Collective Imagination with Rob Hopkins

by | September 02, 2020 | Permaculture Education, Permaculture Podcast | 0 comments

In this episode I am delighted to be sharing with you a conversation with Rob Hopkins, champion of the collective imagination, author of ‘From What is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want‘ and co-founder of the Transition Town Movement that emerged out of an extended permaculture design course he was teaching in Ireland.

His other books include:
The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action can Change the World (2013)
The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (2008)
The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times (2013)

I caught up with Rob in his home town of Totnes last year – nearby to Schumacher College where he is a regular contributor. We recorded this interview in the Transition Town Totnes office. He is one of the most ethical and interesting thinkers I know with a grounding in permaculture too. It’s no wonder he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and the Observer’s list of Britains 50 New Radicals.

I hope you enjoy this conversation with Rob, check out his podcast too, From What is to What If, and follow him on Twitter.

Tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Youtube or any of your preferred podcast platforms.



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I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I live and work – the Gubbi Gubbi people. And I pay my respects to their elders past present and emerging.

Read the Full Transcript

Morag Gamble: Welcome to the sense-making in a changing world podcast, where we explore the kind of thinking we need to navigate a positive way forward. I’m your host Morag Gamble.. Permaculture Educator, and Global Ambassador, Filmmaker, Eco villager, Food Forester, Mother, Practivist and all around lover of thinking, communicating and acting regeneratively. For a long time it’s been clear to me that to shift trajectory to a thriving one planet way of life we first need to shift our thinking, the way we perceive ourselves in relation to nature, self, and community is the core. So this is true now more than ever. And even the way change is changing, is changing. Unprecedented changes are happening all around us at a rapid pace. So how do we make sense of this? To know which way to turn, to know what action to focus on? So our efforts are worthwile and nourishing and are working towards resilience, regeneration, and reconnection. What better way to make sense than to join together with others in open generative conversation.

Morag Gamble: In this podcast, I’ll share conversations with my friends and colleagues, people who inspire and challenge me in their ways of thinking, connecting and acting. These wonderful people thinkers, doers, activists, scholars, writers, leaders, farmers, educators, people whose work informs permaculture and spark the imagination of what a post-COVID, climate-resilient, socially just future could look like. Their ideas and projects help us to make sense in this changing world to compost and digest the ideas and to nurture the fertile ground for new ideas, connections and actions. Together we’ll open up conversations in the world of permaculture design, regenerative thinking community action, earth, repair, eco-literacy, and much more. I can’t wait to share these conversations with you.

Morag Gamble: Over the last three decades of personally making sense of the multiple crises we face I always returned to the practical and positive world of permaculture with its ethics of earth care, people care and fair share. I’ve seen firsthand how adaptable and responsive it can be in all contexts from urban to rural, from refugee camps to suburbs. It helps people make sense of what’s happening around them and to learn accessible design tools, to shape their habitat positively and to contribute to cultural and ecological regeneration. This is why I’ve created the Permaculture Educators Program to help thousands of people to become permaculture teachers everywhere through an interactive online dual certificate of permaculture design and teaching. We sponsor global Permayouth programs, women’s self help groups in the global South and teens in refugee camps. So anyway, this podcast is sponsored by the Permaculture Education Institute and our Permaculture Educators Program. If you’d like to find more about permaculture, I’ve created a four-part permaculture video series to explain what permaculture is and also how you can make it your livelihood as well as your way of life. We’d love to invite you to join our wonderfully inspiring, friendly and supportive global learning community. So I welcome you to share each of these conversations, and I’d also like to suggest you create a local conversation circle to explore the ideas shared in each show and discuss together how this makes sense in your local community and environment. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I meet and speak with you today.. The Gubbi Gubbi people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Morag Gamble: Hi It’s Morag Gamble from Our Permaculture Life and the Permaculture Education Institute. It’s my great pleasure to be here today with Rob Hopkins.

Rob Hopkins: Hello!

Morag Gamble: In Totnes, actually!

Rob Hopkins: Welcome!

Morag Gamble: Thank you. It’s been years since I came here. Transition Town Totnes was happening back then. So the focus that I have in the work that I do and all the materials I create is around Permaculutre and I know that’s kind of where you started with the whole Transition Town. Could you take us back and..

Rob Hopkins: Tell you my Permaculture story?

Morag Gamble: Yeah that would be a good place to start.

Rob Hopkins: So when I was about 22, 23 or something…I went traveling, uh, in India and Pakistan and China and traveled upto mountains and I was traveling with a guy called Chris, who was from Maleny Crystal Waters, Permaculture Village.

Morag Gamble: Oh that’s where I’m from.

Rob Hopkins: Chris, Chris Gwyn.

Morag Gamble: No way. You’re kidding me.

Rob Hopkins: Really I travelled with Chris because Chris is Buddhist and we both met in Dharamsala.

Morag Gamble: He’s my neighbor.

Rob Hopkins: It’s a small world.

Rob Hopkins: It is a small world!

