Essay: Radical re-imagining: why we need planetary imagination (Bonnie van Vugt, 2023)

Essay: Radical re-imagining: why we need planetary imagination (Bonnie van Vugt, 2023)

Credits: Mushmap

What do we mean when we talk about images of the planet, why are they so important and how does this relate to the climate and ecological crisis? Bonnie van Vugt explains in this essay on planetary imaginaries.

Radical re-imagining: why we need planetary imagination

What is the earth?

Perhaps this seems like an obvious question. It is the world, the planet that you and I live on.

But what planet do you actually live on? If you were to ask that question to Elon Musk, he might say, “the planet we're going to leave in the future, because I want to go to Mars.” You, on the other hand, may have a very different picture of Earth. The answer might be even different if you ask the same question to a farmer from Southern Europe, who has just endured the heat and drought of this summer. The answer to this question depends on whom you ask it to, and from what visual and philosophical culture that person comes from.

The philosopher Bruno Latour stated that we often jokingly say that it seems "as if we do not live on the same planet" when people do not understand or agree with each other; however, we could also take this expression literally, because people's definition of the earth depends on so many different factors. And those "planetary imaginaries," the ways in which we represent and portray the planet, are important. They affect the way we interact with the earth, for example, when policy choices have to be made.

We use terms such as ‘carbon footprint’ and data about how the earth is changing in our day-to-day conversations about current climate issues. Climate change is understood through planetary computation, which means that computers, connected by the Internet, work together to process vast amounts of data. This data helps us understand climate patterns and make future predictions about the environment.

Visualizations of climate, such as the depiction of rising temperatures in Europe, make data that can often feel abstract into something more concrete; this concretization then allows us to utilize data to further political action. These visualizations of climate data give us a realistic and fact-based prediction of our future. Paradoxically, however, climate visualizations can also cause our imagination of the future of the earth to be limited.

Philosopher Chiara Bottici explains that this is because, on the one hand, there is an overflow of images present in our lives through digital technology and social media, as well as on TV and in newspapers. On the other hand, it seems that there is a lack of imagination in politics because all these climate images get in the way of us imagining new, radically different futures of climate. Bottici is not the only one talking about this "crisis of imagination”. Authors like Amitav Ghosh call the climate crisis "a crisis of culture and therefore of imagination”. If we really are in a crisis of imagination, we need to ask ourselves what we can do about it. Right now it seems as if we are simply unable to imagine a different world. So, in addition to environmental concepts understood as a result of planetary computation, our planetary imaginaries are important in our perception of the planet.

Essay: Radical re-imagining: why we need planetary imagination (Bonnie van Vugt, 2023)

Sistema Cinco. Credits:

Planetary imagination

The term ‘planetary imaginaries’ refers to the ways in which societies represent and understand their relationship to the planet. The concept "imaginary" is used in various disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology and philosophy, to denote the collective imagination of societies.

In his work, the philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of "modern social imagery". Taylor is interested in "the way people 'imagine' their social environment." This social imagery is often not expressed in theoretical terms: rather it is transmitted through images, stories, pictures, legends, myths, metaphors and memes. "All too often we see that specific, theoretical knowledge is reserved for a small minority, whereas what is interesting about social imagery is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not all of society," says Taylor.

Taylor is interested in imaginaries rather than knowledge, because this involves the cultural structure of a society as well as its norms and values. In our everyday language, we usually do not distinguish strictly between ‘the imaginary’ and ‘culture’. But social imaginaries are not a synonym for culture. It is rather the background or mental territory we need to construct concepts such as 'culture,' 'politics,' and 'art.' This nuance in the distinction between only becomes important if we want to understand how societies undergo major changes, such as the transition from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian society, or from a modern and industrial to an information society.

In pre-modern society, for example, the dominant social imagery assumed a ‘divine order’ in which God and the king were the rulers over everyone. The worldview at this time was entirely dominated by religion. This began to change during the Enlightenment, when the world was no longer viewed from the perspective of "divine order," but from scientific rationalism. Today we may hardly be able to imagine what society would be like without scientific methods and rationalism, but the transition from pre-modern to modern required a radical reimagining of the whole society in which new concepts were created that completely transcended concepts such as ‘the divine order’.

