Subtitle: Imagination taking power

The Snowy Walk of What If

A group of six of us, myself and five members of the ‘Enviro’ team at Patagonia, a clothing company who are the forefront of the pursuit of ‘sustainable’ clothing, are walking through the snow in the Bavarian mountains. Patagonia’s ‘sustainability’ credentials are already pretty impressive. They offer to repair any of their gear and take it back for recycling when its life is over. They pledge 1% of sales to environmental groups and campaigns. They actively get involved in campaigns and activism. They aim to become carbon neutral by 2025.

They were the first large clothing chain to move to 100% organic cotton. And much more besides. So, there I am at a three day retreat for around 25 leaders of the company’s Enviro teams from across Europe who are reflecting on how the company might play a more proactive and proportionate response to the climate and ecological emergency. It’s very cold, and the sunshine is intense against the deep blue sky.

We are out on what I later come to think of as a ‘Walk of What If’. The previous evening, after dinner, in our timber Alpine meeting room, I had given an overview of my book ‘From What Is to What If’. I had got them up and exercising their imagination muscles. We had done some joint time travel to go forward to a 2030 where we had done everything we could possibly have done, and we had played other games and reflected on why imagination matters and why it might be, in 2020, that our imaginations are in trouble and in need of some help.

Following that talk, the next morning, the facilitation team decided they were going to tear up their plan for the day. Instead, we were invited to go out in groups of 4-6 people, and to put ourselves into a ‘What If’ frame of mind. We were to assume that nothing is impossible. That there are no constraints. That there is no right answer. And we were invited to take a 50 minute walk in the snow, to weave some play into what we were doing, and to come up with ‘What If’ suggestions that would be appropriate to the company’s increased ambition and to the global crisis.

We were also invited to practice ‘Yes, And’. The idea was to not shut down other people’s ideas with our fears, reservations, objections or lack of enthusiasm, rather to build on the previous suggestion, to add to it, to explore it more deeply. And so we walked, and the ideas began to pour out.

Off in the distance at different points in the snowy landscape we could see the other groups also wandering and deep in discussion. The ideas, the ‘What If’ questions started to flow. Rather than everyone’s usual experience of suggesting ideas which are then met with a lukewarm, or downright dismissive “yes, but”, here ideas were heard, savoured, and added to. I felt like, out there in the sunshine and the snow, that we were almost entering an altered state of reality, so novel was the experience.

The ideas poured out faster than we could capture them. We avoided going into them in more detail, rather we captured them and moved on.  We kept walking. We made snow angels. An attempted snowball fight fizzled out because the snow was too powdery. Eventually we headed back up to join the other groups.

Back in the warm, each group was invited to choose their strongest ideas, one for each person in the group, and to write each one on an A4 piece of paper. Sitting in a large circle, everyone was asked to read out their idea and to then place it on the floor in the centre. Once we’d done this, I talked about the urgency of the climate crisis, and that the only responses that were ones consistent with 12-13% cuts in emissions per year starting right now. Lucy, the facilitator, asked people to imagine a spectrum from one end of the room to the other, one end being ‘really, really urgent’ and the other end being ‘not really so urgent’. In dialogue with each other, people were invited to order the ideas along the spectrum.

Once this had been done, we focused on those clustered at the ‘urgent’ end, and were invited to take an idea we felt called to hold a discussion around. Once in groups, we went off to discuss our  idea with four key questions in mind, “what would it look like?”, “what would we need to do?”, “what would we need to prune” (in other words, what would we need to do less of in order to do this?) and “what would make it bold and elegant?”

I was part of the group that, over a very welcome hot drink, took one of what we thought was the most exciting ideas and thought it up in more detail. We explored it from different angles, came up with a pretty workable suggestion for how it might work in reality. All the groups then came back together and shared the 5 detailed proposals for different projects that could be a radical shift in the organisation and how it works. All had potential to be deeply transformative. It was very exciting to see these rounded ideas in the world whereas the day before they hadn’t existed. Born of the snow. And of ‘What If’.

There was then a fascinating discussion about whether or not to change the name of the group from the ‘Enviro’ team to the ‘Climate Crisis’ team, as a way of reflecting the new sense of urgency. There followed a sharing of concerns about increased workload, and how other work would need to be put to one side in order to do the new ideas justice. Discussions that will need to be had in every single company around the world if we are to do all that we can to avoid the extermination of life on this planet. This is real leadership being shown here.

