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Imagined Realities

The book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari introduces the idea of “imagined realities” – intangible, imagined entities such as limited liability companies, nations, gods, and legal systems. Harari opines that Homo sapiens’s becoming Earth’s dominant species was a function of our ability to cooperate in large numbers, and that the key to cooperation was mass acceptance of useful fictions. To clarify: there is on one hand the objective reality of mountains, rivers, cattle and other humans. On the other, there is the complex network of imagined entities like Europe, socialism, the Aryan race and traffic laws which make effective cooperation of large numbers of individuals possible. There is no tangible “United States” or “capitalism” which one can hold like one can hold a tree or a cow, but we believe that those imagined, created realities exist, and they do exist in a group’s agreed, collective imagination. Those fictions are important and worthy of our devotion, even though they are just complex sets of ideas that men and women have imagined and take as real.

One hope for preservation of Earth’s natural systems is that imagined realities or myths that people believe in can change. Two examples: In 1789 most Frenchmen believed in the “divine right” of French kings to rule over them, sanctioned by approval of a supernatural authority. The agreed reality disappeared in that year’s French Revolution, along with the French king and queen, and a new fiction, the “rights of man,” took its place as a national organizing principle. Neither the divine right of kings nor the rights of man existed except by group agreement, and in 1789 one died and one was born. Second example: Germany in early 1933 was a republic where Germans voted, with free speech and peaceful political competition. Adolph Hitler and his Nazi thugs killed that republic and created a new fiction, an imagined reality in which the Aryan race’s destiny was to rule the world, by force when needed. Hitler the man was the supreme authority, and millions of Germans followed his orders without questioning. Military force in World War II destroyed Nazi fictions, and a new, democratic imagined reality began to take shape.

The pervasive American imagined reality is that constantly-increasing production and consumption is possible and desirable, and that the planet’s natural systems can absorb without flinching the huge environmental stresses which 7+ billion people generate. Growth without limit in Earth’s finite physical system is our comfortable fantasy, but in reality skyrocketing consumption has already produced rapid climate change and emerging challenges from rising oceans, droughts and more powerful storms. At some point the endless growth fiction will die and hopefully give way to a new, sustainable imagined reality in which group survival and the good life will depend on sustainable consumption and protection of natural systems with a new set of assumptions and made-up agreements. Big and fast changes in humankind’s imagined realities have happened before, as outlined above. Perhaps, just perhaps, healthy destruction of the old and creation of new American “imagined reality” agreements will be born this century, and without the pain and violence the French and Germans experienced.


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