Last night my discussion group took up the topic of imagination - what is it? Is it learned or innate? Isn’t that a cool topic? We skipped around – artistic creativity, problem solving, empathy, and the way a writer manipulates a reader into imagining violence or sex.
It was a terrific discussion, and it got me thinking. Writers aren’t the only ones working to spike imagination. That’s the whole point of advertising: to get us imagining we’ll have more time, money or happiness if we eat at McDonald’s, shop at Wal-Mart or buy our clothes at the Gap. And it’s not just for-profits. The “Be All You Can Be” campaign is taxpayer money at work. I think we’re missing a great opportunity to spark the national imagination.
I imagine an America with a tiny fraction of the military we have now. “Be All You Can Be” isn’t about the Army – it’s about developing talents for our country – being a great teacher, entrepreneur, elected representative, window cleaner. Or jump out of airplanes – to fight fires. Go overseas - in the Peace Corps. Instead of housing an international killing program, our military bases are disaster response sites. Local governments have a stake in them. We have fewer enemies. And we better use the energy, courage, commitment and love of country of our young people.
That means we have less access to petroleum, but that’s ok. We have slashed the use of the car. More people are on foot and bike. Bus ridership is up, so there are more buses and the buses make more frequent trips, but that’s ok, because the buses are full, and they get something like 271 miles to the gallon, compared to the number of cars that would be on the road. We needed more sidewalks, bike lanes and car and bike park ports. That cost money, but fewer cars meant the roads are less chewed up, and people are healthier because they’re walking more, and those both save money. Plus all we saved from shrinking the military, remember? And instead of innovation being funneled into weapons, we started using imagination to create mass transit that was more energy efficient, including an electric train made of reclaimed soda bottles that runs on solar power. I’m so proud to ride it because it was built here, and a team of engineers and entrepreneurs took the idea to Africa, making transportation more possible with a minimum increase of fossil fuels.
I’ve lived in Cleveland, but the worst traffic I’ve encountered is the nightmarish Hwy 224 here in Youngstown. Miles of stores and parking lots and lanes of drivers going one short green light and then idling at the red. That’s the best our imaginations can do? How about a train. I walk, bike, bus or drive the short distance to the hub, jump on the train. I text, read, drink coffee, jump off at my destination. And while we’re creating, let’s mix the retail stores with health clinics, gyms, throw in a community college, a public pool and skateboard park. Let’s add housing in back, so lots of people can walk to work. We've freed up all that parking lot space for chalk art, a giant hopscotch park, roller blade lanes, a summer-long kite festival and a celebration of books, like the Miami Book Fair - tent after tent of books. Let’s dig some of the parking lot up for a huge community garden, and let’s bring artists in to fill the gardens with sculptured trellises, scarecrows and spinning things. So many jobs in all of that, so many chances for kids to get exercise and meet kids from all over the city.
A bit too utopian? I would argue that we’ve done much bigger things. Have you read Steven Ambrose’s book about the birth of the transcontinental railroad? Holy moly, talk about imagination! Bringing commuter trains to Youngstown wouldn’t even risk lives, not the way the Army does when it sends kids out to do the work of protecting a supply of petroleum. Our highway system took a tremendous amount of imagination and resources to build. And now we’re dependent on the car. We think of it as freedom, but it’s not. I read recently that a car costs $7500.00 in an average year, in addition to the purchase. For folks who are living well, that might be no big deal. But with half of America living near the poverty line, it’s squeezing money that already doesn’t cover housing, food and health care. That’s not freedom. I’d be willing to pay a lot of that money in taxes for more transportation options. And if I need a car, I’ll use my share in a car that several people own.
My mom has a friend, Igor, who says Dream no small dream. I agree. We may fall short, but we’ll fall further if we have a goal and work toward it. I think that’s part of our national problem - we don’t imagine the future. I envision a country that’s free of racism, and really means it, that respects its diversity of culture, background, foods, festivals, languages. That subsidizes healthy food. That has weatherized old buildings, and builds new with a high efficiency standard. That has reasoned political debate and limits corporate money in politics. That sends fewer people to prisons. That provides an equal education to every child, and equal access to health care to every person. That is a world leader in reducing carbon output, poverty, and preventable illness. We would save so much money and suffering in the long run. And really, are any of these harder than going to the moon, building the Panama Canal or Brooklyn Bridge, vaccinating every child against polio, putting libraries in every community?
We are only limited by our national imagination. Yoko Ono says Imagine Peace. What do you imagine?