Is Your Head in the Clouds or in the Sand?

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Originally published on Medium, 2014

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The other day, in a conversation between an environmentalist and a climate change denier on a local radio talk show, a certain phrase kept coming up again and again: “You’re living in a dream world.”

It was levelled repeatedly by the climate change denier as if he were clubbing a seal with a sack of  hammers. Simultaneously disapproving and dismissive, it was his go-to, catch-all, multi-purpose put-down, designed to block any attempt by his opponent to engage in informed debate. It didn’t help that the denier was a Rob Ford-like attack dog and the tree-hugger a bit of a hapless puppy.

The “dream world” that the denier referred to with such thinly veiled contempt was a world without fossil fuels and carbon emissions, a world fuelled by clean energy, a world where public transit trumped private transport and bicycles co-mingled safely with larger vehicles in urban traffic. “Getting rid of fossil fuel will never happen”, repeated the denier. “If that’s what you think, you’re living in a dream world.”

By about the fourth of fifth time he said that, I was struck by the fact that this poor fool’s problem was that he was himself incapable of dreaming. He was bereft of an imagination (or maybe afraid of where it might take him). It irked me that this thought did not occur to the environmentalist, and I wished at that moment that he would just ask the question, “So . . . what’s wrong with dreaming?”

The greatest advances made by mankind have always begun with a dream. Ideas like democracy, equality, and freedom were once dreams that were shared, fought for and codified. A few hundred years ago such things would have been dismissed with the same sentiment: Freedom? Equality? Mon cher, you’re living in a dream world.

Every groundbreaking technology ever devised is the result of a dream transformed by hours, days, months and sometimes years of iteration into a game-changing reality. Electric light? Mr Edison, surely you’re dreaming.

Every advance in human health sprung from the mind of someone who could imagine a means of conquering disease. Infant mortality reduced by doctors washing their hands? Mon cher Pasteur, ça c’est vraiment un rêve!

Every great work of art, every scientific discovery, every social innovation is impossible without dreaming. But we live in a world where dreaming is frowned upon because it is not immediately tied to a profit. Because it is ‘impractical’ and ‘unrealistic’. If it’s not a line item in the next quarterly report, then it has no value in a society which has replaced its imagination with a balance sheet.

This enterprise mentality we are now governed by is not natural. It was created by a cabal of powerful actors in finance, academia and government over the last 30 years who did in fact have a dream: one in which they would be free to amass individual wealth without constraint or responsibility for its impact on the rest of the world. What our climate change denier so vehemently defended as ‘reality’ was indeed once a figment of some greedy speculator’s imagination.

There’s no reason not to dream of an alternative. In fact we must. To dream is not human folly; it is human history. The folly is to dismiss it. wn