“What If?”

Interview by Madeleine Bazil

Artworks by Rob Hopkins

Cover of Issue #11

This article is part of Issue #11

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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.

Madeleine: I’d love to hear about an example of a community group or town bringing the Transition principles to life to positive effect. I know in your book you talk about Totnes, as a case study.

Rob: One of them is a town in the north-east of France, called Ungersheim, which is an amazing place. The mayor there saw a film about Transition in 2012, and basically said: “Let’s do that, all of that.” And what they’ve done in Ungersheim is create an incredible living, breathing example of Transition. They grow most of the food for the local schools. They train young people to become gardeners as part of that scheme. They have a business that then processes a lot of that food, and creates more jobs. They pretty much generate the same amount of energy now as they consume. When you go there, you start to see how all this stuff connects together, how the food connects to the energy, which connects to the economics, which connects to the schools. And it’s that kind of network of relationships that makes it all so interesting. There’s a film called Qu’est-ce qu’on attend? (What Are We Waiting For?) made by a French filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin, which has been shown all over France, and the story of Ungersheim has inspired many other places.

The other one is in Liège because it’s a city-scale example of Transition in practice. It’s really ambitious, and really aspirational. It’s starting to change, firstly, how the city now procures
its food. It’s a whole new model. It’s creating lots of work for people. But it’s also spreading very rapidly across Belgium to other cities, and also in France. I was in Marseille, six months ago; the mayor of Marseille was telling me about how they’re now buying land all around the city to grow food for a whole new model for [the way that] they supply the food for the schools. And they have a beautiful, ambitious culture of “well, let’s just try this”. Every time I go to Liège, there’s new things to see, new things happening. It’s really quite amazing.

We have to open up those imaginative spaces, those “What if?” spaces, to say: “What if we completely rethought that? What if we did that in a completely different way?

Madeleine: You have this conceptual tool, the Imagination Sundial, that you developed with Rob Shorter (from the Doughnut Economics Action Lab). Could you walk us through the elements of the sundial and what it might look like in practice?

Rob: The Sundial has four elements. The first one is space, which everybody knows. The imagination needs space in all of our lives. If we don’t have any space or time, it’s very hard to live an imaginative life. For many of us today, that space gets eaten up by phones, by work, by busyness, by all sorts of things. The same thing, possibly more importantly, happens within many organisations where people are just working to keep the thing going. And unless you create space within those organisations for reimagining, it’s never going to happen. We need to create the space because this is a climate emergency. The climate emergency demands that we reimagine everything. As [the activist and journalist] Naomi Klein says, there are no non-radical solutions left. If the organisation that you’re in is coming up with solutions that aren’t radical, then they’re not good enough. We can’t negotiate with physics; we have to imagine within the constraints that the physics are imposing on us. We have to open up those imaginative spaces, those “What if?” spaces, to say: “What if we completely rethought that? What if we did that in a completely different way?”

The second one is place. What I mean by place is: places that you go to, where afterwards when you go home again, your sense of its possibilities has been changed. So, somewhere like the Centre for Alternative Technology, or some of the really impressive urban agriculture projects. Places that you go to, that change how you think about what’s possible, are really important. And what we argue is that that can happen on a small scale. Even Extinction Rebellion, occupying Waterloo Bridge in April 2019, and basically putting trees all down the middle and turning it into a forest for two weeks. All of these things give people a taste, in 2022, of what a different future could be. How do you create “pop-up tomorrows” in places that people know, so it shifts their sense of what’s possible? The third one is practices. Things we do together to expand our imagination. I do a lot of those things in workshops; I’m always trying to collect these games and exercises and activities, and many of them have been developed through the Transition movement as well. Transition for me is one of those practices, because it works with communities to create “What if?” spaces that otherwise just don’t happen. But the main practice that I try to work with people at the moment is the art of asking really great “What if?” questions, because we need to become much, much better at that.

The fourth one is pacts. And that was something that came from the story of the Civic Imagination Office in Bologna, Italy, where the municipality created six laboratories around the city where they would run big, really well-facilitated visioning exercises. And when the community would come up with ideas, the municipality would sit with them and say: “That’s a great idea, okay, let’s make that happen. We can offer this and this, you can offer that, good, let’s make a pact.” And in the last five years, they’ve made 500 pacts in Bologna. What I love about that is it meets the imagination in the middle, and respects it and acknowledges it. So often our experience is that imagination is dismissed or patronised or belittled.

So that’s the Sundial. It’s our attempt, I guess, to answer that question: “If we recognise that we’re living in a time of imaginative poverty, and we need to rebuild the imagination very quickly, then where do we start?”


Madeleine: You wrote recently on your blog about the late Afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra, and the lessons he can teach the climate movement. How can Sun Ra’s sensibility - of disciplined improvisation - be implemented in the climate movement?

