Early in The Interview below, Rob Hopkins totally surprised me.
I asked about this massive endeavor, about the epic struggle to build a more resilient world in just the next 20-30 years, when scientists tell us the climate s____t will start hitting the fan harder than ever and only worsen from there.
That is one tight window, I said. If ever we needed a worldwide high dose of fresh, original thinking, of fantastic outside-the-box ideas to solve this puzzle on time, that time is now.
And Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network movement sweeping the world and author of an upcoming seminal book on imagination, is quite the expert on both subjects, climate resilience and imagination.
He set up his answer, smartly I thought, by referring to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and how the book xrays the crisis voluminously and posits solutions exhaustively.
Cool, I thought. He’s about to solve the riddle. This really was the man to ask.
Then, of all things he could have said, of all the Big Solutions he could have weaved together into one powerful, super compelling silver bullet, he dropped the one I would have never considered.
“One of the things that most fascinated me [from the book]…”
He paused briefly there, as if digging deep, looking for THE words to enlighten, surely the answer the world so needs to hear.
Whaaaat? Cortisol? Is that it? Could this really be the best the great Rob Hopkins can come up with?
Well, actually, yes! Indeed, as the interview progressed, it became clear he could not have come up with a more powerful, imaginative observation.
Not just because it is surprising, but because it really does cut right to the core of the matter.
Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. One of its jobs, as Hopkins explains, is to put us on guard in the face of danger. It descends on and totally focuses the brain’s hippocampus, but one of the casualties is, sure enough, imaginative thinking.
Maslow kicks in. We fall into basic safety and physiological needs and put creativity and big ideas aside.
Today, “we are more and more awash with cortisol from trying to constantly keep up with the present, with the media bombarding us with bad news, as our attention span becomes shattered by social media and smartphones.”
And then the point landed.
“As the cortisol rises, the imagination shrinks. So I start to worry whether the further we get into climate change, we become less able to imagine the way out of it. So now is the window when we really have to fire up the imagination.”
The window is now, but with so much to do, in every city, in every company and community — and yes, with cortisol now this force setting back our ability to respond. How, then? What to do?
Hopkins surprised once more, with an answer, as it turns out, found uniquely in the world’s 2,500-or-so Transition communities — the 2,000 they know are running plus another (my guess) 500 “they don’t tell us about.”
“The key way to do this faster and at scale is not with a silver bullet, but with a silver buckshot.”
Another whaaaat moment. We’ve been looking in the wrong place, it may be — or better said, most of us in climate resilience tend to focus on one front: top-down infrastructure rebuilding and future-risk modeling and coastal relocations and other such heavy stuff that crowds the busy desks of city planners and corporate risk managers.
But there beckoning, hands raised, meriting every bit of our attention and, in fact, emulation, is the bottom-up buckshot, a reference to rifle shots that scatter pellets, as opposed to that one bullet that hits a single target.
These pellets, though — imaginative grassroots solutions developed at the community level — may appear scattered when looking at a bunch of communities from 30,000 feet. When honing in, however, we see clearly each pellet is as aimed and intentional as any big-stuff bullet.
The spread of such communities absolutely multiplies effective solutions — far more people in far more places doing far more things than the world’s city and corporate managers can do alone.
This dispersion and decentralization of initiative is, in fact, the one way to counter the expansion of cortisol. One massive force racing another to the finish line (collapse).
For the world’s sake, the resilience buckshots better win, allowing us to keep pushing that finish line farther and farther into the future, until it disappears and we’re able to manage whatever the climate throws at us.
“When you work at the community scale, you can work so much faster than when you’re waiting for the cavalry to come riding to the rescue,” Hopkins said.
Transition communities, in that sense, have become the world’s primary laboratories of high-speed local action. The examples and case studies, and the inspiring stories produced for the rest of the world to learn and follow, have become the richest of menus.
“I’ve come to see the Transition movement as being more a network of storytelling, a vibrant catalyst for bringing people together to build a new…” — he said a new “economy,” when really, they’re building nothing less than a new model of sustainable, resilient development.
The stories, he says, “tell a delicious narrative about the future we can still create. A lot of what we have done in Transition is to paint that picture,” a counter to the bad-news picture that fills our brains with that hormone of lost productivity.
That, in turn, multiplies buckshots even more, which explains how Transition has mushroomed to 2,500 locations in only 12 years.
Creative envisioning is but one of eight principles at the heart of Transition. After much trial and error, Hopkins says, several common traits have emerged that make this a highly replicable model, most importantly, perhaps, “an appropriate degree of localization” and a high degree of community ownership. Hopkins himself launched a craft brewery and is now in the process of transferring ownership to a pool of community residents.
In The Interview, he cites numerous examples of locations that have transitioned from the typical model of corporate ownership, mostly companies outside the city, to one where most economic activity is generated by small local companies, collectives and cooperatives — called the REconomy in the Transition movement.
The autonomy is one of the traits that will make these communities more resilient when climate change disrupts distant supply chains, particularly of food and critical goods.
Nimble, decentralized, community-based leadership, meanwhile, reduces a region’s vulnerability to cascading dependencies and forces from outside.
Ditto with energy. Distributed rooftop and microgrid generation favored by Transition members ensures supply when natural disasters down conventional power lines and plants.
But while these characteristics enhance resilience, they don’t exist in a vacuum. “We’ve never said that all you need is Transition,” Hopkins said. “That would be ridiculous.”
The model, that is, includes a healthy relationship with governments and other stakeholders.
“Enlightened local government leadership is one of the new areas of exploration in Transition,” everything from incentives for those REconomy businesses to coordinated disaster response.
“As we say in Transition, if I try to do it myself, it will be too little. If we wait for the government, it will be too late. If we get together with the people around us, it might be enough, and it might be on time.”
Hopkins knows Transition is not a good fit for every location. It requires abundant social capital, a certain boldness and disposition to experiment, and naturally, the geographic conditions that shield a community from as many climate impacts as possible.
When sea levels, for example, rise to permanently flood a coastal region, even the most committed Transition community will have to retreat.
“There are some places where people [won’t] be able to stay, places becoming uninhabitable,” he said.
At “just” 2,500 and considering the colossal number of communities in cities around the world where this can, indeed, work, Transition is just getting started — if only it moves fast enough to outlast that paralyzing invader of the hippocampus.
We leave you now with Rob Hopkins in his own words, speaking from his home in Totnes, UK.