Grounded imaginaries

Transforming how we live in climate-changed futures

Featured in

  • Published 20210803
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-62-7
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THIS WE KNOW: we live within systems, institutions and structures – economic, social, political, cultural and discursive – that are generating disastrous outcomes for all life, including human life.[i] A simple narrative might identify the extraction and burning of fossil fuels as the culprits in causing catastrophic climate change, but these processes cannot be simply sifted out from the ways we live and then eliminated. They are baked into the infrastructures that support and perpetuate the habitual forms of eating, working, communicating, building, taking leisure and moving that constitute life for that part of humanity which is the beneficiary of extractive capitalism. Some people and some forms of life, in other words, make, occupy and rely upon worlds that are producing the ends of worlds for others – human and more-than-human. If the outcome is to be otherwise, the moorings of such lives will have to radically change.

I want to reflect on the role that social imaginaries play in catalysing and nourishing change. Social imaginaries are the shared backgrounds through which we experience ourselves and the world and form our expectations and projects.[ii] The problem is that the dominant social imaginaries of a climate-changed future currently circulating do not provide ways of thinking, feeling and acting that will encourage and enable us to effectively transform the structures and systems that undergird the conditions of human life under industrial capitalism. What they do is engender disengagement, apathy, fantastical thinking, hopelessness and inaction. We need imaginaries that are both alive to the realities of the challenge and that challenge the current realities. At the same time, if they are to hold us – and not float untethered as the stuff of fantastical imagination – such imaginaries must flow from experiments in living already being undertaken as people collectively navigate climate-induced multi-systematic destabilisation. While offering up the prospect of radical – to the root – transformation, they must also be reachable, mediating paths between the possible and the feasible. We do not yet know what these paths will be, nor where they might lead, but ‘grounded imaginaries’ will help us find our way to them and traverse them.[iii]

To begin, two questions. First, how does change – or perhaps more accurately transformation – come about?[iv] Second, and even more urgently, how might those of us committed to livable futures for all beings bring about or influence the direction and character of transformation?

Today, these questions arrive with a singular urgency – all the more reason for us to move slowly as we try to answer them and to be aware of the habitual ways in which modern Western societies have come to imagine the process of transformation itself. These habits may not serve us well as we seek to move towards futures that are radically different and just, but also reachable.


FOR THE MOST part, Western philosophical and theological systems suggest that the world comprises two fundamentally different dimensions or types of being, each of which operates according to its own logic or laws. There exists matter, which follows the deterministic logic of cause, effect, effect (and so on). And there is consciousness, mind or soul, a transcendent quality not bound by such laws that can itself bring into existence novel events and engender different outcomes. Against this background, the go-to explanation of transformation (as distinct from mere change) rests on the faith that this transcendent power can intercede and alter the direction of what would otherwise be determined by the mathematically predictable movements of the world. This potency might enter as if from ‘above’, or it might achieve its creative work through the spirit-infused dialect: a series of moves and countermoves that combine to engender creative advance. Simply put, even as the world generally moves mechanically along paths of cause and effect, there is a qualitatively different plane of being that can make ‘things’ move in a different direction. We depend on this idea both to explain how transformation is possible and to give us hope that it can occur.

As long as the site of transcendence was (or is) imagined elsewhere, with God or the gods, this story of transformation leaves us humans feeling that the only (and always weak) power we hold is to implore remote being(s) to do something on our behalf, hoping that they are not mischievous and that they have not absconded. But if we wrest the potency of spirit for ourselves – whether we think of it as mind or reason or freedom – we can then believe that we possess this extraordinary capacity to will the world to become the world we would have it become. In the context of secular modernity, many would reject the biblical notion that humans are made in the image of God. Nevertheless, the idea that humans, and humans alone, have this God-like power to bring ‘the new’ into existence has become an assumed part of what it is to be human.

What these patterns of thought have left us with is a schema of transformation through transcendent intervention. Certainly, it takes very different forms depending on a group’s cosmology, theology, understanding of the human mind and so on, but as a basic logic, this way of imagining transformation has been pervasive, at least in Western modernity. Today, faced with a world that displeases, worries or dissatisfies us, our characteristic response is to throw a ball of vision or aspiration out in front of us and then work out how we might technologically tether this wayward world to the idea we have conceived, until the two coincide.

