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Rob Hopkins:
what if?

Rob is a story-harvester, imagineer and sower of inspiration, who collects and shares the chronicles of communities who have dared to ask ‘What If?’ and dared to do things differently. He lives with a ‘make your own’ spirit, spending time with people who are cracking on and building the future they dream of. A future that will fast be upon us. Things will change very fast, he says; we need to be planning for it.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


I’ve come to a place which is very special to me, which is a field near my house, where I walk my dog most days. I always call it the buttercup field, because this, this summer in particular, it was just full of buttercups. It was like a vibrant yellow, you came up here at sunset, it was just one of the most beautiful places in the world. And, uh, from this point I can look across where I live in Dartington near Totnes. I can look all the way across to Dartmoor I can see Haytor, I have a sort of 180 degree view around of trees and fields. I said to someone the other day, I should (my kids call it dad joke), I said, I said, yeah, I should write a book about that field is so beautiful or the different colors of all the different grasses, I could call it 50 shades of hay. So, uh, yeah, and also just on the far end of the fields and down a bit, there is a road which for the last couple of months, you could come up here with the lockdown and it was perfectly quiet, but today’s the first day I’ve been here and I can really hear the traffic again. I come up here, as I say, most days I’ve seen it in snow, I’ve seen it in hail I’ve seen it in glorious, glorious sunshine, and it’s just gorgeous I can see a butterfly, I can see just, I can hear birds, I can hear sheep in the distance.  

Confusion is the state of promise, a fertile void where surprise is possible again. If we encounter a shock like COVID without imagination, without curiosity, without resilience, without space in our lives to think about things in such a way that they could be different to what they are. If our memory contains no inspiring examples and possibilities of people around the world doing things in a different way, then confusion is just confusion and confusion can be easily co-opted by demagogues and fascists and conspiracy theorists and all manner of Charlatans and hucksters, if that’s a word. But at its best when we are, when we have those things in place, then I think absolutely confusion is the state of promise. The beautiful thing about imagination is that it does continually surprise you. It’s very hard to be a very imaginative control freak I suspect because the surprise comes from letting go of what you expect to be the case. It’s the thing I’ve always felt with the transition movement is if we had tried to control it like a Coca-Cola franchise and been really prescriptive about it, it wouldn’t have flowered into the extraordinary thing that it has. And we wouldn’t have the regular things that are just really delightful and surprising that none of us would have expected, but they just pop up – oh, Hey, they’re doing this, hey they’re doing that, well, I didn’t know they were doing transition there. And that surprise comes because we kind of trust it and we let go. 

My sense about the future is that it is pretty bleak, really. If you just go off the science, the climate science, most of which is based around a kind of what happens if we don’t do anything scenario, but even if we did everything we possibly could do, the changes that we will see are pretty profoundly troubling, but if we do nothing, then they are apocalyptic, you know, but I also, when I try and sense into the future, because I spend so much time around seeing people who are doing something about it and organisations and groups and movements who are building, what comes next and trying to put new things in place, then, um, I also get the very strong sense that the future could be absolutely extraordinary. And I feel like we lose that, we lose sight of that too easily. And that if we were to do everything we possibly could do over the next 10 years, if we saw the next, if the next 10 years turned out to be a time of the most profound, extraordinary, uh, transformative change and shift in all aspects of culture, the process of creating that could absolutely be the making of us, it would be like living through a revolution of the imagination. The sense of possibility will be just phenomenal, it will be a time that people will look back to and be absolutely astounded by how extraordinary it was. You know, we’d, we’d be very sensible to plan for the worst in terms of climate change cause that seems to be what’s happening. So we need to be planning for rises in sea level and extreme weather episodes and intense periods of rain and intense periods of drought. And we need to be planning for the fact that we need to be welcoming a lot more people here than we are currently welcoming here. But I think we also need to be planning for the possibility that once this tips it could start to move incredibly quickly. And that once this becomes the norm, you know, I take a great deal of faith from looking at the, the vegan movement. Two of my kids are vegan, I’m almost. You know, in the 80s, veganism, everyone wore black and were very ill looking and angry. And, uh, and actually in 2020, they’re all gorgeous, and the food’s amazing and it’s really colourful. And you know, I meet so many people now who don’t drink milk anymore and who drink other things instead. And that’s happening within a really short period of time because somehow they’re kind of the, the something changed underneath. There was a tipping point somewhere that’s irreversible. I feel once we hit that point in terms of action on climate change, it could move really quickly. That’s the thing that we need to plan for as well, because all too often, we plan for the worst and it’s good that we do that, but what if we also planned for the best, uh, and we plan for the possibility that we might see a very, very different future in 10 years time as Eric Holthaus, the climate change writer wrote recently, something like, you know, if this seems radical in 2020, it won’t by 2025, things are going to change very, very quickly and we need to be planning for that too. 

And then there is on the other side upstairs, it’s basically a converted bungalow so there’s two rooms upstairs. There’s my son Finn’s bedroom, which is full of musical equipment and stuff because he has a big boxer and a rapper and he makes music. So that’s his room there. And then the last room I’m going to take you into is probably quite noisy because Finn is cooking and he’s got music on. So, uh, I don’t know if you can hear me above the music, Finn is cooking. That’s all right. So this is Finn and he’s cooking and you can hear the sound of his wok. 

