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From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want
From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want
From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want
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From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want

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“Big ideas that just might save the world”—The Guardian

The founder of the international Transition Towns movement asks why true creative, positive thinking is in decline, asserts that it's more important now than ever, and suggests ways our communities can revive and reclaim it.

In these times of deep division and deeper despair, if there is a consensus about anything in the world, it is that the future is going to be awful. There is an epidemic of loneliness, an epidemic of anxiety, a mental health crisis of vast proportions, especially among young people. There’s a rise in extremist movements and governments. Catastrophic climate change. Biodiversity loss. Food insecurity. The fracturing of ecosystems and communities beyond, it seems, repair. The future—to say nothing of the present—looks grim.

But as Transition movement cofounder Rob Hopkins tells us, there is plenty of evidence that things can change, and cultures can change, rapidly, dramatically, and unexpectedly—for the better. He has seen it happen around the world and in his own town of Totnes, England, where the community is becoming its own housing developer, energy company, enterprise incubator, and local food network—with cascading benefits to the community that extend far beyond the projects themselves.

We do have the capability to effect dramatic change, Hopkins argues, but we’re failing because we’ve largely allowed our most critical tool to languish: human imagination. As defined by social reformer John Dewey, imagination is the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise. The ability, that is, to ask What if? And if there was ever a time when we needed that ability, it is now.

Imagination is central to empathy, to creating better lives, to envisioning and then enacting a positive future. Yet imagination is also demonstrably in decline at precisely the moment when we need it most. In this passionate exploration, Hopkins asks why imagination is in decline, and what we must do to revive and reclaim it. Once we do, there is no end to what we might accomplish.

From What Is to What If is a call to action to reclaim and unleash our collective imagination, told through the stories of individuals and communities around the world who are doing it now, as we speak, and witnessing often rapid and dramatic change for the better.

Release dateOct 15, 2019
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Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of From What Is to What If?, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, The Transition Handbook, and The Transition Companion. In 2012 he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at transtionnetwork.org and robhopkins.net, and you can find him on Twitter at @robintransition.

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    From What Is to What If - Rob Hopkins



    A serious book on an important subject. Without imagination, where are we?


    Rob Hopkins has long been a leader in imagining how we could remake our societies for the benefit of nature and humankind. His new book is a powerful call to imagine a better world. It should be widely read and appreciated.

    —CHRISTIANA FIGUERES, former executive secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; lead negotiator, Paris Climate Agreement

    "Few things distinguish human beings from the rest of life on Earth. Among the most important are our unique powers of imagination. Ironically, our use—and abuse—of those powers has now wrought a complex crisis in our relationships with the planet and with each other. As Rob Hopkins eloquently shows in this powerful and passionate book, to survive and thrive we have to become more imaginative, not less, in how we live, work and connect. He demonstrates the transformative power of imagination in all areas of our lives and the dangers of its neglect, especially in the education of our children. From What Is to What If takes us on an inspiring and urgent tour of the people and communities around the world that are reimagining the present to create more hopeful and sustainable futures for us all."

    —SIR KEN ROBINSON, educator; New York Times best-selling author

    "Day after day, week after week, the climate is changing and biodiversity is fading away. For a long time we tended to look the other way, but now, being on the edge of the cliff forces us to understand that we must act urgently. And because of this emergency it is our utmost duty to join forces. Not only among states, but among mayors, NGOs, associations, companies, and citizens. Among all those who are determined to act here and now.

    "Towns and cities have already begun transition. Together, mayors have chosen to press ahead toward a healthier and safer world. Whether in Paris or in Totnes, initiatives are being launched and are encouraging us to shift from ‘why not’ to ‘how’ and from ‘how’ to ‘when.’ The movement must gain momentum and expand.

    "We must act wherever we are with the resources we have at our disposal to fight global warming. It’s no longer about thinking global and acting local; it’s about acting local in order to act global in a better way.

    People like Rob Hopkins give us the courage to move forward. By setting an example, he shows us that we are right to place our hopes in a future in which men and women can act as stewards of their environment. The many stories in this book are evidence of the fact that for some people this future has already become a reality.

