6 minutes

The edges of imagination, the brink of civilization?

Sometimes we read hundreds of pages of various books just to come across one dazzling sentence. I recently had such an experience while reading Professor P. Czapliński’s essay “The Edges of Imagination.” In this essay, there is a statement that goes as follows: “We are on the edges of imagination. They are not defined by the ordinary limits of the current model of development but by the boundary of conceiving a further continuation of history.”

Why did this statement turn out to be so important to me? It contains a thought that I had intuitively sensed for a long time but couldn’t articulate. It turned out to be the missing puzzle piece that allows me to assemble a significant part of the puzzle. And it all pertains to the question of why as a civilization (especially the Western one) we find ourselves in such an unpleasant place. Why are we troubled by various economic and social problems? Why does populism dominate politics today? Where does the fundamental mistake lie in all of this? After all, not so long ago, after the fall of communism, the slogan “the end of history” was popular. It was meant to symbolize that capitalism and democracy had ultimately proven their superiority, and their universal implementation would lead to a world of stable and sustainable development, resulting in a land of happiness, peace, and joy. However, as everyone can see, the world looks different, and the two key emotions that govern people’s minds today are fear and uncertainty. Political elites are unable to address these concerns or, worse still, they try to exploit them. Not for the purpose of indicating a new quality and a new path, but to steer this or that society toward the path of authoritarianism.

The concept of “edges of imagination” perfectly reflects the current state of the world – after 30 years since the fall of communism, we have no idea how to arrange everything. How to break free from the spiral of debt, restore income balance without a revolution, confront the challenges of robotics and artificial intelligence, halt the degradation of nature, and so on. We lack imagination. We are like lost individuals in a dense forest, going in circles, unable to find the right path.

This “edge of imagination” refers to many aspects. Firstly, it pertains to humans, their place, and role in the world. Over the past decades, humanity focused on making the Earth subservient to itself. It did so effectively that in the last 200 years, we witnessed an unprecedented growth of the material sphere – global income and wealth exploded on a per capita basis. Alongside this growth, there was a population expansion. While for millennia, the Earth’s population did not exceed 500 million, in the last two centuries, it skyrocketed to nearly 8 billion. However, over time, our understanding of “dominion” became increasingly distorted – rational management of Earth’s resources was replaced by ruthless exploitation driven by greed. As a result, humans today pose a threat to life on our planet – over 20,000 species of animals disappear from its surface every year. This impacts entire ecosystems and limits their diversity – instead of thriving, Earth is slowly dying. It’s not hard to guess what will happen to us if this trend continues.

Another area to which the concept of the “edge of imagination” applies is the economic-financial system. Capitalism, to be the driving force of development, requires the premise of accumulating (investing) ever-new assets. To achieve this, it expands into new markets, imposes a specific lifestyle, creates artificial needs (e.g., replacing a perfectly functional phone after a year), and when there’s not enough money for purchasing goods, it ensures access to credit, transferring purchasing power from the future. This mechanism – undoubtedly immensely effective for decades – has led to a situation where today most countries in the world cannot bear additional debt, even under record-low interest rates. Moreover, the fact that some increasingly lived on credit while others accumulated greater wealth has resulted in an enormous income disparity – according to Oxfam, the wealth of the world’s top 1% exceeds that of the remaining 99%! In such a situation, it is difficult not to see that the economic-financial system, in its current form, has reached its limits. However, there is a lack of imagination (ideas) on how to change it without causing catastrophe.

“The edges of imagination” also apply to the political system, democracy. In an era of widespread media dependence, voters have become subjects of manipulation. In this situation, power increasingly falls into the hands of those who exploit populism and/or nationalism to play on human fears.

There are more areas at the “edges of imagination.” Another one relates to technology – although there is technological progress, groundbreaking solutions (such as the steam engine or electricity in the past) are hard to come by. We are unable to find technological answers to the challenges of civilization. This is even more surprising considering that physics, including quantum physics, points to enormous potential for revolutionary solutions. However, we lack the imagination to transform the latest knowledge into visions of concrete applications.

In practically all areas of functioning, we have reached a kind of wall. Things may be happening, but they do not propel us as a civilization forward. One could get the impression that we are living in a period of the “edge of civilization,” a world without a future, a world where only the “here and now” matters, figuring out how to push through another day.

How do we navigate this situation? We need to realize that we are like a painter who has discarded half of the available colors from their palette, resulting in their paintings expressing only a portion of reality. About 300 years ago, we focused solely on one dimension of life, materialism – we can only view the world through its prism. Materialism has dictated our ways of acting and institutional solutions for centuries. To break free from the “edges of our imagination,” we must take a holistic look at ourselves, our goals, roles, and our place on Earth. Instead of treading in circles in the dark forest, we must climb the tree – then we will gain a broader perspective and realize that there is more to life than just “having,” but also “being.” The current situation can serve as a catalyst for these kinds of reflections. That’s when something incredible will happen: the horizon of our imagination will expand significantly, our palette of colors will be replenished, and we will be motivated to change the paradigms governing our lives and the world. Along with that, new ideas, institutional solutions creating a “new order,” and breakthrough technologies will begin to emerge in our minds naturally!

Published: Parkiet, 28.03.2020

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