THE SOCIO-CLIMATIC IMAGINARY
a Cc interview with manjana milkoreit
Dr. Manjana Milkoreit is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Purdue University. Her research integrates international relations scholarship and cognitive theory to study actor motivations and beliefs, institutional and policy design related to climate change. She is interested in governance challenges at the science-policy-society interface, including the use of scientific knowledge in environmental decision-making, and the role of ideologies in advancing or preventing effective societal responses to climate change. Two topics dominate her current research agenda: the challenges of future thinking (scientifically informed imagination) in climate change politics and the design of effective review mechanisms under the Paris Agreement. We spoke via Zoom during the height of the coronavirus pandemic about how changing our modes of thinking helps us better adapt to climate change in the present as well as in the future, how climate fiction enhances our ability to think about the future, and how the coronavirus pandemic can teach us lesson about governance during a global crisis that can be used during future pandemics, as well as potential future societal disruption from climate change. This interview is transcribed from our conversation.
Carbon Copy (Cc): How can imagination help us think about climate change? Why do we need imagination to think about the future of climate change?
Manjana Milkoreit (MM): Let me start by saying that question should not only be about the future but also about the present. Climate change is a current problem as well as a future problem. It’s here, it’s going to stay with us, and it’s going to get worse for a long-long time. We need imagination to understand its presence in all its forms and impacts, and the potential futures it can create. I think the present could be as important as the future in order to see what the problem of climate change is all about. Imagination helps us make the science real, and understand what the models we are seeing actually mean in our present reality as well as in the future. For example, what will future Arizona look like, or the East Coast of the United States, or Oslo, if the future is two or three degrees warmer by the end of the century. Imagination makes it possible for us to turn abstract information into understanding and meaning and to make choices as a society, community, and as individuals. The imagination helps us create images in our mind for things that are not observable with our senses. We need to be able to grapple with the potential for future change; and imagination is a generative activity that enables us to think about both negative future scenarios that we don’t want, but also the things we do want in our future—things like keeping ourselves and our communities safe, prosperous, healthy, with good working economies and jobs.
Cc: You have said that reading fiction can boost our imagination, how is that?
MM: There is no good research on exactly how that occurs. I work from the baseline that we are generally very bad at thinking about the future. It’s a very challenging task for our minds to take on. Even with climate change models and the availability of scientific data, our minds struggle to imagine future worlds that could be different from the present. We tend to think of the future as being very similar to the present, that the structure of societies, the functioning of democracy, market mechanisms, our institutions and norms, will be more or less the same as today. There is a well-known quote by Fredric Jameson that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Given this general poverty of imagination, climate fiction stories, poetry, and movies can be very helpful, expanding our collective capacity to think about the future. Climate fiction authors – for some reason – tend to be very good at thinking about the future; they dedicated a lot of time to it. They create these scenarios, characters, and future worlds that have everything in them such as architecture, value systems, future climates, the heat of Arizona in 2080, who suffers, who wins, … Their stories allow us to see a person walking around in these future circumstances. They allow us to see into the future through the eyes of their characters and show us around that world. When we read a book or watch a movie, we enter an extended mental simulation that gives us a chance to assess this potential future. It gives our minds material to work with and to decide “I really like that part of this fictional future” or “I really don’t’ like that” because it caused a great deal of suffering or distress and I might be part of the people who experience that. Or here is something that is really cool about this future or I want that technology or I want a world where everyone thinks like that or treats each other like this. When reading a book or movie, we experience thoughts and emotions that help us reflect on our present situation and decide what kind of values we want to pursue. Those climate fictions stories provide potential guideposts to desirable and undesirable futures; they can show us pathways into the future, and what present choices we have to make to move in a desirable direction. And we need multiple stories that illuminate multiple possible outcomes, so we can identify the decisions and pathways leading to the futures we want.
Cc: What are socio-climatic imaginaries and why are they important?
