The only things preventing a systemic reordering of society and priorities is a lack of imagination and a lack of political will.
By Georgia Kelly | Sun personal
Chaos is what the early Greeks might have called our planetary pause due to COVID-19. But, they would not have meant disorder. The original meaning of Chaos was boundless empty space, pregnant with possibility. Easterners named it the Void. In our binary mindset, we tend to define things as either/or, for or against, black or white. That polarizing penchant ignores the color spectrum. It ignores nuance and possibility. And, it is lethal to the imagination and the ability to envision something other than what is or what has “always” been.
Herbert Marcuse, the German philosopher and sociologist, remarked on this lack of imagination in his book, Eros and Civilization: “The individual’s awareness of the prevailing repression is blunted by the manipulated restriction of his consciousness.”
When I first read that sentence in the late 1960s, I had one of those “aha” moments. In a split second, something coalesced in my mind, opening it to a different way of looking at life and possibilities. How restricted was my consciousness and what was restricting it? I had to think about this. I’m still thinking about this.
During Praxis Peace Institute’s recent Zoom meeting, cultural historian and author Jeremy Lent brought up the Overton Window of political possibilities. The Overton Window describes the boundaries of the political discourse that are acceptable in a given moment of time, and he was using it to demonstrate that the virus has widened the window to the point where things Bernie Sanders has been talking about for years — Medicare for All, tuition-free college, cancelled student debt, a higher national minimum wage, etc. — all of a sudden seem not only possible, but are desirable to a large number of people. Another idea floated by Democratic candidate Andrew Yang was a guaranteed income for every American. This idea is now being discussed and taken seriously by economists and a significant portion of the population. What the pundits and political consultants claimed was and was not “realistic” one month ago is looking dated, out-of-touch, and dangerously simplistic now. However, most of these pundits are still operating in the framework of the last decade’s Overton Window.
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So, the only things preventing a systemic reordering of society and priorities is a lack of imagination and a lack of political will. Which brings me back to Marcuse. “The true value of the imagination relates not only to the past but also to the future, in its refusal to accept the imposed limitations on what’s possible, it can deliver the historical reality to new values.”
And, that is where I believe we are today. We have the opportunity to bring new values into the discourse and the culture. New economic values, new social values, and new empathic sensibilities.
We all know that one essential requirement of capitalism, or at least corporate capitalism, is continual growth. But, we live on a finite planet. That disconnect has created a climate crisis, widespread poverty, greed on a colossal scale, exploitation of people and planet, so we need to find the reset button before we end up going back to a doomed future months from now. Naomi Klein has written in depth about this disconnect in her book, This Changes Everything: The Climate vs. Capitalism, a sober look at the need to reset our economic priorities.
To look at how COVID-19 is impacting the environment and the decrease in pollution levels, Stanford University’s Marshall Burke has determined that “the reduction in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infections from the virus in that country.” Kristine Roselius, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, estimated that a 70% reduction in traffic in the Bay Area would lower three types of pollution: particulate matter by 20%, ozone smog by 38%, and carbon dioxide emissions by 26%.
These are sobering numbers and assessments, but there are alternatives to the problems we used to see as normal. I witnessed one such solution to traffic pollution in Los Angeles in 1984 during the Summer Olympics. With an influx of thousands of people visiting the city over a two-week period, adding to the already clogged freeways, especially during long rush hours, Mayor Bradley came up with the perfect solution. Stagger work hours. With three shifts: normal daytime, swing shift, and graveyard shift, traffic jams and rush house traffic snarls were completely eliminated. That was accomplished almost overnight. We could do this in the Bay Area and in all metropolitan areas in the U.S. It wouldn’t require constructing more roads, widening roads, or months and years of legislation. It just requires cooperation from businesses, workers, and the general public. Cooperation could be the key to a much saner way of living on the Earth.
So, in the time of Chaos, pregnant with possibility, let’s think out of the box, and imagine how we could reconstruct society, the workplace, our consumption patterns, and our political structures and government. We have a moment in time to co-create a sustainable and empathic way of living on the planet. Let’s think, plan, and talk about them on Zoom — and, then let’s start enacting new patterns in our lives, our businesses, our politics, and in our society. We can do this! But, it will take imagination, vision, and the ability to get well beyond what used to be called “realistic.”
Georgia Kelly is the Founder and Director of Praxis Peace Institute in Sonoma and was formerly a professional musician and recording artist (harpist and composer). Praxis Peace Institute is hosting meetings and speaker events on Zoom for members and the general public. Praxispeace.org