Book review: How to Re-imagine the World

We have a dream that our own children and our children's children will again be able to freely drink the waters of rushing streams, breathe deeply in the morning air and see the glittering stars at night ... We have a dream that we ourselves might be able to come among the other creatures with composure and respect both ways ... We have a dream that the grandchildren of loggers and the grandchildren of tree-huggers will one day work together in a vibrant forest from which they can take what they need without taking its vibrancy ...
This is Anthony Weston's dream. The dreamer is a Professor of Philosophy at Elon University in North Carolina. He teaches Ethics, Environmental Studies and "Millennial Imagination." Author of ten books including titles like Jobs for Philosophers, Creativity for Critical Thinkers and Toward Better Problems: New Perspectives on Abortion, Animal Rights, the Environment, and Justice, Weston's recent contribution to radical thinking is How to Re-imagine the World: A pocket guide for practical visionaries.

If this tiny book were a person, she'd be a cheerleader for radical thinkers. Averaging five pages per chapter and appealing to those with a challenged attention span, the book practically shouts to its reader to wake up and think differently. Weston dares his audience to perceive possibility in audacious new ways.

This book does not go into the nitty-gritty of organizing. It offers little strategic advice. It sketches a multitude of examples, but they are mostly forward-looking possibilities not yet actual. The title means what it says: this is a book in service of vision; imagination itself in service of changing the world; imagination off the scale, radically suggestive, provocative and fertile. Only a beginning, then - but imagination is where it all begins.
The author proposes a new approach to activism toward the goal of social change. In a world that can spend two trillion dollars on a war in Iraq, there are apparently huge resources available for something, and Weston suggests something other than perpetual bloodshed over oil. But implementing the alternative is going to take some big changes.
Radical imagination begins with a move beyond complaint and resistance, beyond reactive tinkering or hunkering down or cynical accommodation. The first big move is to an alternative picture of how things could be instead.
Weston shifts the notion of activism into a different gear that speeds past passive, negative statements and angry, impotent responses. Martin Luther King started his famous speech with, "I have a dream..." not, "I have a nightmare..." Weston prods us to do the same.

Chapter titles like "Work from a whole vision," "The problem is the solution," and "Rebuild from the ground up," advocate initiatives like replacing the military machine with an environmentally and socially beneficial organism; harnessing heat in asphalt roads for domestic use; and looking to the internet as a vehicle for mass mobilization of citizens toward worldwide action for change.

Weston asks us to question why we allow people in our community to sink into poverty; how we came to consider the earth as our dumping ground; and why we settle for political structures that don't support community voice and politicians who don't represent the people who put them into power. He suggests a community-based support structure that avoids the community shame of poverty; a new attitude toward the environment (of course dumping our waste in the ocean is preposterous!); and mobilizing citizens to start their own political structures when the established ones bog down democracy. Weston is a little devil's advocate on the apathetic reader's shoulder, poking his pitchfork into an ear and hissing, "Hey, slacker, question everything."

Weston's solutions are as offbeat as his definitions of what constitutes a problem. Citing Bill Mollison, Australian academic and father of permaculture, the author prods the reader to re-think factory waste products as resources; consider re-employment of elderly folk as teachers; and join advocates of "teaching the controversy" between creationism and evolution in American schools, by teaching everyone's creationism - ancient Greek and Native American included.

Each chapter is an invitation to meditate upon possibilities. Reading the little book quickly from cover to cover could rob a reader of the gradual unfolding of new ways of thinking that might sprout from each concept. Some of them are radical new concepts. They are not the answers, but a call to re-think. The book is a launching pad designed to propel the individual toward fresh views on old issues.

The author is very passionate about re-imagination. He has a wealth of ideas, and it may have served the reader better had he shared more anecdotes to get his message across. He may have assumed readers could weave their own illustrations through some of his motivational statements, however some passages would benefit from more stories from the Weston experience. He paints vibrant pictures of what some ideas can lead to, but leaves others somewhat in the realm of philosophical academia.

However, it is not difficult to feel an upwelling of hope while reading this book. The author doesn't pound away at the old, heavy problems - instead he puts air under the wings of brand new, radical modes of thought. He makes achievable the potential for a future where people ignore the norms and think creatively about existence and its challenges. The alternatives are there - people just have to choose them.

How to Re-imagine the World: A pocket guide for practical visionaries by Anthony Weston, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2007. Soft cover, 152 pages, US $11.95, CAN $13.95.

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  • Posted on Nov. 27, 2007. Listed in:

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