Rob Hopkins: So Chris and I and somebody else this guy called Dave. So we traveled through Pakistan and Chris at the time was writing. He would send a little sort of like mini articles back for these local permaculture magazine. And every time we run into anywhere with Permaculture, he got very excited and started writing, writing new things. I mean, he kept talking about Permaculture. This is permaculture and I have no idea what he was talking about. And then we went to the Hunza Valley, which is which, which I now recognize as being one of the great original permacultures. And, uh, he was like beside himself with permaculture, further dashing about writing off of these articles about how lazy I was. And cause I didn’t know what permaculture was, but I remember it had a real impact on me that place I’d never been anywhere that felt so kind of a content or sort of resilience and sort of, there was something really extraordinary about it that had a real impression of me.

Morag Gamble: A similar experience I had was spending time up in Ladakh. I went up there in 1992 spent almost a year. It had a similar impact on me. This is what it means to be well. Exactly. It’s content. People are content and simple. Natural food. A community. Excellent music. It was fun and and I just went… what are we doing?

Rob Hopkins: Yeahh! So I, um, so then when I traveled with Chris, he kept talking about permaculture. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then when I got back to England, a friend of mine gave me a copy of the designer’s manual. Just like, Oh, enjoy this. Really nice present. So you might enjoy this. So, and it completely blew me away. It was like that concept of earth repair. I was like, wow, she has written a book about earth repair, it’s just amazing. So then I found out it was a permaculutre group in Bristol and I kind of harassed them until they organize the design course. I want to do the design course, which kind of rewired my brain really. And then I..

Morag Gamble: Can we just stop there for a minute. When you say rewire your brain I hear a lot of people saying it. What is it about permaculture courses that you think helps you rewire people’s brains? What is it that shifts?

Rob Hopkins: The way I talk about it is, is, um, I, in [inaudible] called They Live? Have you ever seen that film? It’s hilarious. It’s the beginning of it is beautiful, there’s this guy going down this alleyway and he finds this box full of sunglasses and he takes out these sunglasses and he kind of puts them on. And when he puts them on, you can see the world in a completely different way. So you can see that actually half the people that are aliens..and they say things like shine your hair with whatever. [inaudible] it was like, it gives me my kind of, um, possibilities glasses of looking at things in a very different way and looking at spaces and thinking actually it doesn’t have to be like that. It could be like this. And it gave me the tools to be able to think about what it could be like. Uh, I think that was an, and, and it rewires your brain to think in systems and connection rather than isolation, isolating things down, which is very much the culture we grew up in. So then I did a degree that was the first sort of sustainability degree at the time, which thank God I did a permaculture course first because otherwise I’ve jumped off a bridge halfway to the ashes. I need some of the tutors. Occasionally they say it was so great. Cause we learned loads from… And then, uh, then we moved to Ireland then basically spent 10 years just trying stuff out. So we did a kind of ecovillage project and built cob houses and then for college I started the first two year full time course.

Morag Gamble: That sounds amazing.

Rob Hopkins: Yeah. Which was, which was amazing. It’s only really coming here that I really see how amazing it was. You know, that actually there was this little fertile edge in the Irish education system with this very visionary principal who I went to and said, I’ve got this idea, John, for this school.. I even have a friend and he told John the other day I got this idea for a course.. and never heard of Permaculuture before. He said, yeah… how many people would you, how many people do you think would want to do it? I said, well, how many do you need? He said, well, if you got 15, we could run it the first year. So the first year we had 24 and then every year after that we had 40, we could have filled it twice and we built forest gardens and gardens.. The last year I was there. We built a theater hall theater out of all materials from within five miles.

Morag Gamble: What do you think people are attracted to do it a 2-year course in Permaculture in Ireland. Because I know in Australia people would love to do it but they get to the point of thinking.. You know, there’s no kind of job. People get stuck on thinking and it always still stayed in the hobby world.

Rob Hopkins: Well it was a one year course. And then in the last year I was there, we added a second year on this. A lot of people just really liked it. They were like, can we, can we do some more? So the half of it was a one year course then it was like an expanded design course with loads of practical stuff. Um, why do people do? I think it was, in Ireland you can do a course like that for free and it was great. I had ended up with an opportunity to design the permaculuture course I would have really liked to do. And we went to see loads of great projects and move to trips and tell them..

Morag Gamble: Do you know what people started to do after they did that course? Did they go out and..

Rob Hopkins: I think at the time, I don’t think there was a particular.. I think that kind of emphasis that says, okay, how can we create enterprises and livelihoods? This wasn’t such a big part of it. But now suddenly with the transition movement we have put that more strongly.. I think, but at the time, yeah, there are some people who went off and did and maybe started started buiilding companies or gardeners. Quite a lot of people then have actually settled around then started interesting businesses. So there’s some good kind of CSA, vegetable growth production stuff in there. So it’s like you build this and be like, like with Totnes where you’ve got dances and art college for years. And so there’s loads of people stay and then you’ve got a much more creative terms.

Morag Gamble: So how did you transition from that to where you are now?

Rob Hopkins: So I was teaching permaculture and permaculture was my main sort of everything I suppose. And then in 2004, so we’ve, we were doing an ecovillage project with another family and we were two, the first two houses we’ve been, but we’re building cob houses the first new cob houses is built for a hundred years or something in Ireland.

