Reimagining our Insane Policy Worldview

The Saturday morning ponderings after reading with coffee amongst the finches in the basil seeds.

Yesterday I read a quite beautiful Guardian article – a summary of a Neil Gaiman lecture – about reading and the necessity to dream and imagine.  It is still hitting me.

In our currently insane policy world we have so often reduced meaning to numbers and what we were taught to call ‘instrumental rationality’ – the technocratic way – all numbers in a spreadsheet and the reduction of life to so much potential rendered down soap.  Rendered and reduced from some ‘resource’ to another ‘resource’ you choose to reduce meaning to (and then have the ignorance and arrogance to call it ‘objective’ because it’s a mere number).  All to serve someone’s ‘utility’ – measured in dollars on the false presumption that a dollar is a surrogate indicator for happiness or ‘good’.

A dollar isn’t an indicator of good or happiness at all.  Beyond a point the instrumentalists’ idea of ‘progress’ – polluting the river, cutting down the child-wonder-bush patch for monuments to ego, etc. – reduces not just life’s meaning but the social and environmental functions that underlie our once and future wellbeing.  We need to reimagine what a better policy/strategy approach might be.  Recognise good from bad – in business, in the way councils think and act, in communities, in the environment. And then encourage and build the good and dismantle the bad. Dollar utilitarianism and ‘instrumental rationality’ won’t do that.

Virtues and duties to our wider world really do matter.  Aristotle’s Practical wisdom. ‘Value rationality’ – the Aristotelian idea of asking “what is the right thing to do, here and now, in this complex that can never be reduced to mere measured instrument?” cannot be satisfied by our current quantitative and mechanical obsessions – whether those on the extreme right (as the world lives now) or on the extreme left (where the corporate logo on the factory is merely replaced by one depicting Stalin or Mao).

Both neoliberal right and state communist left are Modern and mechanical. Both deterministic.  Both technocratic.  Both disconnecting of people from each other, the land, the future, from dimensions that standardardised measures cannot see let alone grasp.  Both ultimately diminishing of life.  Both reducing value and virtue to some power’s ‘utility’.  Fortunately, there are strands of thought coming from all directions that are weaving a new and far better rope.  The old one is unravelling .. not before time.

As some bright spark once wrote, when you use instrumental rationality …

(think spreadsheets and oracle models that only deal in numbers; essentially all headspace Modernity and no heart or feeling or dialogue or imagination)

… then you create a Gulag somewhere.

We’ve been creating Gulags in our country for decades, on steroids since 1984, following the US and the UK as always.

So I reread Neil Gaiman on the necessity of dreaming, reading and the imagination.  I’d add open ego-less dialogue to that list. Neil spoke this, and it took me right back to the need for virtues, obligations, a sense of place and belonging in that place and within community.  The need to reimagine a world that doesn’t depict us all as soulless cogs in a machine.  That doesn’t define our world as measured ‘resources’.  How I have come to detest that industrial word.

A need to reimagine society and place and ‘economy’ (which is, after all, simply the ‘management of home’ that logically needs an ecological ‘study of home’ basis if it wants to get it right – more than that, socio-ecological!, because humanity is part of this place).  We need to get far far away from the various mechanical reductionist Modern obsessions, whether mechanical mega-corporate or mechanical State that both treat you and me, the river and the tree, as cogs.

Stop trusting a suit with a spreadsheet who can see nothing beyond.  Those types build Gulags.  Read a book and discuss an idea with someone instead.

Think beyond. Reimagine.

Or just …. imagine.


Take it away Neil.

“We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream.  We have an obligation to imagine.  It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field.  But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it.  Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in.  I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten.  It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined.  Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair.  Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.  This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful.  Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation.  We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.”


Amen Neil.  Take the leap.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

About Chris Perley

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