Yet, even as it continues to seduce us, this faith that some transcendent power exists has suffered some serious blows. The belief that our je ne sais quoi can steer the ship in a different direction has faltered as we have become more alive to social, economic and political institutions and to the structures of meaning and language within which even mind – this apparently transcendent quality we snatched back from the gods – is itself formed. This crisis in faith is perhaps no more apparent than in the political dilemmas that arise from the structural analyses that emerged in nineteenth- and twentieth-century social sciences. Marxism, for example, suggested that different forms of consciousness – and even beliefs about what constituted a good or just society – were artefacts of the structure of the economy and one’s location within it. Psychoanalysis unmasked what we had assumed was an individual’s site of freedom – the speaking and choosing self – to be an ancillary party, moved and shaped by unconscious forces that were themselves formed within social and familial relationships over which ‘the free self’ had no control.

In twenty-first-century thought, the idea that individual consciousness is best understood as an effect of systems and structures has been taken up with ever greater sophistication. Theoretical frameworks such as new materialism and post-humanisms call into question the idea of a ‘free human’ who is completely distinct from ‘unfree matter’ or ‘nature’. They suggest that there is nothing but multidimensional dynamic relationships within which everything – including the movements of matter, but also humans’ thoughts, hopes, goals and ways of making sense of the world and themselves – arise. These approaches deprive humans of a stage, above or outside, from which they might launch an alternative vision or way of being. Or so it would seem. Towards the end of this essay, I will suggest that perhaps theories that refuse to posit a site of transcendence (even as a last refuge!) can nevertheless sustain the possibility of transformation. Such emergent transformation, or transformation that emerges through what the feminist science and technology scholar Donna Haraway calls sympoesis, will be immanent and relational all the way down.[v] A dance.


HOW DO WE find ourselves imagining a climate-changed future? To answer this question, I turn to the idea of social imaginaries, the shared backgrounds or ‘the shape or form in terms of which we experience the world and ourselves’ as Kathleen Lennon puts it.[vi] Or, as defined by Greek-French social theorist Cornelius Castoriadis, social imaginaries determine ‘practically, affectively and mentally’ how the world is grasped and establish distinctions ‘concerning what does and does not possess value…and what should and should not be done’.[vii]

Illuminating social imaginaries is critical because imaginaries enable and constrain what can show up for those who live within their scope and how what shows up occurs to them. Not only do they shape how and what we perceive and think, but also how and what we feel and what we believe we ought to do.[viii] The prefix ‘social’ is critical in understanding climate imaginaries, for while they occur to individuals as their own immediate way of making sense of the world, and while they show up in individuals’ bodies as their own feelings and orient them to take certain types of action, like the language that we each use to form our own speech, they are constituted and maintained at the collective level and thus always exist beyond the individual.[ix] The problem is that precisely because imaginaries are the conditions of possibility of what we experience, they rarely show up themselves. Illuminating them is critical to understanding and perhaps shifting the taken-for-granted ways in which we understand, feel about and evaluate the world.

Three different ‘social imaginaries’ are dominant in shaping how people in the contemporary West relate to a climate-changed future:[x] ‘business as usual’, or denial; ‘rescue and escape’; and ‘apocalypse or doom’. Most of us are probably interpolated into some part of each, although the balance between them varies among us, and others no doubt already operate at the periphery.

The ‘business-as-usual’ social imaginary rests on a refusal to accept that the systems that support the current modes of life of Western modernity are in fact unsustainable, or that maintaining them will lead to intolerable conditions. This one has a few variants. One insists that, despite the warnings of the killjoy Cassandras, the conditions that support such modes of life are not actually threatened, or that their sustainability stretches into futures beyond the time we need to worry about (which might be very short indeed, depending on the temporal reach of our ethical concerns). Another variant is that the conditions can sustain at least some people continuing to live as they have come to expect. Others, those who have not ‘got there yet’ (but who would presumably be moving along an imagined trajectory of development), or who have only recently ‘arrived’, will have to be excluded, perhaps through enforced (and ideologically buttressed) inequality or perhaps as a result of the ravages that the planet will visit upon them but not us. Within this imaginary, there is no call for transformation: everything is going along quite well for us, thank you. More coal, more gas, new vistas for fossil fuels as polar ice-caps melt, more clearing of forests, more chemical fertilisers, more industrial animal agriculture, more irrigation, deeper deep-sea fishing and mining, more wealth, more growth. Indeed, if change is needed at all, it ought to be regressive, a return to forms of life that are being eroded by the transformations others insist are ethically or practically required. Make America Great Again. The quiet Australians. A gas-led recovery.