Morag Gamble: Oh really that’s quite significant.

Rob Hopkins: Yeah…. There was loads of volunteers and people healped out building. So the houses were about six months off being finished. And then around that October all sort of different things happened at once. So I had my kind of [inaudible] how much sort of climate change sort of dark night of the soul, you know, I was like, what really thinking. Wow. Okay. Um, and, Someone burned our house down. We had an, Oh, we had an arson attack on this house that we’d spent two years building, which was the most beautiful thing. It was really, really traumatic. So I was reading David Holmgren’s book came out Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability. So I had a friend who was living with us at the time and we were reading it. And then we’d meet up for breakfast every morning and discuss every chapter on that. That sort of blew my mind that book because it really sort of put permaculture right at but it’s sort of sound like he just drifted off and he put it right back in the middle and said this is the design system for the energy crisis and the climate crisis. And it was so skillful and rich just like when you say, it’s like the most delicious chocolate cake you’ve ever had. You can’t just eat all in one go, just enough to have really thin little slices then go and lie down in a dark room between each one and digest it.

Morag Gamble: It’s a bit like the original Permaculture designs You can’t just sit down and read that either.

Rob Hopkins: Oh yeah.

Morag Gamble: I totally get what you’re saying.

Rob Hopkins: So some had this, then this period of like 8 months of thinking what now? What do we do? And uh, the last, so I had a year, I taught for a the way, so all of that sort of chaos in like October over the year was sort of digested and turned into a project that I gave the second year students. Which was to say, okay, your main project for the rest of this year is if the town of Kinsale what to over 20 years, make the journey from where it is now completely oil dependent for everything to a place where that wasn’t the case anymore. How would it do that? How would you tell that story? What would it look like? The incoming design, what that would look like year by year. So I gave different combinations to students to try, right? You three are doing food and you guys are doing tourism. You guys are doing education. You guys are doing whatever. And, uh, you know, and this is to see this as an enormous opportunity. So they went off and then they do these projects. And over the year we went to see interesting things and research and lots of stuff. So at the end, they all said, they’ll hand it in their assignments at the end of the year, which were this kind of timetable, like telling the story and like, how do these things align? Well, more than doing the teacher stuff. I thought, actually this is amazing. I had never seen anything like this before. So then, so I wrote like a flawed sort of.. Introducing the project, produced it. So put them altogether. So they were like a little book. And then I used the last bit of my budget and just printed 500 copies of this. So the last thing I did before I left Ireland and came here was we organized a conference called Few in the Future. There was a kind of peak oil climate conference. Richard Holmberg came as one of the speakers. And we, we had this thing that we’d made and we had these companies and we didn’t formally launch it or anything. We just had them almost apologeticly on for sale at the back of the hall. Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan we called it and there it was on the table at the back of the hall. And Richard, I gave Richard a copy and he took it away and came back the next morning. And he said, that is amazing. That is the missing piece that we’ve all been waiting for. That is absolutely brilliant. I need to go home and brought copies with him back to America. He wrote about it. We put it online. Someone in Australia ordered a hundred copies!

Morag Gamble: Yeah! Particularly around the Sunshine Coast Area at Millington and the whole Sunshine Coast Transition Town was massive.

Rob Hopkins: Yeahh. So, so that’s the hundred that went off in the box to Australia and then, and then we put it online. It was downloaded thousands of times. So when we moved here in 2005 kind of with nothing really, but thinking, yeah, there was something in that project that was really interesting. And then some of the students who are in Kinsale stayed on in Kinsale and they came up with this term ‘transition town’ to carry on to, which was basically it, it was a name that referred to them, trying to make the energy to some kind of reality, and they took it to the town council. He said, we endorsed this and we’ll give you 5,000 to do something with it. So then things just started taking off.

Morag Gamble: That’s brilliant! Gosh! Oh so now you’re in Totnes and you’ve here for quite some time. And Totnes was already quite an interesting town already. So receptive ground for some change? I’d be interested to hear how you see towns…that are… As I come from a Laney area. And so similarly, we have this kind of receptive ground for new ideas. So if you are to go into a town or there’s few people in town there’s not much happening already. Have you seen transition town coming from a village or a nice different context because.. I am asking this question as I was just talking into the Beyond Development Course in Schumacher college and the students were, were exploring all these different ideas. They said, yeah, that’s really great. I love it, I’d love to see it! Well, I can just see it in my town.. I don’t even know where to start? Can’t even imagine where I can begin with this. And so I guess I’m kind of bringing that question back to this conversation. If it’s… Starting from the very start, what are some of the things that kind of spark the imagination of that community or the interesting in starting on this journey?

