What We Got Here Is a Failure to Imagine: The Economy and Environment, History and Happiness, Peace and Politics

cool hand luke“Modern war and modern industry are much alike, not just in their technology and methodology but also in this failure of imagination.” Wendell Berry, “Peaceableness Toward Enemies,” 1991.

“Leadership from the top—in government, in the corporate economy, in the universities— . . . is utterly lacking in imagination.” Wendell Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” 2007.

“To have a place . . . to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.” Wendell Berry, Jefferson Lecture, 2012.

Slightly rephrasing a famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is a failure to imagine.” The phrase came to me after reading a “A Statement against the War in Vietnam” (1968) by Wendell Berry. He said, “We have been led to our present shameful behavior in Vietnam by this failure of imagination, this failure to perceive a relation between our ideals and our lives.” The words quoted at the beginning of this essay and other sentences related to his pacifistic thinking indicate that he has much more to say on the subject. To Berry’s mind, our insufficiency of imagination has contributed to many of our contemporary problems, whether personal, economic, environmental, social, cultural, or political.

In a previous review essay on Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, I quoted from Lionel Trilling’s Liberal Imagination (1950) that liberalism “drifts toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination.” In that review I dealt with the emotions deficiency. Here we’ll deal with the imagination shortage.

Start with the beginning of adulthood. Imagine you’re in college. What are you going to major in? Something that will enable you to get a high-paying job when you graduate? OK. Now imagine you get that high-paying job. What’s to prevent you from ending up like W. H. Auden’s “Unknown Citizen” (1939)? About this imaginary citizen he ironically wrote:

[He] had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Two decades later C. Wright Mills began his The Sociological Imagination with a paragraph that still powerfully resonates today.

Nowadays people often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct. What ordinary people are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.

Trapped and helpless. How many U. S. citizens feel like that in our age of ever-widening economic inequality; of too many unemployed or low-paying or psychologically unsatisfactory jobs; of bankruptcy (as in the city of Detroit); of government bodies unable to adequately fund education, pension commitments, and repairs of roads and bridges; of an inefficient health system; of overcrowded prisons; of invasions of privacy by NSA and others; of wars and violence in Syria, Afghanistan, and in the media surrounding us; of continuing global climate change and environmental decline; and of a Congress that is more poorly regarded than ever before?

And yet we in the United States continue to have more of life’s material advantages than do most of the earth’s other people.

To improve our lives, Berry, Nussbaum, and Mills all agree that more imagination is needed, not only for ourselves, but also (in Nussbaum’s words) “to maintain and broaden . . . concern for the other people in their surroundings.” To be happy and fulfilled, we need to first imagine a life that transcends the vision offered by our consumer culture. College students, for example, need to think beyond future earnings and imagine to themselves what kind of work or profession they would find fulfilling and psychologically rewarding (see here for more on making such decisions). About the “sociological imagination,” Mills writes that it “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals.” Writers on wisdom, such as Robert Sternberg, often mention the need for creativity and link it with imaginative thinking.

The Economy and Environment 

Our economic and environmental policies especially display a lack of imagination.  And the two areas are intricately intertwined. Regarding them, I have often cited the writings of economist/environmentalist E. F. Schumacher and writer/farmer Wendell Berry. Schumacher (1911-1977) wrote that capitalist economics represents “a pathological development” that overemphasizes profits and GNP growth and is unsustainable. It fails to adequately consider “the availability of basic resources and, alternatively or additionally, the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference implied.” By advertising and marketing, it encourages a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy.” We are in danger, he believed, of building up “a monster economy, which destroys the world.” He thought that “the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. . . . freedom and peace,” and that “only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.” (See here for sources of citations from Schumacher.)

For over four decades Berry has been a severe critic of our capitalist economy and what it is doing to our environment. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, he identified “our present industrial system” with “pillage and indifference,” and “permanent ecological and cultural damage.” He went on to say:

Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it . . . ever has given precedence to the common good. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it . . . can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils . . . whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle . . . thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.

