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Interview - ISSUE #11

Reimagining “What If?”

Interview by Madeleine Bazil
Artworks by Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is the co-founder of Transition Network, a global movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world: using participatory methods to shape a low-carbon, socially-just future with resilient communities, more active participation in society and a caring culture focused on supporting each other.

Madeleine: In your book From What Is to What If, you speak about how we’re collectively experiencing an age of imaginative decline - right at a juncture when imagination is incredibly necessary for us in order to extricate our world from climate crisis. How have we ended up here, in this decline?

Rob: There’s some really interesting research published in 2011, by a researcher in the US called Kyung Hee Kim, called The Creativity Crisis. She looked at a big dataset of research for a creativity test - the Torrance test for creative thinking - that was done back as early as the 1960s, big datasets of people. Her conclusion was that imagination and IQ rose together until the mid 1990s, and then IQ kept rising, and imagination started to decline. She attributed that to three different things. The first was the decline of play in our society: kind of free, unstructured, “let’s pretend” type of play. The second thing is the rise of screens in our life, and the amount of time those screens take from us, which has only grown. And the third one is the rise of testing in schools. So those are what she put that down to. And she said that happened sometime in the mid 1990s.

I would add to that: the fact that we spend much less time outside, we spend less time in nature. The natural world is known - throughout all of humanity - as a thing that inspires creativity, inspires awe and poetry and art. Also, we live at a time when the diversity of the natural world is depleting. During my lifetime, we’ve lost 70% of all the creatures we share this planet with. When we know that decline in diversity is happening, I think that has an impact on our imagination. The microbiologist René Dubos once said something like: “If we lived on the moon, our imagination would be as barren as the moon”. I think we lose so much time to these highly addictive devices in our pockets, time when we could be coming up with some of the great ideas that are needed now, dreaming of great projects, great solutions, but instead we reach for our Facebook page or Instagram feed. And that opportunity for new ideas and fresh thinking is kind of wasted.

I think also, we’ve developed over the last 30 years an economic system and economic model [that] is profoundly injurious to the human imagination. The imposition of austerity [in the UK], which starts by seeing our arts and libraries and funding for musical instruments for kids and art in schools as being disposable - as some kind of a luxury. And so, in many ways the imagination is one of the victims of economic austerity. We know that the more unequal a society becomes, the more we create the conditions for the imagination to shrink. That kind of anxiety and stress and trauma, driven by precariousness: that is so damaging to the imagination. We know that systemic racism is really damaging to the imagination. So, I argue in the book, that actually we’re living in a kind of a perfect storm of factors that together are really deeply damaging to the imagination. I argue that we need to recognise the right to an imaginative life as being a basic human right.

‘We know that the more unequal a society becomes, the more we create the conditions for the imagination to shrink.’

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