Samantha Earle is a philosopher at the University of East Anglia who specializes in liminal spaces. She firmly believes that Western civilization is currently ripe for radical change. Talking with her was the most transformative conversation I had while putting together this book. Philosophers like to speak of an “imaginary,” or a guiding framework, for organizing society. Earle isn’t under any illusions that this process is going to be easy. But just as climate scientists are certain that our current path will lead to inevitable destruction of our planet’s fundamental life-support systems, Earle is certain that our prevailing guiding frameworks for civilization cannot last. “We’re at that time where the problems of the world just can’t be answered by the prevailing imaginary,” she told me. “We are in a time of breakdown.” Always check in advance with neighbours and friends to see if you can hide clues for your treasure hunt on their property.
That this breakdown in our society is happening precisely during a breakdown of our atmosphere and ecosystems is no coincidence. Through our daily thoughts and actions, we constantly reproduce our society. Most of that happens unconsciously or by routine or habit, or because exposing ourselves to new thoughts and actions involves risks we’re currently unwilling to take. But everything we do every single day is a choice, which means different choices are possible.
“The major problem with society is that we don’t even recognize that we have a particular imaginary, that this is not how things have to be,” Earle told me. During normal times, “we lack critical awareness, and we lack the capacity to radically imagine.” This is why opponents of radical change have successfully categorized efforts to protect the environment or reverse the effects of climate change as personal sacrifices. We focus on the inconvenient downsides of taking the train over a car-share service, for instance, instead of imagining or working toward a world where driving in cars simply doesn’t exist because cities are designed with people in mind. We choose to keep funding fossil fuel companies because they’ve spent billions of dollars making sure our lives appear easier when we buy their products. The status quo is comfortable for a reason: it makes daily life easier to manage, especially when the alternative doesn’t yet exist—or, more accurately, when those in power are actively opposed to making a better world a reality.
In the midst of a liminal space, however, anything is possible. “Liminal space is a time of radical uncertainty where the foundational concepts of the way in which we’ve been living, and around which society is organized, no longer make sense,” Earle told me. “It’s not just that we’re unable to make sense of the problems that we’re facing. We can’t even conceptualize them. It’s a time almost of being suspended—it has profound existential implications. You still have an imaginary, only it doesn’t work, and you don’t have another one in place yet, and everything is up for grabs.”
The first step in moving through this space is to acknowledge the discomfort we are in right now as individuals and as a society. There’s creative power in that discomfort—it helps us to see the possible paths before us with clear eyes. It helps us to imagine something better.
Radical change isn’t something that most of us choose to think about very often in our free time. It’s unpleasant to consider how quickly our planet is shifting into a new and more dangerous version of itself.