One of the (many) ways this culture is killing the planet is through a lack of imagination. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, and especially in light of three pretty typical responses I’ve read, each one showing less imagination than the one before.

The first comes from global warming activist George Monbiot, who, just ten days after the earthquake and tsunami, wrote in the Guardian, “As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.” His position was that the catastrophe — the mass release of highly toxic radiation — was caused not by the routine production and concentration of highly radioactive materials, but rather by a natural disaster combined with “a legacy of poor design and corner-cutting.” If the capitalists can just design this monstrous process better, he seems to believe, they can continue to produce and concentrate highly radioactive materials without causing more accidents. Similar arguments were made after Oak Ridge, Windscale, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. You’d think by now we’d all know better. And you’d think it wouldn’t take a lot of imagination to see how routinely performing an action as stupendously dangerous as the intentional concentration of highly toxic and radioactive materials would render their eventual catastrophic release not so much an accident as an inevitability, with the question of if quickly giving way to the questions of when, how often, and how bad.

The second comment I read came from someone who did not have George Monbiot’s advantage of living half a world away from the smoldering radioactive mess. In late March, an official with the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency told the Wall Street Journal that Japan is not reconsidering nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, because “Japan couldn’t go forward without nuclear power in order to meet its demand for energy today.” He said that a significant reduction in nuclear power would result in blackouts, then added, “I don’t think anyone could imagine life without electricity.” There’s nothing surprising about his response. Most exploiters cannot imagine life without the benefits of their exploitation, and, perhaps more importantly, cannot imagine that anyone else could imagine going through life being any less exploitative than they are. Many slave owners cannot imagine life without slave labor. Many pimps cannot imagine life without prostituting women. Many abusers cannot imagine life without those they routinely abuse. And many addicts cannot imagine life without their addictions, whether to heroin, crack, television, the internet, entitlement, power, economic growth, technological escalation, electricity, or industrial civilization.

The failure of imagination at work here is stunning. Humans have lived without industrially generated electricity for nearly all of our existence. In fact we thrived on every continent except Antarctica without it. And for nearly all those years the majority of humans lived sustainably and comfortably. And let’s not forget the many traditional indigenous peoples (plus another almost 2 billion people) who are living without electricity today. The Japanese official is so lacking in imagination that he can’t even imagine that they exist.

George Monbiot, in his Guardian article, asks some important questions about living without industrial electricity: “How do we drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways — not to mention advanced industrial processes? Rooftop solar panels?” But he reaches an illogical conclusion: “The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production.” Actually, no. The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment you fall out of love with the whole economy, an economy that is systematically exploitative and destructive, an economy that is killing the planet.

It is insane to favor textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces, electric railways, and advanced industrial processes over a living planet. Our ability to imagine is so impoverished that we cannot even imagine what is happening right in front of our faces.

Why is it unimaginable, unthinkable, or absurd to talk about getting rid of electricity, but it is not unimaginable, unthinkable, and absurd to think about extirpating great apes, great cats, salmon, passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, short-nosed sea snakes, coral reef communities? And why is it just as accepted to allow the extinction of indigenous humans who are also inevitable victims of this way of life (many of whom live with little or no electricity)? This failure of imagination is not only insane, it is profoundly immoral.

Imagine for a moment that we weren’t suffering from this lack of imagination. Imagine a public official saying not that he cannot imagine living without electricity, but that he cannot imagine living with it, that what he can’t imagine living without are polar bears, the mother swimming hundreds of miles next to her child, and, when the child tires, hundreds of miles more with the cub on her back. Imagine if this public official, or rather, imagine if we all were to say that we cannot imagine living without rockhopper penguins (as I write this, the largest nesting grounds of endangered rockhoppers is threatened by an oil spill). Imagine if we were to say we cannot imagine living without the heart-stopping flutters and swoops and dives of bats, and we cannot imagine living without hearing frog song in spring. Imagine if we were to say that we cannot live without the solemn grace of newts, and the cheerful flight of bumblebees (some areas of China are so polluted that all pollinators are dead, which means all flowering plants are effectively dead, which means hundreds of millions of years of evolution have been destroyed). Imagine if it were not this destructive culture — and its textile mills, brick kilns, electric railways, and advanced industrial processes — that we could not imagine living without, but rather the real, physical world.

How would we act, and react, differently if we not only said these things but meant them? How would we act, and react, differently if we were not insane? And I mean that in the deepest sense, of being out of touch with physical reality. How can it be so difficult to understand that humans can survive (and have survived) quite well without an industrial economy, but an industrial economy — and in fact any economy — cannot survive without a living planet?

The truth is, the Japanese official and anybody else who states that they cannot imagine living without electricity had better start, because the industrial generation of electricity is simply not sustainable — whether it’s coal or hydropower or even large-scale solar and wind power — which means someday, and likely someday soon, people will be not only imagining living without electricity, but actually living without it, along with the more than 2 billion already doing so. About this prospect, a hapa (half Hawaiian) man recently said to me: “A lot of us are just biding our time, waiting to go back to the old ways. Can’t be more than a few decades at the latest. We did okay out here without microwave popcorn and weedwhackers and Jet Skis.”

Which leads me to the third article I read, titled “What Are You Willing to Sacrifice to Give Up Nuclear Energy?” In it, the author talks, as did the Japanese official, as did George Monbiot, about the importance of cheap energy to the industrial economy. But he’s got it all wrong. The real question is: what are you willing to sacrifice to allow the continuation of nuclear energy? And more broadly: what are you willing to sacrifice to allow the continuation of this industrialized way of life?

Given that industrial-scale electricity is unsustainable, and that a lot of people and other species are dying because of it, another question worth asking is: what will be left of the world when the electricity goes off? I can’t speak for you, but I’d rather be living on a planet that is healthier and more capable of sustaining life, rather than one that resembles the restricted area around Fukushima.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Orion

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