On Tuesday I was a keynote speaker at the Philippe de Woot Award Ceremony organised by UCLouvain in Belgium. The award gives a prize to the best dissertation written on the subject of corporate social responsibility. This year’s event was online, and I was the keynote speaker. Usually when I do talks I don’t write them down first, but this time I had to, so I thought I would share it with you. The full transcript is below…
It is a huge honour for me to be invited to give this address at this award ceremony in honour of Philippe de Woot. I would like to offer my deepest and most heartfelt congratulations to this year’s winner Line for her amazing work, and to the other finalists too. My son has spent time working in refugee camps in Greece so her project really touched me personally.
I would like to use my time here with you today to talk about two things which I imagine aren’t discussed too often at awards ceremonies such as this, and I feel have been tragically ignored and overlooked yet which are utterly vital to our future – the human imagination, and the cultivation of longing.
My work over the past 15 years, founding, supporting and networking the Transition movement, has focused on the climate and ecological emergency, by far the gravest threat humanity faces, and the solutions to that that can be initiated by communities themselves, what you, and I, and our neighbours could do if we were able to harness the resources, the skills, the dynamism that is all around us.
I don’t for a moment want to suggest that that is all we need – we of course need bold international action, (which suddenly feels a lot more possible than it did even a week ago!), governments acting with vision and purpose, individual lifestyle changes, businesses acting with integrity and a willingness to reimagine everything, but the community part is vital because it can do things those other actors can’t – they can move faster, and they can tell the stories of possibility that can spark change at all the other levels.
I recently took part in a webinar with one of my great ‘She-roes’, the poet Dominique Christina, who was talking about how her childhood had shaped her imagination. She said that her upbringing had allowed her “to realise how possible I am”, which I loved, and which is rather like what the Transition movement, the movement I have worked to support for many years now, is trying to do in thousands of communities in 50 countries, including some amazing work being done there in Liege, on your doorstep.
I have come to see, from so many years of doing that work, that essential to our successful navigation of the next 10 years in a way that the science demands us to is our ability to become infinitely more skilful at the creation of longing.
‘Longing’. A strange word to use in relation to the climate emergency and at an award ceremony like this? Let me explain. I feel as though in 2020 we are standing at the top of a huge mountain. The views from here are more spectacular than anyone has ever seen before. Beneath our feet is more carbon, more debt, more anxiety, more inequality, more plastic, than we’ve ever stood on top of before. The guides at our side who know this mountain are telling us that it is time to get down. They are pointing to the gathering dark storm clouds and passionately arguing that we need to make a rapid descent from this peak.
For some of us, that’s enough. Our guides are the experts after all! But for many people that doesn’t seem to be working. Pointing out to them just how very dark those clouds are looking seems to have no effect. I feel like perhaps a more skilful approach, and one we usually overlook, is to tell the stories of the warm welcome that awaits us in the villages of the lower slopes of this mountain. Of the food, the drink, the warm firesides, the conviviality, the new friendships, the comfortable beds, the dry, fresh socks that will welcome our arrival. How, in essence, do we create longing for a low carbon future, a longing so intense that our lives would thereafter be a profound disappointment if we don’t reach those valleys, relax at those metaphorical firesides?
As Antoine de Saint-Exupery so poetically captured it:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
That, I feel, is our task.
Or, another way of thinking about it would be Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon in 1969. Going to the Moon wasn’t Armstrong’s idea. It wasn’t even JFK’s idea when he announced the Moon mission in 1960. We had been going to the Moon for decades before then. Tintin went to the Moon. Frank Sinatra sang us to the Moon. By the time JFK made his announcement, we had been there hundreds and hundreds of times in songs, stories, cartoons, films…. They had created such a profound collective longing to go to the Moon, that it became inevitable that we would, and that we would overcome any obstacle to doing so.
It meant that we were able to do it, from scratch, in just 8 years. And that the average age of the team who got us there was 26. We had created the longing. It was a longing created not by graphs, by statistics, by policy, but by storytelling and imagination.
So much of my work is about creating longing for that low carbon world. It is the place where art meets activism. It is the place where communities start amazing, bold new social enterprises, which larger corporations could never have dreamt of. It is the place where we dream big. Longing is vital, but rarely spoken of.
And imagination? Why do we need to talk about imagination? Surely imagination is a bit of a luxury, a frivolous thing that kids do, a distraction from the ‘real work’?
We need imagination because, as Ursula Le Guin, one of the great guardians of our collective imagination, once put it:
“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal … We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom.”
The imagination is radical. It is the only way to get us beyond what is and to get us to what if. It can get us beyond business as usual, beyond what is in front of us. In the UK, and quite possibly elsewhere, Margaret Thatcher so powerfully convinced us ‘There Is No Alternative’ and those words sank deep into our collective psyche. Imagination allows us to feed into what comes next.
Climate activist and writer Naomi Klein has written that “there are no non-radical solutions left”. We have left it too late. To have any chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees increase on pre-industrial levels, we need to cut our carbon emissions by around 10% a year. That has never happened before.
Mariame Kaba, one of the great voices of the prison abolition movement in the US, captures our challenge beautifully, “we have to imagine while we build. Always both”. And yet I fear that we are creating the very worst possible conditions for the imagination at the very worst time in history to be doing so, a kind of Perfect Storm of Disimagination. Our imagination muscle which should be tight and well-honed, is flaccid and weak.
