Hopkins on imagination and What If?

I’ve been working my way through Hopkins’ book (left) over the last few days. It has left me thoughtful. As readers already know, this book prompted me to end my addiction to Twitter – without which I would currently be reading tweets rather than writing and reflecting.

But what is “what if”? It is predicated largely on the realisation that things have to change. There is one thing the climate emergency absolutely forces us to do, that is to conceive of a climate catastrophe. We cannot avoid it. It makes “what iffing” so much easier. We can get roads closed – albeit temporarily – and turn them into green spaces, play areas, spaces to meet, discuss, choose, decide. This is what happened in Tooting High Street in London, the bus terminus turning circle, was closed on Sunday in July 2017; the A259 trunk road through Hastings, where I live, was closed for a day in September 2019 and transformed into a music stage, a bicycle repair workshop, an arena for a wheelie competition and a  political discussion and debating area, amongst other things.

“What if every university declared a climate emergency and all of its courses were taught through that lens? What if we created a fossil-fuel-free energy system within 20 years? What if every new house built generated more energy than it consumed? What if urban agriculture became utterly common place? What if our cities became huge biodiversity reserves? What if single-use plastics were something we only saw in museums?” Schools are perhaps more aware of climate change than are universities, but they maintain a pedagogy that, according to Hopkins, suppresses imagination in their forced pursuit of grades, regulatory approval and attendant rankings.

Hopkins takes us to various places where examples help with our often depressed imaginations: Totnes in Devon (not so revealing); Liège in Belgium (ever so revealing). Liège, a city I pass through frequently on my way to Munich by train, set itself a challenge back in 2013 to create the means to grow the majority of the City’s food on the land in the immediate surrounding area. Liège now has mass co-operative food projects, vineyards, organic mushroom growing off coffee waste, a brewery, sustainable distribution and restaurants. There is a Co-operative of Co-operatives that has political and economic bargaining power. What if?

The book is not just about climate change. Readers are asked to consider wider issues mediated through liberated imagination,  but that itself requires major structural changes to education and the reversal of trends against art in schools. Unrestricted play – play of the imagination, unmediated by technology – argues Hopkins, needs to start in school and migrate to the workplace and community.

Another major inhibitor of “what if-ism” is our own health. Modern life is stressful and society itself is plagued by anxiety and deeper mental health issues. These block imagination in a way, perhaps, that is functional for the economic and political forces of inertia that at best shape our lives, at worst, destroy our humanity and with it the environment that sustains us. But stress is also a chemical process that impacts on the Hippocampus – our “hub of memory” in the brain. We damage it at our peril, affecting both long- and short-term memory. It is the interaction between the two, notes Hopkins, that facilitates imagination – and with it, future scenarios.

Then there is nature; actually, we are at our least stressed when with trees and listening to birdsong, it seems. From my own experience, I know my own blood pressure is reduced by contact with nature. Here in Hastings, a walk along the beach is only matched by half a bottle of wine in efficacy. One of these is healthier and indeed cheaper than the other. This realisation makes the transformation of our towns and cities into green zones logical and politically feasible: parks, playing fields, city farms, swimming pools and gardens are all exploitable in this respect.

We have a general election imminently in the UK. There are rumblings of alternative models – the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was laughed at when he suggested that we should work only for four days per week rather than five, despite there being plenty of evidence that such working arrangements do not come at the expense of productivity. Working longer does not benefit society. To be laughed at over this is bizarre. The PM, Boris Johnson, was laughed at when he claimed trust was important in government and society. That I can more understand as a response.

We have to get smart.

 

1 comment so far

  1. Al Gore – What if | Be informed on

    […] President in 2000. We got Bush instead. In light of my previous reading of Rob Hopkins’ book, What if? What if? But we are where we […]


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