MM: The imaginary is an established sociological concept referring to the shared ideas and meanings we hold about society, social structures, institutions, and even reality itself. These are the ideas and concepts that are so well established that they move into the background of our thinking. Although they hardly enter our conscious thought processes, they constitute our society as we know it. Scholars have already applied the concept of the imaginary to the future and future thinking. I have extended the concept of a future imaginary to include not only society but the environment and climate change. I define the socio-climatic imaginary as collectively held visions of the future that include the natural environment, are informed by beliefs about patterns of social and environmental change and the complex interactions between humans and the biosphere. Socio-climatic imaginaries can include positive and negative visions of future human-environment relationships.
Cc: What is “hardening of the categories” and should this be avoided when thinking about climate change solutions?
MM: This is a concept that Paul Wapner -introduced in a book called Reimagining Climate Change. He argues that we have come to think about climate change in very particular ways, using categories such as mitigation and adaptation, international justice and equity, technological solutions, policies related to renewables, etc. And we have come to think about these categories in very rigid and structured ways, such that we are no longer being imaginative. Our thinking becomes constrained by these categories. We don’t even question if these are the right categories to be thinking about. And there is risk to the hardening of the categories because we might be thinking too narrowly about things that might cause a great deal of destruction in the future, or we might miss opportunities for solutions. We have created a conceptual path-dependency that we are unable to step off of or question. These categories, or ways of thinking, are similar to an imaginary in the sense that they are almost subconscious and move into the background of our mind. Using and building our imagination can help mitigate those risks.
Cc: Are we stuck in our ways of thinking when it comes to the future and climate change?
MM: We are certainly stuck in recurring modes of thinking. We have come to think of climate change as a problem that can be solved with technologies, modes of government, and policy responses that utilize a well-established tool set. But this tool set, based on familiar economic theories doesn’t always help us, it can actually make the problem worse. What we see when we look around is that every policy decision serves the growth of the economy. Our economic rationale is dominating our social choices. If environmental policy is creating economic costs, then we must remove the measures that are strangling economic growth. We are currently in a pandemic, and we see human health and survival at risk, but did we take measures to protect human lives at all costs? No. We took measures to protect GDP at all costs. This way of thinking has permeated our society, policymaking, and our politics for decades. We should be able to question why we are prioritizing GDP over other measures of societal success such as human well-being and happiness. This pattern – a contest between economic growth and other values – shows up almost everywhere, especially in environmental policy conversations. Usually, the economic interests win out, and the defenders of these interests keep us stuck in the current system, including its ways of thinking.
Cc: Is there a lesson in the current coronavirus pandemic about climate change and futures thinking?
MM: Before COVID-19, hardly anyone could have imagined how quickly life can change due to something like a novel virus. None of us have experienced something like this in our lifetimes. It was unimaginable that entire economies could shut down for weeks or months, that millions of people could suddenly become unemployed. We have seen other pandemics such as SARS, but the scale and speed of this pandemic were unimaginable. Now if we extrapolate from this to climate change, which is also something we have not experienced before, there is a lesson about dealing with the unexpected, the previously unimaginable. We have to be quick on our feet and prioritize resources and reorganize life to deal with these challenges. However, in the background other problems continue to demand attention and new problems might be emerging. We can’t do what we are doing now, which is to focus every minute of policy maker time and resources on the pandemic, because other large issues such as climate change and social justice are still there and still require some capacity to address them. When responding to a crisis, such as a pandemic, governments generally have limited capacity to deal with other issues that maintain stable societies and successful economies. And climate change science indicates that we may face even more pandemics—more crises—in the future. We will be dealing with COVID-19 for quite some time, likely until a vaccine is widely available. Are we just going to do nothing about climate change during that time? Recognizing this challenge, governments need to build capacities for governing in crisis mode without letting one of the many balls in the air drop.
is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Purdue University. Dr. Milkoreit's research integrates international relations scholarship and cognitive theory to study actor motivations and beliefs, institutional and policy design related to climate change. She is interested in governance challenges at the science-policy-society interface, including the use of scientific knowledge in environmental decision-making, and the role of ideologies in advancing or preventing effective societal responses to climate change. Two topics dominate her current research agenda: the challenges of future thinking (scientifically informed imagination) in climate change politics and the design of effective review mechanisms under the Paris Agreement.