A transition to a sustainable future therefore requires a radical reimagning of the earth, because we need new images, stories and concepts that transcend the current ones. If the ecological crisis is simultaneously a crisis of imagination, then it is our imagery that we should pay attention to.

Before we radically reimagine the entire world, let’s take a step back and look at how we imagine earth today: what is the image of the earth as we know it based on? The space expeditions of the 1960s brought us new ways of looking at Earth. Iconic photographs of the earth, such as Earthrise and The Blue Marble, depict an image of the planet as unified and simplified whole; in reality, the earth consists of many systems, often overlapping and conflicting one another. Consequently, it was images like these that caused the overall picture of the earth as a single system to become the dominant framework for thinking about the world.

The conceptions we have of the earth within this context are based on a number of underlying concepts, value systems and technologies used to picture the plane. The overall image of earth as seen from space - distant and far away- suggests the interconnectedness of human beings: we are all together on that little blue marble. But this image of earth also involves a form of colonial domination, as if we have an objective perspective over the entire earth which would allow us to govern it completely. This is not true, of course: we can merely model the climate, but we cannot prevent an extreme heat wave or a storm. At the same time, this overall view of the earth can be helpful, especially when we are visualizing and addressing a problem like climate change.

From Globe to Planetary

The term ‘Planetary’ was coined as a concept by literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. She used the word in the 1990s as an alternative to the word globe, because the globe is associated with hierarchy and the universalism that underpinned today's global neoliberal capitalism. For example, the continent of Africa is often depicted much smaller than it relatively is on globes or maps. The use of the so-called Mercator projection depicts that Africa and Greenland are almost the same size on some globes or maps, when in reality Africa is 14 times larger. This has to do with making choices about elements like scale and orientation when representing a three-dimensional earth on a two-dimensional surface.

But these choices can be influenced by power relations and prejudices. Thus, according to historian Thomas Smits, it is no coincidence that Europe, Russia and the United States appear relatively large on today's globe, while the continent of Africa and countries such as India, Mexico and Saudi Arabia are depicted as much smaller.

With her statement "the globe is on our computers," Spivak suggested that what we call "the world" is maintained by our exchanges, representations and calculations of it. The globe, like the icons for the World Wide Web and the World Bank, is a place where no one lives. Therefore, Spivak suggested replacing the idea of the globe with the concept of ‘planetary’. Planetary is an attempt to conceptualize the earth in a different way, a way in which we can live and not exist only "on our computers”. What we mean by planetary imaginaries are the wide variety of visions of what the earth looks like and could look like. In that sense, the earth of Elon Musk, the farmer from Southern Europe, and your earth all coexist.

Out of the Planetarium, in to the forests

It is not enough, however, to only philosophize about what the future should or could look like. The planetary imaginary is more than a theory: it has an active component. Imaging is an active and performative process: it is not only about thinking in different ways, but also about being in different ways, explains Professor of Environmental Humanities Jennifer Gabrys. She explains planetary as a "praxis": a myriad of exercises and actions.

To illustrate this, Gabrys cites philosopher Walter Benjamin in her essay ‘Becoming Planetary’. He argued that modern humans are becoming increasingly distant from heaven. In the poetic 1928 text ‘To the Planetarium’, he argues that our cosmic experience has changed now that we no longer experience the starry sky through collective rituals, as in ancient times, but view nature only through the tele- and microscope. With the advent of modern technology, our cosmic experience has changed.

Whereas Benjamin's message was to ‘go to the planetarium’, Gabrys instead calls for us to ‘leave the planetarium’. She argues that we should move away from the overall view of the earth as one system, as it appears in the Earthrise picture. Instead of looking from the planetarium, we should go to the forest: here we can really see what the planet is. The forest is an example of a place where we can rethink our ways of being human and our technological and cultural actions in relation to the planet. In a place like this we could practice planetary thinking and action.

