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Q&A with Rob HopkinsLiz Jensen

Rob Hopkins
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Rob Hopkins is an environmental activist and writer based in Totnes in Devon, and the founder and figurehead of the Transition movement, which he initiated
in 2005. He hosts the popular From What If to What Next podcast and has written six books on environmentalism and activism, including From What If to What Next: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want.

Support Rob’s podcast at and visit his site:

First, have the dream. Then make it happen.


In conversation with Liz Jensen, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transitions Movement and author of What If to What Next: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want discusses the power of the imagination and how stories can frame the future we want, rather than the one we risk inheriting. 


Liz Jensen: One of the things I love about your book and your work with Transition communities is your determination to showcase the many options, big and small, that defy what many see as an inescapable calamity. I have heard you cite the African-American prison abolition activist Mariame Kaba, who says: “we live in a system that has been locked into a false sense of inevitability.” Can you talk about how that applies to the ecological crisis, and how what seems inevitable need not be?

Rob Hopkins: Again and again we hear the plans of oil and gas company executives unable to imagine a future in which their companies, supposedly so flexible and ingenious, are doing anything other than extracting oil and gas for the foreseeable future. Likewise with financial institutions, unable to imagine anything other than carrying on doing what they’ve always done, funding oil and gas investments, insuring big fossil fuel projects. Or the transport departments who never make the space to really imagine a world beyond private car ownership. I worry that our epitaph as a civilisation may end up being “Really? It wasn’t that hard!” Did we really tip over into runaway climate change and collapse because the imaginations of the rich and powerful (it is, after all, they who are responsible for this mess) became so impoverished and desiccated that they were unable to see beyond how things are?

My favourite definition of imagination is that it is the “ability to see things as if they could be otherwise”. Assuming that collapse is inevitable can paralyse our capacity to act, and I feel that any storytelling that shuts down that possibility is irresponsible. Rather, I feel we need to hold to the words of the author Patrick Ness, “stories are the wildest things of all”, and we need to be the ones who tell those stories. Our great task today is to use imagination, art, storytelling, poetry, music, street art, performance, to cultivate a longing for a post carbon future. The poet Rilke once wrote “The future must enter you long before it happens”. I feel that needs to be a foundation for our activism.


LJ: In From What If to What Next you are clear that imagination is vital to our health, and seek out people and communities which embody imaginative thinking. Why did you begin this journey? How has it changed you, and do you ever find your faith faltering?

RH: I kept reading climate activists and writers who I really admire, like Amitav Ghosh, Bill McKibben, George Monbiot, who would say “climate change is a failure of the imagination”. It intrigued me. It got under my skin, this idea that our collective imagination might be dwindling at the very time when our survival depends on our ability to reimagine everything: food, energy, education, economics, housing, etc, because our very survival depends upon it. I set out for two years to explore it, interviewed over one hundred people, visited projects, read everything I could find on the subject (it’s amazing the diversity of the things people suggest you read when you tell them you are writing a book about imagination!). It felt more and more compelling to me, the idea that we have created what Henry Giroux calls a ‘Disimagination Machine’ at the worst possible time in history.

Personally, it has changed my activism and my work. The talks I do are now far more interactive, far more workshoppy, I use a lot of activities I learned from improv, we play games, I invite people to time travel, I tell more stories. When you ask about my faith faltering, it depends – in relation to what? My faith that change on the scale necessary will come from our current political parties and from governments expired long ago. But my faith that people’s movements, community-led change, regional organisation, new economy businesses, enlightened local governments can move mountains continues to grow by the day.


LJ: Community is at the heart of your work, but are there some restorative tasks that can only be done by the individual psyche?  

RH: Sure. Imagination is something best done with other people, but nurturing our own imaginations is vital too. There is great research on the impacts of yoga, meditation, dance, and other physical practices on the imagination. Spending more time outdoors is also vital. Albert Einstein always said his best ideas came when he rode his bicycle in the forest. Personally, I garden, I draw, I do drypoint printmaking, I walk in the woods, I read books.

We also need to urgently reimagine our relationship to the highly addictive devices we all carry around in our pockets. In talks I ask people to imagine they are in the Yellow House in Arles in 1888, and Vincent Van Gogh comes in with a bunch of sunflowers, arranges them in an earthenware vase, sits back to look at them – then gets out his smartphone to check his Twitter, then his Instagram, his Facebook, his whatever, and then two hours later he’s watching videos of skateboarders falling down stairs but can’t even remember why he started watching those. If that had happened, those amazing sunflower paintings would never have happened. All art is distilled attention. As our attention spans are undermined, co-opted, stolen, our ability to evoke the intensity of imagination that finding our way out of the climate emergency requires is depleted, perhaps irretrievably.

What does it look like when a culture’s imagination collapses? Writing in 1958, William Walsh warned: “Meanness of understanding, ugliness of milieu, the attitudes of the robot, these are the characteristics of an age suffering from an anaemia of the imagination, the organ most vividly and ultimately concerned with life”. It was a premonition we would do well to heed.


LJ: The eco-philosopher Rupert Read uses the word “thrutopia” to describe a route forward which is neither utopic nor dystopian. What does thrutopianism mean for you, and can you give some examples of thrutopic initiatives?

