May 18, 2020 / 3 comments
Conspire to Inspire: my preface to ‘Les Bâtisseurs’
Last year I was asked to write a preface for a collection of short stories published in Belgium under the title of ‘Les Bâtisseurs‘ (‘The Builders’). The book is a collection of short stories, aimed at teenagers, by different authors, based on a common theme of change, of what the world could be like, and how we could each be the catalysts of that world. As the back cover states “things can’t continue like this”. I was asked to write something that told the story of how I got into all of this, and what Rob today would say to 12 year old Rob if he had the chance. Here is what I wrote:
My very first taste of the thrilling sense of possibility that comes from taking a stand on something that matters was when I was 12. I was at a big state school, and the school management, in its wisdom, introduced a new policy. It divided the school into two ‘bands’, Band A and Band B. Band A was supposedly the more intelligent kids, those more likely to succeed, Band B the less so. It was hugely divisive, and generated real antipathy between the two groups. At the same time, the teachers decided, as part of wider industrial action, to go on strike, and to not supervise breaktimes. The result was chaos.
Gangs of the newly-defined ‘B Band’ kids roamed the playgrounds fighting with ‘A Band’ kids, with no teachers present to keep them apart. It wouldn’t be allowed now, but then, many of us came to dread break times with terror, we hid inside the school, we stuck together for safety. Then one day a group of about 8 of us decided we’d had enough, and we put the word out that after lunchtime, we would all sit down in the playground and refuse to return to lessons.
The bell sounded, and 300 kids sat down, nervously, but purposefully. Several teachers tried to pressure us into going to lessons, and about 40 did. The Deputy Head teacher came out and shouted at us, and then perhaps another 100 gave up and went in. Then the Head Teacher came out, and by the time that was over, about 30 of us were left. We stayed out for over two hours. I remember feeling, for the first time, as though we were utterly right to be there, that most people in the school agreed but just didn’t have the courage to still be there alongside us, and that we were doing absolutely the right thing.
Eventually we decided between ourselves that it was time to go in. We were in a lot of trouble. I still have the letter that was sent to my parents. “We strongly condemn….” “serious consequences” … “cannot tolerate”… You can imagine. My parents, I think, were actually quite proud. I don’t remember the punishment the school gave me, but I didn’t mind. I had taken a stand. I had stood my ground. I had felt what it feels like to sit in solidarity with hundreds of my peers. It did lead to both policies being reviewed and changed. Whether that was all down to our action I don’t know, but I like to think it was.
My childhood was pretty normal really. My dad was an architect, responsible for some of the worst of 1970s architecture (sorry Dad). My mum was, at that time, a stay-at-home mum. I had a sister, and we lived in the suburbs. My grandma lived next door. When I was 13 I discovered punk. Someone lent me the Sex Pistols album and my mind was blown. I love, from that time, a page from a popular fanzine (a home-produced magazine made in profusion at the time by enthusiastic would-be writers). It showed how to play 3 chords on a guitar, I think E, A and G. “Here are three chords”, it said. “Now form a band”. It was a spirit that went on to define my approach to life, namely that if you don’t like what already exists, then make something else, and don’t ever believe it’s that complicated. Just try. Give it a go. I then lived for a few years with my aunt, a feminist who, among other things, was involved in the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protests, who also inspired my greatly.
Fast forward 8 years and I am standing in a mountain valley in Pakistan. It’s a place called Hunza, fabled as a valley where people live, in vigorous health, into old age. It was, quite simply, the most beautiful place I had ever seen. It had been terraced, each terrace a mixture of apricot trees, vegetable growing and grains. The whole place was irrigated from a glacier, through a complex series of channels where, by closing one off with a slate and redirecting the water elsewhere, the water could reach everywhere. The water itself, said to be one of the reasons everyone there was so remarkably healthy, was rich with minerals, looking like muddy water, but it sparkled as it swirled.
