economic imagination

Is there, at bottom, any real distinction between esthetics and economics?

Aldo Leopold

Imagination is a fundamental form of knowledge. It might be described as our capacity to know and love something, people or place. A knowing in the sense of shared fates, embodied knowledge that may engender new realities from existing ones. Compassion enables imagination and requires an affection, it enables imagination to become a medium of understanding and interpretation based on sympathy.

We can only know the deeper parts of people and places if we observe, but also imagine them. It is a safeguard as well, since if we authentically imagine a place or person, we involve ourselves in the picture from the bottom up. We know by experience connect ourselves as part of the whole. It is in this wholeness that imagination knows more than the eye can see and create realities deeper than observation can describe, adding questions of meaning to positive knowledge. It is a wonderful quality of the world that what is closely known and cared for grows.

Conversely, lack of imagination is a lack of compassion, ultimately making whatever we are failing to imagine unreal enough to be destroyed. Without imagination, what is particular drifts towards generality. The failure to distinguish between one thing and any other thing is reduction, a condition which replaces use, with abuse. This raises the question of scale, since we cannot imagine everything, and must be reasonably able to bring near what we imagine, and in this sense, imagination works a sort of advocacy, first of what is being imagined, and second to ourselves as “affected” part of the whole.

The success or failure of imagination shapes our understanding of the world around us through the art and language assigned to it- communities, natural landscapes, cultural landscapes. Good art, thrives imaginatively- it elaborates within constraints of form the mystery of essence , particularity , and engenders new realities. Bad art is reductive, and works in stereotypes, inefficiencies, misleading of essence. These symbols and stories set the intellectual ambiance for how we make use of our world, so imagination is a fundamentally economic.

We are living through the consequences of profound failures of economic imagination. The industrial economy, exists not by sympathetic imagination, but by abstraction and fantastical memes: “limitless growth”, “economies of scale”, “disruptive innovation”. Influenced mainly by the profit motive, a language of unrestrained consumptiveness prepares the way for abuse towards what ought most to be imagined, the human and non human nature on which we depend.

As Ben Hunt notes- “We no longer think of animal-as-food because we no longer have the story of animal-as-food”. Shrink wrapped flesh is food and we do not imagine the sea from which it came, neither the farm of the wheat, stream of the water, nor the histories of all that has occurred in these places that matters to them, humans and non human.

My generation bears the scars of disintermediation and bitter realization that the modern economy has existed to serve the interests of a disconnected few. In their wake we now navigate cultural homogenization, extreme (indebted) dependency, and fundamental disconnection from the places and communities from which we depend. The intangible landscape of our associational life (culture) has undergone a sort of cognitive strip mining, where corporate entities “harvest” our attention away from any particular part of our lives that absolutely requires attending.

What would it look like for work and love to share the same language? For our arts to be the natural outcomes of our lives?

We recognize defeated landscapes by the absence of pleasure from them. We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure. We are defeated at home because we have no pleasant work there. We turn to the pleasure industries for relief from our defeat, and are again defeated, for the pleasure industries can thrive and grow only upon our dissatisfaction with them.

Berry, Wendell


It is in the negative space of these consequences that the promise of a new economy rises- the promise of a new economy by new languages of a “new internet”. I hold the promise not because of a belief in its inevitable success or its current trajectory. I hold hope in that I can imagine new mediums applied towards economic assumptions that do not betray, but value distributed imagination. And that by incentivizing what is valuable, there is hope that the infrastructure may support the enlargement of the consciousness and the conscience of economy, or how we use what we were given.

There is hope , if courageously imagined, that the design of “the new internet” may incentivize an economy that serves our needs at a human scale through elaboration instead of extraction. Elaboration similar to how an artist elaborates his canvas, reaching beyond what is to define what could be. Elaboration that refuses the simplicity of reduction, and embraces the complexity and wildness of life in the world, but also the limits of our own experience, intelligence, and character. An elaboration that is optimistic and vigorous in action, while empathetic in purpose.

I hold hope because I can see how new stories told by new languages can lead us towards reconnection and economic imagination of a civilization that rests upon the earth. Hoping that by valuing imagination, we might find elegance, returning to the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible.

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