What would It feel like to live through an era-defining, seismic social, cultural and economic transition? A tipping point beyond which nothing felt the same and everything felt possible? Clearly such things don’t come along very often, indeed they are pretty rare. So rare in fact that we usually don’t allow ourselves to believe that they are possible. But they are. And we are in one right now. And it’s amazing. Let me explain.
The gathering masses on Totnes station.
Yesterday I travelled to Paris for some Transition events there. It meant that I couldn’t make my local Climate Strike in Exeter which pretty much everyone I know was going to. Totnes Station was fuller than I’ve ever seen it, young people and families with a great collection of placards and banners, heading off to the Strike. I had to stay on the train towards London, and feared I wouldn’t get to see any of the Climate Strikes other than following them on Twitter as the train sped along. But then I arrived in London and realised I had an hour to kill before the Eurostar check-in, so I headed to Westminster.
I emerged from the Tube station into a kind of parallel universe. The streets were packed. So many people, later estimates were over 100,000. I can’t imagine there were many even half-full classrooms in London that day, so many young people were there. Whole organisations come en masse as part of the Climate Strike (Lush, for example, had shut all their stores and all their staff had gone). There was singing and chanting, and even one slightly preposterous climate skeptic stood in the middle of the passing throng with a loudhailer telling everyone they were wrong, and being met with boos and laughter.
Caroline Lucas MP addressed the crowd. She said “there is more political leadership on the streets of London today than I have ever seen in the Palace of Westminster”. As I stood there in the streets, streets filled with purpose, passion, anger, laughter, creativity and possibility, I allowed myself to dream.
The ‘Red Brigade’ engaging the police in some sustained, and silent, eye contact.
What if, I wondered, this day, this actual day, 20 September 2019, were the day we would look back to historically as the day the battle for a liveable planet, for climate justice, for social justice, tipped? What if this was that day? What if these Strikes, and the 2 weeks of International Rebellion that Extinction Rebellion will be kicking off on October 7th, unlocked a cascade of previously unimaginable positive change? What if the book I’m about to publish, ‘From What Is to What If’, also helped a bit…?
What if, in the November election in the UK, a government was elected that set 2030 as their climate change target, that brought in a Green New Deal, that introduced a National Imagination Act, that created a context in which urgent and rapid change was set loose? What if the 2020 elections in the US, and the elections in France, and in many other places, brought the same kind of electoral shifts?
At the fifth birthday of Le Pre-Saint-Gervais en Transition in Paris, the group created this beautiful record of the highlights of all the projects they have created during that time. With just a little support, communities can do remarkable things.
What if this were all underpinned by the belief that communities have a huge role to play in this? What if town and city authorities created ‘Civic Imagination Offices’ to facilitate a recognition of, a support of, and an unleashing of the imaginations of communities? What if a deep rethink of agricultural policy led to a rapid roll-out of rewilding schemes, sustainable agriculture and reforesting? What if we started to see natural systems rebounding, moth and butterfly populations doubling, trebling, quadrupling? What if bird populations skyrocketed, beavers became commonplace? What if, in our cities, the sound of birdsong started to drown out the noise of the dwindling numbers of cars?
A rather bedraggled new road sign I saw in Paris during Car Free Day, where a street was re-christened ‘The Street of Improbable Meetings’.
What if the young people striking for the climate today became the rewilding managers, the rooftop farmers, the solar panel installers, the oat milk milkmen that this new world will need? What if TV soap operas told the stories of how their characters were embracing the challenges of the climate emergency, responding in different imaginative ways, and their imagined community was rediscovering itself as a result?
What if every obstacle in the way of a huge acceleration in renewable energy was removed? What if all the oil companies redesigned their business model to become 100% renewable by 2025, leading most of their reserves in the ground? What if by 2030, fossil fuels were phased out altogether? What if airport expansion were stopped, private jets were banned, and plans were drawn up to close one runway every year? What if no new roads were built? What if public transport was hugely scaled up, and was completely free? What if all fossil fuel advertising were banned, and new exploration was outlawed? What if every new house built were built to a passivhaus standard and generated more energy than it used, and every existing house were brought up to sufficient levels of insulation?
What if the Department of Education were redesigned around the need to minimise the mental health crisis in young people, to maximise their imagination and sense of possibility, and to produce a generation of inspired young people ready to take on the climate emergency? What if schools and hospitals generated more energy than they used, grew more food than they could eat, planted more trees than they could imagine?
In my minds eye I see a cascade, like when people build those things with dominoes that get slightly bigger and slightly bigger and just pushing the first tiny one generates the momentum to topple the huge ones at the far end of the line. But what about, some will argue, the impacts of climate change already being felt around the world, the communities and nations already hit hard, very hard, by fires, hurricanes, floods and desertification? And what about the likelihood that a degree of climate change is now locked into the system? Absolutely.
But those of us in the most affluent nations need to lead the change, to detox our culture from fossil fuels, to reimagine and rebuild everything, especially in the UK where we started the whole fossil fuel age in the first place. My point is that unless we can create a deep longing for something else, there is a risk we end up arguing for change with one hand and talking ourselves out of it with the other. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in the song ‘Happy Talk’, later covered by Captain Sensible, “you’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you going to make a dream come true?”
In these days of Climate Strikes, these days of Rebellion, these days of Transition, we are seeing the birthing of What Comes Next. And a part of this is our being able to imagine, today, what that world would feel, look, smell and taste like when we get there. Here is my initial attempt to bring this to life, but we need so many more…
In a brilliant article by the brilliant Jeremy Lent, he argues that this moment, this moment right now, is “a crucially important moment in the system’s life cycle for those who wish to change the predominant order … as things begin to unravel, we see increasing numbers of people begin to question foundational elements of neoliberal capitalism: an economy based on perpetual growth, seeing nature as a resource to plunder, and the pursuit of material wealth as paramount”. He argues this is a time when the current system is crumbling before our very eyes, and where “innovative policy ideas previously considered unthinkable begin to enter the domain of mainstream political discourse”. At such a time, what is needed is bold, imaginative thinking. Ideas that grab the collective imagination.
Tipping points are amazing things. Moments when you cross the brow of the hill, make it to the mountain pass. You have gravity on your side. Your sails fill with wind. Each step feels like a step closer to where you’re headed. You can smell home. Your aching muscles fill with new energy and belief. The people who’ve been arguing to that point that it can’t be done begin to look faintly ridiculous. This is that time. At least, I certainly intend to live and work and dream and breathe as though it is. And to anyone who might dismiss the above as a delusional fantasy, I have to say that standing there in Parliament Square, it felt to me that it would be a belief that this wasn’t possible, that defeat was inevitable, that would actually be the delusional fantasy.