Imagining Our Climate Changed Future

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Climate change has rapidly emerged as a major threat to our future. Indeed the increasingly dire projections of increasing global temperatures and escalating extreme weather events highlight the existential challenge that climate change presents for humanity.

In popular and political discourse, climate change is depicted as an environmental or ‘natural’ problem that requires ‘rational’ responses based on scientific evidence. However, there is also a need to view climate change as a social and politically embedded phenomenon, linked to patterns of production and consumption and the ideological assumptions that underpin the economic system and our collective sensemaking processes.

Along with colleagues Daniel Nyberg, Christian De Cock and Gail Whiteman, over the last two years I have been involved in guest editing a special issue of the journal Organization focusing on how we can imagine alternatives to our current path of ever escalating greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth. Entitled ‘Future Imaginings: Organizing in Response to Climate Change’, the special issue includes a range of papers which consider not only how climate change presents real, physical threats, but also challenges the way we conceive of the broader economic, political and social order. 

For instance, David Levy and André Spicer  explore how different forms of social imagining have emerged in popular and academic discourses surrounding climate change. They identify four specific climate imaginaries which they term, ‘fossil fuels forever’, ‘climate apocalypse’, ‘techno-market’, and ‘sustainable lifestyle’. They find that while newer imaginaries such as the ‘techno-market’ and ‘sustainable lifestyle’ have developed a potential to challenge the traditional fossil fuel value regime, the ‘fossil fuel forever’ imaginary has maintained its dominance by best connecting with an existing value regime and ‘with popular interests and identities, thereby having a broader resonance with people’s everyday lives’.

A different illustration of how capitalist social imaginaries are instituted in terms of climate change is provided by Jennifer Garland, Ruthanne Huising, and Jeroen Struben in their exploration of the role of visual imagery in corporate advertising for more ‘climate-friendly’ automobiles. Through analysis of Toyota Prius car advertisements they show how a utopian, or ‘hyperreal’ future is presented as achievable through further consumption. These images re-emphasize a social imaginary in which we pretend we can control and tame nature through technological innovation.

Imagining the future also reflects the past. An engaging illustration of this is provided by Jonathan Gosling and Peter Case who explore the allegorical parallels between the cultural collapse of indigenous Americans facing the catastrophe of European colonization and the contemporary threat of climate change. Through collective dreaming, a dystopian future was imagined as an alternative which arguably assisted in coming to terms with catastrophe where ‘existentially significant activities are no longer possible’. Their article raises the question of whether a similar form of collective dreaming might be applied to the current unfolding environmental and social catastrophe of climate change.

How corporations imagine the future is also an intriguing question. Jane Lê considers this issue in her study of the development of the Athabasca ‘oil sands’ and notes how resource companies have no intention of halting the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and concomitant environmental destruction. Where development is seen as limited or curtailed this occurs only where the strategic risks of increased regulation or more profitable alternative activities are identified. For many fossil fuel companies it seems there is a future imagining in which ‘business as usual’ will continue irrespective of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Indeed, as Bill McKibben notes in an invited commentary, capturing the public debate and shaping the limits of government regulation is for many of these companies cheaper and less threatening to their business models than meaningfully responding to the challenges of climate change. If we are to have a serious chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees this would mean leaving 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground. However, within capitalist social imaginary significations, this ‘irrationality’ makes no sense.

The special issue concludes with two interviews conducted with leading practitioners engaged in the political battle over climate change. Firstly, climate scientist Michael Mann provides a telling example of the lengths climate change deniers, and their allies in conservative politics and the media, are willing to go to in attacking those whose research raises ‘inconvenient truths’. Based on his personal experience, Professor Mann outlines how his work in documenting climate change over time (popularised in the well-known ‘hockey stick’ graph) became a subject of unparalleled political attack. From a somewhat different perspective, environmentalist and consultant Paul Gilding outlines his vision of a climate change affected future and what the ‘Great Disruption’ will mean for society and our prevailing economic assumptions. This is a future that is almost beyond our imagining, in which billions are likely to perish and our world will be radically transformed.

Overall, our special issue highlights the need to critically engage with social, economic and political imaginaries in tackling the conceptual and organizational challenges climate change poses. Only by questioning current sanitised and market-oriented interpretations of the environment, and embracing the catharsis and loss that climate change will bring, can we open up space for new future imaginings.

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