The second imaginary, ‘rescue and escape’, conjoins two forms of salvation. These are the techno-fix – technology saves. And the theo-fix – God saves. If one focuses on the different sources of salvation, this combination will likely seem odd. Those waiting for (or investing in) technology and those waiting for (or investing in) God might hold vastly different world views and move in very different social groups, although this will not always be the case. Both are, however, structured according to the schema of transformation through transcendent intervention. We might lay out the underlying logic as follows: the systems and structures that have underpinned lives under industrial capitalism are running along in the ways that they do, only now it has become clear that these systems are deleterious. In the case of the theo-fix, the damage they are causing is to our souls; in the techno-fix, the damage is to our interests. Or perhaps more accurately, it has become apparent to those who have been the beneficiaries of these systems that they are becoming deleterious to their lives. This insight or revelation will then motivate the acts of intelligent design required to bring about a change of course. For those in the techno camp, it is human reason, or most likely the rational capacities of particularly gifted humans, that will rise to the occasion and design technological interventions that will enable transformed systems to continue to support (some) humans to live as they have become accustomed to living. For those in the theo-camp, a benevolent God will reach through with a saving hand, at least to those who merit saving and perhaps in ways that we cannot yet fathom within the bounds of our finite human form.

These days, confidence that ‘God will save us’ may be confined to certain communities of faith, although as the threat of climate change intensifies and our sense of impotence and terror become more intolerable, I suspect that religious doctrines that promise timely intervention will become more attractive. Nevertheless, as people whose subjectivities have been formed in a soup of neoliberalism, techno-faith, the promise of endless progress and superhero stories, many of us are primed to seize the reassurance that a technological solution will fly in to save the day of climate peril. Whether expressed in the Ecomodernist Manifesto,[xi] sloganeered as Prime Minister Morrison’s ‘technology over taxation’ approach to climate change, or projected before us in the form of an array of geoengineering solutions, what unites the different versions of the techno-fix is their implicit promise not to disrupt – and, in fact, to preserve and expand – extractive capitalism, along with the political institutions that support it and the social, cultural and economic inequalities it generates.[xii] Feminist and critical race scholars and activists, such as Giovanna Di Chiro and climate-justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, have searingly critiqued techno-modernism’s ‘solution’ to climate change – and, more generally, what environmental journalist Andrew Revkin has called the ‘good Anthropocene’. Their work renders apparent how the very racial and gender inequalities and forms of violence generated by modernist capitalism are only reinforced in these putatively saving discourses.[xiii]

To be clear, my point here is not that technological invention and technologically supported adaptation have no place in addressing climate change. Without doubt they do, given that even with complete emissions elimination in the next couple of decades, the carbon already in the atmosphere takes us above limits where dire and lasting effects can be avoided. It is rather to make clear the ideological underpinnings of the techno-fix imaginary and the implicit interests being pedalled. A simple stocktake of the names and affiliations of those who are throwing their significant weight behind this imaginary – from Elon Musk to Bill Gates to the Breakthrough Institute and (even if gingerly) Australia’s federal Coalition government – should give pause to anyone who doubts the collusion between capitalist expansion and techno-fix imaginaries.[xiv]

