community creativity nature public policy sustainability

Why we need imagination in the face of ethical inaction

Utopia as seen by Thomas More. Picture courtesy of Cornell University Library

When Greta Thurnberg addressed members of Parliament a couple of weeks ago, she didn’t mince her words. ‘You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in the answers that will allow you to carry on as if nothing has happened,’ she told them.

It’s easy to see how that conclusion could be drawn. But in some ways it’s worse than that.

Wanting to carry on as if nothing has happened is only one aspect of our environmental crisis. Worse is the sense of powerlessness to change things, not because we don’t want things to change but because we perceive more pressing problems.

In my work on green spaces and wellbeing with the University of Sheffield, one aspect of the research was to examine decision-making processes – or what we termed ‘logics of inaction’.

Logics of inaction are good or rational reasons for not doing the right thing. Many of them are familiar. We’d love to do the right thing – whether it’s investing in the natural environment or taking action to cut carbon emissions – but we can’t afford to: there isn’t enough money in the budget.

There are more insidious arguments. We’d love to do the right thing but we can’t because it doesn’t grow the economy – and governments stand or fall politically on the state of the economy. We’d love to do the right thing but we don’t have the authority – the finance department or  Treasury or someone else more senior says no.

But the most powerful logic of inaction is the ethical one. This is where to act is presented as an ethical dilemma: we can’t invest in green spaces and the natural environment because there are older people in desperate need of care, or because there are people dependent on food banks; we can’t invest in reducing carbon emissions at a local level because we have a duty to protect children from abuse.

Presented like this, the ethical dilemmas are often regrettable but apparently clear: the immediate human need for care and housing comes before the needs of other species, or before the needs of humans to have a clean and sustainable living environment. Maslow’s hierarchy kicks in with a vengeance, and what we need for long term wellbeing becomes relabelled as ‘nice to have’.

We could see this as an example of what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘misrecognition’: what is really an issue of the allocation (or withholding) of resources in order to satisfy the interests of the powerful becomes devolved to local decision-makers as a question of the most ethical way to divide an inadequate cake. Abundance is relabelled as scarcity.

We don’t lack abundance in terms of public resources: to pick just one example, the Help to Buy scheme, ostensibly launched to make home ownership more affordable, has helped to inflate the profits of just one housebuilder, Persimmon, to more than £1 billion in 2019. No wonder it’s been described as ‘the crack cocaine of the housing industry’. Yet at local level, a mentality of scarcity is reinforced by the denuding of local government to a level that the Local Government Association argues is ‘pushing councils to the brink’.

So at local level there are indeed ethical choices because resources have been restricted. But they are choices forced on local decision-makers by others: the issue is not one of ethics but of the exercise of power. But misrecognised as an ethical judgement, local decision-makers put on their scarcity glasses.

Last week I was part of an eclectic group taking part in the Modern Nature symposium at the Hepworth in Wakefield, organised by the Co-Constructive Humanities group at the University of Sheffield. There were horticulturalists, architects, ancient historians, poets and more.

Thinking about what such an ensemble could offer to break the mentality of scarcity highlights the particular role that the humanities can have in informing social policy. In particular, the humanities prompt us to use imagination: to see things differently, and to see what otherwise goes unnoticed. The heart of imagination is paying attention.

Imagination can (and should) be unashamedly utopian: utopian in putting new possibilities before us, and in using the possible to critique the actual. It is an antidote to misrecognition. It allows us to envisage a future where we don’t have to choose between protecting children and protecting the natural environment, or between cutting carbon and having the essentials of food, warmth and shelter.

As the sociologist Ruth Levitas puts it:

Utopia is born out of a conviction and two questions. The conviction is ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’. The questions are, ’how, then, should we live?’ and ‘how can that be?’

By allowing ourselves space for imagination, and permitting the attention to detail that imagination requires, we can find ways to start answering those questions.


By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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