    —ANNE HIDALGO, Mayor of Paris

    If we could set our imaginations free to explore the possibilities of how to make this world a better place, it would be remarkable indeed. And as this brave and powerful book argues, our very survival may depend upon it. We have nothing to lose by following the ideas set out in these pages, and everything to gain.

    —SCOTT BARRY KAUFMAN, psychologist, Columbia University; coauthor of Wired to Create

    I couldn’t stop reading this book, and ideas just wouldn’t stop popping into my head. Rob Hopkins puts imagination back at the heart of future-dreaming, offering us an irresistible invitation to dream bigger and then make those dreams a reality. For anyone seeking a renewed sense of possibility, this one’s for you.

    —KATE RAWORTH, author of Doughnut Economics

    What if we are looking for solutions to our myriad challenges in all the wrong places? Hopkins, cofounder of the global Transition movement, reminds us that an essential ingredient to navigating the various unravelings of the coming decades isn’t just our community resilience, reskilling, and activism—but our civic imagination.

    —CHUCK COLLINS, Institute for Policy Studies; author of Born on Third Base

    I love this book. It is an extraordinary, reality-based report on people around the world applying the power of imagination to rebuild relationships and create a fulfilling, creative, and possible human future together. An essential read for all who care.

    —DAVID C. KORTEN, author of Change the Story, Change the Future and When Corporations Rule the World

    "When it comes to tackling climate change or the numerous other threats to our global environment, the greatest challenge we face today may be the belief that the damage is beyond the point of repair, that we lack agency in addressing the problem, for that leads us down the same path as outright denial—a path of inaction. In From What Is to What If, Rob Hopkins shows us a different path, one of action, hope, and engagement. Read this book and join the battle to preserve our planet."

    —MICHAEL MANN, distinguished professor, Pennsylvania State University; coauthor of The Madhouse Effect

    Reading this book is like listening to the voice of Rob Hopkins. A voice full of kindness, optimism, brightness, humor, and imagination. And that spirit is precisely what we need to build a better future and to reconnect with each other and the better part of ourselves. With this book, Rob poses a crucial question: How could we create another world, one in which human beings live in harmony with each other and with nature, if we are not able to imagine it first? We can’t—and that’s why this book is so necessary.

    —CYRIL DION, writer, filmmaker, and producer of the film Tomorrow

    At last, a design for our dreams. I believe we have a debt of honour to take action. Please read this book and defy the herd. Are we golden or are we debris?

    —MARK STEWART, musician, The Pop Group and Mark Stewart & The Maffia

    "From What Is to What If is a profound look at imagination’s potential to enact progress and a call for us to make space for the things we often overlook. Hopkins confronts the most pressing issues of our times and urges us to look closer, reconnect with our roots, adapt slower modes of production, and work collectively. Imagination is within reach; it can and it will continue to salvage and elevate communities while driving us towards more sustainable and resilient futures."

    —THEASTER GATES, artist; founder and director, Rebuild Foundation

    Today our choice is simple: Change quickly or contribute to a catastrophic collapse. It’s a daunting challenge, and it will be impossible unless we can imagine what a low-carbon, high-cohesion society looks like—not on paper, but in our towns and neighborhoods day-to-day. Here Rob Hopkins helps us envision a dramatically different, ecologically sustainable social environment, and invites us to build it together. This is a powerful, inspiring book.

    —ERIC KLINENBERG, author of Palaces for the People

    Also by Rob Hopkins

    The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience

    The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times

    The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World

    21 Stories of Transition: How a Movement of Communities Is Coming Together to Reimagine and Rebuild Our World







    Chelsea Green Publishing

    White River Junction, Vermont

    London, UK

    Copyright © 2019 by Rob Hopkins.

    All rights reserved.

    No part of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.

    Project Manager: Sarah Kovach

    Developmental Editor: Brianne Goodspeed

    Copy Editor: Eliani Torres

    Proofreader: Katherine R. Kiger

    Indexer: Nancy Crompton

    Designer: Melissa Jacobson

    Printed in the United States of America.