If the second social imaginary is reminiscent of the schema of transformation through transcendent intervention, the third – apocalypse and doom – is a case of the impotence provoked by our confrontation with what we take to be the unstoppable force of systems.[xv] The contention here is that even if there existed a time when humans could have made a difference, then that time has passed; Earth systems are running towards doom all on their own. Again, however, it is critical to recognise that what is driving this imaginary is not simply a considered analysis of structural forces outstripping humans’ capacity to intervene; particular interests are insidiously spruiking this imaginary. As climate scientist Michael E Mann argues in The New Climate War,[xvi] now that the immediacy of climate change-driven disasters has made denying the reality of climate change a difficult sell, the fossil fuel industry, right-wing media and petro-state actors are setting out to convince publics that runaway climate systems, set in play some time ago, are now propelling themselves (and us with them) with an intensity and at a rate beyond even our best (technologically powered) reach. There is no point fighting nature’s systems (albeit systems we have thrown awry). Seize the day of pleasure while it lasts.

A slightly different version of the doom narrative suggests that the institutions and infrastructures that support and sustain how people around the world now live (eat, move, work and so on) are so inextricably bound up with fossil fuel extraction and burning that reform lies beyond the bounds of possibility.[xvii]  There is no point fighting the juggernaut that is the system.[xviii] The doomist dimension of this imaginary is thus both nurtured by a belief that the existing systems are on an unstoppable trajectory to disaster and promoted by those with an interest in ensuring that they are not stopped. And as Mary Annaïse Heglar, Giovanna Di Chiro and Kate Aronoff have insisted, the ways in which these beliefs function, whose interests they serve and whose labours and exploitations they ignore have to be understood in racialised and gendered terms.[xix]

Simultaneously, the apocalyptic dimension of this imaginary is nurtured by a steady diet of films and television series depicting variations on Armageddon. Continuous with blockbuster disaster films that captivate audiences through the hyper-intensification of affects and the promise of a narrative arc that sacrifices almost everyone but saves a meaningful remnant, the cli-fi apocalypse depicts the (almost) end of the world as a temporally contracted, inevitable event (think The Day After Tomorrow or Geostorm). To the extent that survival is imagined, it may be off-planet (Interstellar), or on a planet barely recognisable (Waterworld, Mad Max: Fury Road). As Claire Colebrook has incisively pointed out, these films often depict survival as occurring in the remnants of a familiar US metropolis. In this way, they signal that even as many or most worlds come to an end, a seed of the world that matters – the hyper-modern consumerist West – is salvaged.[xx]


THESE THREE IMAGINARIES seem completely different, but they share certain features that prove critical for how they orient us to climate-changed futures. First, none show much imagination at all. None (save perhaps certain possible versions of the theo-fix) is able to imagine a future in which the forms of life that are driving the climate catastrophe are replaced by radically different but nevertheless worthwhile forms of life. Either human life continues to be lived in extractive, technologically controlled and commodifying relationships with the Earth and other beings, or life is not worth living, or not lived at all. None imagine different ways of being human, including ways that would challenge the arrangements that underpin systematic inequalities among humans on the basis of race, gender, disability and so on.

Second, none envisages that transformative action might be seeded and nurtured in creative, authentically democratic and inclusive conversations, decisions and collaborations occurring at the level of communities themselves. Unless they feature as the inventors or magnate funders of new technologies, ‘the people’ are relatively passive. Even in the third imaginary, survivors are generally individuals or fragmented collectives. There is no imaginary space for collectives working out futures together in messy, iterative but collectively committed ways. For this reason, and this is their third common feature, while the first and second imaginaries might promise the type of passive fantasy that gets sold under the name of hope, none inspires hope as action. If we place ourselves in the futures they lay out for us, we do not find ourselves called to or participating in the type of bold, considered and challenging action that is surely the sine qua non of authentic transformation.

If that call is to be made, an alternative imaginary is needed – one that does not turn away from the inevitability of difficult futures, does not fantasise an intervention from above and does not catapult us from anxiety to a cataclysmic end.

A number of climate activists (for example, The Leap)[xxi] and a range of literary, filmic and other artistic futurisms[xxii] have already recognised the importance of our imagining more empowering and action-oriented futures. Similarly, the need to help people project forward in ways that are both realistic and potentially transformative is evident in the widespread use of scenario planning. The work undertaken within each of these fields contributes in important ways to unsettling the three hegemonic imaginaries and generating alternatives. What is needed then is for us to work out how to build on or complement these initiatives in ways that will compose imaginaries that both challenge the hegemonic triad and are capable of taking hold.


