Nuggets From Rob Hopkins's Call
Posted by Preeta Bansal on Jul 11, 2020
Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes (England), the first Transition Town in the world, and the Transition Network, a movement by communities in 50 countries to address the big challenges they face by starting local. Transition Towns are reclaiming the economy, sparking entrepreneurship, re-imagining work, re-skilling themselves and weaving webs of connection and support. In 2012, Rob was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists. An Ashoka Fellow who holds a doctorate degree and has received two honorary doctorates, Rob is author of several books including The Transition Handbook (2008) and From What Is to What If (2019), where he asks why true creative, positive thinking is in decline. In his earlier life, Rob spent 2.5 years in a Buddhist monastery and set up the first 2 year full-time permaculture course in the world.
Below are some nuggets from this really rich call. And at the end is the extensive list of books and resources that he referenced, in addition to his new podcast, From What If to What Next?.
Formative experiences of Punk Music and its call for self-education – attraction to permaculture for the same reason:
- Punk [rock] was a really huge, big first influence on me, and particularly that culture that it had of, “well, if you don't like how things are then do something better. If you don't like the music, make your own. If you don't like the record labels, start your own. It's really easy. Here's how to do it. If you don't like the magazines, make your own. Here it is."
- I was this generation for whom education was just awful. And school was just unremittingly dreadful and pointless. And we were kind of a generation, the generation after punk, who had to kind of educate ourselves. So if you listen back to a lot of records around that time, you get to the end of the record and you think, "I need to read that. I need to read that. I need to go and find out more about that."
- The Transition Handbook is a square book because it's the same size as a seven inch single, which I always felt as being the great art form of the 20th century.
- I always looked for things that had that similar kind of spirit to it. Permaculture had that spirit of, “it's really not that difficult. You don't need to study soil science for three years to know how to grow good carrots. I'm going to show you how to go. Good carrots is really quite easy.” One teacher of permaculture used to do a session that was called “foundations in 10 minutes” where he used to say, “it's really straightforward. I'm going to teach you everything you need to know about making foundations in 10 minutes, go start the clock.” And by the end you had everything you needed to know. We don't have time for over-analyzing and over looking at everything we just need to get on with it. And that's the kind of spirit that I love and I look out for in things that's really interesting.
- Art is really just sustained attention. It’s like you see yourself to sit for three hours and really look at a view or a tree or a field. I can still look at drawings I did 30 years ago, and I can remember what it smelled like and sounded like, and felt like when I was bringing it, you know, there's something really vivid about, about really bringing your attention to something in that way. When you look at art, you are looking at someone who has given their attention. You’re repaying it by giving your attention back.
- Tibet as a culture that was, for sort of 2000 years, this kind of Silicon Valley of compassion and and attention, and the kind of the depth and the insight that comes from that. Now, because our attention spans are so compromised and shot to bits and co-opted, we kind of water ski across the surface of knowledge.
- One of the first things I did when I started writing the book was I got rid of my smartphone and got an old clunky sort of Nokia phone for about a year and a half. That kind of period of having of making that shift was really precious actually.
- I had no real spiritual influences. I was sort of a 16 year old punk kid who was very cynical about everything. I went to an Italian monastery one summer at the invitation of a friend, just thinking I want to get out of England. I'd like to learn to meditate. I felt like my life was a bit too kind of chaotic at the time. And I was kind of interested in learning how to meditate and that was about it really. If you worked there, your work covered your board and your lodging. That was good enough for me.
- University of life: I worked with the house manager who left after a few weeks and said I was in charge for the summer, preparing for hundreds of guests for an upcoming retreat. And I went there and I ended up staying there for almost three years and it was the most extraordinary kind of life university for me because it was the first time anybody had said, “you're responsible now, here you go. We trust you can do this in figuring out how, and if you don't know how to do something, ask people” (in the 10 words of Italian I had mustered at that point).
