INTERVIEW with Rob Hopkins. In his latest book, the founder of the Transition movement passionately puts imagination back at the heart of his approach to ecological transition and resilience. What if imagination is the missing element we need to move beyond the status quo and embody an authentic transition?
Resilience is the current buzzword for any local, place-based project or initiative. But is resilience being put to good use by decision-makers? What does it say about our political trajectory?
Rob Hopkins: In recent years, resilience has been gradually adopted by large companies and governments, to the point of losing its original radicality. As it is used most of the time, the concept does not fundamentally challenge the assumptions underlying established systems.
Take the example of Barcelona, which is a member of the 100 Resilient Cities of the Rockefeller Foundation. I have seen the case of one of these cities addressing resilience only according to environmental and climate related risks such as flood risks, while making no connections in terms of food, urban agriculture or local energy projects. The concept of resilience then answers the question: how do we protect the status quo? When committed to the current paradigm, it is similar to asking how to protect Wall Street from flooding…or how to plant green roofs on Amazon buildings. “Business as usual”.
However, you are using the concept of resilience yourself. What is resilience to you?
R. H.: When I published my first book, The Transition Handbook (2008), I was fascinated by resilience. The term seemed more useful to me than the concept of sustainability. Resilience was about learning by observing how natural and human systems adapt to shocks, and replicating these models. But many publications tackling the concept of resilience were based on the idea of “bouncing back”. In the Transition movement, we saw resilience as a way of “bouncing forward”. We wanted to use the anticipation of these shocks to design different and better systems.
Resilience and transition are intertwined. Resilience is a useful way to articulate what we are trying to transition towards. It is a fundamental way of looking at where we want to get to, and what we want that somewhere to be like. Also, resilience is useful to look at what is around us. Which systems are resilient in the face of shocks? Our food systems? Our schools? Our economy? Our energy system? It also allows us to imagine scenarios for mitigating climate change. If it is still possible to remain below a 1.5°C warming, this requires a deep rethinking and reconstruction of all our systems. It echoes what Naomi Klein claims on this subject: “There are no non-radical options left before us”. Above all, resilience invites us to think of cities as complex ecosystems of relationships and resources. How can we connect the city to the land around it? Who will grow the food? With what education system? We need to train engineers, architects and all the people who will participate in solving the climate and ecological emergency. Only then is resilience considered and used with an imaginative and proactive approach. And it becomes exciting.
Resilience is also underpinned by our relationship to vulnerability. How can we overcome it?
R. H.: When we live on a planet where, in the course of a lifetime, 70% of creatures and species will have disappeared, feeling a deep sense of anxiety and despair is sometimes the natural response. Collapsologists may well be right and for some people it is a powerful way of looking at things. In Buddhism, for example, the first of the Four Noble Truths states that there will be suffering, that we live in a world of impermanence. It teaches us to live with the awareness that the world around us is deeply fragile. And at the same time, if collapse is the only possibility we can see, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For me, it is still possible to create something extraordinary and phenomenal if we bring enough imagination, power and work into it. Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 didn’t say: “I have a dream that one day… but it’s probably too late, and we don’t want any inconveniences.” We need stories that bring people together and let us imagine a profoundly different world. But how do we create longing for this future? That is the proper question. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, decades of imagination and desire to go to the moon had preceded before a team whose average age was 26, and who started from almost zero, achieved it in just 10 years. Accordingly, the writer and poet Reiner Maria Rilke teaches us that the future must enter you long before it happens. What must come first is envy, desire.
You advocate for reconsidering the power of imagination. Why do we lack imagination? And why do we need to nurture it?
