In order to create a vibrant, sustainable future, we must first visualize the world we want to create.
We are unique and brilliant creatures. Humanity has expanded into every corner of the planet. With our extraordinary tools, we are stronger and faster than any other species. And we are improving. We are more powerful and more mobile than any previous generation. We can circumnavigate the Earth in 90 minutes. We travel to outer space and plumb the depths of the oceans. We accumulate information. We build on the knowledge of our ancestors. We record our ideas in colorful and astonishing forms. We are the brightest, loudest, most powerful living things. We are the most creative and potent creatures in the universe, so far as we know.
Generation after generation, we have visualized — and then realized — one astonishing invention after another. Wheeled vehicles. Agriculture. Sailing ships. Automobiles. Aircrafts. Smart phones. Every day, entrepreneurs bring new ideas to market that supersede a million previous good ideas. It seems that each generation can visualize some previously unimaginable goal, and reach it.
Humanity needs that entrepreneurial energy today more than ever before. We face a definitively human challenge that is testing human ingenuity. Our drive to expand our species is natural, but we also have the natural ability to recognize that our habitat’s resources are finite. We are increasingly aware that the planet’s capacities are limited. As our population has expanded, we have simultaneously developed technologies that consume natural resources more rapidly. These converging forces are damaging the natural systems on which we and all other living things depend.
Common sense tells us our expansion can’t go on forever, but no species has ever intentionally limited its own growth. In fact, we are the only species that can conceptualize its own impact on its habitat. No species has ever consciously recognized the limits of its habitat and adjusted its behavior to live within those limits. If we are to change our course before some natural calamity forcibly curbs our expansion, that change of course will be plotted in the human imagination.
Human ingenuity gets its energy from visualization. We need to be able to visualize a successful human future on this planet before we can create that future.
Recent global discussions about humanity’s future have been preoccupied with the immediate challenges we face. The environmentalist’s attention has been trained mostly on negative visualization. Conversations about the environment orbit around one prospective catastrophe or another. We don’t have a positive vision for our future, but we can picture a lot of different ways in which things may go badly for us and for the planet.
This lack of a positive vision seems particularly dangerous to me because we so often realize what we visualize, and right now a lot of people are visualizing disaster.
The scale of humanity’s immediate challenges is daunting, to be sure. It’s difficult and counterintuitive to look past the immediate problems. Considering the scale of those problems, this discussion of positive visions may strike some as a trivial distraction. But right now our obstacles — resource depletion, population expansion and economic malaise — effectively block our view forward. We’re making very little progress against species loss, deforestation, desertification and global warming. The human population continues to grow with astonishing speed. And when we stabilize our population, as we inevitably must, economic growth will stall.
With these big obstacles in our way, we find it difficult to collectively picture a beautiful, abundant world for our grandchildren to live in. To visualize that future, we need a new perspective. To gain that perspective, we need to move forward. It’s time to engage — to move forward not just against the phenomena damaging our habitat, but also toward a sustainable and prosperous way of life.
Human beings invented flying machines because we were entranced by the idea of flight. We didn’t need to fly, but we were thrilled by the prospect. We’ve joyfully tinkered with wheeled machines, making automobiles and motorcycles faster and more comfortable, generation after generation. We didn’t need to propel ourselves around at 70 mph, but after we had the idea in our heads we couldn’t wait to press that accelerator. Our collective enthusiasm for fairness has, in the past 30 years, redefined civil rights in our global society. We assembled the Internet in a spirit of giddy discovery with a collective vision of global knowledge made ubiquitous and free.
We don’t need a disaster to motivate change. A great, contagious idea or two can create all the motivation we need.
Every major human realization was assembled from the discoveries of lots of different people, each pursuing an individual vision and building on each other’s work. Our collective visions have always been constructed from a bundle of individual visions. Our achievements are shared achievements.
The biggest and most successful component in my business is this magazine. Since 1970, the principal source of energy at MOTHER EARTH NEWS has been contagious ideas — organic gardening ideas, homemade renewable energy ideas, ideas for homesteading, natural health and self-reliance. The magazine has prospered because these ideas have kindled millions of imaginations and engaged them in a spirit of mutual exploration. With our readers, we have explored many, many different optimistic visions for humanity’s future on Earth. That’s our passion, and our business. Now it’s time for all of us to harness this same exploration and optimism to visualize and realize a beautiful, abundant future for our species and the planet.
This article is an excerpt from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want by Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Read more from the book in Ideas for a Sustainable World: Envisioning Beauty and Abundance.