IN THEIR HISTORICAL study of the operation of different climate imaginaries, David L Levy and André Spicer provide a useful analysis for why some climate imaginaries become dominant and retain dominance, while others remain marginal. They identify two factors as key to imaginaries gaining traction. The first is that they successfully connect with ‘popular interests and identities’ and have broad ‘resonance with people’s everyday lives’. The second is ‘their alignment of economic, discursive and political elements’.[xxiii]

We now have in hand two sets of guiding principles for working out the type of climate imaginaries we ought to be looking to build and nurture. The first set of principles comprises the counterpoint to the three undesirable features of the imaginaries identified above: they should not turn away from the reality of the difficulties, they should not fantasise a transcendent intervention and they should not project doom. Levy and Spicer’s desiderata provide the second set of principles: they must resonate with peoples’ everyday lives and also with existing or emerging political and economic systems.

This might seem an impossible ask but, perhaps ironically, we can find the seeds of such imaginaries far closer than we think – not in our speculative imagination, but in grounded imagination as action. As Sherilyn MacGregor has recently reiterated, eco-feminists have, for more than forty years, been both nourishing and illuminating how everyday material practices prefigure the creation of worlds that are more sustainable and that attend to the real needs of marginalised humans and the more-than-human world.[xxiv] She points to women’s movements going back to the nineteenth century that, while grounded in ‘the everyday’ and ‘material practices of provisioning’, provided radical alternatives to patriarchal and extractivist logics and forms of organisation.

In recent work focused on how communities are responding to the systematic destabilisations already triggered by climate change, my University of Sydney colleague David Schlosberg and his collaborators have documented how communities are crafting and forging different systems and futures.[xxv] Sometimes such actions follow from a transformative vision, but sometimes they arise from the more mundane need to address breakdowns in the systems on which lives depend. In doing so, and often in the absence of government-led policy frameworks or resourcing, communities – both geographically located communities and communities of practice, such as regenerative farmers – are figuring out how to address the practical challenges posed by living in a climate-challenged world. Contrary to dominant narratives that pitch pragmatism and the need to meet actual needs on the one hand against more radical transformation of systems and attention to justice and ethics on the other, it is in finding ways to meet present and anticipated everyday needs that communities are developing alternative practices that generate radically different and resilient systems. In this regard, the imaginaries they are engendering connect with people’s everyday lives and provide living rebuttals to the accusations of elitism that have been deployed to undermine alternatives to fossil fuelled systems.[xxvi]

By way of example, even as the Australian federal government continues to insist that baseload electricity needs cannot be met through renewable sources and sets the policy and economic framework to entrench new corporate mega-gas projects, communities are seeding, sourcing, developing and running local energy projects, like the 4,000-panel solar farm under construction by the Community Energy 4 Goulburn Group in New South Wales.[xxvii] This exemplifies not only a shift to renewables, but also a transformation in the nature of governance and the flows of energy and wealth. Meanwhile, while multinational corporations continue to aggressively market chemical fertilisers, with both government departments and university agriculture faculties lending policy and epistemic support, a number of farmers around Australia are turning to on-farm regenerative methods.[xxviii] The practices they are adopting create new dynamics of life and care, contra the entrenched flow of commodities that exacerbate soil degradation and bolster corporate capital accumulation. Here, one can see how highly pragmatic and even instrumental beginnings can give rise to more thoroughgoing transformations, with farmers acquiring not only heightened attentiveness to soil as a living being, but also a recognition of soil’s needs.[xxix]  Perhaps most exciting from my perspective, the transformations that such approaches effect in the relationships these humans experience with the more-than-human world have been taken up, amplified and brought into creative realms that can nurture new imaginaries in collaborations between artists and farmers.[xxx] In these unexpected creative partnerships, the transformation of practice and the transformation of story are enfolded.

The grounded imaginaries being nurtured by these initiatives afford a critical and unique challenge to the problematic ruling imaginaries in four ways. First, as they emerge from the concrete conditions and needs of life, they are forging a path between possibility and feasibility. And because they emerge from practice, they do not display the type of linear or siloed thinking that characterises dominant social-change models. The changes they bring are multilayered and emergent.