For me, our time walking in the snow was magical. It felt like we had created the ideal conditions the imagination needs. We felt safe in each other’s company. We had space, both literally in terms of being out in the mountains, but also we had enough time to feel unrushed and to do the question we were exploring justice. We had permission to ask what if, and to not squash that imagination with ‘yes but’. We were in nature, in a beautiful place. We were not under surveillance or imposed anxiety. It was clear that there were no right answers to the question we’d been asked. Because we had created the ideal conditions for the imagination to flourish, it flourished. It was the opposite of sitting in a strip-lit white office in front of a whiteboard being asked to come up with ideas.

It felt like such an honour to be part of this process, to see it unfold. It was such an affirmation for me of how these ‘What If’ tools can take us deeper, can support us to access our deeper imagination. And as more and more organisations and businesses come to the realisation of the urgency and the scale of the climate and ecological emergency, we will need the tools to support them to go deeper in this way. To help make it invitational and enjoyable, to invite the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments that accessing the imagination can bring. Only time will tell whether these ideas end up lost in the fog of emails and busyness once people get back to work on Monday. But, for me anyway, it certainly felt like once people had spent time in that altered state of consciousness, accessing their imagination, supported by ‘Yes, and’, that there isn’t really any way back from that.

My thanks to the Patagonia team for their hospitality and trust. Thanks especially to Herve, Mihela, Lucy and Caroline, and to Lionel.




  1. Steve Allin
    January 29, 2020

    Great stuff I will try to do this or the beginning of it with the companies I am working with.

  2. Kitty de Bruin
    January 29, 2020

    Brilliant that you can practice this with one of the most ecological companies in thinking and in products. And there will be a day that you do this with our Bankers and Fuel oil companies. Your gave with this article a good view of the process.Thanks a lot for this precious information

  3. Julian Crawford
    January 29, 2020

    Magic Happens. An emergent property.

  4. Caelan MacIntyre
    February 7, 2020

    This comment is awaiting approval over at Resilience dot org under the same article:

    The What If Global Defrag

    What if we looked at this model of crony-capitalist plutarchy, or whatever we want to call it, that

    includes self-appointed so-called leaders (that fund their lifestyles in part by coercive taxation from rcaptive populations) and those Orwellian thought-leaders, and realized that this model wasn’t working, no matter what Patagonia et al., or any other government or corporatocratic outfit did?

    Rob H., with all due respect, and as per your fellow ‘Transitioner’ what if we all realized that anarchistic thinking was what we might, at least in large part, need instead?

    What if we then started properly networking globally along that line of thinking and bringing in more organizations together along that line as well, and for example looking at occupying such places as so-called ‘Crown Land’ and ghost towns and so forth?

    What if Transition, Permaculture Global, Deep Green Resistance, ANAL, etcetera all got together very soon and fast to form a new decentralized networked society/country, say, based on green anarchy and/or Care of People/Care of Earth principles, rather than on a fundamental hatred of people and nature, via coercion and threats to freedoms and truths that for example see people like Assange rotting away in prison?

    Incidentally, in a relatively-recent You Tube video, toward the end, David Holmgren alludes to being an anarchist. In a 1991 interview, Bill Mollision appears to deny it, but he may have had a concern at the time over its partially (state- contrived/indoctrinated?) negative connotation.

    What if we ‘took back the night’, so to speak, by taking back the anarchy (into the daylight)?

    • Rob Hopkins
      February 11, 2020

      Hi. Thanks for your comment. You may well be right, and I have a lot of sympathy for a lot of anarchist ideas. But my sense is that we need movement at all levels as they currently exist, and to not work with such an organisation because they don’t embrace anarchism would be a bit short-sighted on my part. I go where doors are open in order to try to nudge organisations in a better direction. I would agree with much of what you set out, but differ perhaps on how most effectively to realise it. Cheers.

      • Caelan MacIntyre
        February 11, 2020

        Hi Rob, you’re welcome and thank you.

        First, here’s a quote from a response by Paul Heft under my comment-in-question at Resilience:

        “Yes. Rob still seems very hopeful about corporate and even governmental drivers of change. It’s probably easier to think that way when you get to join a bunch of cool people whose corporation works by selling expensive clothing to the top 5% of the world. I wonder how long that business model will last, as our world falls apart.”