Rob Hopkins: So, uh, so I think through what is important about, um, how about Totnes is is, yeah, it is, uh, it’s a place has a long history of being a sort of creative sort of different place. And a friend of mine did a PhD a while ago that said, well, why is that? And it’s kind of the various things in the, in the town’s history. But one of the things he pointed out was that he said, Hey, across the UK, there are six or seven of what you call an arboratory towns. St. Hampton Bridge, Stroud, Louis, Totnes toddlers, places like that, which have a history of being attracting, maybe a higher number of sort of culturally creative people and being quite tolerant and far enough away from London to develop their own kind of identity. And there are places where people try stuff out like Maleny and if they don’t work, then it’s just another mad idea from Maleny. But sometimes those ideas do take off and then they spread everywhere. So the first vegetable box scheme in the UK was came from here. The first transition project was here. So, uh, I like to think of us as the sort of Silicon Valley of resilience.

Morag Gamble: That’s wonderful.

Rob Hopkins: With better a coffee. Uh, um, uh, yeah, so I forgot what your question was, uhmmmm…oh how we got started. There’s a nest somewhere of, of, of sort of places that became transition towns. And the order they did this is…. And the first 10 or 15 kind of places you’d expect Totnes, Brixton, Stroud…then it, and then it kind of carried on spreading out into all kinds of different places. And actually there’s lots of places where it has happened that you really wouldn’t think would be that kind of place. And I think, you know, now we were seeing that transition is an experiment and it’s been a 12-year experiment and we run all the spirit of, we didn’t know how to do it, but if enough people have a go, maybe we can maybe together, we can figure it out.

Morag Gamble: So have you had any…when it all started back in Kinsale, you probably had no idea? What do you think were kind of the key things that spark interest in it so much that it’s just become, this growing phenomenon.

Rob Hopkins: Sometimes people imagine that we just, like, we sort of plotted it like some sort of, burst up like a start up something. Initially the idea was, could we come up with something that might work here in this town that was only, that was the motivation. And then we’ll leave them. We had the launch event here in 2006 in September, there were people who turned up here from like Falmouth and London and all sort of places. I was like how did they even heard about it because there wasn’t a ton, it was an old blog I was doing called transition culture. And, uh, yeah, it’s amazing. So I think, yeah, I think it was something that was really timely because at the time there were lots of people who were really waking up to what was happening in terms of climate change and, and, uh, and all the various other things. And a lot of the responses that were out there were very fear-based responses. What do we do? We go up into the mountains with the baked beans and toilet paper and firearms, you know, that’s somehow that’s the solution. And I think because tradition said, no, no, no, no, no, no. We figured this out where we are with the people around us. And we figured this out by rebuilding social connections. And we figured this out by coming together rather than going further apart and with a model, which is based as, which is a compassionate response to this crisis. Um, and which has a degree of humility built into it from the beginning. It says we don’t have all the solutions, but maybe we can figure out together. Uh, we kind designed transition network from the outset to be very, uh, term enabled self-organizing to have a very loose set of principles and values that people felt they could identify with and sit within. It wasn’t onerous to become a transition town and it was quite light touch, but you felt part of a network. And we always said to people, all the stuff is free, is free to have to pay membership fee. The only condition is you share your stories. So it became like a network of storytelling and exchange. And I was often tell the story about how about eight years ago, I got invited up to learn by this organization that supports social entrepreneurs. And they rang me up, said, you are a social entrepreneur. Thanks very much. And the idea was that you would go and you would pitch whatever your thing was to them. And if they liked it, then they would support you with different ways in different ways. So I went and I presented about transition for 15 minutes, and then it was just long silence in this room with this long glass table and metalchairs. Guys in shirts and looking at me this guy said, so what you’ve done basically is created very powerful brand and then give it away for free to people all over the world over whom you have no control whatsoever. What’s your franchise model. Where’s the leverage. Um, yeah, so I, I, I think it’s because there was something that was, I think people were really hungry for something that said, no, we can do this. We can do this on the neighborhood scale. We can do it at whatever level feels possible for us. Uh, it should feel fun. You know, I think that there was a degree of playfulness and celebration that transition brought and that people really valued. Um, but also, you know, I would, I would really, I would never also underestimate the amount of hard work that went into it from a lot of people who are working in transition at the time, all the traveling and the speaking and the blogging and the films that we made and all of that stuff, you know, it’s like, it didn’t emerge completely effortlessly. You know, there was a huge amount of skeletal. Also I think one of the other reasons that it did that it took off very quickly was that from the beginning, it also had that kind [inaudible] to say, this is not purely about soda panels and carrots, you know, the results…How we do things matters as much as what we do and how we do the meetings and make decisions and run events and all of that, having a mindfulness to minimizing burnout and all that stuff was, was a really skillful addition.

Morag Gamble: I think, echoing what you’re saying, it’s thevery big issues that we’re facing. It’s like, you’re saying you that dark moment facing up where we’re at that a lot of what we get in the area is such a big problem and needing big solutions. And all of a sudden something like transition town comes across and the transition movement, and it’s something like… maybe I can do that has meaning and purpose. It’s actually making a positive contribution and I can see that I can bring my, my family and my community along this journey as well, it personalizes and brings it back down to here and now. And sometimes that gets belittled that kind of the idea of when you think to [inaudible] we need big solutions, whereas actually it’s this multitude of small scale, you know, positivity. And like you said, possibilities, seeing the possibilities, which I guess is where you’re kind of moving now, I can see you just released a book…or almost releasing a book. Imagination is exactly what you’re talking about there. The ability, I suppose, to seeing the possibilities and to imagine the different futures, that one..