Rob: A couple of things that I love about Sun Ra are his story that he was an angel from Saturn, and he said: “I am another order of being. I can tell you things you won’t believe. I am not of this planet.” I think he’s just fantastic. And all those amazing costumes that Sun Ra wore weren’t a stage persona; he would wear those things when he’d go to the launderette or when he went to do his shopping. He inhabited that role all the time. And there’s a T-shirt that I saw a couple years ago from the Black Lives Matter protests that said: “I’ve been to the future. We won.” I thought that was so brilliant. It really reminded me of Sun Ra. I think we should be more Sun Ra as activists, in terms of saying: “I’ve been to 2030, to a low carbon future. It’s bloody great. And I’m going to tell you all about it.” Because so many of us in the climate movement have almost given up that it’s actually possible. And I feel like it’s really important that we keep alive this dream, this vision, of how it could be.

I read a book recently by William Sites that was all about the years when Sun Ra lived in Chicago, where he described Sun Ra as being an “everyday utopian”. And I feel like that’s actually what I try and do in my work - to be an everyday utopian, to make sure that every conversation about climate change includes something about what we could still do. I do this time machine exercise in all of my workshops where I say to people: “We’re going to travel to 2030. Not that it’s utopia; not that it’s dystopia; but it’s the result of us having done everything that we possibly could have done. What’s it like? What did we create? How was it?” There’s many things about Sun Ra that are extraordinary, but those are two of the key ones. He said something like: “We’ve tried the possible, and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible,” which I think is a great mantra now for the climate movement.

We’re going to travel to 2030. Not that it’s utopia; not that it’s dystopia; but it’s the result of us having done everything that we possibly could have done. What’s it like? What did we create? How was it?

Madeleine: One of the themes the magazine explored in a past issue is “consciousness”. I’m interested to hear how you relate to that word and concept with regard to your work.

Rob: There’s a big part of the Transition movement which is called “Inner Transition”. Two brilliant women, Hilary Prentice and Sophy Banks, from very early on, started to design a set of tools and a way of thinking [that] they called “Inner Transition,” which was that how we do this matters as much as what we do. That’s a really important part of Transition, which is about exploring the consciousness of all of this, and how do we make sure that we don’t build movements [that] just replicate the same power dynamics we see in in the system that we’re trying to change. So, Transition Network has been on a big journey to move away from being a more traditional kind of hierarchical organisation to being a flat structure, shared governance, using holacracy, which has been an amazing journey. Consciousness is an important part of it, in terms of: how do we support each other during this time to minimise burnout in our organisations, and to give them as much resilience and life as possible?

Madeleine: You are also an artist. Could you tell me a bit about why and how your art practice is important to you, or how it ties back to the idea of imagination?

Rob: I studied Art Foundation when I was 18, and although I didn’t go further with those studies, I always kept drawing - through raising a family, work and so on. Not a lot, but keeping it alive as a practice. With the first lockdown when Covid-19 arrived, I started doing linocut printmaking, and fell in love with it, and a year later [I] even showed some in an exhibition. More recently, I have started drypoint etching. Everything is drawn “en plein air” (outside). For me, it’s like a meditation, it’s when I bring my full attention and focus. It’s my way of being truly focused, truly attentive.

Madeleine: In your book, you use American psychologist, philosopher and educator John Dewey’s operating definition of imagination as “the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise”. How might we work to reframe our climate anxiety in this way, and tap into radical imagination and possibility?

Rob: All great activism, I think, is imagination-based. There’s a beautiful quote by [writer] Walidah Imarisha, who says [in her introduction to Octavia’s Brood]: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organising is science fiction.” I love that. How do we make sure that we help people to see things as if they could be otherwise? Because if they don’t, we’re never going to get anywhere.

The [UK] government announced its energy strategy in response to the war in Ukraine; in response to the climate crisis; supposedly, the Net Zero strategy, which they seem to have forgotten about already. And it’s basically just business as usual: no mention of energy efficiency, no mention of onshore wind, no ambition, no urgency, no purpose. And I feel like they’re able to get away with that because there are still people who think: “Ooh, a low-carbon future would be worse somehow than today, and it would be colder and more expensive.” And all that rubbish. In our movements, we need to cultivate longing for a low-carbon future. That’s the main focus for me: how do you cultivate longing, so that people dream of a low-carbon future, and will do everything they can to create it? And that’s the work of imagination, storytelling, poetry and music - and that’s why that stuff is so absolutely important. Because unless the climate movement can cultivate longing, nothing’s really going to happen. The ability to see things as if they could be otherwise is the superpower that we need to cultivate at the moment.

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Interview by

Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and writer interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds - real and imagined. She c… Learn more

Artworks by

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, T… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #11

Cover of  Issue #11
Coexistance/ Regeneration / Inclusion

This issue covers envisioning a resilient future with Rob Hopkins, dreaming in science fiction, kinship with the more-than-human world, an intervie…

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