The politics of imagination

An explanation for—and a potential solution to—that unease you're feeling about everything from the grocery store to the climate crisis.

Imagine a travelling discourse on the politics of imagination akin to Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap's wagon at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park in Boerne, Texas.

There’s a joke on the internet in left-wing circles: “How did you get radicalized?” And the reason it’s a joke, albeit not a funny one, is because the answer is always something mundane. For example, there is probably someone reading this article who knows just enough about surveillance capitalism; has just enough information on how big companies use data; knows a little bit about how much money companies make on our personal data; had a history teacher in grade 13 who taught them how big grocery chains monopolize our food distribution, and they maybe know a little bit about why monopolies are bad; they understand at least conceptually that people starve because grocery chains don’t open stores where they won’t make money; they know how Superstore uses their data; they know that Superstore made record profits during the pandemic.

The same store that for at least 14 years was robbing us and whose only form of “punishment” so far has been to dispense $25 gift cards for customers to spend at the same store that was breaking the law. Those same gift cards that don’t work at self-checkouts and have to be activated in a specific time window.

Say, hypothetically, the guy reading this article then learns Superstore is hiring his municipal police force to ensure hungry people don’t steal food and cut into Grocery Baron Galen Weston’s profits. To make sure this guy doesn’t steal a chocolate bar. Even though Superstore changed the price of his wife’s favourite chocolate bar from 3/$9 to 2/$8. YO, HRP! WHO’S ROBBING WHO!?

Sorry. The point. The punchline to the joke “what radicalized you?” in that case would be: “I was radicalized by the price of chocolate.”

Before anyone gets too overboard with the term radicalized, the sensation is quite hard to describe. It is, for a moment, a profound understanding of how broken our society is. And how fragile it has become. But that understanding itself is fragile and fleeting. Our world is so big and complex that after that moment of understanding, it’s rare to have all the little pieces of specific knowledge to grasp the true horror of any new piece of information. It has produced a vague sense of unease that my generation is desperately trying to grapple with, understand and explain to others. Bo Burnham took a crack at it in his special, Inside. The great Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote about it at the start of whatever the war in Ukraine will be called in the history books.

Humans are the most intelligent animal on the planet, sort of, and our intelligence was key to our survival. The unease identified and felt by Burnham and Abdelmahmoud demands answers to two major questions.

Question 1: How on earth did we—the smartest species on earth—design such stupid systems to provide the necessities of life?

Question 2: Is this really—really—the best we can do?

It’s not. We just lack imagination.

The politics of imagination attempts to answer the two main questions generated by our unease. It argues that one of the reasons our solutions to major problems are often lacking is because we lack the imagination for better. Our solutions are limited to the familiar instead of branching out into the imaginary.

One of the weird quirks of humanity, and history, is that it is made up of a series of random choices. Human beings just do things, other humans learn from it, and then they do more things. Take, for example, bread. Bread has become a staple of human life because it is cheap, easy to make, and versatile. A lot of grains can be turned into bread, and most cultures have some form of bread from the grains readily available to their ancestors. Indigenous peoples in Canada, for example, had a version of Bannock (before the modern Bannock) made out of Camas. The Scots brought over their version of Bannock, and Indigenous people traded their asparagus bulb bread for wheat bread because of its nutritional staying power.

Even though in the past we have understood the value of bread as nutrition, in our current society making sure people have enough bread isn’t essential. At all. What is important? Accumulating money.

This isn’t new, either. Chasing the almighty dollar has led to revolutions when there wasn’t enough bread. It’s why Bread Baron Galen Weston decided to break the law to make some bonus money.

Money in and of itself isn’t evil. It is just a tool, a tool we have used in various ways throughout history to signify and easily understand the value of things for trade. Since humans are communal animals, and no one person can fill all of their individual needs, money has been used to help lubricate trade for centuries.

And although humans are communal animals, we are also apex predators. And there are those among us, the Grocery Scrooge Galen Westons of the world, who see the power of money and have worked very hard to imagine ways to accumulate the power wealth provides. It is easy to assume moneybags Galen Weston started Superstore to feed people, as it is a grocery store—but he started it to make money. And he has been very successful.

click to enlarge The politics of imagination
Matt Stickland
What Superstore tells its employees its values are. Most of which is contradicted by its business model.