The factors that erode the imagination are many. We spend less and less time in nature. Our children play far less than they used to. We are living in an age of anxiety, trauma and loneliness, which we know contracts the imagination. Economic inequality and systemic racism all undermine the imagination. As black activist Adrienne Maree Brown puts it, “we are living in the ancestral imagination of others, with their longing for safety and abundance, a longing that didn’t include us”. Our education system has all but designed imagination and play out of its curriculum. And so on. And so on.
This deterioration has taken place over many years. We recognise that if a population doesn’t get a good and nutritious diet, it will see a rise in otherwise preventable illnesses. We recognise that if we don’t have a good education system, a population will be unable to reach its full potential. And yet just out of our field of vision, our collective imagination, our ability to, as educationalist John Dewey put it, “imagine things as if they could be otherwise”, is in decline, and that really really matters.
So what can we do? How might we best create a world in which the kind of brilliant imaginative ideas captured in our finalists today, and in movements and visionaries around the world, can flourish and become the new reality?
I would like to offer a challenge to everyone at this wonderful event this evening, everyone listening to it now, or later. What might you do to create the best conditions, in the areas over which you have influence, for the flourishing of the imagination? I spoke recently to someone who is the head of a local authority here in the UK. At the end of a workshop I ran with them on imagination, she said to me “I think we have forgotten how to say yes”. I found that very moving and very powerful. So many organisations have similarly lost that ability, and at the very worst time possible in history for that to be that case.
I would like to tell you a story. I was in Germany just before the first lockdown, invited by the large international outdoor clothing company. They invited me because they had realised, as an organisation, that while being recognised as one of the world’s most ‘sustainable’ companies, who have pioneered good practice and who do amazing work supporting environmental campaigners around the world, they were not, in their daily actions, acting as though this is a climate and ecological emergency.
On the first evening we did lots of exercises and activities together, and the next day, we did an exercise I called ‘The Walk of What If’. I divided them into groups of 6 and together they went out for a walk in the snow and the mountains where we were based. The invitation was to come up with as many ‘What If’ questions they could in response to the overarching What If question “what if, in everything that it did, this company were to act as though this was a climate and ecological emergency?”
There were though, I told them, just two rules. The first was that they were not to feel constrained by ‘What Is’, such as current budgets or development plans, rather to think big and bold and ambitious. The second was that when someone suggested a What If question, no-one was allowed to respond by saying ‘yes, but’, only ‘yes, and’. ‘Yes, but’ is where good ideas go to die. Those two words shut down possibility. You will all have encountered it when you suggest good ideas: “yes, but it’s too late/too idealistic/too expensive/just not possible”.
Yes and, on the other hand, opens up possibilities. I learned it from studying theatrical improvisation. Someone makes a suggestion, inviting the other person to build on their idea. One person might say “what do you think of my hat?”, even though they clearly aren’t wearing one. ‘Yes but … you’re not wearing one” would shut down any further creativity. Saying “yes and it’s amazing… what does that handle on the side do?” opens up further explorations, and trust between the actors. ‘Yes and’ takes us to places that could only have arisen through the trust and co-operation of those involved.
So our friends headed out into the snow, suggesting What If questions that were then met with Yes And responses. After an hour they came back in an almost altered state of consciousness. It was quite something! And they returned with armfuls of What If questions. By the end of the day we had taken several of those ideas and worked them up into initiatives the company could initiate tomorrow. I was left with a profound sense of how different it feels when we create a culture of ‘Yes, and’, and of what it would be like to live in a ‘Yes, and’ world.
To you, as organisations, and as people who can influence organisations and help them to become more imaginative, I have a few What If questions you might like to consider:
- What if you became an organisation that said yes more often and more enthusiastically?
- What if you declared a climate and ecological emergency, and rather than that being somehow limiting, you saw it as the opportunity for previously unimaginable creativity and possibility? What if our universities taught all their courses, whether economics, or engineering, or entrepreneurship, through that lens?
- What if you sought to create the ideal conditions for the imagination to flourish within your organisation?
- What if you then made pacts, agreements to ensure those ideas became a reality, in effect meeting the imagination halfway?
- What if the primary purpose of your organisation was to create deep longing for a low carbon future?
- What if the next 10 years actually turned out OK? What if they were 10 years of the most profound, exquisite and delicious change, and they were remembered as the years of a Revolution of the Imagination? What if we actually did this?
And most importantly, whether it’s in your own life, or within the culture of your organisation, make space. Make space. The imagination needs space. And right now it is starved of it. Albert Einstein always said his best ideas came to him when he rode his bicycle in the forest. Yet for so many people there is no space, no time for daydreaming. The CEO of Netflix recently said he regarded the main competitor to his business as being “sleep”. Make space.
I would like to thank you for inviting me here today. I feel, from the little I know about Monsieur de Woot, that he would have approved of these ideas. Corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, underpinned by a well-nourished, well-exercised and valued imagination, is a wonderful, and deeply-needed thing.
I want to close by reassuring you that I have visited many hundreds of communities who are doing this work, building new economies, new energy systems, new food infrastructures, new community connections, working in different ways to expand the collective sense of what’s possible. I travel to them all by train, having given up flying in 2006 as being an activity utterly incompatible with being a climate activist.
These communities wait for no-one’s permission, and they create amazing things. No-one has ever complained to me of feeling less empowered, less connected, less alive. The best thing about the imagination is that it feels great. We feel more alive, more present, more vital.
The final thought I want to leave you with comes from US climate change journalist Eric Holthaus, who wrote in an article last week, “All this probably feels radical right now. In 2025, it won’t”.
Thank you. Power to the Imagination.