Second, because they are developed through local community organisation, they offer a genuine challenge to the forms and processes of alternative futures that are generated by higher order or centralised organisations. Top-down programs for change, dubbed ‘climate capitalism’ by Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson,[xxxi] tend to remain tied to imperialist, centre-to-periphery imaginaries and are thus prone to sustaining existing unjust (economic, political and social) hierarchies. By contrast, many (though not all) of these grounded imaginaries are motivated by, and organise against, such unjust systems of power.

Third, identifying communities as the principal site for, and driver of, change facilitates horizontal (or rhizomic) dissemination and authentically democratic processes of transformation. David Schlosberg and Luke Craven’s work on sustainable materialism demonstrates how the ‘embodied and constructed alternatives’ that grow from community movements ‘serve as an example of replication, emulation and expansion’.[xxxii] Such processes stand in contrast to those that are driven by – and operationalised through – existing top-down systems. Building on these insights, grounded imaginaries can be the source of a more comprehensive and radical – but also more material – just, sustainable and, crucially, attainable transformation.

The fourth challenge brings us back to my earlier, more abstract discussion of how we imagine transformation being catalysed and sustained. These new ways of living are not the outcome of transcendent intervention – humans swooping in and moving the world in a different direction. At the same time, they manifest an adventure in living that one cannot explain by extrapolating from the logics of self-replicating systems. Rather, they illustrate how creativity, divergence and emergence of the new can arise from sympoetic relationships inherent in what already is. Humans cannot be separated out as the agents who catalyse transformation in matter that functions as mere material, resource, tool or background because humans’ identities, thoughts and actions emerge from (rather than precede) collective creative relationships. At the same time, qualities habitually reserved for ‘the human’ – agency, freedom and creativity – find a more capacious and relational home. Grounded imaginaries allow us to imagine the logics and not merely the qualities of transformation in other ways.


WHAT NEEDS TO happen for these grounded imaginaries to take hold? Part of the answer can be found in Levy and Spicer’s second desiderata. They are not, or not yet sufficiently, aligned with ‘economic, discursive and political elements’. So long as the political and economic institutional conditions fostered by policy frameworks and sustained through radical imbalances of power are those that sustain and are sustained by the dominant imaginaries, it will be difficult for new imaginaries to establish themselves. The circle of co-constitution can be virtuous or vicious, depending on whether one seeks authentic transformation or not. Shifting these other institutional dimensions so that they will become resonant with new imaginaries will be critical. In this regard, amplification of grounded imaginaries will only occur if it is complemented by transformations in other systems.

Part of the problem, though, lies at the discursive level itself. When you look around, narratives of transformative action are near invisible in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In this regard, having communities tell stories about how they are transforming their forms of life – having others tell their stories in different media that work across our different senses and appeal to different audiences – and then amplifying and networking those stories will be critical.

Recognising the need to change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, in 2021, a team comprising researchers from the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, the Social Entre­preneur­ship Association based in Auroville, South India, and India and Bharat Together, based in Delhi and working primarily in the Himalayan region, has started trying to turn the thinking I have laid out in this essay into practice.[xxxiii] Our project aims to draw out, network, creatively recount and amplify stories about how actual communities are experimenting with transforming systems that support their lives as climate change destabilises existing ones. We hope to demonstrate to a range of audiences, including other communities and policymakers, that such transformations are neither impractical nor the stuff of abstract speculation, but are feasible and already being lived. And we hope that once these types of narratives take hold, they will engender further narratives and further transformative action and, in turn, the systems change required for the social imaginary to shift.

A virtuous circle.

At the same time, we will be working with young people to enhance their understanding of these transformative experiments and their capacity to represent and convey them in ways that will vivify them for other communities ripe to make experiments of their own. By drawing out, networking, illuminating and amplifying these stories, and by inspiring young people to use their prodigious talents in multimedia communication to take these stories further, our aspiration is that what is, at present, an incipient and still marginal imaginary hidden in the shadows of the dominant ones will become the background against which more of our communities can imagine ourselves and our projects in climate-changed futures.