Gabrys cites concrete examples of ways to explore the relationship between humans and the forest, such as "mapping and monitoring with remote sensing platforms, toolkits for forest guards and sensing technologies." These are examples of ways that could help us to better understand our relationship with the planet. Practicing ‘being planetary’ almost literally requires us to put our hands and feet in the earth. Bruno Latour articulates this as "going back to earth": we have to be able to land somewhere in order to let go of the so-called objective perspective.

Essay: Radical re-imagining: why we need planetary imagination (Bonnie van Vugt, 2023)

Still from 'Feral Atlas’

How to recalibrate?

From the techno-utopian and capitalist imagination of someone like Elon Musk, human beings are still the main rulers of the earth. This perspective is still dominant in our society’s thinking and acting. There is a need to rethink the human relationship to the planet for a sustainable future, because the way we imagine the earth itself and our relationship to it has a substantial impact on the environment.

But imagining alternatives and bringing them to life turns out to be not so easy.

According to philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fisher, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. A more hopeful note came from science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin during her speech at the National Book Awards: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” Le Guin explains that transformation is only possible if we use our imagination and create alternative visions of the future, as she does in her science fiction.

And there are many more ways, media and storylines we can create about a 'new' earth. An example of a project where new planetary imaginaries become visible is 'Feral Atlas', a digital atlas that tries to explain the mechanisms behind the Anthropocene. The project is an attempt to explain the era we live in now as a fragmented time, rather than a unified whole. On the Feral Atlas website, you can read different stories from the perspective of a protagonist of your choice. You can read about radioactive insects, plastic bags or underwater sounds. Through this mosaic of different stories, Feral Atlas tries to make you look at the world from a new, more-than-human perspective. In this way it hopes to inform people in a new manner, and to make them aware of the world around us.

These new narratives about the planet are also being explored, researched and created in Waag’s Space Lab. The project "Mushmap", that came out of an artist workshop series organized by the lab, is re-thinking the way in which new (urban) borders are designed based on the biodiversity of the area, rather than on political, capitalist or other interests. The aim of the group of researchers and artists was to challenge the neocolonial perception of borders. Boundaries as depicted on a map are often determined on the basis of, for example, socio-economic considerations. A border is drawn because a road is being built or the land belongs to an owner. Maps would look very different if they were made from the perspective of trees or fungi, but these are often not included in the way the space is defined.

Radical re-imagination

There is not one right answer to the question of what the earth is, just as there is not one right answer to the question of what kind of planet you would like to live on. Elon Musk, the farmer from Southern Europe and you probably all have different answers to this question, which means that you all hold onto different planetary imaginaries.

Planetary imaginaries are a bit like dark matter: it is invisible to us, but it has a tremendous impact. It holds everything together. Our imaginary is usually not expressed explicitly because it often cannot be put into words. It becomes visible only in our images: in art, culture and stories. Environmental concepts and data on global warming alone are not effective enough to make us sensitive to the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis. They do not motivate us enough to take action and in any case, as we have seen in recent years, they do not drastically affect policymaking. It is therefore necessary to recognize the need to develop new ways of engaging the public's imagination in the search for hopeful perspectives in times of crisis.

To make all of society sensitive to climate issues, it is increasingly important that we mobilize not only science, but also the arts. We need new ideas, stories and concepts that go beyond what we know today. Initiatives such as Feral Atlas and Mushmap offer a radical reimagining of the earth: what if, for once, the human is not the protagonist, but the sea? What kind of perspective of the planet will that offer us? And how would maps look like if trees and fungi define the boundaries? To make a transition to a sustainable future, we need to completely rethink our view of the earth through the creation of new imaginaries. And for this we need radical re-imagination of the planet.

Waag Futurelab is the leader of the More-than-Planet project, in which we are working with research institutes and artists on new images and imaginaries of the planet. This essay was originally published in Dutch on Waag's website, which you can read via the link below.