In Conversation with Environmentalist, Author and Activist Rob Hopkins

Our sustainability book of the month for November is Rob Hopkins’ From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want. We spoke to Rob about how the movement began, it’s significance in this moment in time and what continues to inspire him.

Voted one of The Independent’s top 100 environmentalists in 2012, Rob Hopkins co-founded the Transition Network in 2016 – a movement of communities working to reimagine and rebuild the world we live in together. We managed to catch up with Rob before he hit the road for a busy month of talks to find out how the network works in practice, why the movement is so crucial now, and who provides his daily dose of inspiration (get ready, I promise that it’s one of the best lists you will ever read.)

How did your journey in environmentalism begin?

I’m not sure there was one ‘bolt of lightning’ moment. I was interested in politics, and turned vegetarian at 14, and punk was a big radicalising influence on my life. I think an awareness of the environment grew in my early 20s, from things I saw, things I read, places I visited. When I was 22 I came across permaculture for the first time, which blew my mind, in particular the concept of ‘Earth Repair’. I then did one of the first ‘green’ degrees at the time, at the University of the West of England, which was brilliant and really set me underway. 

If there was one moment though, I would say it was when, aged 21, I visited the Hunza Valley in Pakistan, the most amazing, resilient, ancient, sustainable, permaculture food system I had ever seen, and also the most beautiful place. There, in the corner of a field of old apricot trees, underplanted with wheat, fed by intricate irrigation from a glacier, was an empty bag of nitrogen fertiliser, a very new arrival there. It fused something in my head, seeing this as being utterly unnecessary and pointless. 

So, what inspired the Transition movement? 

It began with the question: “what if the response to climate change, to energy insecurity, to economic precariousness, started here, now, with the people and the resources we have around us right now?” It began in Totnes, Devon, inspired by the thought that any response that works needs to be rooted in compassion, in bringing people together rather than isolating them, and it needs to be fun. The vision, as we put it in the Transition Network, is a “movement of communities who are reimagining and rebuilding the world”. It started just with a small group of people in Totnes meeting and deciding to act, to do things, to start actual projects, and it just took off and kept growing!

Why is the movement so crucial now, and what kind of future does it make possible for communities?

It is crucial, I think, for many reasons. It now has many many great stories to tell from 50 countries about what change looks like when communities take the lead and get on with it. It has a great approach and set of tools that anyone can use anywhere which we have tried and tested over that time. It is a vital, I think, counterbalance to the fantastic Extinction Rebellion, providing something people can do where they live that doesn’t require the government to change, doesn’t wait for that, but that gets on with telling a new story in that place, and in a way that is regenerative. 

It is also crucial because it tells a very different story of how the economy might work, how society works, and many people are looking for new stories right now. It matters also because it creates great ‘what if’ spaces in communities, where people can come together and think about the future in different ways, and there are so few such spaces left in our culture today. Transition enables communities to think in a more joined-up, holistic way about the future, and to get on with it, with imagination and passion. 

The great privilege of my work is being able to go to visit Transition groups (only by train, I don’t fly) across Europe who are doing such amazing things. 

How much has the Transition Network grown since it began?

Thousands of communities in 50 countries are now part of this network. A lot of my role is to collect their stories and share them – I think of it as a network of stories. Keeping in touch with them all would be impossible! But 25 of those countries have their own national ‘hub’ which co-ordinates things there, and they share stories. It is the beauty of a self-organising system, it does amazing things, you just don’t always hear about it!

In practice, the network of communities are focused on ‘reclaiming the economy, sparking entrepreneurship, reimagining work, reskilling themselves and weaving webs of connection and support’ – can you share examples of specific projects and stories that demonstrate the transition’s work in action?

Sure. Many Transition groups seeded community-owned energy companies. Some of those are now really flying. Bath & West Community Energy, for example, raised over £13 million investment from local people and is installing renewables widely in the city. 