RH: For me it points to the fact that one of the things we need most right now is the stories of how deeply transformative change, on the scale required, and in the timescales required, got started. We’re not talking about utopian works of fiction, but rather the stories of how ordinary folks today, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, stepped up and got started.

The most obvious example is Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry for the Future’. It’s a brave and ambitious book. But we need so so many more. Because it’s the stories of how people reimagined love and life and their worlds, families, livelihoods, their businesses, that we need now. How did the woman who ran a mining company reimagine it to be a recycling company? How did the guy who worked on an oil rig start a movement among other workers that led to the company completely reimagining itself? How did a headteacher turn her school into a showcase for Transition, a low carbon future? Those are the stories we need because they help us become un-stuck.

What I do in my work meeting with and supporting Transition groups is to collect those stories, the ones actually happening in the world today. In Wellington in Somerset, the Transition group started a small community garden on an allotment, which led to them then taking on an acre strip behind some houses to turn it into a forest garden. This then led to the Council asking them to take on an eight-acre piece of land to transform it, and now they’ve been asked to create a forty-acre green corridor around the town. But it all started with a group of motivated, possibly despairing, possibly angry people meeting and deciding to start doing something. We need the stories of those people, why they stepped up, who they met, what it sparked. That’s what thrutopianism is for me.


LJ: Fiction writers often struggle with how best to address the climate and ecological emergency in our work. It can feel too big, and too terrifying, to tackle head-on, and we worry about seeming didactic. Can you give some examples of fictional scenarios that you feel open readers’ minds to possibilities that they may never have considered?

RH: I think like all storytelling it’s about the people, and about their stories. I remember a woman who once contacted us at Transition Network from a town in Australia and said “I love Transition, but I live in a town where I am the only person who is interested in this stuff”. We said “are you sure? How do you know that?”  A month later she wrote to us to say she had put an ad in her local paper asking if anyone else would like to start a Transition group and she had 140 replies. She was so excited. What a great start for a story! Who did she meet? What did they do?

David Nobbs, who wrote The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, wrote a novel (his last actually) called ‘The Second Life of Sally Mottram’, which beautifully tells the story of a woman starting Transition in her community. The poet Matt Harvey and the composer Thomas Hewitt Jones are working on a musical called ‘SWIMBY the Musical’ (the term SWIMBY is one I coined to refer to ‘Something Wonderful In My Back Yard’, an alternative to ‘NIMBY’), which again tells the story of how this process got started.

I am often asked for a mainstream film that tells this kind of story. It’s a struggle. The best one I can think of is “Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Wererabbit”. All the houses are very energy efficient terraced homes, everyone rides bicycles, knits their own clothes and grows food in their own vegetable gardens. It’s not perfect, but it’s where I always start!


LJ: Many people of all ages, but especially the young, feel climate anxiety. On your podcast, From What If to What Next? you always begin by asking your guests to paint a picture of a particular aspect of the world in 2030. What can this form of mental time-travel do to alleviate our climate anxiety, and nudge us into a regenerative, hopeful mind-set?

RH: I feel if, as activists, we close the door on the possibility that our activism has any chance whatsoever of achieving its aims, then our work is futile and self-defeating. I refuse to gift to those in power who seem so determined to destroy everything my submission, the resignation of my pessimism. When I invite people to use my Time Machine to travel to 2030 I always tell them we are travelling to a 2030 that isn’t utopia, or dystopia, but rather the result of our having done everything we possibly could have done. It’s often a very moving experience for people. For me, this work is all about longing. If we don’t cultivate a longing for a low carbon future, it’s never going to happen. I hear from many people afterwards that allowing themselves to step into that future is a powerful and moving experience. People are often surprised by what they see, by the details they notice.

In terms of the podcast, it’s powerful because it allows you to step into the vision that particular activist has that gets them out of bed in the morning. Often we are nose-to-nose with the problem and can’t see beyond that. To step round that and to hear the vision of the future that that particular person is driven by and longs for is very powerful, and, I think, far more interesting to listen to than them ‘debating’ with someone who disagrees with them.


LJ: Now it’s your turn to enter the Time Machine, but this one is travelling as far as the next century. What do you see?

RH: I usually don’t set it that far ahead. I find when I do that that most people switch straight to apocalypse, huge sea level rise, catastrophe, ‘The Road’. It’s why we go ten years forward. A lot can change in ten years. Did you know it took ten years from Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus to civil rights legislation being passed in the US? Ten years from the first sanctions being imposed on South Africa to the new constitution being passed? Ten years from the first iPhone being released to the majority of people on Earth having smartphones? For me, let’s get there first, to that future that is the result of our having done everything we could possibly have done, and then press on from there. The imagination works best with limits, and that applies just as much to our time travelling I think!


Rob Hopkins is an environmental activist and writer based in Totnes in Devon, and the founder and figurehead of the Transition movement, which he initiated
in 2005. He hosts the popular From What If to What Next podcast and has written six books on environmentalism and activism, including From What If to What Next: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want.

Support Rob’s podcast at and visit his site: