When we are completely quiet for a little while, with nothing to do, we usually begin to think. About things to do or things undone. About what comes next.
Or our thinking might be given to pure imagination. In our mind’s eye we might see a pleasant image, like an orange sunset or the smiling face of a child. Or we might see an unpleasant image: a car accident we witnessed, or television video of earthquake victims in Katmandu.
Sometimes our imagination goes beyond mere images and makes a sort of story. We might imagine how happy that child is, and what wonderful parents are nurturing the child. When we see sorrowful faces of earthquake victims standing before their demolished homes, we imagine how cold they must be, how difficult it will be for them to recover. Our story might be partly subconscious, but the story we tell ourselves can be a powerful, emotional experience.
Perhaps the great challenge of sustainability needs our imagination. Maybe if we feel the beauty of life and its pain both at once we will move toward wholeness.
Some images are easy to see. In our mind’s eye, we can readily see the lush forests of Michigan. But we can also imagine those videos from above showing rain forests vanishing under clouds of smoke.
We can see the sun setting over our silver-mirrored lake. In contrast we can see pelicans dying at the edge of an oil soaked ocean.
Maybe sustainability involves more than the natural world? Don’t we want sustainability in society too? Aren’t humans and the rest of life on earth one community—the community of earth?
But it’s a little harder to hold in mind pictures of complex social phenomena. Still, we probably can picture graduation day at the colleges and universities of Michigan, where young people look forward to meaningful careers. In stark contrast, we can try to imagine the criminal justice system in Michigan, where incarceration rates tower over the surrounding states. Where diminished lives and even hopelessness seem to be the rule.
On one hand, we can see newspaper photos of local students thriving as they participate in Science Olympiad. But we can also imagine poor students in poor schools just ten miles from here whose happiness and very lives are at risk.
Even the word sustainability might need our imagination. Earth’s beauty and its challenges seem to move in a flux of constant change. Could true sustainability mean not merely sustaining, but that we humans must guide change?
Well, we humans appear to be the most gifted beings on our earth—our earth where prisoners and beaming graduates share the same air, where the poorest and most at risk live near the comfortable and safe.
Einstein said, “Imagination rules the world.”
Do we dare to consciously carry in our minds the unhappy and painful, along with the beautiful?
Might we then feel greater compassion for the whole of life?
Might our imagination lead us forward?
Can our imagination help us realize a sustainable community of earth?