- Learning at the feet of great Tibetan teachers: There was a particular generation, most of whom are gone now, sadly, of those great masters and teachers from Tibet who, in 1959, when the Chinese arrived and just started setting fire to everything, literally just walked over the mountains and carried in their memory that entire culture -- memorizing those texts and memorizing those teachings -- and literally walked over the mountains as the Chinese were piling up those texts and setting them on fire and destroying 6,000 monasteries to the point that there was only about 13 left within about a 10 year period, just desecrated that entire remarkable culture. And they literally walked over the mountains and sat down in India and just recited everything back again. And they carried it with just phenomenal [grace], and there were always those teachers passing through there. So I got to study at the feet of some really quite extraordinary teachers. So it was a completely life changing experience for me. It gave me a kind of a discipline of getting up in the morning and doing some meditation and different practices and retreats and stuff. It's like, it gives you, it gives you a, a kind of a routine and a practice and a focus.
- Bodhisattva ethic: The main thing for me was that kind of Bodhisattva ethic that you live your life in service to other people -- was the most profound thing I took away from that time. That sense that the suffering of all sentient beings, as an aspiration, and that we live in service to that, profoundly changed me.
- Shantideva story about peacocks: There's a very famous text by Shantideva called A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life which has this beautiful parable or story that I use in The Transition Handbook about the peacocks who live in a grove full of trees that drop poisonous berries. And these peacocks are able to eat these berries and turn them into this incredibly beautiful plumage. And he's talking about using suffering to cultivate compassion. But I used it to say we need to use the challenge of climate change and oil depletion and these other kinds of challenges and use that kind of compassionate Bodhisattva motivation to turn that into skillful kind, compassionate action.
- Raising family as a spiritual practice: I consider myself not a very good Buddhist. Once I had children, my teacher told me “your family is your practice” – it’s a patience practice and a generosity practice and a loving kindness practice like no other.
- Stories v. facts: I grew up in activist circles and I always found that the things that really worked for me, the people who really affected me and mobilized my activism were the people who gave me a sense of what might be possible. I noticed when I would give talks -- when I would do public speaking and stuff -- when I would show graphs of all the lines going in the wrong directions, people physically kind of disconnect. And then when I start telling stories, the body language changes and people lean into what you're saying. It's only recently that I've really come to think of what I do and how I do it as being about storytelling. I think of the Transition movement as being a movement of storytelling.
- Generating longing through stories: If there's one aim of the work that I do, it's to generate longing. If we talk about a post-carbon world in terms of facts and numbers, we're never going to get there. We have to create longing for it. So that you wake up in the morning hungry for that world. And that doesn't come from facts and figures. It comes from storytelling. It comes from images. It comes from a feeling, you know. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, it wasn't his idea. It wasn't JFK’s idea. We'd been going to the moon for decades. Frank Sinatra went to the moon. Tintin went to the moon. You know, everybody had been to the moon in stories and stories. And those stories created a longing in us collectively that meant it became inevitable that we would go there. And while there are some people like me who can read IPCC reports and terrifying reports on climate science and go, “Right. Okay. We need to get together and do some stuff. Let's go and set some things up,” it really doesn't work for everybody. And if we believe that it's going to work for everybody, we are profoundly deluding ourselves. We need the storytellers. We need the artists. We need the actors. We need everybody in order to make this work, you know? So for me, I want people to leave a talk that I've given having laughed-- because then they remember much more--having met other people, having connected with at least two or three other people in the room and had a conversation with them. I want them to go away with loads of stories that they can tell other people. I want them to go away with longing, for the kind of future that I've talked about, that we've shared, that we've imagined together.
- I don’t have the privilege of pessimism: If you don't feel deep grief and despair on a pretty regular basis, you're really not paying attention. But the is to not be paralyzed by it. Paul Hawken said if you read the climate science and you're not a pessimist, you haven't read it properly and go back and read it again. But if you spend any time among the movements of people around the world who were trying to do something about it, and you don't feel optimistic, then you don't have a heart. And that's kind of where I sit with it. You know, I feel like I don't have the privilege of pessimism. I owe my kids more than just sitting around grieving and lamenting and despairing about things. I owe my as-yet manifested grandchildren and everybody's grandchildren more than that.
- Role of inner work/”inner transition”: There were extraordinary women very early on in the evolution of the Transition movement, Sophie Banks and Hillary Prentice. After we'd been going for a couple of months, Sophie and Hillary came and knocked on my door and said, “you need to really pay attention to the inner in this process. This is not just an an outer process of solar panels, carrots, and, you can't build a movement that will sustain itself over time. If it's just purely based on doing things, you have to also put in place the tools for how you're going to sustain the kind of inner life in this movement. How are people going to cope with grief and disappointment and failure, and how are they going to have the inner resources to run meetings that are successful and manage conflicts and so on as well? And they were so right and brilliant. And actually the inner transition is now is now a completely integral part of the model.