In recent years there has been increasing recognition that our economy has overemphasized GNP or GDP growth. In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, U. S. Senator Al Gore emphasized this point, writing that capitalism’s “calculations often completely ignore the value of . . . fresh water, clean air, the beauty of the mountains, the rich diversity of life in the forest, just to name a few.”  He added that “for all practical purposes, GNP treats the rapid and reckless destruction of the environment as a good thing!” In 2009 Nobel-Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen issued a report critical of an over-emphasis on GDP growth and recommending steps that could improve both our well-being and environment.

In an earlier essay I mentioned the thinking of Stewart Wallis, head of London’s New Economics Foundation and former International Director of Oxfam. At a 2011 conference in Antwerp he said “that much of economics, as it is now taught and practiced, is both intellectually and morally bankrupt,” and that our “fundamental problem is . . . overconsumption.” What he thought we needed was

an economy which has, as its main goal, to improve human needs, not wants. This economy needs to create and support sufficient good jobs and good work, and to do so in a way that is much more equitable—both between peoples alive now and between current and future generations. It needs to be an economy that recognises that it is but a subset of the ecosystem and which therefore works within planetary limits. Perhaps above all though, it needs to be an economy constructed with a bio-centric view of the world, not an anthropocentric one. We need to move from being consumers to stewards. Such an economy must also factor in the spiritual, the aesthetic and the symbolic.” (The speeches of Wallis and others at the conference are now available in book form).

When I asked Wallis, how we could transition from our present economy to a more humane, just, environmentally-friendly one without wreaking economic havoc, he admitted that it was a central problem. But, as I also reported in my earlier essay, he and his foundation have come up with many interesting suggestions (see, for example, the foundation’s The Great Transition).

Meanwhile, the chief economies of the world, mainly operated on capitalist principles, continue along their same unsustainable practices—the communist policies of the USSR were, if anything, even less concerned about environmental consequences. At the end of 2013 a draft UN report, according to The New York Times, proclaimed that “nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising.”

Obviously, we need to be more creative and imaginative in transitioning to a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly economy. What other qualities we need to exercise we’ll address later in this essay.

History and Happiness

According to a view shared by Schumacher, Trilling, and Berry imagination has taken a back seat to science ever since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. One brief history of the imagination quotes the Frenchman René Descartes (1596-1650) as stating “This power of imagination which I possess is in no way necessary to my essence . . . for although I did not possess it I should still remain the same that I now am.” Descartes also refers to “the misleading judgement that proceeds from the blundering constructions of the imagination.”

In his A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) Schumacher criticized Descartes and the development of “science for manipulation,” contrasting it with the earlier pursuit of “science for understanding.”  From Descartes’s time, however, “the new science was mainly directed toward material power, a tendency which has meanwhile developed to such lengths that the enhancement of political and economic power is now generally taken as the first purpose of, and main justification for, expenditure on scientific work. The old science looked upon nature as God’s handiwork and man’s mother; the new science tends to look upon nature as an adversary to be conquered or a resource to be quarried and exploited.” What Schumacher opposed was not science, but a materialistic scientism that denied the existence of anything spiritual. With the rise of such scientism, “the soul disappeared from the description of man—how could it exist when it could be neither weighed nor measured?”

Like Schumacher, Berry thinks that we need to approach reality with an attitude of humility, aware that science, art, and religion can each only comprehend parts of it. He is against scientific dogmatists as much as religious ones. In a 2010 essay, “God, Science, and Imagination, he wrote:

Fundamentalists of both science and religion do not adequately understand or respect imagination. Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, the ability to “make things up” . . . ? Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way? We have much reason to think that it is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. As the word imagination itself suggests, it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable. In one of its aspects it is the power by which we sympathize. . . . I don’t see that scientists would suffer the loss of any skin from their noses by the validity and the power of imaginative truths, which are harmless to the truths of science, even though imagination in the highest sense seems allied less to science than to religion.

Berry often quotes the poet William Blake and he realizes that Blake and Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge rebelled against the Enlightenment’s deempahsis of imagination. But “science for manipulation” (to use Schumacher’s term) and industrialization, and with them the specialization of knowledge and work functions, gained increasing ground.