Rob Hopkins: Yeah, I am… I find myself reading more and more people who I really admire like George [inaudible]. He kept saying climate change is a failure of imagination. And then they’ve moved off on to something else. [inaudible]. Why are we having a failure of imagination? And then I read this amazing research by a researcher in America who looked at this thing called the Torrance Tests for creative thinking, which is the sort of gold standard creativity tests going back to the 1960s, massive datasets in the US and their conclusion was, and it came out in 2011, this research that IQ and imagination rose together to the mid 90s then IQ kept rising and imagination went into what they called a steady and persistent decline. And when it was published, it was on the front page of Newsweek, it was a big thing in America. What does this mean for economic growth? What does it mean for Hollywood? I never heard anyone in the climate change and social justice world say, well, what does it mean for us? Actually because if people can’t, imagine anything other than what’s in front of us, then we’re toast. You know Margaret Thatcher very powerfully said there was no alternative. I think those words lodged themselves in our culture that there’s, this is it, this is all, there is nothing else in it. And so it sent me off thinking, well, are we living in a time of imaginative poverty? Why would that be, you know, the woman who wrote that report and it was to do with the decline of what she called free and unstructured play, it was to do with the rise of screens. And it was to do with the rise of testing in schools. So I kind of, so that was my starting point. I think it’s also to do with, we spend a lot less time outdoors in nature. You know, the stuff about screens is something which, you know, is, is the more you look into that, the more troubling is the impact that that’s..

Morag Gamble: Inaudible] Having to get in conversations..our imaginations.

Rob Hopkins: Absolutely. We were living in a time of the decline of conversation. There’s a guy called Stan Berkowitz, who I adore and wrote some great books about attention. It’s about culture and how one loses his attention span. And he said, he said, I feel we are losing the very paradigm of depth in our culture, because it becomes shallower and shallower and shallower. So I’ve done a lot of looking at, you know, what are the reasons why this might be happening? And then what would it look like? How do you turn that around as a community? How do you bring imagination back? If you were running a country, how would you bring about what kind of [inaudible]. How would you create a national imagination act. To say, we’re going to, we’re going to put the reviving of this country’s imagination above everything else. I would like how an education system that like, if people left at 18 with their imaginations, like a superpower, how would all of that work? So, yeah, so that’s coming out soon.

Morag Gamble: I wanted to stop..oh not stop but continue on that thought of the education. One of the main things that I’m working on, is creating a platform for Permaculture educators..I’m really interested to hear your insights on where you think we can be working better as permaculture educators or as educators in general. I’m trying to homeschool my kids as much as I can. There’s whole idea of shifting our focus on education to lifting the unshackled boundaries and lifting the ceilings and focusing on the curiosities that urges from working with people. What is your take on education through this perspective.

Rob Hopkins: Well, you know, I was, I was in Belgium last week and I gave a talk in the university and there was a woman who asked a question. She said, I teach in the engineering department, you know, how could we do what we do? So we’re more service to what you’re talking about. I said, um, get the, get the engineering department, ideally the whole university to declare a climate emergency. You know, we’re seeing the rise of extinction rebellion. Their big thing is we want to get the governments to declare climate emergency and that, so that there’s now all sorts of different local district councils who are declaring the climate emergency because of. So, so then when, so then when you declare a climate emergency, then they do that and then they go, well, then mpw what do we do. We have no idea what to do next. And I said imagine if you were teaching as a three year engineering degree through the lens of a climate emergency, how differently would you teach it? I think would be the most amazing engineering course. Imagine like Ok so, uh, you know, you’ll, you’ll teaching me that sense of, you know, the guys who developed the Spitfire in 3 years before world war Io, they, from nothing, they designed and built this plane that was able to… So you know, we are working with people like that. And then what would an English literature degree look like in the context of climate emergency, if a school declares a climate emergency, you know, then you look at everything through that lens. I visited a school when I went to Germany a couple of years ago, and I’ve created a, um, a wildlife garden next to the school. They bought us a little bit of a paddock and they had a pond and all sorts of like wildlife stuff. It was great and the kids loved it. And I spoke to that teacher and she said, I said, how’d you make use of it? She said, well, when we do maths and we want to work out radius and circumconference we send them out to measure a tree and say, let’s say, and they want some focus. They go out and do sound, do they go out use the garden as a teaching resource for everything. So if you have a school that says we declare climate emergency, then you bring in the permaculture teachers to teach the kids. And through that, you teach them maths. And through that, you teach them English, teach them biology, and actually you’re still teaching them the same stuff, but it’s more applied. One of the things I was looking at when I was researching this book, because it’s kind of, so outside of my generation’s experience is what would it look like to live in a time when imagination run free? You know, when we lived in a time when everything felt possible and our imaginations were like [making a swoosh sound] we could just say, yeah, that’s we could do that. We can tackle that. And looking back, where are the times in history when it felt like the imagination was really free? And the most recent one was a month before I was born in Paris around1968 student revolution in Paris, which was all rooted in art and imagination and music and lot of the graffiti at the time was all about power to the imagination, imagination taking power, be realistic demand the possible. And there was some beautiful oral history stuff I found out about people talking about it. And one person said in those two months you learn more than in your whole five years in university because people talk to each other. Everyone felt they could go up and talk to anyone and talk to your neighbor was graffiti that people have on walls.