- Focus on “inner work” is often gendered: “Inner transition” has been baked into the Transition movement since the beginning almost, whereas it was less so in the permaculture movement, which was “ a very kind of male or kind of ‘right, let's just do stuff,’ kind of Australian, male kind of movement.” “There are people within the Transition movement who just want to do things, and there are people within the Transition movement for whom it is largely an inner process and whose work is focused around supporting the movement. And often that can tend to be kind of gendered – often the men want to rush out and do things and the women pay attention to the process and the structure.” “I wouldn't claim that the Transition movement always gets it right. But as an organization to work in, Transition network has really embedded so many of those, we use sociocracy and we have very little kind of structure and very little kind of hierarchy, and work in different ways and develop a huge sort of culture of trust and care within that, in a way that I've never really been around, but I'm sure lots of other organizations do the same thing now. Fundamentally the thing is that we want to model new ways of doing things and we don't want to replicate, we don't want to create the organizations to build the new world working in the same way that the old world works.”
- Climate work as a marathon, not a sprint: This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. Those of us who do this work -- it's not something that we do for a couple of years, and then we go off and do something else. Once you've had your climate change “dark night of the soul,” this is your life's work.
- Other movements understanding the need for inner tools: I'm really heartened to see how movements now are really emerging like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. And, you know, are really speaking about burnout and prioritizing burnout and, and, and giving people the tools to manage burnout and the activists speaking very openly about it. And, that wasn't the case 20, 30 years ago.
- Time machine exercise – future must enter you long before it happens: Rob shared a time machine exercise he likes to do to spur imagination: I say to everybody that I bought a time machine with me, and when you turn it on, we're going to travel forward 10 years to 2030. And that the 2030 we arrive in is not utopia. It's not perfect by any means, but it is the result of a 10 year period within which absolutely everything that could possibly have been done was done. I invite people to walk around in that world. What does it sound like? What do you hear? What do you see? What does it smell like? What it tastes like? … Everyone sits in silence for two minutes and you could hear a pin drop and it’s quite an extraordinary thing, you know, then when people come back and they reflect on what it was and what they saw and what they heard. One of the dangers at the moment is that we have so many movements of extraordinary people doing extraordinary stuff. But then often, when we really sit down and talk about it, often people don't believe it's actually going to happen. You know, it really worries me that the great movements that are pushing to try and attain the great shifts around climate and social justice don't believe it's possible, and they fight for it anyway. But that piece of just allowing ourselves, even for two minutes, to believe that that future is something that we could touch into, feels so precious to me and so powerful. It comes back to that thing of longing. There's a beautiful quote by Rilke that says the future must enter you long before it happens. So how do we create those conditions where the future can kind of enter into us?
- Could be on verge of phenomenal future – or not – but you do what you do: You know, it could be that we are on the verge of the most phenomenal period of social trends and economic and cultural transformation in history – all the seeds are there. So many people in opinion polls now say that that's what they want. Overwhelming in so many countries, we don't want to go back to how things were before; we want a world that puts climate and changing climate justice at the heart of what it does. We want a world where the food isn't poisonous and we want a world where the air is clean and we want to come out of lockdown and not go back to how things were before. You know, so it could be that the next 10 years are that time of profound astonishing social transformation that our grandchildren will tell great tales about, and sing great songs about -- those phenomenal people in that period of time. Or it could be that actually we're on the verge of a sort of global fascist collapse and all manner of horrors, you know. And I don't know, but I was thinking Joanna Macy always says, well, the fact that you don't know where something's going to go, doesn't mean that you don't keep working for the good things. You do what you do. … It's that kind of Bodhisattva motivation, is you do what you do. And you put one foot in front of another, but you have to do that, I think, with a really dynamic storytelling that enables the cultivation of longing for something extraordinary.
- Coronavirus opening the imagination and sense of possible: Whether we’re talking about spaces for play in our culture, curbing impacts on our environment, how to spend time at work and home, etc., “all the things we were told were totally impossible, actually it turns out aren’t impossible.”
- The world as fractal: adrienne brown, author of Emergent Strategy, tells us that the world is a fractal and the things that we start at the small scale are what become the big scale things. And she just says all the time, you know, go back and start building out from where you are with a belief that what you're building is part of a fractal and something that will kind of grow out and expand.
