Act: Inspiration

From What Is to What If: A Green Stimulus and the Importance Envisioning the “Impossible”

April 22, 2020


The practice of envisioning and harnessing the power of positive futures – both holistic and inspiring, practical and realistic – has been at the heart of the international Transition Movement from the very beginning. In his seminal 2008 Transition Handbook, Transition Movement co-founder Rob Hopkins included a 52-page section on “The Heart: Why having a positive vision is crucial” and wrote in its introduction: “Too often environmentalists try to engage people in action by painting apocalyptic visions of the future as a way of scaring them into action. The question this part of the book asks is what would happen if we came at this the other way round, painting a picture of the future so enticing that people instinctively feel drawn towards it.”

In recent years, Rob has advocated ever more passionately for change-makers everywhere to utilize positive visioning in their work through his “Imagination Taking Power” blog and his latest book, From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want, which was published just six months ago in October of 2019. In it, he writes:

At every step I fell more and more in love with those two words, ‘What if?’ What if we wasted a lot less energy and generated most of what we do use from renewable sources? What if we made refugees welcome and supported in their newly adopted homelands? What if we measured the economy with metrics other than how much bigger it is from one year to the next? What if we could think about car-free cities, no prisons, a more equal distribution of wealth without our brains getting completely discombobulated? What if we lived in a world in which the police didn’t shoot unarmed young men of colour, and our education system didn’t generate a mental health crisis in young people? What if we phased out the aviation industry and embraced a life of slow travel instead? The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans became the most powerful creatures on the planet because of our imagination, our ability to tell stories and to ask ‘what if?’ What if we revived that capability, in great abundance, starting now?

Over the course of 184 pages, Rob asks: “What If Things Turned Out OK?” “What If We Took Play Seriously?” “What If We Considered Imagination Vital to Our Health?” “What If We Followed Nature’s Lead?” “What If We Fought Back to Reclaim Our Attention?” “What If School Nurtured Young Imaginations?” “What If We Became Better Storytellers?” “What If We Started Asking Better Questions?” “What If Our Leaders Prioritised the Cultivation of Imagination?” and “What If All of This Came to Pass?” In between waxing philosophical about the imagination and citing dozens of scientific studies and books on this topic, Rob tells many inspiring stories of Transition groups and other innovative initiatives all over the world that have used positive visioning to inspire their work. These compelling, replicable examples include the New Lion Brewery in Rob’s hometown of Totnes, London’s National Park City initiative, a robust network of worker-owned local food businesses in Belgium called Ceinture Aliment-Terre LiégeoiseCooperation Jackson in Mississippi, Laboratorio para la Cuidad in Mexico City, and the Well-Being of Future Generations Act in Wales.

(Please click here to watch a free one-hour presentation about From What Is to What If that Rob recently gave for Transition US)

Besides Rob’s work on the imagination and other examples of ramped-up community action presented during our recent national network call on Community Resilience & COVID-19, one of the most hopeful things I’ve stumbled across since this crisis began is a “A Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy: An Open Letter and Call to Action for Members of Congress,” which was published last month by a team of 11 prominent academics, scientists, policy experts, and nonprofit advocates. More than 1,800 individuals and organizations signed on within the first nine days of its release, including Bill McKibben of, Naomi Klein of The Leap, Mark Bittman of The New York Times, Annie Leonard of Greenpeace USA, Gus Speth of The Next System Project, Jane Fonda for Fire Drill Fridays, and my colleague Marissa Mommaerts and myself on behalf of Transition US. This letter has also been extensively reported on by publications as diverse as The HillCommon DreamsMother JonesCityLabMarketWatchGristThe Guardian, and Jacobin as a proposal deserving of serious consideration and support.

While it’s unlikely that a fourth major round of stimulus will be passed here in the U.S. before mid-May, this is definitely an idea whose time has come. The Solar Energy Industries Association has estimated that the we could experience a loss of 50% of all residential solar jobs this year due to the pandemic (as opposed to 50% growth over the next 12 months, which was previously anticipated). Two weeks ago, the governments of Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, Latvia, and Luxembourg collectively urged the European Union to adopt a “green” coronavirus recovery plan. And according a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans (including 39% of Republicans) now believe that our government is doing too little to address the climate crisis.

Even Faith Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (which is not usually considered a voice for radical change), recently wrote: “Large-scale investment to boost the development, deployment and integration of clean energy technologies – such as solar, wind, hydrogen, batteries and carbon capture (CCUS) – should be a central part of governments’ plans because it will bring the twin benefits of stimulating economies and accelerating clean energy transitions.”

As the authors of the Green Stimulus Letter state in their introduction: “This is an inflection point for our nation. This is a pivotal moment to put tens of millions of Americans back to work, building a healthy, clean, and just future.” They point out that: “infrastructure spending as usual – e.g. highway expansion – will lock in more carbon pollution for decades,” and “The question isn’t whether we will next need a major economic recovery stimulus, but what kind of stimulus should we pursue?”

