Endless possibilities

To a child, 50 years seems an impossibly long time, but those of us over 30 know better. Marianne Williamson's latest book, Imagine What America Could Be in the 21st Century, exploits that difference brilliantly. Williamson persuaded 40 people — psychologists, social critics, doctors, politicians, environmentalists, artists, teachers, scholars, poets and mystics — to envision and write about what the United States of America could be in 2050, when their own children or grandchildren will be mature adults. By tapping into this intergenerational concern, Imagine's message is immediate and personal.

Like Williamson, these essayists are convinced that we are at a crossroads unprecedented in our 4,000,000-year history: Either we figure out how to get along with both each other and our biosphere within the next few generations or our great grandchildren will be left with a catastrophic, perhaps fatal, mess. Do you want to do that to your kids? Imagine asks.

But Imagine is neither gloomy nor doomy. While some essays seem too optimistic, the hope implicit in most of them is based in reality. There is, the book says, a way out; it starts with each of us healing our own spirit while turning our civilization's technology and institutions in new directions.

Implicit in each essay — by writers as varied as Deepak Chopra, Eric Utne, bell hooks, Caroline Myss, Thomas Moore, Ed Ayers and Stanley Crouch — is the belief that now's the time for human society to use its astonishing productivity to facilitate the full emergence of human creativity — instead of feeding the ever more mindless consumption that's driving both our psyches and the planet's life support systems over the edge. These essays imagine calmer, simpler, safer, better-fed, sustainable futures in an exhaustive list of everyday human activities.

Perhaps, in 50 years, people will walk to corner stores to get their groceries rather than driving to distant mega-malls. Or they will have the time to meditate each morning before their pleasant, shared commute to meaningful jobs in attractive surroundings. Or live in social spaces that encourage intermingling rather than isolation, exercise rather than immobility, meals that are gatherings rather than mad gulpings, education that explores rather than expounds.

The book ties these far-away visions to something as close as the nearest soul — a simple but deep change in values, which leads to a rediscovery of true community. Organizing, voting, boycotting, demonstrating, fighting city hall and the other tactics of power politics are important, but will not lead sustainable gains without a realization of who and what we are.

Williamson's writers believe that when we can more easily identify different corporate logos than, say, different species of common trees, or when we forget the difference between guilt and responsibility, like and love, or want and need, we're in trouble. The best essays are the ones that show how, in the next half-century, those are the differences that most matter. How each of us gets to a new world is up to us, Imagine says. But in offering such attractive visions of the future, it also offers inspiration to keep moving in hopeful directions.

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