- Inspiring big change through stories: The way I see Transition impacting and inspiring politicians is that it gives them stories. It gives people stories that they can take and they can see that the things they might have thought were impossible were possible and that people are mobilizing and making those things happen. One of the things I've learned from the Transition is that change doesn't work in kind of predictable linear ways. You never know who is going to find something, pick something up, pass it on to somebody else, who's going to then send it to so-and-so who's then going to give it to...
- Changing municipal policy in Berlin: Just one tiny little story. I went to Berlin a few years ago and their Transition group in Kreuzberg, which is a neighborhood in the middle of Berlin. They have a park in the middle of Kreuzberg which is a big park. It is a bit of a dodgy place. You might not go there after dark unless you wanted to buy drugs. During the daytime it's used by a lot by families. It's like a bit of an edgy place, like a lot of people's parks. They came up with this idea to make an orchard. They wanted to plant 30 fruit trees in this park. It took them two years to get the permissions from the local government to plant these trees. Everyone said, "Oh don't bother they'd all just get vandalized. What's the point?" They planted the trees, beautiful, big, strong trees. And the year after they planted these trees, the municipality changed all their regulations to say, "Everything we now plant as a municipality has to be an edible plant." I always think, "Where did that policy come from?" It came from the moment those people sat down together and said, "So are we going to do this then?" "Yeah." "All right, let's do it." From then the idea went around the world and it went to different places.
- The way I always thought of permaculture was that it's like a design glue that we use to think about not just agricultural and ecological systems, but economic systems and social systems. It’s the design system for the post carbon world.
- When found when I studied permaculture in 1992, it was as though somebody took the top of my skull and kind of rewired my brain – I felt like it moved me from being able to see things as they are to see things as they could be. It profoundly changed the way that I looked at the world and what I felt was possible. It is a kind of a make-over for your imagination.
The diversity of Totnes is racially pretty uniform. It's a small rural market town in the Southwest of England. The diversity that we deal with is more around people who are economically very disenfranchised, the disparity between great wealth and real poverty in a town that looks from the outside like it's doing really well, but actually has real pockets of deprivation. … When I came to the US 10 years ago and did an event with Doria Robinson from Urban Tilth in Richmond, California, and I was saying, "People say, 'Why are these movements of middle-class white people?'" I said, "Because at the moment they are largely based on volunteerism. They can't pay anybody anything. So they depend on volunteers. People who tend to volunteer tend to be people who have some time in their life. They tend to be people whose life experience is that if they try and change things, those things might actually change which, of course, is really not a lot of people's experience.’” It's when we start making jobs for people that it starts to really change. And that's been a big sort of thread within the Transition movement. Black Lives Matter and the kind of revolution of the last few months has been something that has impacted the Transition movement in the same way that it's impacted many movements. The conversations that are happening now are conversations that should have happened a long, long, long time ago. Many people who should have done the work a long time ago are doing the work now. We're really looking into how to be an awful lot better at doing this because I don't think we've really been as good as we should have been at all.
How to have conversations with those committed to traditional, legacy systems
If you're going to have those conversations with people in a country or in a place, a culture, where people think anything other than capitalism is completely unimaginable, you need to have some stories that you can tell them about what's happening in other places and how that approach might actually meet the needs of the place you are better. And what are the needs of the place where you live? Well, maybe we could meet those better. And what are the externalities that nobody's talking about in terms of what's happening, in your own place? What's happening with that?
And maybe start something that tells a different story. Even if you start with something small, maybe you start a repair cafe or something, then that just starts to give people a different sense of how we might relate to things. Maybe you might think of something a bit more ambitious. You might start a restaurant which just uses food that would otherwise be thrown away and turns it into really amazing food that people can afford to eat. Or maybe you get a bit more ambitious and you start like the brewery that we started in my town, which now has 270 owners in the community who will feel like it's their brewery and we make fabulous beer and we employ people. You know, maybe do something that is a physical manifestation because the quality of the conversation is quite different when we're speaking quite abstractly about things that might be happening in the world, compared to actually saying, “come and see my brewery.” When people can see it, taste it, and feel it and interact with it and hang out in it, they have a very, very different way of interacting to what you're telling them.
