Rob Hopkins interview: Overcoming the crisis of imagination

As debates begin over what kind of recovery strategy should be implemented following the Covid-19 pandemic, Green World interviews environmental activist Rob Hopkins about society’s loss of imagination and how we must rekindle it if we are to build a low-carbon future.

Rob Hopkins
Rob Hopkins
Green World

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought global society to a standstill. Lives and livelihoods have been lost all over the world, with little sign of relief without a vaccine. The world has been turned on its head, but there have been undoubted silver linings.

Wildlife returning to urban spaces from where it had long been banished. Clean air to breathe as air pollution falls dramatically. The sound of birdsong usurping the sound of traffic. All green shoots of hope that have made people stop and ask: “What if it was always like this?”

The phrase ‘easier said than done’ springs to mind. It is entirely possible that in the aftermath of the pandemic the world will return to the resource-swallowing, carbon-emitting road to ruin it has been on for some time. But that we are even asking this question is a positive when our ability to even imagine what we would like an ideal world to look like appears to have deserted us.

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Network and environmental activist, has been reflecting on what he calls society’s loss of imagination, and how rekindling an imaginative culture is necessary to bring about the progressive change needed to address issues such as poverty, loss of biodiversity, extremism and the climate emergency. 

Hopkins’ recent book, From What is to What If, explores what he calls in our interview “a crisis of imagination”, something he was alerted to by the likes of Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot and Amitabh Gauche who have called climate change “a failure of imagination”. Add to this a phrase in a book by his late friend and mentor David Fleming called Lean Logic, in which Fleming said “if we are to create a sequel to the market economy, it will above all be a work of imagination”. 

Perfect storm

Hopkins has certainly lived a life that would fire the imagination. From leaving home to live on a Buddhist monastery in Tuscany for three years before travelling around India and Pakistan, where he gained his first experience of resilient, sustainable agriculture in the Hunza Valley, to setting up the first two-year permaculture course in the world and the first Transition Town in Totnes in 2005, Hopkins knows a thing or two about thinking outside the box.

Through the two years researching his book, including interviews with over 100 people, the examples of how our imagination muscles have slackened amassed by Hopkins are numerous. “We have spent 30 years creating a perfect storm of factors that are injurious to the human imagination. And we are now harvesting the fruits of that at the very worst time for that to happen”, he says, as the spectre of climate devastation looms ever larger on our shrinking horizons.

Hopkins recounts how since the mid- to late 1990s, while our IQ continues to rise, our imaginative faculties have declined. In turn we are living in an age of anxiety and stress, fuelled by the relentless rhythms of modern neoliberal society, starved of room to imagine through deprivations of food, shelter and security, driven to distraction by technology, and the move away from the arts and creative sector to disproportionately prioritise technical subjects in schools and universities. Add to that the destruction of the natural world and its wonder, beauty and stimulation and you begin to understand how the collective imagination is shrinking.

If it’s clear to Hopkins we have lost our imagination, how do we rekindle it? “There are four things you have to look at. The first thing is space. No one has their best ideas when they’re completely stressed in an office in front of a whiteboard under strip lighting. Strategies such as Universal Basic Income (UBI), which I think should be reframed as a Universal Imagination Enhancing Strategy, and a three-day week can create that space to be imaginative. 

“We need places where the imagination can be invited, whether they are buildings in our city, parks or places we go that fire our imagination in different ways. We need practices, things that we do as groups and political parties that invite people to be imaginative. And we need pacts. I interviewed a project called the Civic Imagination Office in Bologna, Italy, which held events, ran six laboratories around the city, and invited people to be imaginative and come up with ideas. When the community came up with ideas such as pedestrianising a road, the municipality said ‘good idea, we can offer you this, this and this to make it a reality’ and they would make a pact and do it. They would meet halfway.”

