The other day, I was scanning the shelves at the half-price bookstore, and came across a book entitled Imagine What the World Could be in the 21st Century: Visions of a Better Future from Leading American Thinkers, edited by Marianne Williamson. It was published in the millennium year 2000 and contained about 40 short articles by well-known contemporary authors who had been invited to share their personal visions of the future.
As I skimmed through the pages, I realized that this was not just another book about social and environmental crisis, nor was it a foray into the utopian genre. These thought leaders, including Paul Hawkin, David Korten, Vicki Robin, Peter Senge, Deepak Chopra, Hazel Henderson and many others were sharing something that is rarely found in today’s media-driven political economy; they were looking ahead 50 years and sharing “possibilities for a future whose underpinning is not anxiety but a deep and abiding peace” (p. xvii).
I was struck by the fact that this collection of sober, yet affirmative, future visions by best-selling American authors had been shelved in the “new age” section of the bookstore, that catch-all category of mostly counter-cultural works that don’t seem to fit anywhere within the academic or popular mainstream conversations.
As a student of organizational systems and researcher pursuing my interest in the theory and practice of evolutionary learning, I hold out no pretense of being a thought leader. However, I know that I can lay claim to an invitation by John Lennon, who in his 1971 song “Imagine” assures us that when we pause to imagine a better future, we are “not alone.” So I asked myself, what is the future I desire?
This future I can imagine only when I claim for myself the human ability to avert my attention away from accustomed ways of perceiving time. To do this, I must transcend my habitual ways of mapping causal relationships and of inferring “what is” and “what will be” based on an extrapolation of historical trends.
When I seek my desired future as something “out there”; an image of a possible reality existing somewhere beyond the horizon of that which is most familiar, I am overwhelmed by a sense of being swept away in the momentum of changes that seem to be carrying me, and all of society, in the opposite direction. I see my desired future as a setting sun; a fading vision that is gradually being consumed by a descending grey twilight of lost opportunities and helpless resignation. I imagine that the insane party in the garden will soon be over, and all that will remain after the last celebratory toast to “progress” and “profit” is a trampled homogeneity, the trash heap of a throw-away society, and a bad hang-over that can never be cured.
However, when I muster enough courage to let go of the false security provided by conventional ways of thinking afforded by mechanistic, abstract reasoning, or a dogmatic faith in the “free markets” and the “techno-fix,” I then can step off the descending pathways of linear time and begin to perceive my desired future as all that is most alive and pregnant with possibility within the eternal present. It is the image that flashes before my eyes in the changing hues of the pre-dawn sky. It is the warmth of anticipation that chases away the chill of night, enabling me to carry on in the secure knowledge that the daily drumbeat of 4.5 billion years of planetary evolution will summon, once again, all that is intelligent and complex and beautiful within my world, and (should I allow it) within myself.
Jon Kabat-Zin, in his introduction to Coming to our Senses (2005) writes:
It is time to choose life, and to reflect on what such a choice is asking of us. This choice is a nitty-gritty, moment-to-moment one, not some colossal or intimidating abstraction. It is very close to the substance and substrate of our lives unfolding in whatever ways they do, inwardly in our thoughts and feelings, and outwardly in our words and deeds moment by moment by moment.
The world needs all its flowers, just as they are, and even though they bloom for only the briefest of moments, which we call a lifetime. It is our job to find out one by one and collectively what kind of flowers we are, and to share our unique beauty with the world in the precious time that we have, and to leave the children and grandchildren a legacy of wisdom and compassion embodied in the way we live, in our institutions, and in our honoring of interconnectedness, at home and around the world. Why not risk standing firmly for sanity in our lives and in our world, the inner and the outer a reflection of each other and of our genius as a species?
At this moment, I am not sure “what kind of flower” I am, but I am ready to heed the wisdom expressed above by Kabat-Zinn and examine my personal potentials along with other inquirers committed to the cause of life itself, within the context of emerging community intelligence. Through many recent conversations with my neighbors and professional colleagues, I know I am not alone in sensing a recent shift in the social atmosphere of my hometown, Cleveland. In countless ways, often quite subtle, Clevelanders are beginning to express a new found optimism about the future of our beloved City and our diverse communities.
Once I suspend my disbelief, and start paying attention to what is emerging from within myself, and among my neighbors, I can imagine safe neighborhoods where each resident is gainfully employed and lives a short walking distance from the nearest market; where it is possible to both purchase and barter for all the necessities of life, including year-round wholesome, locally-grown food. Schools have become vibrant learning communities, where teachers routinely collaborate with parents, community elders, local businesses and institutions (as well as partners and institutions from across the globe connected to the classroom via high capacity digital networks). Every child is valued and encouraged to reach full potential, acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to thrive and assume the responsibilities of global citizenship.
I imagine networks of bike paths and forest-covered parklands and wildlife corridors, linking vehicle-free, open air (and covered) community centers, where residents and visitors can gather, interact and build community on a human scale. I imagine neighborhoods that function as healthy, toxin-free ecosystems, where energy is produced and consumed on site, water is stored, cycled through multiple uses, and naturally purified, and knowledge and practical skills are shared. All that was once considered “waste” is now considered “resource” and the very concept of waste exists in the general consciousness merely as historically embedded abstraction, on a par with “manifest destiny”, “unlimited growth”, and the notion that animals lack consciousness, language or emotions.
Human health is understood and treated as inseparable from ecological health, and all residents have access to medical and nursing care within stress-free physical and social environments. Art and music are everywhere. Buildings and courtyards provide a diversity of living spaces, with ample opportunities for lively social interaction and private reveries and reflection. Aesthetically rich surroundings serve to heal mind, body and soul.
Originality is valued as much as tradition. Diversity is celebrated by all. Relationship building, care-giving and gift sharing are understood as having economic value as much as the marketing of goods and services. People are free to love whom they choose, committed family relationships are encouraged and supported, and expressions of both joy and pain are validated and honored.
The human needs of all are supported by well-designed, contextually appropriate physical assets and by appropriate technologies that embody qualities of physical integration, redundancy, and thus, resiliency. Along with a strong social fabric, healthy, well-designed and user-friendly physical environments and systems ensure that each community has the capacity to thrive and maintain itself over the long term in this ever-changing world.
This is the future of I desire, and I believe it is attainable!