From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of the Imagination to Create the Future We Want. Rob Hopkins (2019). White River Junction, VT; London, UK: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Reviewed by Valentine McKay-Riddell, PhD
Normally a book review starts at the beginning of the book—that’s the logical progression, after all. But having just finished reading Rob Hopkin’s amazing reimagination of the future, I’ll begin this review with a quote from his last chapter:
I dream that these twenty years when the climate crisis, the collapse of the world’s biodiversity, the unravelling of democracy and the multitude of other challenges converging on us with great urgency have been slowed down and even turned around, the years when the great rebuilding is well underway, will be the time of our lives. I dream that because imagination is at its heart, it will be a time of great music, great writing, great conversation, great art, great dancing. Our streets will fill with play and with the unexpected, with mime artists directing the traffic. Our lives will fill with everyday awe.….What if the approach outlined here, and the great rekindling of the collective imagination, actually came to pass? What if? And why not? (Hopkins, 2019, pp. 181-2)
From What Is to What If introduces the main premise with a question: What if things turned out OK? Rob shows us a world in which people walk or bicycle to jobs perfectly suited to their interests and abilities through lovely parks and urban gardens; housing is sustainably created and affordable to all; schools have free play, creative arts, and community-mentored skills training as required parts of the curriculum; and food is sustainably produced and distributed through local small farms and coops.
The next question, What if we took play seriously? is explored at length in the first chapter, and brought back a happy memory.
When we were children, my sisters and I had only a few toys. Among them was a pair of stilts. We easily learned how to use the stilts, but teetering around a few feet above the ground wasn’t nearly as much fun as turning them upside down, using the foot straps for reins, and galloping around the neighborhood whinnying and yelling “Yee haw!” as both rider and horse. There were no cell phones, no personal computers, and television had just begun to come into its own—we were only allowed to watch it an hour or two in the afternoon, after doing our homework. Children today would bemoan the lack of these stimuli, but we never missed them. Our days were full of spontaneous games and unexpected adventures, keeping the boys out of our “girls only” clubhouse, and running barefoot after the ice cream truck over hot, freshly tarred gravel—while our nights were magical, spent capturing fireflies in jars (with holes poked in the lids) to use as fairy lanterns, until our parents called us in for bed. Did we take this seriously? Absolutely! Ours was a richly interactive child’s world, bounded only peripherally by parental expectations and a few prohibitions—and quite unlike the world of children today.
Yet, the more of Rob’s book I read, the more delighted and encouraged I became. In every chapter he outlines not just Western culture’s loss of imagination, innocence, and joy, but precisely how to regain these precious treasures, recounting story after story of cities, towns, and villages around the world where ordinary citizens have become inspired to create visceral experiences of the kind of future we all want (whether we know this or not). Examples (each one experienced personally by the author) range from:
- Creating safe space, time, and community acceptance for kids’ free play outdoors, even in crowded urban areas, such as Playing Out, on Howard Road in Bristol: A national initiative supporting parents who want to close their street off to motorized traffic for short periods of time so that children are in charge, not cars.
- Creating free art programs for people who are mentally and/or emotionally challenged, such as Art Angel, in Dundee, Scotland: An alternative to mainstream psychiatric treatment and hospitals offering people (called “artists” rather than “patients” or “clients”) personal warmth and connection as well as structure, routine, community and the chance to create something tangible and meaningful.
- Creating local “banks” managed by ordinary citizens who design their own currency with which to purchase sustainably raised products and neighborhood services.
- Creating schools that not only foster imagination but nurture the whole person; schools that teach a child how to live in the world so that “what they love, what they’re good at, what the world needs, and what they can be paid for” intersect in what they wind up doing with their life—thus providing children with what the Japanese call “ikigai”—a reason for being. Schools that follow the “Reggio Emilia” approach, that hold that children have rights, not just needs, and that they are “authors of their own education;” schools like the École Domaine du Possible in Arles, France; or Den Grǿenne Friskole (The Green Free School) in Copenhagen; and many more.
- Designing pathways that facilitate imagining a positive future, based on the firm belief that we create our reality through imagination. We live the stories we’ve written for ourselves (often completely unaware that that’s what’s happening), and we can rewrite those stories in any way we choose. Currently, our culture—films, books, music, dance, and much of our visual art—is currently mired in what fantasy author Amanda Rowland calls “grimdark” (greed, malice, selfishness) versus “hopepunk” (capacity for good, generosity, “radical kindness”). However, authors like Rowland and Moshin Hamid (Exit West) are working to reverse this trend, writing stories that tell “How Things Turned Out OK.” Visual artists have pitched in as well: James McKay guides people out of the dystopian present into a brighter future by setting up easels on the street and inviting passers-by to add their vision of, say, a carbon-free world to the picture he is drawing.
From What Is to What If? is so full of rich examples of how to reach that brighter future that there’s only room for a few of them here. But if you’ve grown tired (as I have) of the posturing, political rhetoric, hatred, and violence that daily captures headlines in our newspapers, magazines, films, and television programs, that spews social media-driven vitriol through our cell phones onto our breakfast tables, Rob Hopkins will inspire you to keep on dreaming, to imagine and create the positive future we all remember and long for.