where we could flourish and how to value those attributes and empower our children and young people with the conditions to develop them.

For example, human curiosity is vital to navigate our present circumstances as well as our future wellbeing as we seek out new ideas and ways of discovering the world, opening up our minds to other possibilities. Being complacent or closed minded, stubbornly making ourselves or others right or wrong shuts off the possibility of what could be. This concept is diametrically opposed to our current educational structures or social values where we are continually seeking the ‘right answer’ or the ‘best life’.

We need systems thinking education – where the connections between ecology and economics, politics, sociology, psychology, and technology are understood. Cross-curricular learning is key to this learning. An understanding that how we consume, extract resources, our carbon footprints, supply chains and logistics are interconnected and inextricably linked to our understanding of social inequalities and the wider climate justice debate. This is key to successful problem solving and must be at the heart of the holistic educational syllabus needed for our future – and if adopted, would prove very useful during future intergovernmental negotiations.

Critical thinking – the ability to be able to use deep thinking to process complexity – is also essential. We must gain mastery over our increasingly short attention spans and not revert to quick instinctive knee jerk responses. We must develop the abilities to decipher news and information from mischief and fake news and to navigate the complexity of contemporary media. To build an understanding that all knowledge, which we already know or take for granted or presume, is the learnt behaviour of narrow or fixed paradigms.

The human animal has been successful due to its ability to communicate, cooperate and build collaboration. These instinctive skills have been sullied by societal values prioritising competition and self-interest. These values of competition are built into the structures of our education systems, laws and organisational systems and yet now, more than ever, it is vital we work together to problem solve the seismic transformations needed.

Within this competitive culture, confidence and oratory are destructive attributes elevating the worst features of ourselves. But in the regenerative collaborative culture needed to build our future the attributes of confidence as well as oratory are vital for using our voice, empowering leadership, inviting each of us to take responsibility, build a shared vision and ensure resilience in our citizenship.

In the UK, our high tech, low wage economy has prioritised office working over manufacturing, and now it is crucial that we once again value physical and manual dexterity and the agility to make, do, mend and construct. These skills have been lost in our centralised, profligate and wasteful culture where we expect to order new stuff at the click of a mouse with instant gratification. Our regenerative future calls for a skilled population that can repair and alter, adapt and recycle, decorate and embellish, using cherished tools taken care of and passed on to the next generation to ensure we treasure our resources and our ecosystems.

But the most important muscle of all is to exercise the power of our inner worlds to be able to empathise, to see other perspectives, to imagine a future that is profoundly and transformatively different to our present. If we can imagine it and love it, we can make it.

Collective Imagination and transformative education

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For nearly a quarter of a century, I have been inspiring a collective imagination towards a greener, fairer, wiser future4. Through my organisation we are now building collaborative structures that will make this as effective and broad as possible – and to inspire and form alliances with experts, institutions, regional, national and international movements that have global influence.

For these movements to be self-sustaining, replicating and viral, we are designing a new kind of public education programme, one which encourages transformative learning5 within which discovery and profound shifts can take place. This learning inspired the apocryphal Eureka!6 moment of Archimedes in the bath or the ‘Aha’ moment expressed by Newton under his apple tree as each ‘discovered’ a new way of thinking about the science of the physical universe. Indeed, the historical period in Europe during which Newton was discovering the principals of gravity, was even called ‘the Enlightenment’ because there were so many shifting beliefs and artistic and scientific discoveries made.

I propose that we are in a new age of enlightenment, vying for the cultural heart and survival of our species as we rapidly transition away from our extractive addiction to fossil fuels towards a culture of regenerative balance and distributed decentralised power. It is hard to maintain the Stubborn Optimism necessary7 in the light of most indicators still moving the graphs inexorably in the opposite direction, but as well as the many tipping points in view towards runaway planetary climate change and disaster, there are many tipping points appearing in the human world that can give us real hope8.

The human biome, civil rights, diversity and inclusion

It is imperative that we ensure that all people are engaged in this enlightenment process to enable the Newtons and the Archimedes (and indeed the Curies and Seacoles) of the future to flourish in an ecosystem that encourages new ideas, debate and discovery. We must create a healthy biome that allows the mycelium to discover and transfer nutrients to where they are most needed to ensure the whole ecosystem is in balance. Systems in nature are self-adjusting and in constant flow and flux to ensure balance and stability. Never constant and always recalibrating themselves, they are fluid and self-regulating.

Our bodies, families, communities, organisations and democracies can also be balancing systems with feedback loops that allow for constant adjustments to ensure the health and wellbeing of the system itself. In a colony of ants or a hive of bees every individual is clear about their role in the greater community. Their task is to keep the population healthy, nourished and free from threats and dangers. This thinking led Jonathan (our protagonist from my introduction) to put himself in considerable danger to make a difference to his people.

In our European, indeed, British mindset we cannot really understand this selflessness. We put ourselves in personal jeopardy to challenge ourselves and to be in competition with others (think of the popularity of marathons or extreme sports). But we rarely do this for the common good of the whole – although there are notable and influential exceptions – such as NHS and all emergency workers, past civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi, more recently young visionary activists such as Marcus Rashford, and Greta Thunberg and elder activists such as the Insulate Britain campaign or the nonagenarian David Attenborough.