[i] Where both the contributions that differently placed humans make to the climate catastrophe and its impacts vary enormously, the always fraught use of the terms ‘our’ and ‘we’ is even more problematic. As used here, they refer to those who live lives of relative privilege in the global north, or those in the global south whose lives follow similar patterns of consumption. In doing so, I am alive that not all readers may identify with this ‘we’ and do wish to place such readers on the outside of an imagined readership. At the same time, it is worth all of us reflecting on how much we are of this we, even if we feel ourselves not to be. For an excellent critique of the anonymised we in analyses of climate change and the Anthropocene more generally, see Giovanna Di Chiro, ‘Welcome to the White (M)Anthropocene’ in Sherilyn MacGregor (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment (London: Routledge, 2017)

[ii] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 23.

[iii] The term ‘grounded imaginaries’ was coined in collaborative conversations between the author and David Schlosberg around these ideas in preparation of the project discussed towards the end of the article.

[iv] I understand change to be alterations that do not fundamentally depart from existing logics and structures and transformation to be alterations at the level of logic or structure.

[vi] Lennon, K. 2015. Imagination and the Imaginary (London: Routledge), 73.

[vii] Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press, 1998), 108.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] For a discussion of the relationship between individuals and social imaginaries, see Celermajer, D. 2018. The Prevention of Torture; An Ecological Approach (New York: Cambridge University Press), p. 199ff.

[x] For a somewhat different, but compatible approach to climate imaginaries, including a historical analysis of the rise and fall of different imaginaries and in particular, their economic dimensions, see David Levy, & Andre Spicer, ‘Contested imaginaries and the cultural political economy of climate change’, Organization, 20 (5), 2013, 659-678.

[xi] Asafu-Adjaye, J., L. Blomqvist, S. Brand, B. Brook, R. Defries, E. Ellis, C. Foreman, D. Keith, M. Lewis, M. Lynas, T. Nordhaus, R. Pielke Jr., R. Pritzker, J. Roy, M. Sagoff, M. Shellenberger, R. Stone, P. Teague. 2015. An Ecomodernist Manifesto. There have been numerous critical responses to the Ecomodernist Manifesto, including Collard, R-C., Dempsey, J. Sundberg, J. (2014). A manifesto for abundant futures. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, DOI. 10.1080/00045608.2014.973007 and Jeremy L. Caradonna et al., A Degrowth Response to an Ecomodernist Manifesto, originally published May 6, 2015 by

[xii] See Newell, P. and Paterson, M. (2010) Climate Capitalism: Global Warming and the Transformation of the Global Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Swyngedouw, E. (2010) ‘Apocalypse Forever? Post-Political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change’, Theory, Culture and Society 27(2–3): 213–32.

[xiii] See Di Chiro, ‘Welcome to the White (M)Anthropocene’, op. cit.; Mary Annaise Heglar, ‘Home is Always Worth It’, Medium, 2019, Available at

[xiv] Moreover, as David Schlosberg has argued in the course of critiquing eco-modernism, the desire to take advantage of the Anthropocene is continuous with a longer history of seeking to intensify and improve humans’ technological control of ‘nature’. See Schlosberg, David. 2019. ‘Disruption, Community, and Resilient Governance: Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene’, n T. Heller, T. Breu, C. Rohr, T. De Moor, and H Znoj, eds. Commons in a Glocal World: Global Connections and Local Responses. London: Routledge.

[xv] Doomism is well illustrated by Wallace-Wells, D. 2019. The Uninhabitable Earth. Penguin Books.

[xvi] Mann, M. 2021. The New Climate War. Public Affairs.

[xvii] In explaining the intransigence of carbon producing systems even in the face of rational alternatives and concerted action, Gregory Unrah coined the phrase ‘carbon lock-in’, and saw it as arising ‘through a combination of systematic forces that perpetuate fossil fuel-based infrastructures’. Unrah, G. C. (2000). ‘Understanding Carbon Lock-in’, Energy Policy, 28(12): 817-830, at 817.