They have addressed, in the form of 97 wide-ranging federal policy proposals, the same question I posed in my latest essay: how can we most effectively scale-up a just transition response in these times to keep pressing forward and prevent disaster capitalism from taking advantage of the pandemic? (as it already has, in ways too numerous to describe here)

The letter, as a whole, is an enormous “what if”: what if our federal government passed a new stimulus bill in the next couple of months that allocated at least $2 trillion to fight COVID-19, climate change, and economic inequality, with funding “automatically renewed annually at 4% of GDP per year (roughly $850 billion) until the economy is fully decarbonized and the unemployment rate is below 3.5%.” What if we could create enough of a political groundswell in these extraordinary times to actually get it passed into law?

While I have to admit that I am more than a little skeptical of its chances, given the current composition of the U.S. Senate and the Trump Administration, I think this letter is, nevertheless, worthy of your contemplation and support. Even if it’s not a green stimulus, something like a Green New Deal will need to be passed soon if we are to have any chance of averting climate catastrophe. Influencing and advocating for “impossible” changes to national policy now could result in a massive increase of support for community resilience efforts throughout this country, but only if we can get “shovel-ready” in time, prepared to step up on the national stage and do the work that needs to be done on the ground.

Because the letter is quite long, I will attempt to provide a concise summary of it below. Of course, if you want to read it in its entirely, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. Either way, please sign on to it here.

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A Green Stimulus

Drawing from a diverse array of policy proposals that have coalesced under the banner of the Green New Deal, as well as the Presidential campaign platforms of Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Elizabeth Warren, the overall approach of the Green Stimulus Letter is based on five main principles and four key strategies:

5 Principles for Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus: (1) Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions; (2) Provide economic relief directly to the people; (3) Rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives; (4) Make a down payment on a regenerative economy, while preventing future crises; and (5) Protect our democratic process while protecting each other.

Four Key Strategies: (1) Create millions of new family-sustaining, career-track green jobs; (2) Deliver strategic investments – like green housing retrofits, rooftop solar installation, electric bus deployment, rural broadband development, and other forms of economic diversification – to lift up and collaborate with frontline communities; (3) Expand public and employee ownership; and (4) Make rapid cuts to carbon pollution.

So far, so good – but the most interesting parts for me were the actual policy proposals. Here are just some of their recommendations that I think might be the most impactful, edited for length and organized by the same categories used in the letter:

Housing, Buildings, Civic Infrastructure, and Communities:

  • Expand energy retrofit programs and subsidies for low-carbon affordable housing.
  • Place a moratorium on utility shut-offs for the duration of the economic crisis that COVID-19 has caused.
  • Mandate higher energy efficiency standards for all new construction.
  • Provide incentives for landlords who pass on their energy savings to their tenants.
  • Increase zoning density to foster more walkable, bikeable, and busable cities.
  • Create a Climate Justice Resiliency Fund for communities that are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts.

Transportation Workers, Systems, and Infrastructure:

  • Increase support for local transit authorities.
  • Fund hundreds of new transit-oriented development and complete streets projects.
  • Implement a national “Fix It First” mandate for all public infrastructure.

Labor, Manufacturing, and Just Transition for Workers and Communities:

  • Further incentivize the manufacturing and purchasing of electric vehicles and energy-efficient appliances.
  • Establish a federal fund for worker-owned cooperatives.
  • Provide training and support for entrepreneurs from marginalized groups.
  • Help workers and communities transition to life beyond fossil fuels.

Energy System Workers and Infrastructure:

  • Require 100% carbon-free energy production by 2030.
  • Restore and expand incentives for clean energy production, consumption, and storage (with preference for distributed systems and community ownership).
  • End approval of all new fossil fuel projects and rapidly phase out existing ones.
  • End fossil fuel subsidies, redistributing funds to workers and communities impacted by rapid decarbonization.

Farmers, Food Systems, and Rural Communities:

  • Strengthen organic standards.
  • Redirect agricultural subsidies to socially and ecologically-responsible small producers.
  • Train and compensate farmers to transition to local or regional distribution models, and adopt practices that increase carbon sequestration.
  • Ensure a living wage and humane working conditions for all farmers and food system workers.
  • Empower the USDA to more proactively address food insecurity throughout the country.
  • Provide reparations for black and indigenous farmers.
  • Make government-owned farmland available to farmers who are just starting out.

Green Infrastructure, Public Lands, and the Environment:

  • Establish a new Civilian Conservation Corps with sufficient funding to pay workers to restore natural ecosystems all over the country.
  • Create thousands of new jobs building and maintaining green and climate-resilient infrastructure.

Regulations, Innovation, and Public Investment:

  • Capitalize a national green investment bank to provide low or no-interest loans for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects (with at least $100 billion to start).
  • Require large corporations receiving bailouts to use funds to maintain their payroll, provide a $15 minimum wage to all employees within one year, establish a 10-year plan for dramatically reducing their carbon emissions, and continue to honor collective bargaining agreements.
  • Ensure all federal procurement and permitting decisions align with the goal of limiting global warming to as close to 1.5°C as possible.
  • Elevate the administrators of the EPA and NOAA to full Cabinet Secretary status.
  • Double the budgets for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy and its Office of Science. Increase funding for the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency 100-fold.
  • Enable communities to invest in low-carbon infrastructure through state-owned public banks.