Both Trilling and Nussbaum mention the “crisis” John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) suffered from an early neglect of poets like Wordsworth who emphasized emotions and imagination. As Trilling wrote, “Nothing is more touching than the passionate gratitude which Mill gave to poetry for having restored him to the possibility of an emotional life after he had lived in a despairing apathy which brought him to the verge of suicide.”

Schumacher bemoaned dominance of modern science over all aspects of thought, including economics: “The great majority of economists is still pursuing the absurd ideal of making their ‘science’ as scientific and precise as physics, as if there were no qualitative difference between mindless atoms and men made in the image of God.”

In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture Berry wrote: “But beginning in science and engineering, and continuing, by imitation, into other disciplines, we have progressed to the belief that humans are intelligent enough, or soon will be, to transcend all limits and to forestall or correct all bad results of the misuse of intelligence. Upon this belief rests the further belief that we can have ‘economic growth’ without limit.” Such a belief, according to Berry, was folly of the highest order.

As mentioned above, however, there has been a growing trend in recent years which challenges the overemphasis on GDP growth. In 2013, Columbia University released the 170-page World Happiness Report. According to it, three of the five happiest countries in the world were the Scandinavian ones—Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Canada was sixth and the USA seventeenth. The report states that “it is no accident that the happiest countries in the world tend to be high-income countries that also have a high degree of social equality, trust, and quality of governance. . . . And it’s no accident that the U.S. has experienced no rise of life satisfaction for half a century, a period in which inequality has soared, social trust has declined, and the public has lost faith in its government.”

More than a century and a half ago the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that progress should not be measured by the production of more and more products but by an increase in overall well-being. More recently, Schumacher, Berry, and other critics have warned us of the danger of equating the growth of increased material possessions with happiness. The Happiness Report has attempted to measure the well-being of people in different nations and arrived at similar conclusions.

There are still other general reasons to doubt the formula of ever rising GNP per person as the route to happiness. While higher income may raise happiness to some extent, the quest for higher income may actually reduce one’s happiness. . . . Psychologists have found repeatedly that individuals who put a high premium on higher incomes generally are less happy and more vulnerable to other psychological ills than individuals who do not crave higher incomes. . . .

A further huge problem is the persistent creation of new material “wants” through the incessant advertising of products using powerful imagery and other means of persuasion. Since the imagery is ubiquitous on all of our digital devices, the stream of advertising is more relentless than ever before. . . . Its goal is to overcome satiety by creating wants and longings where none previously existed. Advertisers and marketers do this in part by preying on psychological weaknesses and unconscious urges. Cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, and trans-fats all cause cravings if not outright addictions. Fashions are sold through increasingly explicit sexual imagery. Product lines are generally sold by associating the products with high social status rather than with real needs.

The report also notes that “both external and personal features determine well-being.” In addition to income, our attitudes towards “work, community and governance, and values and religion” affect our happiness, as do “mental and physical health, family experience, education, gender, and age.”

A 2013 CNN article stated that the report reflected “a growing global movement calling for governments and policy makers to reduce their emphasis on achieving economic growth and focus on policies that can improve people’s overall well-being.” And CNN credited the Asian nation of Bhutan’s former king with coming up with such an idea in 1972. More than 50 pages of the report are devoted to a case study of that country’s Gross National Happiness and GNH Index. That index reflects the realization that “the strengthening or deterioration of social, cultural, and environmental achievements” affects people’s happiness.

Peace and Politics 

Since in a previous essay I have already treated Wendell Berry’s thoughts about war and violence reflecting an imagination deficiency, I will mention only briefly here his main contentions. One is that we kill other people because we view them abstractly, as statistics: As he said in 2012, “Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of unimagined life. . . . It is by imagination that knowledge is ‘carried to the heart.’” Earlier in his novel Hannah Coulter, he had written, “Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination.”  And once war begins “the rhetoric of violence prevents them [opposing sides] from imagining each other.

More than a century ago, not long before the “Great War” (WWI), philosopher William James recognized both the appeal of the heroism of war and the necessity of imagining and creating a “moral equivalent” of it. Such an equivalent would provide opportunities to perform heroic deeds without all the accompanying tragedies of war. James also connected war with a lack of imagination.

