Subtitle: Imagination taking power

‘From What Is to What If’ reviewed by Maddy Harland

This review can be found in the latest edition of Permaculture Magazine.

Rob Hopkins unleashed the power of community when he co-founded the Transition Movement in 2006. Its original premise was that peak oil and resource depletion are inevitable so let’s create resilient, abundant powered down systems to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Transition has made a wonderful contribution to the reduction of carbon for communities all over the world, but still the climate crisis has intensified.

Rob set himself the task of unravelling the complex factors that have prevented humanity as a whole seeing its inevitable demise if we continue with business as usual on our finite planet. Facing the climate crisis, can engender fear and powerlessness but that is not Rob’s style. Instead he applied himself to ask why do we, as a species, do so little to prevent inevitable species extinction? And what do we need to urgently do (because techno-fixes like carbon capture and storage or even rolling out 100% renewal technology globally and banning fossil fuels are not enough). The answer does not lie in the realm of doing but in how we think.

Many years ago Bill Mollison came up with a foundational permaculture principle: the yield of a system is theoretically unlimited or only limited by the imagination and information of the designer. In 2016, the writer Amitav Ghosh described climate change as ‘a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination’. George Monbiot added that ‘political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination.’ These and other thinkers prompted Rob to ask: why are our imaginations failing us so badly and what if we found ways of unleashing our imaginations once again? What would happen?

First he explores the world of outdoor play. As a kid that grew up in London yet was able to spend whole days damming the stream in the local park or hiding under weeping willows with my pals this paucity of play in our society resonates deeply. Rob explores various excellent projects that get children outside and away from digital technology, and the positive effects that this has across whole communities. He also articulates the terrifying nature of Big Brother technology and how it harvests information and shapes young minds into unconscious consumerism. It is a deadly cocktail of invasive data gathering that has scaled up into the political manipulation of whole nations via techniques used by companies like Cambridge Analytica.

After play comes health, both physical and mental, a vital subject in a world of escalating mental health problems in society. He looks at the role of creativity and art to heal and the devastating effects of poverty on our health and imagination. Austerity is not only cruel, poor nutrition, stress and injustice actually reduce the size of the hippocampus, the part of our brain that engenders attention, memory, and the ability to think creatively. It truncates the imagination. But Rob balances his scientific and social research with coherent examples of what we can do to reverse the decline of healthy imagination.

Then he explores nature connection and the affect it has not only on our nervous systems but also on our imaginations (of course). Rob adds to this well articulated subject and this chapter is full of fascinating information and ways that we can all reclaim our attention to the natural world. After this, we go back to school and find out what a truly imaginative education would comprise, one that children actually long for. As someone who hated school and felt its confines painfully (as did my kids), redesigning education and finding good practice is very high on my list.

Rob finishes the book with chapters on storytelling, a skill that is eroded by our passive digital culture to the real detriment of all our imaginations. He explains how stories activate our brains and the neuroscience behind oral culture that we have mostly surrendered but can so easily reclaim. Then he looks at the art of asking the right questions and how this stimulates the imagination and helps us to redesign communities, whole cities, so that they are places that we want to live in. Here we find a rich seam of inspiring Transition stories from all over the world.

The last two chapters are about what if our leaders prioritised the cultivation of imagination in society. He discusses what outcomes are inevitable when we live in a society run by a traumatised elite cut off from their emotional lives by the boarding school system, the idea of citizen assemblies and how they can create democracies through diversity, and other ‘democratic structures of the imagination’. The finale is an envisioning of what if all the ideas in the book came to pass.

What I like about this book is the balance between an unflinchingly real exploration of the world we live in, Rob’s willingness to share what keeps him awake at night, and the referenced research of both the problems and the solutions. Rob is also a born storyteller and he takes us on a rich journey to wonderful projects, people and places the world over where imagination thrives. He has always had the capacity to be an inspirational and innovative advocate for change as evidenced by his work for the Transition Movement. Here we experience a maturity of vision and an intellectual vigour that grounds the ideas presented, making them utterly possible. There is also the sense that it is not only the change makers who are awake to the global and climate crisis. So are some of our leaders. I fervently hope they read this book, awaken their own imaginations, and lessen the grip on elitist and blinkered old style politics and business that is currently destroying the world.

Maddy Harland is the Editor of Permaculture Magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine here, and see a video of Maddy and I in conversation about this book here.


  1. Patricia Lee
    October 29, 2019

    What IF has a missing piece:
    What IS
    What is behind imagination?
    What is upholding inspiration?
    What is activating our body, mind and spirit?
    What is consciousness without a whole vision?

  2. Michael Grove
    November 14, 2019

    WHAT IS – IS and sure ain’t NO ISER

    To paraphrase Professor Brian Cox in the final episode of “Wonders of LIFE” –

    In a scientific sense – the Earth as OUR HOME – means that the ingredients that are needed for our species to live – an atmosphere, food, water and the right temperature for us to survive – are perhaps uniquely provided to support the specific need for our biology and chemistry to work – following on from Professor Cox’s introduction to the series in which he stated that –

    SCIENCE has a responsibility 2 explain – spirituality.

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