[xviii] Kate Aronoff makes a compelling argument linking what seems like the doomer’s baulking at the inevitable disastrous outcomes of structural lock in, to a refusal to recognise the work of structures at all, and an insistence that ultimately, it is individuals who bring about change. See Aronoff, Kate. ‘Things are bleak!’, The Nation. October 29, 2019.

[xix] Mary Heglar and Kate Aronoff build on Aronoff’s phrase ‘sad bois’ to elaborate this theme in an episode of Heglar’s podcast Hot Take, at

[xx] Colebrook, C. (2019). ‘The Future in the Anthropocene: Extinction and the Imagination’. In A. Johns-Putra (Ed.), Climate and Literature (Cambridge Critical Concepts, pp. 263-280). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108505321.017


[xxii] See for example, Campbell, B and E. A. Hall, eds. (2013). Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond. Rosarium Publishing; Dillon, G. 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. University of Arizona Press. The apocalyptic proclivities of Hollywood have led the natural Resource Defense Council to launch the ‘Rewrite the Future’ project, with a view to encouraging modes of storytelling more conducive to action to address climate change. See for example NRDC’s virtual panel at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Beyond Apocalypse: Alternative Climate Futures in Film and TV, at

[xxiii] Levy, D. L., & Spicer, A. (2013). ‘Contested imaginaries and the cultural political economy of climate change’, Organization, 20(5), 659-678, at 675.

[xxiv] MacGregor, Sherilyn. ‘Making matter great again? Ecofeminism, new materialism and the everyday turn in environmental politics’, Environmental Politics (2020): 1-20.

[xxv] See Schlosberg, D and R Coles. 2016. ‘The New Environmentalism of Everyday Life: Sustainability, Material Flows, and Movements’,Contemporary Political Theory 15, No. 2: 160-181; Schlosberg D and L Craven. 2019. Sustainable Materialism: Environmental Movements and the Politics of Everyday Life. Oxford University Press.

[xxvi] For a discussion of the political deployment of discourses linking elitism with green transformations in the US, see Levy and Spicer.


[xxviii] Bartel, R., & Graham, N. (2019). ‘Ecological reconciliation on private agricultural land’, In Akhtar-Khavari, A., & Richardson, B. J. (Eds.), Ecological Restoration Law: Concepts and Case Studies. Routledge, 93-118.

[xxix] See O’Brien A, ‘Ethical Acknowledgment of Soil Ecosystem Integrity amid Agricultural Production in Australia,’ Environmental Humanities (2020) 12(1) 267–84.

[xxx] See for example Ihlein L and Mattsson S ‘Sunflowers as Agricultural and Cultural Change Agents’ in Futurelands 2: An Initiative of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (2017) 21, discussing a collaborative project between the Queensland sugarcane farmer Simon Mattsson and artists Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams. Another Earth Canvas brings together artists and regenerative farmers in South East Australia, and invites members of the public to take part in Open Days where they engaged with the farmers, the artists and the practices so as to create a rich shared experience. See Earth Canvas

[xxxi] Newell, P. and Paterson, M. (2010) Climate Capitalism: Global Warming and the Transformation of the Global Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See also Swyngedouw, E. (2010) ‘Apocalypse Forever? Post-Political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change’, Theory, Culture and Society 27(2–3): 213–32.

[xxxii] Schlosberg and Craven, op. cit. p. 148-9.

[xxxiii] The ‘grounded Imaginaries’ project is funded by the v. Kann Rasmussen Foundation.

Share article

About the author

Danielle Celermajer

Danielle Celermajer is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, deputy director (academic) of the Sydney...

More from this edition

Restoring wholeness

EssayAS A POLITICAL (and social) theorist, my thinking has always been anchored in a passionate attachment to the Australian people – the polity. My...

Worlds of play

ReportageIMAGINE A PARK made out of candy, with bridges featuring water cannons that shoot water onto kayakers below. Imagine huge climbing walls from which...

No limits

ReportageI am eleven years old. My brother Ben (three years and three days younger) has already been a registered player for four seasons at our local club, Albany Creek Excelsior (ACE). Every day we match each other in the backyard. I attend his games jealously, playing around with a ball on the sideline and, yes, maybe showboating my juggling a little bit at half-time in the hope someone will notice me and insist I should be placed in a team.

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.