R. H.: Reading a lot of authors that I admire, like Bill McKibben or Naomi Klein, I realised that our approach to climate change is a failure of imagination. I like to define imagination as the ability to see things as if they could be otherwise. In society, in political conversations, at school or university, imagination is drastically shrinking. This is very dangerous; imagination is like a muscle we have to exercise. When I work with groups, I do a lot of exercises based on imagination, especially with the “what if” tool. There are so many movements whose stories are “it is too late now” or “we have failed”… But what if we succeeded in the next ten years? I invite the transition groups I work with to imagine what the future would look like. How does it feel? What do you see, what do you feel, what do you hear? What do you do or eat in this future? Then we can imagine the questions and values that made that future possible. It is important to do this before discussing resilience and transition, because it teaches us to be much more mentally flexible in addressing it.
A lot of transition movements depict a future of degrowth. How can such a future be desired? What does it mean for society?
R. H.: One of the criticisms that some people make is that we want to go back and take people back to living in caves. My answer is this: if you want a guaranteed way of going back, of entering a dark era of famines and social troubles, then don’t do anything. We live in a constrained world, but it doesn’t mean we can’t look beyond! On the contrary, a wonderful aspect of imagination is that it develops best when it has limits. So yes, imagining different systems means having less. Less anxiety, less stress, less material things and energetic abundance. But it also means having more. More conviviality, more streets where children are playing, more meaningful work, more choice. Economically, I am a great believer in the idea of a universal basic income as it gives people the space they need and reduce inequalities. In Grande-Synthe, for example, the transition was designed around the question: “How can this be at the service of the poorest?”. Again, it is a matter of imagination.
Based on your practical experience of transition, what roles can networks, transition groups and local organisations play?
R. H.: In a society suffering from an epidemic of loneliness and anxiety, networks are the first vector of resilience. The Covid pandemic uncovered it; in the Transition movement, a lot of people shared stories telling how their projects and networks had been so much more important during these times. In times of shock, it turns out the communities with the most social connections are the most resilient ones. And this is where the transition begins.
Nonetheless, transition movements are not the only thing we need. In a nutshell, we need international agreements, we need businesses profoundly changing what they are and what they do. We need governments to create the enabling framework, mayors and municipalities to be doing the same and, whenever possible, resourcing and equipping communities to be the people who deliver the transition and to be telling a really clear and consistent narrative about resilience, about imagination.
Mayors are an important political figure in France and hold a rather specific position. Could they have a more proactive role in transition movements?
R. H.: When we designed the transition movement, it was a toolbox for communities that wanted to start from where they were, without waiting for permission from their local government. This was the model for the first ten years. But whilst mayors have very little power in the UK, this is not the case everywhere else in Europe, starting with France. This is one of the reasons why the Transition movement has set up ‘Municipalities in Transition’, an international project that tries to explore the connections between communities and municipalities. If we want to move forward at the right speed, it is essential to have aligned mayors. Many examples show that the mayor’s actions can be decisive like in Grande-Synthe with Damien Carême or Ungersheim with Jean-Claude Mensch.
But transition is not a linear process. Transition is like inoculating with a micro culture: you can’t predict where it spreads, and it will fruit in some places you don’t expect. In the transition movement, we are happily exploring those edges, those areas of uncertainty and are comfortable with polarity. We need to trust where transition leads us. The city of Liège is a good example of how these initiatives are developing. They started seven years ago with a big question: what if, in a generation, the majority of the food consumed in the city came from the area closest to the city? They now have 25 new cooperatives, a local currency, and have raised €5 million in investment from the people of Liège. It started with a small local transition group before being claimed by the mayor, who now says: “This is the history of the city. We wanted to be a smart city, now we want to be a transition city.”
At Ouishare, we interact with decision-makers, public and private, and with a variety of people capable of taking action. If you had a message to share with them, what would it be?
R. H.: Which side of history do you want to be on? How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be one of those people who seize opportunities and are not paralyzed by the fear of a belief that nothing can change? This is a time that calls for you to be visionary, bright, courageous and create the future your grandchildren will thank you for. What the world needs more than anything now is stories of people in positions of power responding with guts, courage and integrity and sharing those stories.
Teaser photo credit: Transition Liège poster.