Bouncing forward

We often talk about needing the time and space to imagine and let our minds wander, and we certainly have had an abundance of that during lockdown. While it is an oversimplification to say that the lockdown has triggered a turning point – for all the talk of a ‘new normal’ the usual suspects are already pushing for a return to ‘business as usual’ – it certainly appears to have opened a space for people to see clearly the damage the way we live is doing to the environment and what a carbon-free civilisation embedded in nature could look like. 

“When I ask people what their ideal world in 10 years’ time looks like, almost everyone says the same thing,” says Hopkins. “The birdsong was so much louder. There were no cars. The air was cleaner. Everyone had a unity of purpose. And two months ago people would probably leave the talk thinking that was really powerful, but then get home and ask could that really happen? But now it’s actually at your door and it’s going to be like that for a while.” 

Although no one wants that moment to have been brought about by a global pandemic, lockdown has made it “much easier to imagine” what a low-carbon society in tune with nature could look like.

And that seems to have chimed with people. A recent YouGov poll found that just 11 per cent of people wanted things to go back to the way they were before lockdown – though this can be open to interpretation as to what changes they would like to see – a lot of coverage has been given to the positive environmental impacts of lockdown – lower pollution, cleaner air, more wildlife. With the economy taking an unprecedented hit, politicians, academics and activists are talking of a ‘green recovery’, implementing low-carbon strategies to bring about an economic recovery.

But is it enough to simply inject a bit of green into our current model? Hopkins is keen to make the distinction between imagination and innovation. “Innovation is something you do when your fundamental model works,” he says”. “I liken it to pizza. You don’t need to reimagine pizza as it’s brilliant. You innovate with different toppings, cheese and flours, but you don’t mess with the basic concept. Neoliberal growth-based economics are not like pizza. When your fundamental model is pushing you off a cliff, you don’t innovate. You need to reimagine.”

Transition Network, which has since spread to 50 countries around the world since Hopkins set up the first Transition Town in Totnes, has always used the term resilience when talking about building a low-carbon world, and while the academic literature has always been about bouncing back from shocks, Hopkins says it’s time we used the shock of coronavirus to “bounce forward”. 

Transition has been setting an example of how to do that since its inception, with communities coming together to crowdsource solutions to big challenges by starting locally, creating a mutually supportive culture that everyone feels involved in.

This imaginative, DIY ethic is at the core of where Hopkins believes we need to go. While progress at an international level on addressing climate change is painfully slow, bottom-up change can happen a lot faster. “You don’t need to wait for any permission from the person above you,” he says. “The important thing is that you just get started and just have a go. If you are audacious enough and bold enough and good at telling stories that can have a real impact.”

One such project Hopkins feels exemplifies how asking imaginative questions can lead to big change is one he includes in his book, the Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégoise (CATL) project in Liège, Belgium. Run by Liège en Transition, CATL invited local people, including chefs, farmers and academics to an event in 2014 and asked: ‘What if, within one generation, the majority of the food grown in this city were to come from the land immediately surrounding it?’ 

When Hopkins went back in 2018, the results were clear to see. CATL had raised €5 million of local investment, had set up 14 cooperatives, including a seed-saving co-op, a co-op growing mushrooms on coffee waste, a vineyard and a fairtrade milk project – quite a leap from that initial question in 2014.

“It was such a beautiful, simple, delightful question. They didn’t say ‘we know how to do it’. They said ‘this is our question and we need all of you to be a part of it.” And the idea was taken up by the municipality, which went from wanting to be a Smart City to wanting to be a Transition city. Since, the municipality has made all the land it owns around the city available for people to grow food in, and are now looking at ways to get schools, universities and hospitals involved and change food procurement.

Part of the strength of such approaches is that they reach across traditional political divides. As the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every community and level of society – though clearly some have been affected more seriously than others – the way opens up to design forward-facing solutions that involve everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Hopkins says: “What really intrigues me now is that we have a new opportunity that we never had before to design community-based projects and solutions and message and advertise them in a way that will appeal to conservative people. And that’s going to be a hell of a lot easier than it used to be. And by its very nature that needs to be something that needs to reach across the political spectrum. It feels like we have the opportunity going forward for me.”