These people have been the catalysts responsible for raising awareness and transforming the thinking and behaviours of large numbers of people. Often throughout history, such leaders of thought have been expended or even assassinated by the systems they are transforming: but always the legacy is of a transformed human mindset that can only be challenged by repressive regimes. Consider female emancipation. It would only be through a fascist regime that we might revert the female franchise in a democratic system that has emancipated one half of its population. These paradigm shifts seem unachievable, indeed almost impossible to imagine before they happen and then so logical and desirable that we cannot imagine them being any other way.

From human slavery in the Americas to the public acceptability of smoking we can see examples of cultural belief indicators which were reversed and the unimaginable became imaginable. However, without the public transformative learning programmes that accompany these seismic shifts, unhealthy undercurrents such as racism and addiction continue to poison our communities. The reinforcing feedback loops with our systems are pernicious and can entrench inequality and resentment on all sides and continue to polarise populations.

So, the first step in our collective imagination generator is to include everyone whatever their cultural, socio-economic background, gender, sexuality, neuro difference or physical ability. Our education systems, as well as our institutions and organisations, must reflect as well as value everyone contribution for the biodiverse ecosystem to flourish.

The hubris of humans.

The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘nature’ as ‘a phenomenon of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.

This articulates the absurd disconnect that has taken place in our psychology as we have distanced ourselves from nature as if we were different and special. It is clear that we are witnessing the unintended consequences of this entrenched attitude. Our extractive pillaging of natural resources for our profligate cultural needs, has destabilised whole ecosystems, with the resultant floods, droughts, forest and bush fires and pestilence coming as a surprise or uncomfortable distraction to everyone except the people (and wildlife) who live through them. Our industrial age agricultural practices and land management have moved so far from the wisdom of the indigenous communities that we ignore how we are killing the soil, destabilising the balancing systems of nature’s diversity and creating monocultural deserts that have no resilience to climate change or any other environmental threats our behaviour has triggered.

The second crucial step in addressing and inspiring the collective imagination is to ask how we live as part of nature not separate from it and re-inspire empathy and love for our natural habitats in the contemporary human.

Health and wellbeing

As we emerge from the global pandemic there are multiple stresses and feedback loops all coming together in a perfect storm – culturally as well as environmentally. The crises in mental, physical and spiritual health across all sections of our society are other examples of weaknesses in our balancing of our systems. In our regenerative and transformational future, reinvigorating empathy and connections with nature as well as a deeper understanding of supply chains for food, clothing and other consumables will empower our natural instincts and inspire health and wellbeing. Rewilding towns and cities as well as our landscapes in partnership with the hyperlocal communities will ensure that that empathy is deepened, and healthier systems encouraged.

The next cog in our collective imagination generating machine is to ensure that mental, physical and spiritual health and wellbeing are at the heart of our practice. Do our education systems, personal decisions, public behaviours and national laws, rebalance us, and encourage health and well-being in ourselves as well as our planet?

Living into our future

We cannot grow our imagination around a transformed future unless we have the fertile ground to seed. We need to be inspired by the knowledge of new regenerative industries and opportunities that are forming as old extractive industries are collapsing. How will we play as well as work? What will be the leisure activities that will give us joy and meaning as well as have a low impact on our environment? It is imperative that within our progressive educational experiences, we can access up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art examples of developing, flourishing and regenerative local as well as global industries. We owe it to our young people to offer a taste of the new kinds of cultural experiences that our regenerative world will inspire. Decentralised entertainment made by everyone as well as valuing perspectives shared by artists and visionaries.

Community and transformation

Community bonds are also vital to our future wellbeing as we transition away from fossil fuels. Building more effective relationships and feedback loops within democratic systems will enable all voices to be heard, ideas contributed and collaborative energy harnessed. Our communities are what makes us human and nourishes us. From families, to neighbourhoods and workplaces, we need to find shared empathy and building bridges – remember what we share, without making each other wrong for holding a differing world view. The rebuilding of local as well as an empathy with national and global is key to our successful transition to a greener, fairer, wiser world.

This is the final cog in our transformative imagination machine.

Crossing the Rubicon

We know that we have a huge task ahead of us. To cut carbon emission in half by 2030 is going to require everything to transform. From our financial systems, our political social and cultural paradigms, to our personal relationship with work, leisure, food, clothing and travel, as well as our bonds with our neighbours and a recognition of our own privilege.

Will we be stepping across the Rubicon with a small army to take more power for ourselves with disastrous consequences? Or will we be a sea of people crossing the river into a new world of possibilities. Are we brave enough to begin the greatest adventure humanity has yet undertaken and to become the unstoppable generations that transforms our landscapes, our oceans and our cities creating a greener, fairer and wiser world?

What is needed for this vision to be possible, is a vast collective feat of imagination and the intelligent and ambitious education programmes to generate such a vision.

1 Figueres, 2020, Could Be ‘Humanity’s Finest Hour’: Why a Former Climate Leader Is Hopeful Despite Everything. 2 Figueres, 2021, State of the Planet Address. 3 H. Meadows, 2018, Thinking in Systems. 4 With the House of Fairy Tales young person’s arts charity 5 Mezirow, 1997, Transformative learning: Theory to practice. 6 Eureka – loosely translated as ‘I have found it’. 7 Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, 2020, The future we choose: surviving the climate crisis. 8 This term was first coined by sociologist Morton Grodzins who unfortunately applied it within a racist thesis about demographic changes in neighbourhoods. It was popularised in Malcolm Gladwell in his book published in 2000 and is now used widely within economics and ecology to describe reinforcing feedback loops.