Resilience.org – June 5, 2018 | by Rob Hopkins
They say you should never meet your heroes. They’re wrong. I recently had the huge honour of spending almost an hour in conversation with Robert Macfarlane, author of 9 books including ‘Mountains of the Mind’, ‘The Old Ways’, ‘Landmarks’ and, most recently, ‘The Lost Words’. I have admired Robert’s work for many years, in particular his reflections on imagination and his determination to keep alive, in our minds and our culture, a whole library of words which help us better articulate our place in, and relationship with, the natural world. As well as being a writer, Robert teaches at Cambridge about language and landscape. As he told me, “the convergences of those two things, along with social justice and environmental justice, are the things I’ve written most about”.
Robert is one of the most fascinating people to follow on Twitter, and he had recently tweeted a quote by Rebecca Solnit where she said, “the destruction of the Earth is due in part to a failure of the imagination, or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.” So, I started by asking him how he would assess the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018? [Robert made a few changes to the transcript of our discussion, so you will find the transcript below more accurate, but we know how you love podcasts, so we’ll share the original audio too].
Impoverished, vulnerable, but with surprising flourishings. In that quotation Rebecca challenges something she calls “the tyranny of the quantifiable”. Actually I suppose I would oddly say a word for the tyranny of the quantifiable. We need to quantify. It’s vital for change, not least how we measure our baselines – how we keep track of shifting baseline syndrome.
So I don’t fully agree with Rebecca that we should seek out and purge the quantifiable wherever we find it, but I think she’s absolutely right that imagination has been closed down, and particularly that uncertainty is a space that can be inhabited with enormous generative richness, as a consequence, is something that we feel uneasy with. I think that it is in some sense the climb of rationalism that has excluded that as a possibility. So I would say a word both for the rigours of naming and knowing, and for the possibilities of being uncertain.
What would you identify as being some of the factors that are responsible for that imaginative poverty?
It’s very tempting to say new media, but I’m not sure I agree with that, partly because my own adventures into social media over the past year – after a decade of extreme scepticism towards them – have been so exciting, and have led to so much possibility. In an odd way, I see that that’s one of the benefits, as well as one of the threats, to imagination in our time – the speed and echoic nature of communication.
Hope is very hard to come by right now, particularly in terms of the changes that people like you and me are interested in, by which I mean that the sense of crisis – as something that has arrived, that is declaring itself all around us all of the time at a local and a planetary level – is so vast that we end up in something that Sianne Ngai, who’s a cultural theorist at Harvard at the moment, calls ‘the stuplime’ or ‘stuplimity’. There she’s taken two words, stupor and the sublime, and she’s crushed them together to make a very contemporary ‘affect’ (is what she calls it), a very contemporary feeling.
Her point being that when we look at the troubles that we’re confronted with, they are sublime. They are so vast in that old sense of the word “sublime” that we can hardly comprehend them. What that results in is what she calls “a series of minor fatigues, concussions to the spirit”, that leave us in a stupor. I feel that. I don’t know if you feel that…
I mean you’re somebody who’s made change happen. But I feel that often. You look around – I have these conversations very often – I look around and talk to people and I say, “But what can we do? It’s all so awful.” So that for me, that repeated not-so-much single hammer blow, but that repeated concussion to hope, and to dreaming, is at the root of this impoverishment