The cynical side of the politics of imagination can imagine that Capitalist Galen Weston does not care if you live or die, as long as he can make money off you on your way to the grave.

It’s not Price Fixing Prince Galen Weston’s fault, really: He’s a player in the game of politics, and he happens to be good at it. Why else would Justin Trudeau buy him $12 million worth of fridges? The answer, in case you’re wondering, is because “Loblaw was one of the 50 winners through the competitive process. Why? Because they can get the most significant emission reductions,” said then environment minister Cathrine McKenna.

But the questions asked by the media and the answers by McKenna belie a set of assumptions that got us into the mess that we’re in. Do we not all live here? Why is saving the planet a competitive process? Why is it not collaborative?

The politics of imagination
Matt Stickland
Matt Stickland standing Life Bouy Sentry on PCT Cougar circa 2010 off the coast of BC.

The taxpayer-funded program that gave Plague Profiteer Galen Weston his $12-million fridges is called the Low Carbon Economy Fund.

In 2017, that program gave Nova Scotia $56 million to help transition from coal to renewable energy. In 2022, are we any closer to shutting down those plants? No.

In 2018, that same $56 million in funding was re-announced three times: Once in June, once in July, and once in October.

In June 2018, the federal government announced that some of this money would be for a rebate program for solar power. It has a lot of terms and conditions. And those terms and conditions are designed either maliciously or lazily to make the program less effective for consumers. It’s called rebate breakage. Or, as Melanie Goetz of the American Water Works Association wrote for Jstor: “The beauty of the rebate, from the marketer’s perspective, is that it creates the perception of a discount without actually reducing the price.” The abstract of her argument is that “rebate programs, although typically used by marketers to create a perception of a discount without having to actually provide one, can be leveraged by utilities as a customer service experience to build trust between the customer and the utility.” Or put another way, according to her, the point of a rebate program is to make people feel like they’re saving the planet without cutting into profits—or saving the planet.

In July 2018, more rebates. In October 2018, they announced not just rebates, but basically the same rebates as they did in July.

But what really is the point of these plans? To save the earth?

“This funding will create good jobs, spark clean economic development and help Nova Scotians save money on energy and fight climate change in their own communities,” said McKenna in 2017.

“That’s why we are supporting the SolarHomes program: to help Nova Scotia homeowners save money on energy bills and support good middle-class jobs while meeting our climate commitments,” said Cole Harbour MP Darren Fisher in June 2018.

“Together, they will help protect our environment and strengthen our economy today and for generations to come,” said McKenna in July 2018.

“Improving energy efficiency helps cut energy costs for homeowners and businesses while creating good middle-class jobs and reducing pollution. Energy efficiency is one part of a serious plan to fight climate change and grow the economy.” said valley MP Sean Fraser in October 2018.

A core component in these so-called environmental plans is growing the economy. Canada is one of the worst per capita emitters in the world. In 2016, Trudeau pledged to drop Canada’s emissions from 741 megatonnes (the 2005 benchmark) to 444 megatonnes by 2030. We have only dropped below 700 megatonnes in two reporting periods since 2005.

The first of those two reporting periods was during the great recession of 2008, when emissions dropped to 698 megatonnes. During COVID, emissions dropped to 672 megatonnes. What do both of these emission drops have in common? Massive economic downturns.

Think about COVID; how much did our world have to change to drop 43 megatonnes? How will it have to change to drop 297? Will any of our current plans or policies change our life that much? No, no, they will not.

And yet somehow, we are expected to believe that our government has this in hand and will hit our targets and save the planet? Not only that, but they will magically do all of that without drastically changing our lives?

Make no mistake, we are on track to kill the planet and, therefore, ourselves. Our politicians and their staff are so laser-focused on winning elections or polls or some other triviality of the game of politics that they don’t have, or don’t care to indulge, the imagination required to come up with policies that will actually save the planet. Or for that matter, fix any major issue we face today.

The politics of imagination is not relegated to being bereft of positive ideas. The other side of that coin is being unable to imagine that the worst is possible. The Canadian submarine program has been, for a long time, the butt of jokes. A shining example of military procurement gone horribly awry. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the submarine program is a run-of-the-mill Canadian procurement success story. After all, what is Canadian military procurement besides overpaying for much-delayed gear that doesn’t increase our military capability in any meaningful way? Like when we tried to buy boots, helicopters, warships, pistols, warships again, these 117 defence acquisitions, long-range patrol aircraft, these 15 defence acquisitions, search and rescue helicopters, fighter planes, sleeping bags, and rucksacks, to name a few.