It all seems to lead back to two unwillingnesses of the imagination, one aesthetic, and the other moral; unwillingness, first, to envisage a future in which army-life, with its many elements of charm, shall be forever impossible, and in which the destinies of peoples shall nevermore be decided quickly, thrillingly, and tragically by force, but only gradually and insipidly by “evolution,” and, secondly, unwillingness to see the supreme theatre of human strenuousness closed, and the splendid military aptitudes of men doomed to keep always in a state of latency and never show themselves in action.

Wars result, of course, both from political leaders and the people who follow them (see here for more on why people follow their war-waging leaders). The frequency of wars over this last century—this year being the centenary of WWI’s beginning—indicates how miserably both leaders and followers have failed to prevent war. Berry is correct that “leadership from the top” has often been “utterly lacking in imagination.” And not only in regard to peace.

The failure to maintain it is primarily a failure in collective political leadership. By “collective” I mean that political leaders taken together have failed, but not necessarily each leader. By 1939, for example, maintaining any sort of honorable peace in the face of Hitler’s actions was virtually impossible for Western leaders. But various political leaders outside Germany did bear some responsibility for inadvertently fostering conditions that enabled him to come to power and strengthen the Nazi regime.

Very few twentieth century politicians displayed much imagination in preventing wars and violence. And one could reasonably argue that some who tried hard to prevent war, like Britain’s Neville Chamberlain, did more harm than good. Preventing war requires not just the will to do so, but the imagination to envision what conditions will make such a lofty goal possible. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote (in an essay on “Political Judgment) that political wisdom involved knowing “what fits with what, what springs from what, what leads to what; how things seem to vary to different observers, what the effect of such experience upon them may be; what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces.” Estimating “what the result is likely to be” requires a good imagination. Chamberlain possessed neither it nor political wisdom.

One individual who did possess both was Gandhi. His advocacy of non-violence resistance and working out the tactics of it was a major contribution to twentieth-century political theory and saved countless lives. Although never a head of state, he did exercise great political influence. Two other individuals who acknowledged their debt to Gandhi were Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. King remained committed to non-violent resistance throughout his life. During the 1950s, Mandela and his party, the African Nationalist Congress (ANC), attempted “over and over again” to use Gandhian non-violent resistance tactics in their battle against the racist apartheid system in South Africa. He eventually concluded, however, that these tactics were “to no avail” and that the government had left him and his party “no alternative to armed and violent resistance.” The Gandhian regard for life remained, however, and Mandela consistently attempted to avoid or minimize the taking of human lives (see here for source of quotes). His wise leadership after a quarter of a century in prison and then being elected president of South Africa prevented a bloodbath that many had predicted would occur before his nation could transition to a democracy.

Generally, however, there is a paucity of political creativity and imagination—in all areas. One occasion when they were displayed was during the Great Depression when one quarter of the work force was unemployed. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal required considerable imagination to come up with new ways of dealing with such massive unemployment. Although a later president, John Kennedy, partially fulfilled James’s desire for a “moral equivalent to war” by creating a Peace Corps that offered opportunities for heroic sacrifices, he failed to imagine a more creative approach to Vietnam than to gradually increase U.S. military involvement there—a much greater escalation, however, occurred under his successor, Lyndon Johnson. Decades later both Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan—more the former than the latter I would argue—deserved credit for imagining, and helping bring about, an end to the Cold War.

Looking at present conditions, wars continue to surround us, with the one in Syria being especially troubling, but the decades-long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue their tragic bloodletting. What imaginative solutions any one leader, like President Obama, or group of leaders, like those of the major Western democracies, can put forward to end such suffering is difficult to say.

It is worth noting, however, that in reviewing President Obama’s policies in Afghanistan (in October 2010), one progressive scholar, Michael Brenner, criticized President Obama in these words: “Obama has no one to blame for this sorry state [in Afghanistan] other than himself. . . . He is a remarkably conventional thinker who defers to established opinion and persons. He instinctively gives the benefit of all doubts to those who embody a conservative perspective. He lacks the imagination and forcefulness to fashion his own conception of what a situation is, what it means and what the public need dictates in the way of policy action.”