    First printing September 2019.

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 19 20 2122 23

    Our Commitment to Green Publishing

    Chelsea Green sees publishing as a tool for cultural change and ecological stewardship. We strive to align our book manufacturing practices with our editorial mission and to reduce the impact of our business enterprise in the environment. We print our books and catalogs on chlorine-free recycled paper, using vegetable-based inks whenever possible. This book may cost slightly more because it was printed on paper that contains recycled fiber, and we hope you’ll agree that it’s worth it. From What Is to What If was printed on paper supplied by Sheridan that contains 100% postconsumer recycled fiber.

    ISBN 978-1-60358-905-5 (hardcover) | ISBN 978-1-60358-906-2 (ebook) | ISBN 978-1-60358-907-9 (audiobook)

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

    Chelsea Green Publishing

    85 North Main Street, Suite 120

    White River Junction, VT 05001

    (802) 295-6300


    Dedicated to Emma, Rowan, Finn, Arlo and Cian.

    To my parents, for the precious gift of an imaginative childhood.

    To the Stansted 15, because our imaginations need heroes.

    And to the memory of Max Hamilton.

    We all, adults and children, 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 things can be different.



    Introduction. What If Things Turned Out OK?

    1. What If We Took Play Seriously?

    2. What If We Considered Imagination Vital to Our Health?

    3. What If We Followed Nature’s Lead?

    4. What If We Fought Back to Reclaim Our Attention?

    5. What If School Nurtured Young Imaginations?

    6. What If We Became Better Storytellers?

    7. What If We Started Asking Better Questions?

    8. What If Our Leaders Prioritised the Cultivation of Imagination?

    9. What If All of This Came to Pass?





    What If Things Turned Out OK?

    One might say that human societies have two boundaries. One boundary is drawn by the requirements of the natural world and the other by the collective imagination.

    —SUSAN GRIFFIN, ‘To Love the Marigold’

    I wake, well rested, in the straw-bale-walled apartment my family and I call home. Built fifteen years ago as part of a sustainable-construction initiative throughout our city, the three-storey-high apartment complex costs virtually nothing to heat, its basement hosts composting units for all the building’s toilets, and the solar panels on the roof generate all our electricity needs. I wake my kids, get them dressed and fed and accompany them to school – a walk that takes us through shared gardens with a diversity of food crops, including young ruby chard whose deep red leaves radiate like stained glass caught in the brilliant sun of this late spring morning. The streets are quiet, due to sparse motorised traffic, and they are lined with fruit and nut trees in early blossom. The air smells of spring. Each bus stop we pass is surrounded by a garden on three sides, part of the Edible Bus Stop network that now includes most bus stops across the United Kingdom. Anyone can graze while they wait for the bus.

    In our community, the kids seem to have radically different feelings about school than they did ten years ago. The education department’s decision to eliminate testing, to give ample space for unstructured play and to provide students with opportunities within the community to acquire meaningful skills that enable them to live happy and healthy lives by their own definition means that most kids here now love going to school. My son, for example, recently upped his cooking skills by spending a week at a local restaurant.

    My kids and I approach the school through intensive food gardens, planted and managed by the students, and walk into a building where we are greeted by the smell of baking bread and the sound of happy chatter. After we say our goodbyes, I pick up a public bicycle and head into the city on one of our cycle networks. With more bicycles and fewer cars on the road, air quality has improved, and public health along with it. I call into my favourite bakery to buy bread. Launched fifteen years ago on the premise that ‘baking is the new Prozac’, the bakery’s mission is to provide meaningful work opportunities for people who lack housing and job security, and who struggle with mental health.¹ The bakery prioritises local produce, grows a thriving rooftop garden and uses bicycle-powered delivery around town.² With the bakery’s support, many of its employees have launched other successful businesses across the city.

