Imagining Our Own Futures

Brendan Gleeson believes it’s time for families to break out of the confines of our current culture.

We are seeing the progressive closure of the human imagination. Sociologist Michael Pusey spoke about the withering of the Australian political imagination since the rise of economic rationalism, while politicians such as Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proclaimed the ‘TINA’ mantra – ‘there is no alternative’ to a society based on economic reason. This misuses the idea of reason, which is meant to liberate, not close, human thought.

Throughout the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th Century, Western thinking opened up to new and often starkly opposed ideas based on different values, interpretations, insights and priorities. This drove one of the greatest periods of innovation and improvement in human history. Most of us now live lives that are longer, fuller and healthier than our forebears could have imagined, and our children have been rescued from servitude and oppression. The modern idea of childhood – a period freed from responsibility and labour – only emerged in the 19th century.

This contest of ideas has dimmed in recent decades. Politics has narrowed 
on a liberal-democratic consensus and a constricted sense of freedom – freedom to do things (consume, develop), not freedom from things (poverty, environmental harm, alienation). Economics has been redefined from the pursuit of human welfare to the rule of the market and the idea that free markets define democracy and thus human freedom and fulfilment. Increasingly heated discussions about the environment nonetheless rest on a narrow assumption – the idea that the ecological crisis must be fixed by ‘adjustments’ to the status quo, not by profound social or economic change.

Consensus is a word we normally take to mean good, but there is a sense in which we have too much of it. Commentators from a variety of ideological positions have noted a lack of imaginative argument in public life, of deep debate about alternative futures. Does cynicism and fatigue thrive where political imagination has withered?

There is rising criticism that the Western imagination has closed to the point where we seem locked into the very processes, structures and habits that expose us to harm – economic crisis, environmental degradation, terror and insecurity. British sociologist John Urry asserts that the escape hatch to new structures and ways of living is through a reopened human imagination, via a new contest of ideas about our basic values and priorities.

Children are not immune to this withering of our imagination. The development of imagination starts at childhood; kids are our first and most important imaginative pool. We have much to learn from their interpretation of the present and their wondering and marvelling about our future.

The adult absorption with material gratification has surely contributed to many of the problems kids face in countries such as Australia. Yes, we care for kids (although not enough for Indigenous children), but perhaps in the wrong way, believing material goodies will meet their needs. The rising levels of obesity and technological obsession among kids suggests some of our care is misplaced. Not heartless, just a bit thoughtless.

Willy Wonka distrusted a world of conformist adults and looked to children and their open-hearted, imaginative dispositions to safeguard his precious creation. We are fortunate that child-health advocates such as Professor Fiona Stanley have reawakened a national interest in the welfare of children. We hear much more about childhood health and wellbeing than we did a decade ago. This is a good first step towards the recovery of a child-centred society.

There have always been adults who have tried to take kids from the mainstream to an alternative future, from the ‘New Australians’ who set up utopian colonies in Paraguay in the 1890s to the hippies who established communes based around alternative child-rearing in the 1960s and 70s. There seems to be less appetite (and possibility) for this type of utopian re-imagination in an era of materialism and economic common sense. We are also (rightfully) wary of the tendency for some utopias to be cultish or simply anti-social.

It’s becoming harder and harder for families to free themselves from a lifestyle model based on material consumption and, insidiously, the availability and use of technology in the home. Especially powerful are the communication and entertainment technologies that govern our lives and especially our children’s – mobile phones, hand-held and console games, the internet, new social media, and so on. This technology rules, limits and overshadows family life. In her book The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families to Enrich Our Lives, American psychologist Mary Pipher writes of the need to break away from these imprisoning influences, to “block the tunnels” that have penetrated everyday family life and undermined its autonomy and too often its happiness.

So… can we rebuild our prospects for real freedom (from control, want and alienation) at the most basic level – in the family and in households that care for kids? To do this we need to re-fire the human imagination in the most basic and important of ways by answering the question classical philosophers raised – how to live well? Taking a cue from Mary Pipher, it means families getting off the treadmill of the latest gadgets and constant communicative availability. It means imagining new ways of living together, and making our immediate families, neighbours, communities and environments the priority. It means seeking the shelter of these immediate others in a world buffeted by global crises, chronic innovation and constant change.

Most basically, it requires families to dump the script and invent their own habits, practices and expressions centred on the home. This is not to refuse the world and its riches, but to turn things around the other way; to reach out to a world that is at once enriching, exciting and threatening, from the safety of an autonomous family. Re-establishing family freedom does not mean fleeing to a commune. It means engaging with the world on our terms, ones that best suit our kids’ needs.

This might start with the simplest of rituals and the smallest of refusals – like regular family dinners with phones and televisions turned off; family holidays with no electronic games or computers (adults too!); Christmases with only handmade gifts. These simple shifts may open the space for imagination to grow around a family and child-centred environment that is tailored differently in every home. It would reflect the incredible richness and diversity of what we now call ‘the family’.

As Paul Kelly sang, ‘“From little things, big things grow”. Can we plant the seeds for a new social imagination in the home? A way to help enrich our children’s imagination about how to live well; to grow a new human imagination that will ultimately help us make the deep changes needed to avoid the cataclysms of economic default, resource depletion and global warming. The changes needed to break free from materialism, mindless change, limitless communication and consumerism. If a renewal of self-determination begins in the home, we might ultimately create a society that has the imaginative energy needed to save itself… from itself.

Professor Brendan Gleeson is currently Professor of Urban Policy Studies and Director of the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne.

Illustrations by Andrea Smith