Subtitle: Imagination taking power

My closing presentation to the Jersey Climate Conversation.

It was a huge honour recently to be asked to be a speaker at the Jersey’s Climate Conversation, the island’s Citizens’ Assembly. I was asked to be their final presenter before they went off to deliberate their decisions. I was asked to give them a boost and a sense of why their deliberations matter so much. Here is the presentation I gave them, firstly the video, and then the transcript. I hope you enjoy it.

“It is a huge honour to have been asked to be your final presenter. I imagine you have already seen so many presenters that I’m quite the last thing you want to see. I hope there might just be room for one more.. . The first thing I want to say is thank you. You have had quite a time of it. Bombarded with complex information, immersed in concepts and science that may well have led to you having sleepless nights.

My own experience, when I really ‘got’ climate change, was like what the great mystics back through history have called a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. This is an area of knowledge that can bring with it a burden, of despair, hopelessness, grief. I have huge respect to you all for taking up this challenge, on behalf of your fellow citizens, and bringing your best selves to figuring this stuff out.

I’m not here to tell you whether your target ought to be 2030, 2040, 2050. That’s not for me to say. I have only visited Jersey once, gave a talk about the urgent imperative to move away from oil and gas dependency, and was then talked about in the letters page of the island’s newspaper for weeks as if I were the most idealistic and dangerous person to ever set foot on the island. So I’m delighted to see that things are starting to change!

The main thing I want to talk about here is longing. What has longing got to do with climate change you might be wondering? Well, all too often our discussions around the climate and ecological emergency focus on how irreplaceable what we will need to leave behind is, rather than being able to paint a picture of the future we could still create that is so delicious and exquisite that we will do everything we possibly can to get there.

Imagine we were standing on top of a mountain, and the guides at our side were pointing out to us the dark and dangerous-looking storm clouds heading rapidly in our direction. For some of us, we are happy to accept the guides’ advice. They’re the guides after all, right? They know this mountain. We trust their advice. For a lot of people though, that doesn’t seem to be working.

I wonder then if a better strategy might be to tell the stories of the valleys that await us when we get down, the lower grassy slopes, and the warm firesides, delicious meals, fine wines, comfortable beds and dry socks that await us when we get there. Then our work becomes not that of trying to convince people with facts and figures, but rather to cultivate longing for a low carbon future, and that is the work of imagination and storytelling.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, and hearing peoples’ ideas of how the future could be if it turned out if we were to spend the next 10-15 years doing everything we possibly could. What if the Jersey Citizens Assembly of 2021 was the moment in history that people looked back to as marking the beginning of a process that profoundly transformed Jersey for the better? What if it came to be seen as having played a profoundly important role in transforming the future of the island? We can already see some of the bold actions being rolled out in France as a result of theirs.

When I ask people to join me in my time machine and travel to the 2030 that is the result of our having done everything we possibly could have done, whether in workshops or in big events with 1500 people, or when I ask the guests on my podcast series to do the same exercise, it is amazing how consistent their responses are. I’ve come to feel like doing this exercise is hugely important. Why? Because, as the poet Rilke once wrote, “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”
What are some of the things people tell me they see? A future in which the dawn chorus is so much louder, and the birdsong is much more noticeable everywhere we go. The air smells so much cleaner, like spring.

The rivers are now so clean that some people living in cities now swim to work. People are so much healthier than they were in 2021. There is less anxiety, less stress. People feel part of a shared collective purpose of working together to put things right again. Food is more central to our lives. Our rural landscapes are a far more diverse tapestry of different things being grown, and more people work in food production. Most of our energy comes from renewables, and many of those are in community ownership, being seen as a safer and more profitable investment than banks. Jersey’s finance sector reimagined itself and is now one of the principle drivers towards ethical green finance in the world, investing massively in the shift underway in Jersey and elsewhere around the world, recognising that money would have no value on a dying planet.