Green Foreign Policy:

  • Expand international cooperation on climate change.
  • Expedite aid packages, including green technology transfers, to low-income countries, which did little to cause the climate crisis but are often the most vulnerable to its impacts.
  • Negotiate fair trade agreements that “are centered on worker and environmental protections and (where applicable) include indigenous consultation.”
  • Classify food security as a core national security issue.
  • Work diplomatically to end funding of fossil fuel infrastructure all over the world.
  • Increase U.S. contributions to the international Green Climate Fund.

Share Your Vision!

Juniper Springs Waterwheel

Millhouse waterwheel at Juniper Springs, Florida, built by the Civilian Conversation Corps in the 1930’s.

If you’re like me, even this partial list of what ifs stretches the limits of your imagination. However, many more inspiring and impactful proposals could surely be added. One I’m particularly fond of is expanding the idea of a new Civilian Conservation Corps to include widespread partnerships with Transition and other community resilience initiatives to install solar arrays and retrofit buildings for maximum efficiency, set up large-scale rainwater harvesting and composting systems, organize volunteers to design and plant edible gardens, train farmers and establish new regenerative farming enterprises, reweave local and regional food distribution networks, provide investment as well as marketing and technical assistance for local social enterprises, coordinate mutual aid networks, and facilitate programs like Transition Streets and Ready Together to boost household and neighborhood sustainability, resilience, and emergency preparedness.

While some groups may be ready to scale-up now, others are not. As one of the authors of the Green Stimulus Letter, J. Mijin Cha, observed about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2008 in her recent interview with CityLab: “I think ARRA showed how antiquated a lot of the programmatic infrastructure is. For instance, they tried to ramp up the weatherization program, but it could not handle that infusion of cash, just in terms of their basic infrastructure.”

The moral of this story is that all of us need to start preparing now to be ready when these opportunities arise. Fortunately, we can start very simply by opening our minds a little wider to the possibilities of “what if.” As Rob Hopkins recently said to me:

The thing that’s fascinating to me about the coronavirus is we’ve been saying for years: ‘How about this? How about that?’ And we’re always being told that we’re being naïve – that it’s not possible and we’re being ridiculous. But in the past two weeks, some of these things have become a reality. I’ve been talking to a friend of mine who lives in London under a flight path, where they normally have a plane going over every 50 seconds all day long, and now the skies are blue and there’s no planes. And he said: ‘If you told me a few months ago that this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed you.’ […] There’s that bit we brought into the Transition Movement at the start. All the resilience literature at that time was about bouncing back to where you were before, and we’ve always said: ‘It’s not about bouncing back to where we were before, it’s about bouncing forward to somewhere better.’ And that was never really truer than now.

So I’d like to encourage you to take some time while we’re all still stuck at home to maybe stroll out into nature and just dream by yourself for a little while about all of the what ifs you’d like to see come true in our world. Then, if you’re willing to share part or all of your vision with others, please email a short video, image, or story to to be included in our forthcoming campaign exploring “From What Is to What If.” Throughout this campaign, Transition US will share the most compelling visions and stories we receive on our website, through our mailing list, on social media, and with some of our closest partners. We may even end up incorporating some of these submissions into a webinar series, podcast, documentary film, or book, similar to the 10 Stories of Transition in the US we published last year (which is now free to read online, purchase in print, or download by donation).

For those ready to put their what ifs into action, there many excellent organizations that can help you get started. Of course, this includes Transition US and our national network of 169 official local initiatives, regional hubs, and national working groups, but there are many others as well. A few of my personal favorites are the international Transition NetworkSlow Food InternationalSlow Money, the New Economy Coalition, the U.S. Solidarity Economy NetworkCommon FutureMovement Generation, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sunrise, the Thriving Resilient Communities Collaboratory, the Permaculture Institute of North AmericaPost Carbon InstituteShareable, and the Foundation for Intentional Community. Together with these organizations and countless others, we are building a movement for community resilience that is big enough to matter and impossible to ignore.

Though many of our ideas may seem “impossible” now, history shows us again and again that today’s “what ifs” can become tomorrow’s “what is” during a time of crisis – but only if we take them seriously enough and put in the work that’s necessary to bring them to fruition. Whether or not we get a green stimulus or Green New Deal from our federal government soon, we still need to continue building community resilience, pushing back against injustice wherever we find it, and mitigating the impacts of climate change the best we can with the resources we have available. While receiving this kind of support would certainly enable our work to be scaled-up much faster, perhaps the biggest what if question we should be asking ourselves right now is: what happens if we don’t?

Don Hall

Don Hall is Executive Director of Transition US and the author of the forthcoming book The Regeneration Handbook: Transform Yourself to Transform Your World.

Tags: Green New Deal, imagination, new economy, social change, Transition movement