Later, my children and I stroll home past houses painted with eye-catching murals and mosaics. There are lots of children playing in the streets, a phenomenon that occurred naturally once the number of cars on the road diminished, which in turn has encouraged residents to periodically close their streets entirely to motorised traffic so that children can play out; all the neighbours look out for the children, something made possible when adults began spending more time at home rather than trapped in long commutes to distant workplaces.
It sounds made up, doesn’t it? It is. Mostly. The story is my imagining of the near future, a story of How Things Turned Out OK.
Of course, this imaginary life isn’t perfect. It still rains, friends fall out, and people have bad days. Some impacts of climate change are still felt. And the vision is likely very different from what your story of How Things Turned Out OK would be. But I start with it because we live in a time bereft of such stories – stories of what life could look like if we were able to find a way over the course of the next 20 years to be bold, brilliant and decisive, to act in proportion to the challenges we are facing, and to aim for a future we actually feel good about.
I’ve come to believe that we desperately need stories like this, because if there is a consensus about anything in the world at this point, it seems to be that the future is going to be awful. Sadly, it seems far easier to imagine almost any dystopian scenario than the possibility that we might actually still have the competence to act, to create something else, to dig ourselves out of the many holes of our own making.
The message that it can’t be done is strong and pervasive. But something about that doesn’t sit quite right with me. In fact, there’s evidence that things can change, and that cultures can change, rapidly and unexpectedly. And that’s not just naive, pie-in-the-sky thinking. In How Did We Do That? The Possibility of Rapid Transition, Andrew Simms and Peter Newell tell the story of Iceland’s 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which sent fine dust into the sky that spread for thousands of miles and grounded most of the world’s planes. And then what happened? People adapted. Quickly. Supermarkets replaced air-freighted goods with local alternatives. People discovered other, slower ways to get around, or decided they didn’t really need to travel at all. Business meetings were held online. The Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, ran the Norwegian government from New York – with his iPad. This isn’t the only example. We might be focused these days on how we are only nine meals from anarchy, but there are stories from throughout history about how rapid transitions lead to ingenuity, flourishing, imagination and togetherness.
I’ve seen this with my own eyes, thanks to an experiment a few friends and I initiated in 2006 in our hometown of Totnes in Devon, England (population 8,500). Our idea was a simple one. What if, we wondered, the change we need to see in response to the biggest challenges of our time came, not from government and business, but from you and me, from communities working together? What if the answers were to be found, not in the bleak solitude of survivalism and isolation, in the tweaking of ruthless commercialism, or in the dream that some electable saviour will come riding to our rescue, but rather in reconnection to community? “If we wait for governments,” we declared, “it will be too late. If we act as individuals, it will be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, and it might just be in time.”
Part of the beauty of Transition is that it’s all an experiment. I don’t know how to do it. Neither do you. In Totnes, we were just trying to spark something that might unlock a creative spirit, a renewed sense of possibility, a fresh and hopeful way to think about the future, without any thought that it could spread to other places. But spread it did. Within a year, Transition groups started popping up in communities in the United States, Italy, France, Japan, Holland and Brazil. The Transition movement now exists in 50 countries and in thousands of communities. Every group is different, and emerges from the spirit and culture of the place. It’s a process that, from the outset, has invited and supported people’s creativity and imagination. It has also profoundly affected how I think about our world’s biggest problems.
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, or what educational reformer John Dewey described as “the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise”. It seems a lot of people are reaching a similar conclusion. In 2009 Paolo Lugari, founder of the Colombian sustainable living experiment Gaviotas, wrote: “We are not confronting an energy crisis, but one of imagination and enthusiasm.” In 2016 the writer Amitav Ghosh described climate change as “a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination”. A year later journalist George Monbiot wrote: “Political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination.” In 2018 David WallaceWells wrote, in relation to climate change, “We suffer from an incredible failure of imagination.”
And yet nobody seems able to explain why our imaginations are failing us so spectacularly. Why are we incapable of coming together to create, sustain and carry out a vision in which we capably address global crises and enjoy our lives more in the process? It seems as though we are becoming less imaginative at the very time in history when we need to be at our most imaginative.
24 Resurgence & Ecologist