I have never seen such happy, contended people, or a landscape that was so beautiful. If I had known how to say “will you marry me?” in the local language I would certainly have tried it out a few times and seen if anyone was interested. I was travelling there with two friends, one of whom, Chris, was from Australia. He was involved, back home, with permaculture, and in Hunza he was delirious was excitement. He took photos and he wrote letters home (this was pre-email) about how amazing it was. He talked a lot about permaculture. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew that this place was amazing. At the time I was reading a book, I don’t remember now which, but it included the sentence “If on Earth there is a garden of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this”. It captured Hunza perfectly.
Many months later I arrived home, and almost immediately a friend I hadn’t seen for a while gave me a large book. It was a very generous gift, being large and expensive. It was called ‘Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual’ by an Australian called Bill Mollison. “I think you might like this”, my friend said. On the first page I opened it to, one phrase leapt out at me, and redefined the rest of my life. ‘Earth Repair’. Here was a book not focused on all the problems that were self-evidently unfolding in the natural world around us, but rather a book about how to fix it, a collection of ideas and strategies from around the world for how we might repair and restore the natural world. It kind of blew my mind.
Permaculture, it turned out, is a design system. By taking nature as its model, it teaches people how to design gardens, houses, economies, businesses, forests, that work like natural systems do, and don’t require lots of inputs of energy, resources and time. It is positive and solutions-focused. Anyone can do it. It distilled things that might otherwise seem complex into clear, straightforward and manageable things that I could do, like the ‘3 chords’ of my punk years.
Shortly after that, I did a permaculture training course which ran for 2 weeks (I highly recommend it!) which felt like having my brain rewired. Whereas before I just saw the world as it is, now I saw the world as it could be. I saw in ‘what if’ rather than ‘what is’. I saw lawns as gardens waiting to be planted. I saw roofs and potential mini-power stations. I saw parks as potential mini-farms. I saw walls as potential growing spaces. My imagination had had a thorough makeover. Permaculture became my life. I planted gardens, read everything I could get my eager hands on, I joined my local group, I organised more trainings and courses. After a few years I started teaching it, and shortly after that, in a remarkable college in south west Ireland, I had started the first 2 year full-time permaculture course in the world. We created gardens, planted trees, built buildings, played games. I taught them everything I knew, and I voraciously hoovered up cool things to teach them.
After 9 years in Ireland, I moved back to the UK to a town called Totnes, and with my family we made our new home there. I had arrived there with the seed of an idea. What would it look like if communities were able to come together and be the drivers for the changes that climate change demands that we make? What if this town were able to become a kind of Silicon Valley for community resilience? And what if we could have a lot of fun while doing so? A few of us started meeting, and talking, and ended up calling what we were cooking up ‘Transition Town Totnes’. As we put it, “If we wait for governments, it’ll be too little, too late; if we act as individuals, it’ll be too little; but if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.”
We did a big launch event we called the ‘Unleashing’, and over 400 people came. Working groups started, and projects to do with food, energy, education, housing and how we were going to best work together got underway. It was thrilling. And it started taking off in other places too. We got emails from Iran, Mongolia, Brazil, Japan. It was popping up everywhere. It was exhilarating. We started a local currency, called the Totnes Pound, with the idea that it might enable more money to stay within the local economy rather than leaving and going into the pockets of big business. We started projects to build homes for local people that actually met local need, and as I write, work will shortly start on almost 100 such homes. People came together to plant trees, make gardens, work together on a wide range of projects. A community energy company formed. People started to take buildings into community ownership to operate them in service of the community. A momentum started to build.
It popped up all over the world. It popped up in the favelas in Sao Paolo, where communities organised around Transition and did lots of fascinating projects around creating new social enterprises, public health, strategies for managing the city’s awful drought. In a town in South Africa the group created the ‘Trash to Treasure’ festival on the town’s rubbish dump, reasoning that most festivals go to a pristine field and spend several days covering it in rubbish. “What if”, they reasoned, “we created the opposite, a festival that went to a place covered in rubbish and spent several days cleaning it up?”. Cities reimagined their food networks, build amazing urban gardens, invited amazing amounts of community investment into projects. A movement of positive, optimistic hopeful change spread around the world to over 50 countries.
