Book Review: From What is to What If, by Rob Hopkins

Some books engage and challenge you both emotionally and intellectually, making you feel uncomfortable. You end up arguing with them in your head. A lot. From What is to What If is just such a book, and I really benefited from the argument.

In 180 sweetly written pages, Rob Hopkins, environmentalist and founder of the Transition Town movement, makes the case for a more human, tactile, emotionally engaged approach to bringing about change, a world away from the desiccated discussions of policy detail, return on investment and making incremental improvements within the status quo.

His key message is that we are ‘all frogs in the boiling pan of imaginative decline’, and unless we find ways to truly imagine a new world – see it, touch it, smell it – we will never be able to bring it about. ‘Imagination is so important because it helps us create longing, and if we get that right, other things then follow.’

Why is imagination in decline? A test-obsessed education system, the mental junk food spewed out by the internet, even increased CO2 levels are all invoked.

He then sets out a series of chapters covering different ways to rekindle the imagination – each a ‘What If’ question – what if we played more, promoted inclusive Arts, reconnected with nature, put our screens away (because our obsession with checking our social media feeds mean ‘we are forever elsewhere…. Always chasing to catch up with the present’. Ouch), became better story tellers (‘people don’t need new facts… they need a new story’).

Each chapter has a sprinkling of research to back up the claim (sometimes quite odd – ‘researcher Amie Gordon estimates that we experience awe once every three days’), and lots of grassroots examples of projects and campaigns to show that it can be done. He regularly acknowledges the need to tackle inclusion and inequality in these efforts.

So why my discomfort? Firstly, the amount of unexamined and unacknowledged assumptions sloshing about the book. Economic growth is bad, small businesses are good (especially cooperatives), big businesses are bad, national is bad, local is good, screens and social media are bad, meat is bad, meetings are good, fun is good (as long as it’s creative – vegging on the sofa in front of Netflix doesn’t qualify). It all sounds a bit exhausting, to be honest, and potentially, quite elitist (try getting elected on that platform).

And questionable – for Hopkins, there is an imagined community that is present, supportive and generally a great place to be (even if it can always be strengthened by the right kind of imagination). But communities are also riven with power hierarchies, prone to othering and exclusion and often the places people want to escape from.

Then there’s the politics. His theory of change appears to be something like unleashing the imagination → increased individual and community agency → lots of initiatives and projects that spread and may also convince politicians to get behind them. But political leaders generally have to be dragged into doing good things – he’s positive about deliberative democracy, citizens’ assemblies and of course, Preston, but the political mainstream sucks.

In the final chapter, he bravely asks himself a question that many such books avoid – what is the closest historical precedent for the kind of changes he is proposing? He lists the summer of 1968, the Arab Spring, Tiananmen Square and Occupy – moments of imagination, euphoria and intellectual ferment. But astonishingly, he never acknowledges, still less discusses, what else they had in common – they didn’t last, and their long-term impact is debatable. That seems an extraordinary oversight.

From What Is to What If has a clear purpose – to rekindle hope and imagination at a time when both are in horribly short supply. I get that, and found it uplifting. I’m convinced on the importance of telling positive stories, and getting away from the ‘bad shit; facty, facty’ school of campaigning. But while my heart rejoiced, my head had some problems with what was assumed and what was missing.

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