    I pass what used to be one of the district’s supermarkets, most of which closed down about ten years ago. The explosion in community food production and rapid shift of community investment led to a withdrawal of support from supermarkets, which precipitated the collapse of the industrial food model over the space of only a couple of years. The building was repurposed and became home to a variety of local food processors, small-scale manufacturing and a training centre linked to local schools. The place is buzzing. Our former supermarket houses a mill that processes locally grown grains, as well as a sawmill that processes locally harvested timber. What had been extensive car parks are now intensive food gardens – modelled on those that surrounded Paris a hundred years ago – and they provide local food for local markets.

    I call by the train station to buy tickets for a trip the following week. Bringing the trains into public ownership twelve years ago eliminated the days when every train station looked the same, with the same cafes, chains and shops. Now every station is a manifestation of the local economy – its innovators, its unique flavours and tastes. Ours now has twice the number of outlets as before, and it reflects the cultural diversity of our community. There is even a brewery on the station; you can have a drink, surrounded by the fermenters, while you wait for your train.³ Oh, and the trains now run on time. The many people from other places who arrived here during the times of great migration have assimilated, and now it’s hard to remember this community without them. While that transition wasn’t without its challenges, the culture, the richness, the enterprise they have brought have much enriched us all.

    I call into work. I’m working a half day today, as part of my three-day work week. Adopted nationally ten years ago, the three-day work week, together with the introduction of Universal Basic Income, has resulted in measurably lower levels of anxiety and stress across all income classes. People spend free time working on community projects and enjoying their lives. Some of my colleagues are away today. A scheme was recently launched where up to 10 percent of staff from any company, at any given time, are embedded in the local community, offering managerial, marketing, financial planning and project management skills to organisations that are working in various ways to support residents and make our community more resilient.

    I pick up my kids from school and we stroll home down streets where many of the houses are painted with eye-catching murals and mosaics. There are lots of kids playing in the street, a phenomenon that occurred naturally once the number of cars on the road diminished, which in turn encouraged residents to periodically close their streets entirely to motorised traffic, so children can play out; all the neighbours look out for the kids, something made possible when adults began spending more time at home, rather than trapped in long commutes to distant workplaces.

    After supper, I head out to a Neighbourhood Assembly meeting. A few years ago, a group of residents, not aligned to any political party, were voted in to run our city government. They altered the city’s governance model to enable and support the initiatives emerging at the neighbourhood scale, and to remove obstacles. They even created a Civic Imagination Office to better inspire and support the imaginations of local communities, and to enable their ideas to become reality. About seventy people are at this particular meeting, and we discuss our vision for the future of energy in our neighbourhood, and some other pressing local issues. Policymaking has improved hugely. Thanks to the community-owned energy company set up in 2021, the majority of the city’s energy is now locally generated, and most citizens have some kind of financial investment in it; it generates a far better return than the banks do.

    When I reach home, I visit with several of my neighbours, who are sitting outside chatting. We hear an owl, and notice the bats swooping overhead. The move to designate our city a National Park City slowed the decline of biodiversity to the point of recovery by reunifying previously fractured wildlife corridors, green spaces, and woods, so that I now regularly notice new kinds of insects and louder and more complex birdsong. With so much around me moving, changing and thriving, I settle down to sleep with a feeling that the future is rich with possibility.

    It sounds made up, doesn’t it? It is. Mostly.⁴ The story is my imagining of the near future, a story of How Things Turned Out OK.

    Of course, this imaginary life isn’t perfect. This imaginary community is not Utopia. It still rains, friends fall out and people have bad days. Some impacts of climate change are still felt. And the vision is likely very different to what your story of How Things Turned Out OK would be. But I start with it because we live in a time bereft of such stories – stories of what life could look like if we were able to find a way over the course of the next twenty years to be bold, brilliant and decisive, to act in proportion to the challenges we are facing and to aim for a future we actually feel good about.

    I’ve come to believe we desperately need stories like this – stories of How Things Turned Out OK – because if there is a consensus about anything in the world at this point, it seems to be that the future is going to be awful. And with good reason. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the world’s temperature warmed by 1 degree Celsius over the past century. To avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees, they say, we would need to cut emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and to zero by 2050.⁵ And their findings are actually pretty conservative. Others argue that even staying below a 2-degree increase would, in reality, for ‘developed’ nations such as those in the EU, necessitate cuts of 12 percent a year, starting now, far beyond the EU’s current target of 40 percent by 2030.⁶

    The longer our inertia persists, the steeper and more demanding that task becomes. As Jim Skea, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, stated when the report was released, ‘Limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes.’