Morag Gamble: I think to it’s having a context for learning. Because often when, you know, I spent a lot of time working in different sort of universities and just, I take permaculture into this university or something. And it was amazing because mostly we just kind of learning bits and pieces and it’s all just parts. It’s not the connections that we do take do place education in the context, like you’re saying context of imagine, you know, you’re teaching this perspective of climate emergency is about a bigger picture rather than just getting through year by year to get marks and a job. And I think that’s where a lot of people feel stuck at school.

Morag Gamble: My daughter she just went back to school last year, wanted to go to do leadership in grade six. Very quickly got incredibly bored. I said, I have all these questions and they kept telling me to put my hand down it’s not the time to talk. [inaudible] Learning in context. And it doesn’t matter what, what it is that you’re focusing on having the bigger picture and the purpose seems to make all the single piece of sense. So how are you going to take that forward? Cause that sounds phenomenal. What’s your next step with that?

Rob Hopkins: Well, my next book called first of all, I mean, I, uh, yeah, I, I, I love the story that I came across research in the book about the, the, um, Reggio Emilia schools. And it’s so like after the war, when this town, all they had left was a tank and three trucks the Germans left, and then they used the money to build a school that was built around this idea of how do you build an education system to make sure fascism never happens again. So it’s all about, you know, seeing the children as being curious, creative, courageous, and the authors of their own learning. And every school has what they call an atelier in the heart of it to make a space where there’s someone there to help you make anything whenever you want to. It strikes me as interesting that neither of these people designed the school specifically with that intention around fascism. And then we have an education system that’s completely opposite to that. And we’re seeing the resurgence of fascism. It feels like it’s kind of, it’s pretty obvious how you educate people if you want them to be imaginative people. And we’re doing completely opposite. It’s all about driven by test. So you, you, you don’t learn by subject, you learn by project. And, uh, um, there was a lot of pressure in the UK of, so, so the youth strikes a climate, which I just think amazing. And one is one of the demands is teach us properly about this stuff, you know, and I think, I think there’s, there’s, there’s the, maybe the, one of the things we need to look up next is about how do we create that? Something that could just slap into the curriculum.

Morag Gamble: Which I was just about to ask you about, because I think that movement that’s happening now all those young people. I kind of feel a sense of connection with them I mean I’m probably about the similar year as you. And I remember going through a whole series of series about [inaudible] was happening. As a young teenager there was a sense of purpose of being connected to people around the world saying, we need something different and this is not what we want. And let’s kind of come together around that. Then everything went quiet for a long time. I don’t feel like there’s been much happening in the streets where there hasn’t been anyone in Australia. Then all of a sudden pieces went taking off and it’s phenomenal. What was that on 15th of March, there was 1.5 million students on the streets. And after all that margin and going to uni, I got this, I went into a dark place. Oh gosh, that’s what life’s about now. Then it was, I took me quite a while to actually discover how I could make a contribution that was [inaudible] through Ladakh and finding permaculture that I’m kind of thinking, how can we take permaculture and directly to these students, maybe it’s not through the schools. Maybe it’s something, how can it be shared with them in a way that’s..

Rob Hopkins: It’s tricky, isn’t it? Because actually I feel like so one of my kids in particular is very involved with the ones running it. I find them really moving. It feels to me like I get this feeling of like the reinforcements arrived…have arrived. And, um, I love Greta Thunberg.. she’s inspiring. I love when the Australian Education said you should be in school. And she said, you should be in a museum. [laughter] Just so sassy! There’s a kind of a balance for me about actually it’s their, it’s their revolution, you know, it’s their thing. And so on the one hand, I feel like I don’t want to be the guy, you know, you guys all need to be doing permaculture courses. And, but on the other hand, I’m like, I’m really worried that they’ll do it for a year and nothing will change. And that’ll just drift off and be really cynical.

Morag Gamble:
Yeah not having something tangible to show, to show as a result of it. So they have all this passion and this commitment to say this is what we don’t want, or we want this to stop but that the the story and the image and their vision and what’s possible and what’s next and the other, the other potential features. I’m just, I’m not sure how to do this so I’m kind of asking you. I mean I’m spending a lot of time chatting with young people in our area and it’s starting to become a very nice connection it’s happening, but again, the same thing I heard the National Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne, I was, there was some of the Vicky ladies in Australia day and night. [inaudible] to support us. And so I’d like to sort of be there sort of arms open If you’d like this is… What could be a way to make it visible. I suppose, too, as an option..