Brenner’s criticism of Obama reminds us that the best heads of state and legislators need not only imagination but forcefulness and other political skills. And not only to prevent wars and maintain peace, but also to further the common good by wise economic, environmental, social, and cultural policies. In short, they require political wisdom and all the skills that go with it (see here for more on that).


In 1950, in his The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling not only stated that liberals had neglected to give imagination its proper due, but also wrote that “now there is no conservative tradition and no radical tradition of political thought, and not even an eclecticism which is in the slightest degree touched by the imagination.”

Later in that same decade, C. Wright Mills insisted on the need for “sociological imagination.”  But he thought of such an imagination in broad terms, as one that sought “to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. “That,” he added, “is its task and its promise. . . . No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.”

Writing before the term “Information Age” first appeared, Mills believed that in an increasingly complex world with the amount of information greatly expanding, people needed the sociological imagination to “help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves.”

A few decades later Isaiah Berlin agreed with Mills on the importance of imagination, especially in regard to historical understanding. For such an understanding required an “imaginative projection of ourselves into the past . . . . Without a capacity for sympathy and imagination beyond any required by a physicist, there is no vision of either past or present, neither of others nor of ourselves.”

In our present day, philosopher Martha Nussbaum has been especially insistent on the need for imagination in our social and political spheres. Like Berry, she believes we need to use our imagination to develop empathy for others. In The New York Times in 2010, she opined that the “cultivation of the imagination . . . is essential to fostering creativity and innovation. . . . We need the imaginative ability to put ourselves in the positions of people different from ourselves, whether by class or race or religion or gender. Democratic politics involves making decisions that affect other people and groups. We can only do this well if we try to imagine what their lives are like and how changes of various sorts affect them. The imagination is an innate gift, but it needs refinement and cultivation; this is what the humanities provide.” In her book Political Emotions she has more recently written: “If people interested in relief of poverty, justice for minorities, political and religious liberty, democracy, and global justice eschew symbol and rhetoric, fearing all appeals to emotion and imagination as inherently dangerous and irrational, people with less appetizing aims will monopolize these forces, to the detriment of democracy, and of people.”

Since at least the French Revolution conservatives have warned against the dangers of utopian thinking, of imagination run amok, of untethering our hopes from reality. Edmund Burke remains a hero to many conservatives for his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which criticized the French for just such a failing, imagining a “grand spectacle to rouse the imagination.” The failed utopianism of the Communist experiment in Russia has further discouraged any unfettered imagination.

But thinkers like Berlin, Berry, and Nussbaum are well aware that imagination has to work in tandem with reason and be grounded in reality. For example, Berry has written: “Both imagination and a competent sense of reality are necessary to our life, and they necessarily discipline one another. Only imagination, for example, can give our home landscape and community a presence in our minds that is a story of vision at once geographical and historical, practical and protective, affectionate and hopeful. But if that vision is not repeatedly corrected by a fairly accurate sense of reality, if the vision becomes fantastical or merely wishful, then both we and the landscape fall into danger; we may destroy the landscape, or the landscape (especially if damaged by us in our illusion) may destroy us.” In an essay on wisdom and politics I have made a similar argument about the need of combining idealism with realism.

In her Political Emotions Nussbaum emphasizes not only the importance of imagination and emotions in furthering the common good, but also of rhetoric. She points to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech as a good example of soaring rhetoric that both stirs the emotions and is imaginative. Who can deny the great imaginative force of such lines as “I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers”?

Later on in the 1960s, Robert Kennedy attempted to demonstrate that imagination and idealism could be combined with political realism when he ran for the presidency in 1968. One of his favorite sayings was: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

walter mossToday, President Obama has at times spoken eloquently. But his inspiring rhetoric has not been matched by the passion, sticktoitiveness, or great imaginative vision of someone like King. But one lesson we should learn from King is that one does not have to be a president or even a politician to help bring about change. Thinkers like Mills, Berry, and Nussbaum offer us hope that if we dare to imagine boldly and creatively enough, while remaining, realistic, committed, and loving, even we private citizens can help create a more progressive and peaceful economy, environment, society, and culture.

Walter G. Moss   

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