On the role of trust and surrender, or “do nothing” farming
I would say if anybody listening to this hasn't read the One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, then really go for it. It's brilliant. I always remember a little story – about eight years ago when Transition had really gotten started, I got rung up by this organization of successful business people, and they said, "You are a social entrepreneur!" And I was like, "oh really? Thank you very much. That's very nice of you." And they said, "well, we'd like you to come up to London and give a 15 minute presentation about what you do. And if we like what you do, we are all successful business-type people and we will support you in different ways. We can offer you help in different things."
So I went up to their 13th floor office in London to this long glass table, and I gave this presentation about Transition. And when it finished, there was this long silence and this guy said, "so what you've done is create a powerful brand, and given it away for free to people all over the world, over whom you have no control whatsoever." I said, "yeah, yeah, that's absolutely what we've done." And he said, "that's completely mad." And I said, "but it works, it works because there's such a lot of trust in that." And I think there is a lot of trust in Transition. There is a lot of trust in emergence, and I think in lots of ways, you can't do Transition if you're a control freak. It just doesn't work at all because it totally finds its own patterns. And I always think it's much more like you are trying to inoculate a place with a culture, a kind of microbial culture. And it will run, and it is a cultural process more than anything else. And you are trying to change the stories a place tells about itself and about what might be possible. And it will run, and sometimes it will fruit in places you expect and you anticipated; sometimes it will fruit in other places you had absolutely no idea were ever going to be a thing.
And you know, the way that we designed the Transition movement and Transition network as a set of tools and principles and values, and just let it go with an invitation to do it -- you know, we did not design Transition like a Coca Cola franchise; we designed it as an invitation to experiment and that everything is free, the only commitment is that you share your stories. And that for me, feels like part of what has enabled it to spread so fast and what has kind of given it, its longevity in that wherever you go, Transition will look kind of the same and kind of always different. And there's a kind of humility to that, I think, that I really, really love, and I don't question at all. But there is a lot of trust in emergence. Absolutely. And within Transition network, as well, and how we work as an organization, there's a lot of trust in emergence and the solutions will emerge from creating the right conditions for the solutions.
There's a lovely expression from Antanas Mockus that I quote in the book, who was the former mayor of Bogota, who I just love, who said something like "we need to be perfecting the art of writing the first half of a provocative question on the blackboard and then sitting back and allowing people to respond to it in different ways." And that kind of feels to me like what we're trying to do.
Resources suggested by Rob
- The Hand Sculpted House, by Ianto Evans and others, “which is one of the most awesome books on building ever. It's beautiful.”
- Sherry Turkle “wrote this incredible book”, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
- Sven Birkerts wrote a book I love the most, called Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age which is all about attention and imagination. He says we are losing the very paradigm of depth.
- Nicholas Carr wrote a brilliant book called The Shallows where he said that our relationship to knowledge always used to be something we would dive deep into. When you have the sustained attention to dive deep into knowledge, that's where wisdom comes from in a culture.
- Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life (peacock story)
- I'm reading a brilliant book by adrienne maree brown called emergent strategy, which I'm just absolutely loving.
- David Holmgren in his brilliant book in 2004 called Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, kind of reframed permaculture as the design system for the post carbon world.
- Rob Shorter created an imagination sundial – a model of space, place, practices, and pacts that support imagination
- One of the novels that sustains me is a novel by a novelist called John Crowley called Little, Big. As an artist, I just really love a book by Herman Hesse called Klingsor’s Last Summer about a painter nearing the end of his life living everything with great intensity. It's a beautiful piece of writing.
- The Essential Guide to Doing Transition (free download) is a really good sort of primer to get you started on doing this work.
- Arundhati Roy gave this beautiful webinar that I attended where she said coronavirus has been like an MRI scan of our societies. It has shown up the inequalities, the systemic racism and the economic injustices and all of those things.
- there's an incredible book I read a long time before called Wilding by Isabella Tree about a re-wilding project in the Southeast of England. She talks about how within two or three years of re-wilding their land and stopping managing it intensively, there were birds and species arriving that people had thought were extinct there for 20, 30, 40 years.
- I recently started doing a new podcast series called From What If to What Next? which is on Patreon, patreon.com, which is a podcast where subscribers send in their "what if" questions and I go and find the best two people to help explore them.
- if anybody listening to this hasn't read the One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, then really go for it. It's brilliant.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!