When I was about 13, a friend of mine lent me his brother’s copy of Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols, which I bought home as if it was some kind of scandalous object as just completely blew my mind. And punk was a very important influence for me, that whole kind of do it yourself culture of, if you don’t like the music, make your own. If you don’t like the magazines, make your own. If you don’t like the record labels, make your own. I love that do it yourself kind of spirit and culture, it’s just fabulous. Permaculture was a very big influence to me I first, when I did my design course, I went to a talk with Bill Mollison, which was just phenomenal, the concept of earth repair that I found in permaculture was just profoundly extraordinary and really rewired my head hugely. Um, Buddhism particularly the concept of Bodhisattva, the kind of Bodhisattva ethic, the idea of living life in service to other people was a big, big influence to me. I’ve always been interested in change. I’ve always been moved by art and that kind of artists urge to look at things differently and to really look at things and really understand them, very influenced by Van Gough, the work of Van Gough, particularly his pen and ink drawings, which have been known to make me cry sometimes because they’re so beautiful. And so there’s a part of me that wants to make art and write writings that are so beautiful that they can make people cry, not anywhere near that yet at all. But hey, we will have to have things to aspire to. 

I would say to people, you know, when it, when it comes to imagining the future in different ways, for me, a lot of that is based on things that I’ve seen. So the thing that gives me a huge amount of push is visiting things and seeing things and meeting people and hearing the stories of people who are already doing just phenomenal things. If I visit people who are making change or hearing stories of change, that’s the stuff that really fires me up, it’s like, that’s the, that’s the paint in my paintbox with which I can then paint more vivid pictures for other people. I’m kind of a story harvester, is as much of my work is as much as anything gathering stories, hearing stories, trying to put stories out in ways that really touch people and fire people’s imagination. So I blame the Sex Pistols really, and Crass and some of those sort of early punk bands. There was a very influential thing at the time I think Scritti Politti who then went on to be really glitzy and stylish, their very first single had this sleeve that basically told you everything you needed to know to make a single like that one, where they got them printed, where they did the recording, how much it costs, where they mastered it, all of that, everything you needed to know. So you could just take that and then make your own record. And that spirit I love. And I guess, I guess a lot of my journey through has been trying to identify, trying to seek out things that have that sense to them. 

When I lived in Ireland and we were doing the ecovillage project, one of the guys who came there as a guest teacher was a man called Ianto Evans, who was a real pioneer from Oregon of cob building. He was one of the people who rediscovered cob building, cause nobody could remember how to do it, right. We had all these old cob houses all around here in Devon but nobody had a living memory of how these things were built. So they would take them to bits and try and figure it out but they didn’t really, didn’t really get it. He, he just started building and playing around with it and set up something called the Cob Cottage Company. He used to teach a session on the courses he ran at our place in Ireland that was called Foundations in 10 Minutes. He’d say, right, I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about putting the foundations, building foundations in 10 minutes, right. Start the clock, go. And he would rattle through everything you need to know. And that was it. And I loved that idea that we don’t have time to be messing around and, you know, studying soil science at university for three years before we can grow carrots, you know, we just need to distill what works, hand it on and get on with it. So that I guess is the spirit that do it yourself spirit, that sense of, yeah, I’m not that good at this, but I’m going to try anyway. I always love records that just about hanging together to the end and you wonder if they’re going to make it and they just about do. Um, and so I always look for that kind of spirit.  

I think I’m probably steered by a fairly heady cocktail of emotions really. I’ve always loved the, the Tibetan Buddhist notion of the Bodhisattva. You know, somebody who, whose work is underpinned by a compassionate, motivation and lives a life of service and dedication to support all beings. And I thought always, really ever since I read a book called The Way of the Shambala Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa when I was about 18, which I just loved that book, it was really, really transformative book for me. And, uh, yeah, so, so, uh, I’ve always been really underpinned by, I suppose, if compassion can be called an emotion and imagination that you know, a sense of what’s possible a story, a kind of longing, I guess that’s a word I would use that what I tried to cultivate in all the work that I do is a deep, deep, deep sense of longing in people for how the future could be different from from what we have today.  

I always put in all my books the people who inspired me to create that book. I always wear my influences very much on my sleeve. I always loved a record by DJ Shadow called Introducing where on the sleeve notes, he listed all of the people who inspired him to make that record and this almost one whole side. So I’m just going to read you the list of people who I put in the back of, from What Is To What If, as the people who, who find my own imagination during my life, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Sterling Morrison, Rebecca Solnit, Grayson Perry, Kim Gordon, Vincent Van Gogh, Tove Jansson, Chuck D, Matt Haynes, Claire Wadd, Fiona McIntyre, Bill Mollison, Mariame Kaba, David Holmgren, Sylvia Plath, Michael Shuman, Barbara Kingsolver, Albert Bates, Sasami, Mark E. Smith, Naomi Klein, Nils Frahm, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sir Ken Robinson, Mary Warnock, Quentin Blake…