Friday, May 4, 2012

Imagining the possibilities

On our way back from Detroit a few nights ago, Kristin, Ethan, Marwa and I got into a discussion about something that has come up time and again over the past two years: What does it matter whether or not individuals do anything about the problems we face? For, if things don't happen on a larger scale, nothing matters in the end.

I have written about this many, many times before, as have others on this blog, but each time I think about this particular issue, I feel as if I am thinking about it anew. It seems that with each passing day, the power of taking matters into our own, individual hands--not in the sense of doing whatever we want with our world to destroy it, but imagining new possibilities for our own lives--seems more and more complex, yet more and more compelling.

When it comes down to it, the only way in which possibilities of any kind are envisioned is if someone actually does something, if someone brings the possibility into the world. Take, for example, new technologies. Radically new technologies can have the capacity of outmoding older ones, depending on who backs them. We grant all sorts of protections to such "entrepreneurs" and "innovators" who "invent". They get intellectual property rights and patents. They can make money off of their ideas by selling them. They are seen as visionary, and they are seen as essential to creating a utopian world. It doesn't really matter, though, what one does as long as there are social structures and institutions that support what you do. Our social structures, as they stand, cheer and laud such people.

Many people would claim that the lives that we live are based on all that we know. I disagree. There are things we know that fundamentally question everything we do--from driving to work, to eating food that has travelled fifteen hundred miles before arriving on our tables, to being able to buy the latest electronics from China by clicking a mouse in Ann Arbor. So, what about imagining possibilities that are counter to the grain of culture? First of all, most social institutions that exist in this culture are not built to accept their demise. (Take, for example, corporations, which are social institutions and organisations that we think must grow ad infinitum.) But more fundamentally, my sense is that people are fearful of new possibilities because they will make outmoded what they have held on to dearly--we have built our entire lives on assumptions; on "experts" that know what is "best" for the economy, for the environment, for public policy; on stories and myths about industrialism, growth, and efficiency that we have to tell ourselves to make us feel good about what we are doing in our day-to-day lives. Therefore, for someone to come along and question all of these foundations will make most anyone throw up their guards.

The uncertainties of large scale policies on our daily lives make people uncomfortable with accepting them. What would it mean if everyone had to have health insurance? Well, there are a group of people that are scared of such possibilities because they think "government will take control of Medicare", that there will be loss of "freedom" and "liberty". Their opponents may think that these fears are unfounded, but actually, they are real, for they are felt and voiced. And so when it comes down to actually doing something new, in creating a fundamental change, it cannot start from anywhere else but our own lives. Understanding the scale at which new possibilities much be introduced is essential. The scale of individuals, of our daily lives make possibilities more tenable. Talking about possibilities and trying to live them openly allow others to be engaged in shaping these possibilities. For example, when Rowena said that learning primitive skills made her feel more peaceful, it was very easy to accept this, because I could feel and sense her peace. This made learning primitive skills more compelling to me, as I am sure it did to anyone that spent any amount of time around her. It was clear that she wasn't a "hippie" or "crazy". She was just doing something new. She was imagining new possibilities.

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