It has become my life. My role is that of a catalyst and a storyteller. I visit places, I hear their stories, I visit other places and share the stories and gather new ones. The Transition movement is like a movement of stories and storytelling. This whole book, and many more, could be filled with the amazing stories of things Transition groups have done, and continue to do.
Fast forward again, this time to 2019. I am standing on Waterloo Bridge in London, which has been occupied by climate change activists called ‘Extinction Rebellion’. For about 10 days, they occupied and took over four key sites in centre of London, incuding the bridge. Part of their philosophy has been that in order to get government to take notice, you need to get as many people arrested as possible. Waterloo Bridge, usually home to thundering traffic, was now reimagined with trees down the middle, a library, a kitchen serving free food, space for yoga, talks, and discussions. Lots of conversation, among the many protestors and also with many curious passers-by, many of whom notes how much they preferred the bridge like this to its more usual look and feel.
During those 10 days over 1,200 people were arrested. One of those was my wife, who was arrested twice. I was so proud of her. The whole event was entirely non-violent. The police had never known anything like it. Protesters sang to them, talked with them. It was remarkable. Those 10 days, and their impacts, meant that over that time, and the weeks that followed, it felt as though the tectonic plates beneath our feet started to shift. The UK’s parliament declared a ‘climate emergency’, as did local governments across the country. All of a sudden everyone was talking about climate change and what to do about it. The spirit on the bridge reminded me of those two hours in my school playground. People had had enough of their leaders ignoring the elephants in the room, and decided that now was the time to act. And to tell the truth.
All of which brings us to this volume of stories that you are now holding. I hope that these stories take you on a journey into how you can live a life that is fully awake to, and in service of, these amazing times we live in. These are times when, as author and activist Naomi Klein puts it, “there are no non-radical options left before us”. The only things left to us are bold actions that reimagine and rebuild the world around us. That is a remarkable moment to have reached. So whether you decide that your energy is best invested in the kind of non-violent direction action that Extinction Rebellion demonstrate, or the kind of hands-on solutions-building that Transition groups do, or organising School Strike for Climate events in your school, or whether you want to educate people in the most skilful ways you can about the situation we’re in, or however you feel called to act, what matters most is that you act.
I can tell you that doing this stuff, while it can be hard work sometimes, can also be delighful, and joyful, and you will learn so much, and meet so many interesting people. You will see things changing because you decided to get up and make them happen. You will see how being one of those people who stands up inspires and influences other people. You’ll be so glad you did.
What if someone were to invent a time machine and I was able to travel back in it to 1980 to that school playground where I was sat with my schoolmates refusing to return to classes. What would I say to myself? I would tell young Rob that in spite of what I was being told, that I was right. I would tell myself to ignore the people who said “it’s just silly, it won’t make any difference”, because you never know if it will make a difference or now. All you can know for sure is that if you don’t do anything, then you definitely won’t make a difference.
I would tell myself that finding your voice, and speaking the truth, however uncomfortable it feels, is deeply important. And I would tell myself that just because people are in charge doesn’t necessarily mean they know what they are doing, but also that they are people, with complex motivations and deserve to always be treated with the same respect that you expect. And lastly, I would tell myself to really educate myself, in a way that my school wasn’t going to, about the real history of our cultures, about the plants, about science, ecology, climate change, how to grow food, how to build things, how to organise communities. To study with passion, to go visit as many examples as possible, to give my imagination all the food it needs in order for me to be able to share a vision of the future that is wonderful, delicious and successful with as many people as possible.
I hope this book really changes your sense of what’s possible in the world, and how the role you can play in that is far greater than you might think. I hope I meet you somewhere on your road through life, perhaps in 10 years or so, and you are able to tell me amazing stories of things that happened in your life because you read this book. I look forward to that meeting very much indeed.
Rob Hopkins. July 2019.