Surprise, surprise, the Canadian military procurement strategy has a Value Proposition Guide that helps guide the government in “leveraging economic benefits” of procuring military hardware.

click to enlarge The politics of imagination
Matt Stickland
Matt Stickland minutes after earning his submarine qualification.

There was a moment in my life in the fall of 2013 when I was sure, for three excruciatingly eternal minutes, I was certain my life would end drowning in a submarine underwater. My job during that emergency was to write down what was happening in the paper notebook. For evidence purposes. The terror was so consuming I could not even move to write.

We were fighting the war on drugs. A war, by the way, that has cost over $1 trillion that we lost some time in the mid-1980s, but continue to fight for some reason.

Anyway, as it turns out, the contractors that did repairs on the sub, likely Babcock contractors, installed a valve the wrong way. That valve happened to be in the fire fighting system. That system, when it is ready to fight a fire, is open directly to the ocean to ensure there is enough water to fight any fire. Since the valve was installed incorrectly, it opened the inside of the submarine up to the sea.

After we had gone through all our emergency procedures, we were still sinking. If it had been a fire instead of a training exercise, I would be dead right now. If someone in the front of the sub had found the hole to the ocean any later than they did, our corpses would have forever rested in a steel mausoleum at the bottom of the ocean—a monument to the hubris of well-leveraged economic benefits.

My watch was the first on the surface when we eventually made it there. It was an hour long. I smoked an entire pack of Newports and I have never felt more alive.

An experience like that gives no shortage of imagination for how badly a policy that is supposed to be life-saving can kill us all—if there’s an economic component.

Our politicians also lack the imagination to understand the fundamental and dire consequences of insisting that every policy must include an economic benefit.

My friend Stew often talks about getting an old-timey wagon from the travelling medicine shows of the old west. He’d hitch a pony to the front and ride around the country, stopping at politicians’ offices preaching the politics of imagination.

It’s a joke, albeit not a funny one, because it’s not something he can do (in this economy!?), but it’s something that our politicians are in dire need of hearing.

He makes a compelling case that politicians need to hear this message. We teach children to be creative, we value and cherish innovation as a society. Well, kind of anyway. We stand on the shoulders of giants, he argues. We once just looked and prayed to the stars, but now we are among them and can see them in stunning detail. We can do more of that. But we also used to kill each other with rocks, and now we kill people with laser-guided munitions from a drone. And if we’re not careful, we can go that way too.

For good or for bad, everything new we accomplish we do so because someone before us also tried something new. Should we not, he argues, be trying something new, something imaginative in this potential precursor to end times? After all, what do we have to lose?

So why then, he asks, do we not demand the same imagination we foster in children from those who lead us?

Why do we ourselves not think about it?

Can you imagine what our world would look like if we used money as a tool instead of a goal? What would our world look like if our military procurement only cared about military capability? What would it look like if our climate policies only focused on saving the planet? What would the world look like if our agriculture sector only worked to feed people?

Why does it feel radical to suggest that money shouldn’t be as important as it is? Why does it feel radical to suggest that municipal assets should not be used to protect private profit from hungry people’s desperation?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. I, unfortunately, only know some of the answers to the other side of the imagination conundrum.

There are no rules that can prevent violence, just rules that can sometimes punish it. Desperate people are often quite imaginative in solving their problems, and desperate people often turn into angry people. Desperate, angry people have a fairly consistent track record of finding other like-minded people and instigating violence.

Our healthcare system is broken; it can not be fixed with patches. Our planet is dying; we are not doing enough to fix it. Inequality is on the rise. People are starving. People are becoming unhoused at an alarming rate.

Whether we meant to or not, we have designed a perfect system to produce exponentially more desperate people per year. I have the imagination to believe that Canada, Nova Scotia, or even Halifax are not immune from the violent consequences we convince ourselves only happen in other places to other people. But the reality is, with the system we have, it’s just a matter of time before something sets off this tinderbox.

I have been this terrified once before. Except this time, all I can do is write.