While much of Hopkins' thought is based in community solutions and bottom-up, grassroots approaches, that’s not to say he doesn’t have his eyes on a higher level. Environmental movements are often accused of being middle-class movements that need to engage more with lower-income families, an accusation that Hopkins feels is an “appropriate criticism”, but the question is rarely levelled: “What are you doing to engage more with the one per cent?”

“50 per cent of climate change is being caused by the wealthiest 10 per cent,” says Hopkins. “They’re people that have the buying power to unlock this stuff and they’re causing more of the mess in the first place. The one per cent need to engage with this stuff and we need to get better at engaging with the one per cent.”

Hopkins accepts the difficulty in this, even engaging with those at the top who are purportedly engaged in climate change, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, who flew a private jet form the US to accept a climate award in Paris. “How do you get someone like DiCaprio to sit and really digest what they need to let go of to be part of the solution? If you are somebody like that and we are to actually make the cuts needed to keep below 1.5ºC of warming, your life is going to be really, really different. That will involve a degree of excitement and possibility, but also grief and changing status.”

From ‘yes but’ to ‘yes and’

Traditional politics will also need to pick up this baton and take these imaginative, transformational ideas forward. “I interviewed Stuart Candy, who’s a futurologist, for my book and he said that everybody running for office in an election should have to make a film about what kind of world would result from them being elected in 10 years’ time,” recalls Hopkins. “I think that’s a great idea. Parties need to become much more ‘I have a dream’ parties.”

Although Hopkins makes clear that the Transition movement is determinedly non-party political, Hopkins feels this is something that the Green Party in England and Wales does really well. “The Green Party often plays the role of doing the work of coming up with big bold ideas that other parties then latch onto in the next election,” says Hopkins. Across Europe, policies such as the Green New Deal and Basic Income, which began as radical ideas have since been taken up by traditional parties such as Labour after being put forward by smaller parties. 

This should be the future, carrying forward ideas like a National Imagination Act, modelled on the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act seen in Wales, enshrining the right to an imaginative life, says Hopkins, to place imagination at the heart of politics. “We need to transform parties into ‘yes and…’ parties rather than ‘yes but…’ parties.”

Creating that positive future in our minds is integral to addressing the existential challenges of climate breakdown. While Hopkins thinks movements like Extinction Rebellion and the School Climate Strikes have been “phenomenal”, he “worries a little” about the message of disaster presented by these movements.

“Our fundamental internal narrative is so focused on collapse and disaster and the inevitability of that that we kind of exclude the possibility that we could actually be successful,” says Hopkins. “If you don’t allow yourself to imagine a future where everything that could possibly have been done you exclude it as a possibility. We need to imagine it and then walk around it, smell it, feel it and get a sense of it.”

That is what Hopkins tries to communicate and instil in the people he talks to, whether in the Transition Network, through his writing or in talks with those eager to bring about a different world. At a time when politics can feel fixated on a golden past that people are eager to return to, Hopkins implores us to create “memories of the future”, project a sense of longing for a better world into the future and place it at the heart of our environmental movements. 

“It’s like when Neil Armstrong went to the moon,” says Hopkins. “It wasn’t Armstrong’s idea to go to the moon. It wasn’t JFK’s idea to go to the moon. We’d been going to the moon for decades. Jules Verne went to the moon, Tintin went to the moon, Sinatra went to the moon. We went to the moon in stories, films, comic books and all sorts, so by the time we went to the moon we had been there hundreds and hundreds of times in stories. It created such a deep longing, that it became inevitable. 

“For me that longing is fundamental to it. How do we create a longing for a low-carbon, more biodiverse, socially just world? It’s not with statistics, or dry policy documents. You create longing with songs, stories, poetry, art, films and drama. And that’s the starting point. Once you create longing you’re in a different space.”