Jersey’s Green New Deal, initiated in 2022, created many jobs on the island doing the work that needed to be done, insulating homes, installing renewable energy systems, planting trees, enhancing urban wildlife and biodiversity. Schools became showcases for the future, powered by renewables, grounds filled with gardens, practical training for those practical skills, less based on tests, more based on nurturing imaginative and practical young people. The island became more democratic and transparent, with neighbourhood assemblies like they have in Barcelona, and more regular Citizens Assemblies. Our pensions became a portfolio of investments in community shares in the different new organisations that have come to shape life on the island. There is more time, more space.

In the larger towns, more streets are closed and used instead for trees, community and as spaces for kids to play. The island now measures its progress not by GDP, but by its declining carbon footprint, the number of girls now able to cycle home alone after dark, the number of children playing outdoors, the number of people employed in putting the world right rather than hastening its demise, the diversity of its wildlife, and the percentage of food eaten in Jersey that was grown on Jersey. Public transport is now amazing and free, and cycling is safe and delightful. I could go on. And often do.

And you might think that a lot of this sounds utopian, or idealistic somehow, but I can tell you that most of this is already happening somewhere. In Denmark, people invest in community-owned wind turbines as a better investment than the bank. In Paris, large parts of the city are being closed to cars and opened to all manner of creative community uses. In Liege in Belgium they are reimagining the city’s food system based on the question “what if in a generation’s time, the majority of the food eaten in this city came from the land closest to this city?” And so on and so on. As William Gibson once wrote, ““The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

I share this imagining of a future that is still possible, just, because we cannot build what we cannot imagine. If we don’t make the space, as you have all done over the last few weeks, to dare to imagine things could be different, then we definitely won’t ever create it. How many people, for example, in the Ministry of Defence, are actively imagining a peaceful world and how to get there? How many people in the Ministry of Justice are actively imagining a world without prisons, and the steps that might be taken to get there? Unless we intentionally create those What If spaces, those conversations never happen.

One of my heroes, the great American prison abolition activist Mariame Kaba, wrote in her latest book, “We live in a system that has been locked into a false sense of inevitability”. The bravery, the courage, the clarity of purpose that you guys can set, is hugely important. Do we want to aim for the stars, or to settle for something less? You have been presented with what Martin Luther King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’. I really urge you to seize it.

One of the things I hope might help you here is that imagination loves limits. You will all have read, either as kids, or with your kids, Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. He wrote that book after being set a challenge by his publisher to write a book that contains just 50 words. He said afterwards that it was the most imaginative thing he ever did. Limits offer our imagination a structure, a space in which to thrive.

And these times absolutely impose limits. I see again and again in places that I visit across Europe who are doing Transition work, that it is those who recognise the limits of our times who are coming up with the most imaginative solutions. Jersey is no exception. If you can find the right blend of ambition, clarity, and a vision of the future that can create longing, those limits become an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. I also see in those people who are doing this work, an aliveness, a determined stubbornness combined with a sense of having found their life’s purpose, that I rarely find elsewhere.

What if Jersey become the model for a sustainable future? What if it were a showcase for enlightened economics, passionate entrepreneurs, a reimagined relationship with the natural world? What if it showcased new models of generating energy, housing people, feeding everyone? What if the next 10 years on Jersey felt like living through a revolution of the imagination?

What if the bravery and vision that Jersey came to embody meant that future generations would look back and tell great tales, and sing great songs about those people who could see what was coming and who responded with such resilience and vision.

I started by talking about longing. And I will close by saying that it is my own longing that in 10 years I might get to visit Jersey and to see it thus transformed. Having travelled there by low carbon airship, a spectacular adventure, and having walked around the island and seen the most vibrant, connected, beautiful place I have ever been, I would then sit underneath an apple tree, with a glass of that amazing stuff you make there that is like Baileys, but made with Jersey cream and apple brandy, and raise a glass to toast those brave and brilliant people, back in 2021, in the Jersey Citizens Assembly, who played such a key role in enabling all of this.

Thank you.


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© Rob Hopkins 2017-2024