Rob Hopkins: Uh, I did, uh, I taught a session at Schumacher college a while ago. It was the first time I taught the full, like what’s in this new book I’ve been doing and I did a session with them all day. And, um, and then about four days later was the first student March. And so I met the student March. I went with my, with my son just to support him and to be there cause I really wanted to be there for like a historical thing. So there was about 800 kids outside the County Council offices, making a load of noise and really great banners, really humorous and fun and wonderful. And then after about an hour, they kind of look around and coming over the parks towards them was another little, the 400.. there’s a great big group of kids who’ve marched up from the university and picked up all the [inaudible] marching with this big school strikes for climate banner at the front. And there was this really magical moment where the two groups kind of merged into each other and sort of cheered each other together. And then on the back, coming up in the back, there was a massive banner that just said WHAT IF? And, uh, and it was the students who’d been in the session that I taught. And I was like goosebumps**. And when they arrived they just had this card that says What If? Form Then they just ask kids to just fill them out. They got kids printing, t-shirts with WHAT IF? and asking them about that. And, uh, you know, I think it’s, it’s, um, it felt like a really, it felt like a fascinating sort of element that was added into everything. Um, I guess it feels like they’re kind of really open to ideas. You know, maybe the thing is just to set things up there or just to be there. I don’t know either, but it would be really, really sad if, if it, if it, you know, when the wave occupy and those things that come up like a big souffle and then go down again, and it was like, what we really tried to do with transition was there’s a souffle quick how do you put props in underneath the souffle and then pump it up a bit more. The fact that the transition exists after 12 years it was amazing to me because so many things like occupy, just come and go, come and go.

Morag Gamble: It’s interesting that within the transition.. the movement as a whole is still there. Things within it can come and go [inaudible] Like the Totnes pound there’s an event tonight. Can you tell us a little bit about..

Rob Hopkins: The historical moment you’re here for tonight? So I’ve got it here. So 12 years ago, I walked into a building on the high street and saw this, which is a, which is a, a bank note from 1810 when the banker, when there was a bank of Totnes that had its own that printed its own money. And I saw this and I thought, wow, that’s so interesting. Maybe we could make some more, what would happen? Will the queen come and, you know, smash my windows. And, uh, so we just did it to see if we printed 300, that on one side was a facsimile of this and on the other side, so these are the 18 shops you can spend them in. Let’s see what happens. And then that went really well. So then we did another one pound note and then another different one pound note. And then after a while we did the one, five, 10, and the 21 pound load.

Morag Gamble: Can you tell us about the 21 pound note cause that’s a fascinating one.

Rob Hopkins: Yeah It was, it was an idea we [inaudible] and it was so cool. And it was something to do with like old English money, which I don’t understand at all that it was like 18 groats makes a.. 15 shillings makes a… But there was a thing called a gilly that was 21 something 21 pounds or shillings or something. And so we thought, so that was, that was where they came from it. But here we did 21 pound partly because we just thought, well, why not? Because you can do over the number. Why should we be tied to the same denominations as other money? But also because we did a thing called economic blueprint in local economic and Totnes. So we met the economy in Totnes and said, how much money do we spend on food, energy and care every year? Where does it go? And we found, for example, that we spent 30,000 pounds on 13 million pounds of food every year of which 22 million of that time was spent in two supermarkets. So it meant that we could say that if we could make a 10% shift collectively away from shopping there to support the local businesses, that would be 2 million pounds in the economy every year. And so if, if it was a 10% shift, if we made 21 pound notes and we sold them for 20 pounds, that was the 5%. So it was like saying to people, we’ll give you the first 5% and you do the other five. So the, for the first six months or something, we sold 21 pounds for 20 pounds. That was the idea. But then also Ryan [inaudible], but then so we did it. And so then we tries to have an electronic pounds, [inaudible] but we’re just too small to get a critical mass for that. And this is a town of 5,000 people. Uh, so what we found was over the last three or four years, because people use cash less and less, the amount of trade was sort of dwindling to a point where we thought we could just let it just go along and just or we could just say, okay, we’ll just stop it and have a big celebration and celebrate what it was and how the influence it had on other people.

Morag Gamble: So what other things do you think that helped to shift people’s minds.

Rob Hopkins: Well it’s funny I think, you know, it’s like we can, um, so when you you wrap up a project like that, there’s a part of you thinks, Oh, so it’s a failure, you know, like in our culture you think, Oh, well, you know, we did this, but it’s failed because it’s not become a currency of choice and everybody in Totnes, so you know, I, the way I think of it is if you look at it, as we wanted this to become the, the economic means of exchange for everybody in Totnes and it failed. If we wanted to look at it as something that put Totnes on the map as a place that does unique and quirky things and tries out brave ideas, then I think in a most people’s I know nothing about Totnes. They know that it had is, has had its own pounds. If you want to look at it as a, as an art project, I mean, we printed beautiful things and got people involved in a big participatory community arts project. I think it’s been absolutely extraordinary if you wants to look at it as a project that was about getting people, thinking about why the local economy matters and why we should support it. Then I think it was really successful. And if we wants to look at that as being an imagination project, that was about getting people, thinking about possibilities in different ways. And, and it gave people the opportunity, people who visited Totnes the opportunity to experience living as though there was another means of exchange and it was a real success. And also I think if you want to see it as being a way of, um, challenging the epidemic of loneliness that we have at the moment, there’s beautiful research done in Bristol, which showed that when people went shopping with Bristol pounds, paper, pounds, they had so many more conversations. Then when you went shopping with plastic. And so my experience as somebody who did a lot of my shopping in Totnes pounds was, it was so much more of a conversation piece. And I had so much more interaction with other people. You get Oh interesting! *chatter* and the experience of beautiful colored notes that tell our story and our history and celebrate the people we celebrate been kind of a magical thing, and also it’s inspired so many other people, there’s a lovely quote that I use to like which Thomas Edison said, you know, yeah. I got to make 10,000 light bulbs before I made the first light bulb that was commercially viable. Does that mean that all the 9,999 light bulbs are made with failures? No, they were all successes because they all helped me to realize what didn’t work and got me to this point here. If you’re a sculptor and you’re making a statue the last of the hammer, the successful one. It’s like, of course there’s all. So for me, this was one manifestation is inspired people all around the world to take the idea and create their own versions.