        While I’m inclined to agree that many different prisms of cooperation will be needed, an important issue seems to be which ethical/moral ones we want, at least initially, to be seen more associated with or focusing on, since we run some risks that our efforts can be undermined as we and our associations pass through various perceptual filters, such as those of the proverbial 99% or others who’ve suffered, and are suffering– including the rest of nature no less– under the ‘crony-capitalist plutarchy’– under governments and corporations.

        Even by your point, choosing to work with and within certain ethical/moral prisms while bringing others on-board with different ones as they learn and/or are inspired by our good examples (or become increasingly isolated otherwise) are not mutually exclusive.

        So you can still eat your cake and have it too while you put the horse before the cart, even though, say, Prince Andrew might be riding in it.

        • Rob Hopkins
          February 11, 2020

          Thanks. I think that overly simplifies my position. I think ‘very hopeful’ is definitely an exaggeration. But if people in organisations or businesses are open to having those conversations, then it seems pretty pointless to refuse to participate, to refuse to engage with anyone deemed to be a part of the “crony-capitalist plutarchy”. There are some people within those organisations who are genuinely driven to change the model, and it would seem, to me, pretty churlish to refuse to engage at all. Am I “very hopeful” that the scale of change needed and the depth of change needed will come from big companies. No. But I am also not entirely closed to the possibility that there are some bits of fertile ground within those organisations that are worth nurturing, in the same way there are within government, and communities, academia and elsewhere. Different strokes for different folks. To me it feels worth doing, to you not. Each to their own. I also do other things! It’s not like all my eggs are in that basket, but when genuine people want to have the conversations that matter then I personally feel beholden to meet them half way. Thanks.

          • Caelan MacIntyre
            February 19, 2020

            Rob, I’m unsure Paul has read the portion of your response addressed to my quote of his comment from over at Resilience.

            As for myself, in this case, mine is simply a concern felt for those who might mean well but whose activities or bents or whatever can run the risk of perpetuating a system that’s trashing the planet and people’s lives.
            If you don’t feel that’s you, then that’s fine, but you do seem to like to uphold (local?) government and (big?) business in the, if greenwashed, status-quo context and implicitly supporting Patagonia here in this case.

            While we’re at it, does Patagonia function as a ‘laterally-hierarchic cooperative’? If so, great, if not, why not, (Did you discuss this at the meetup?) and, as you might say, What If it did function as such if it does not?

            Also you didn’t really write much of anything about what you and company came up with then did you? If not, feel free to do so, and also to send my ‘cooperative’ question their way to see what they say and, if anything, feel free to bring it over here.

            I am fine with engaging with others, but they have to be fine with doing it ethically, which includes– as per anarchy– equitability.

            If so motivated, see also my mention over at Peak Oil Barrel (C. 2016?) of the research, (Human and nature dynamics [HANDY]: Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies, by Safa Motesharreia, Jorge Rivasb, Eugenia Kalnay) that talks about this kind of equity/equality thing. (Incidentally, I just discovered that the late Jay Hanson mentioned the paper on his site too.)

          • Caelan MacIntyre
            February 19, 2020

            “All good intentions aside, well intentioned and well meaning citizens are being corralled by the world’s foremost experts in social engineering and behavioural change. East Indians struggle to survive poisoning at the hands of Unilever while in the West, liberal left sycophants strive to partner with Unilever, Patagonia, Seventh Generation (recently purchased by Unilever) etc. – all under the banner of ‘environmentalism’ and ‘social justice’. ‘Success’ is only achieved by economic growth. The more growth, the more environmental destruction, exploitation of those most vulnerable, pollution and carbon emissions – on an already exhausted planet on the brink of ecological collapse. It is the height of insanity.” ~ Cory Morningstar, site, ‘The Art of Annihilation’. (See also site, ‘The Wrong Kind of Green’)

  5. Ann
    February 7, 2020

    Hi Rob
    Very inspiring – when can we see the ideas that came up?

    • Rob Hopkins
      February 11, 2020

      I think for now, while the internal discussions go on in terms of which to adopt, they don’t want to publicise them, but I’m sure they will in due time!

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