expectations, as we were swept up in positive change we could never have imagined, while on the other hand, so many problems – big and small – seem so intractable, even when we apply our most rigorous thinking to them. As I was thinking about this, I stumbled on a paper by Kyung Hee Kim, a researcher at William & Mary School of Education in Williamsburg, Virginia. Analysing more than 250,000 participants between kindergarten and adulthood from the late 1960s to the present, Kim found that while creative thinking and IQ rose concomitantly until 1990, at some point between 1990 and 1998 they parted ways, with creative thinking heading into a steady and persistent decline. She attributed the decline to children’s having less time to play, more time spent on electronic devices, greater emphasis on standardised testing, and a lack of free time for “reflective abstraction”. Her findings were picked up by Newsweek, and suddenly she was inundated with invitations to appear on radio and TV.
Bringing about the world we want to live in, the world we want to leave to our children, is, substantially, the work of the imagination
Kim’s comments and her findings prompted me to look more closely at my life and my community, and what I see people grappling with in the world. It seems as though most of us have less and less space to think creatively or imaginatively, if at all. Even the imaginations of people who work within the creative industries seem to be increasingly harnessed to create demand for things nobody really needs, the production of which is increasingly pushing our human and ecological systems to the brink of collapse – almost as if imagination had been coopted into the service of our own extinction.
But what if imagination were exactly what we need to prevent it?
There is a body of research to suggest that it is. Close your eyes, if you will, and imagine that you are holding a lemon in your hand. Feel its cool skin against your palm. See its bright yellow colour. Run your fingertips over its shiny, textured surface. Throw it up in the air and catch it, feeling its weight in your hand as it lands. Then, with your other hand, reach for a knife and cut the lemon in half. Pick up one half and slowly squeeze it into a glass, hearing the drops fall. Smell the aroma of the fresh lemon juice. As you squeeze the lemon, some of it squirts into your eye. When psychologists conduct this exercise, they often observe that, at this point, people wince, just as they would if they had actually squirted lemon juice into their eye. The human imagination is a powerful thing. It is not only about images and the ability to hold a picture in our mind. It is multisensory, encompassing smell, touch, sound, emotion and taste. It is more able to effect change than you might think. As we know from the field of positive psychology, imagining a certain outcome can increase the likelihood of its coming to pass.
In a 1995 study, Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard Medical School followed two groups of novices learning to play a sequence of notes on the piano. Each group practised for two hours a day for five days, but one group actually played the piano whereas the other sat at the piano and imagined playing it. After three days, members of each group had the same ability and showed similar changes in their brains, whether they had played the piano or not. After five days, members of the group that actually played were marginally more advanced, but members of the other group caught up quickly once they too were allowed to play.
I often wonder how future generations will perceive this moment in history: when newly discovered sea creatures in trenches 11km deep were found to have plastic in their stomachs. When society became dangerously polarised and we saw a resurgence of toxic ideas we thought had been consigned to history. When we lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis without changing the fundamental imbalances that make their occurrence almost inevitable. When bees and other insect populations collapsed because we were unable to adjust how we grew our food or to rein in pesticide companies. The missed opportunities when climate breakdown could have been averted if we hadn’t dithered and procrastinated.
In the course of writing my book, I interviewed nearly a hundred people. I discovered that there were people the world over asking questions, large and small, about how things could be otherwise in schools, in neighbourhoods, in our relationship to Nature, in our approach to health care, in how we spend our time and attention, even reimagining the economic and democratic realities of their cities and towns.
At every step I fell more and more in love with those two words ‘What if . . . ?’ What if we wasted a lot less energy and generated most of what we do use from renewable sources? What if we made refugees feel welcome and supported in their newly adopted homelands? What if we measured the economy with metrics other than how much bigger it is from one year to the next? What if we revived that capability, in great abundance, starting now?
This is an edited excerpt from Rob Hopkins’ book From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019).Rob Hopkins is cofounder of the Transition Town Network
Resurgence & Ecologist