Monday, May 04, 2020

From What Is to What If?

From What Is to What If / Rob Hopkins
White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, c2019
228 p.
This is an uplifting and encouraging book to read in these troubled times. It's an examination of imagination and its role in changing our future together.

There are some disturbing facts in this book: imagination has declined over the past few decades as societies seem to squeeze it out of the education system on purpose. Also, imagination suffers when people are in survival mode, worried about income and stability and so forth -- like our society leaves most of us much of the time. And finally, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduces our ability for creative thinking; we are hamstringing ourselves at trying to find a solution to problems that we are causing, and making it harder on ourselves to see a way out at the same time. 

But there is possibility as well. Hopkins points out that dystopian futures are kind of the default for our creative output; it's easier and a bit lazy to default to terrible things. Also, there is a human instinct to be fascinated by disaster. However, if we can exercise our imagination and envision possibilities for the future, if we can live in a better future for even a few minutes in our minds, it is far likelier that we will experience hope and a belief in a better world.

The author is a founder of Transition Towns, a movement to more resilient and livable communities, and many examples are given here about how the transition process fosters imaginative community input into the direct environment of a transition town. From food growing and coops to art-based activities, the focus is on life, nature, and the greater good, not just economic development and urban sprawl. If you're interested in learning more about this process, there is a map on their website showing transition towns near you, and also a great toolkit on how to get started

In any case, this book is a great read. It shares successful examples of how communities are making small, local change that is having an impact of community health and resilience -- letting people feel engaged and connected to their communities, allowing people to form connections and feel some agency over their daily lives. And it really focuses on the importance of imagination -- not simply creativity or innovation, which have both been slightly co-opted by business, to refer only to ideas that can be monetized. But imagination, that free-wheeling ability to project yourself into a potential future and throw out a line to help you get there. If you can't picture anything but the current daily grind and the misery that is sure to come, according to most media, then you can't make it happen. The key is to nurture and encourage that "What If?" and "Why not?" thinking.

I think it's very useful to engage with these kind of ideas, and start to think more widely and with more possibility -- What If?

We need to nurture our imaginations, and our ability to create and envision new and resilient actions in the face of climate change and business as usual. This crisis we are all going through now is only one part of the crisis we are facing. Reading this book made me less despondent about the world in general, and it gives both inspiration and practical advice on how to make change. I recommend it, and wish that all those with any power in the world, political or financial, would read it too and take it to heart.

You can listen to a lengthy talk about the book and its ideas below, if you are interested in learning more. 


  1. This sounds like a fantastic read for these times, indeed! It's also a phrase that my partner and I adopted early on, with his kids and my step-kids, asking "what if?" and seeing where conversations went. We repeated it so often that in another family it might have been called a prayer!

    1. What a lovely thought to use this phrase as a family 'prayer'. This book has helped sustain me right now.

  2. This book sounds truly inspirational. Thank you for your wonderful review. The Neil Gaiman quotation is perfect.


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