In Liege in Belgium, the Transition group began a project called the ‘Food Belt’ framed around a question: “what if, in a generation’s time, the majority of food eaten in this city was grown on the land closest to it?” In the past four years they have started 21 cooperatives, including two farms, two vineyards, a brewery, three shops, and many more, and raised €5 million from local people to finance it. I met the Mayor who said: “this is now the story of this city, we see our role as being to remove any obstacles in its way”. 

The shop in Liege and its team of shopkeers.

In Ungersheim in France you can see Transition led by the Mayor there, which is an amazing example of how all the different elements of Transition hang together. All the food in the schools is organic, most of it grown in a market garden on the edge of the town which they started. They grow old grain varieties for the bakery. They have created a strawbale housing co-op, the largest solar farm in the region, a local currency. To visit it is to really get a sense of how all this stuff could hang together. 

But many of the Transition projects that get me most excited are smaller things: food gardens in streets, the GP practice reimagining itself as a ‘Transition practice’, local currencies whose denominations are 1, 3, 10 and 30, just because they can be, amazing street art events, communities creating their own farms. It is the diversity, the audacity, and the playfulness of it that always delights me. 

What do you do for yourself outside of your work? How do you take time to reset and rebalance?

I swim. I draw. I hang out with my kids. I listen to records. I go for walks. I spend time with my wife. I read books. I go to yoga. I meet friends for food. I go to gigs, and sometimes DJ at a local club night (not very well, but with great enthusiasm). 

Who continues to be a source of inspiration for you?

The easiest way to answer that question would be to include the list at the back of my new book ‘From What Is to What If’ which lists the people who have “fired my own imagination during my life”… (there should be some kind of prize for anyone who knows who they all are!). 

Dr Christine Blasey Ford, Sterling Morrison, Rebecca Solnit, Grayson Perry, Kim Gordon, Vincent van Gogh, Tove Jansson, Chuck  D, Matt Haynes, Clare Wadd, Fiona McIntyre, Bill Mollison, Mariame Kaba, David Holmgren, Sylvia Plath, Michael Shuman, Barbara Kingsolver, Albert Bates, Sasami, Mark  E. Smith, Naomi Klein, Nils Frahm, Ursula  K. Le Guin, Sir Ken Robinson, Mary Warnock, Quentin Blake, Jonathan Richman, Ruth Mock, Nicholas Carr, Ada Colau, the Frack Free Four, Marie-Eve Leclerc, Banksy, Darren McGarvey, Joanna Macy, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Marley Marl, Robert Smith, Sherry Turkle, Can, Nina Simone, Matthew B. Crawford, Kate Tempest, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Venice, Roxanne Shante, the Last Poets, Aretha Franklin, George Monbiot, Anna Campbell, Theaster Gates, Angela Carter, John Crowley, the Situationists, the Impressionist room at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Ryan Griffin at astrangelyisolatedplace. com, the blogs of, Tom Vague, Greta Thunberg and all the school strikers, Paul Haig, Emil Ferris, Extinction Rebellion, Geir Jenssen, James Bernard, Nick Drake, Martin Newell, Laurie Steen, Adam Curtis, Sarah Gillespie.

What’s the most enjoyable aspect of your work?

Meeting people who are doing stuff. People who won’t take no for an answer. People who love to share what they’ve done. Sometimes I visit Transition groups and I am treated like a royal visitor. I have the huge privilege and honour to have thought of an idea that resonated with people and which they adopted. Not enough people can claim that. It is enjoyable beyond words to visit places who trace the things they have done, and how it has changed their life and their community, to the initial spark that they associate with me. It is always an honour, always a joy. It is such an amazing antidote to despondency to visit those places. Buoys me for weeks!

What’s next on your busy agenda?

A lot of touring and speaking about the new book and developing workshops and trainings that arise from it. Trying to carve out one day a week for being artistic in. I would love to see the creation of a ‘National Imagination Act’, one of the ideas in the book. The time is right I think. 

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Summer Rayne Oakes teaches us how to make a plant love you.