    And of course, we can already see the impacts of climate change (and other ecological destruction) in real time with extreme weather events, the loss of biodiversity and a food system dependent on the use of vast quantities of pesticides and herbicides to coax crops from the earth. More and more people seem to be feeling accumulated pressures in their personal lives as well. There is an epidemic of loneliness, an epidemic of anxiety (estimated to have increased twentyfold over the past thirty years), a mental health crisis of vast proportions among young people, the rise of extremist movements and governments and much more besides.⁸ Looks hopeless, right?

    Sadly, it seems far easier to imagine almost any dystopian scenario than the possibility that we might actually still have the competence to act, to create something else, to dig ourselves out of the many holes of our own making. The message that ‘it can’t be done’ is strong and pervasive. As Susan Griffin puts it:

    Among those who would seek or want social change, despair is endemic now. A lack of hope that is tied to many kinds of powerlessness. Repeating patterns of suffering. Burgeoning philosophies of fear and hatred. Not to speak of the failure of dreams. Where once there were societies that served as models for a better future, grand plans, utopias, now there is distrust and dissatisfaction with any form of politics, a sense of powerlessness edging into nihilism.

    Given the state of the world, the message of despair is pretty convincing. Things look grim. But something about that doesn’t sit quite right with me. In fact, there’s evidence that things can change, and that cultures can change, rapidly and unexpectedly. And that’s not just naïve, pie-in-the-sky thinking. In How Did We Do That? The Possibility of Rapid Transition, Andrew Simms and Peter Newell tell the story of Iceland’s 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which sent fine dust into the sky that spread for thousands of miles and grounded most of the world’s planes.¹⁰ Then what happened? People adapted. Quickly. Supermarkets replaced air-freighted goods with local alternatives. People discovered other, slower ways to get around, or decided they didn’t really need to travel at all. People held business meetings online. The Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, ran the Norwegian government from New York … with his iPad. This isn’t the only example. We might be focused these days on how we are only nine meals from anarchy, but there are stories from throughout history about how rapid transitions lead to ingenuity, flourishing, imagination and togetherness.¹¹

    I’ve seen this with my own eyes, thanks to an experiment a few friends and I initiated more than a decade ago in our hometown of Totnes in Devon, England (population 8,500). Our idea was a simple one: What if, we wondered, the change we need to see in response to the biggest challenges of our time came not from government and business, but from you and me, from communities working together? What if the answers were to be found not in the bleak solitude of survivalism and isolation, in the tweaking of ruthless commercialism, or in the dream that some electable saviour will come riding to our rescue, but rather in reconnection to community? As we put it: ‘If we wait for governments, it will be too late. If we act as individuals, it will be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, and it might just be in time.’

    As we began floating this idea with our friends and the wider community, the term ‘Transition’ arose to describe the intentional act of shifting from high resource use, high carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, extractive business practice and fragmented communities to communities with a healthier culture, more resilient and diverse local economies, more connection and less loneliness, more biodiversity and more time, democracy and beauty.¹²

    As ‘Transition Town Totnes’, we began asking these ‘what-if’ questions, and things started unfolding apace in our town. People planted fruit and nut trees in public spaces, grew food at the train station, and connected neighbours who wanted to grow food with neighbours who had unused garden space. We crowdfunded to buy a mill – the first new mill in Totnes in more than a hundred years – to grind local grains and pulses for a range of flours, and we hosted an annual local food festival celebrating food grown in and very near to Totnes. As I write this, Transition Homes is building twenty-seven houses using local materials for people in need, and Caring Town Totnes has developed a network of caregiving organisations so they can work together more effectively. Through it all, we’ve held community conversations so people could come together to imagine and discuss the kind of future they’d like to create.

    In 2013, we mapped the local economy with our Local Economic Blueprint and argued the financial case for a more localised approach to economic development.¹³ Our annual

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