Morag Gamble: You said earlier that this enormous amount of local currencies…

Rob Hopkins: Yeah everywhere I go. There’s like..particularly in the French speaking world, after that [inaudible] and saying, well, why not? You know, actually a lot of people came out in the cinema and like, what can we do? Let’s do that. So I go to places where the way they have a 2.5 notes, or there’s a currency launching that has one, three, 10 and 30 denominations or in Brussels in the early age they have a zero note. I like to say, why do you guys need this note? And they say, well, you know, because sometimes someone does something nice for you. You want to say, thank you. We didn’t want to put an amount on it cause that feels a bit so we just want to say, thank you. It’s like a token of gratitude and then say pass on to somebody else. So I love that kind of again, it’s like, if, if we’re looking at these things as being an opportunity for creativity and playfulness and conversation and connection, then you know, I love that. Who else is going to start currency with zero note? You know?

Morag Gamble: Fantastic. I’m looking forward to tonight’s event, but before we close up, I wish I had a zero note to say thank you… [laughter] Any thoughts about people just entering into the world of becoming permaculture teachers, making the shift in their life from one to the other.. What are some of the things that you think would be? So these are people who are working either with children or in community education, particularly.

Rob Hopkins: Okay. I think my main thinking is, you know, in the same way that we are saying to local governments and businesses and education establishments, you need to declare a climate emergency. I think it’s kind of a question for us as well. How would we operate? It was for me, one of the motivations for starting the transition movement was that I had my kind of climate change [inaudible] as a soul. And I read David Holmgren’s book which said permaculture is the design tool for creating the society in response to this. And I felt so kind of like, right, this is when we stole the barricades. This is our moment. These things are coming together now is the time. And I can look around with the permaculture community around me at the time who actually, most of whom seemed quite happy to be up on a little farm, somewhere making chairs off sticks. And so for me, transition was me trying to design a kind of Trojan horse that I could chuck permaculture in and Joanna Macy and stuff like that. And I didn’t have to spend hours explaining it with flip charts and pictures of chickens and arrows and orchards. I could just wheel it past them and they’d go, Oh, is that transition thing along with other stuff in it? And it could just wheel past and squeaky wooden wheels. And they go, Oh, it’s a transition. You know? And, uh, you know, so for me, the frustrations that I have with it, with the permaculture movement, why is it that after 40 whatever years is a permaculture, maybe there is in Australia now, but there’s not a year. You know, why do we not have really professional design consultancies who are tendering for bids for big parks and who are tendering for the Olympics and who are tendering to, to do edible landscapes around business parks and who are upping the game to that extent, you know, who are going to big football clubs and saying, you know, can we put in, can we grow hops all over the outside of the building? Can we, uh, um, you know, if this is a climate emergency, it’s not enough just for us to say oh these people need to up their game. You know, for me, there’s something about saying we have to be creating, we have to be creating new businesses. We need to be thinking and working in the way that the people, uh, when I spend time with entrepreneurs, their brain works in a completely different way. I talked about how permaculture rewired my brain. You know, I spend time with people who are really brilliant entrepreneurs, and I think your brain is wired in a completely different way to mine that ability thing. Okay, so we can start with this and then move out over there. And then we use that to do that. And then, and then that’s how we create the scale. For me now, the question is about scale. How do we scale this stuff? And the beautiful thing about imagination for me is that imagination, flourishes, when it has limits. If I said, tell me a story, you’d be like, uh, uh, if I said, okay, tell me that, tell me a story about a mouse that is under the table in a Giant’s house. It’d be okay. So, you know, so Dr. Seuss writing a book with 50 words or haikus or hip hop in a way you have a form that inspires that creativity, someone, a climate emergency is totally that, you know, and it gives us. And so for me, I think we need to be thinking about how do we embrace the possibilities of climate emergency to completely scale up what we’re talking about in permaculture, permaculture should be completely mainstream and it should be like every TV soap opera should have permaculture gardens and somebody who’s in the, you know, wherever that, where was a great transition story, the script writers who are writing those films and those stories, you know, where, where are the TV producers who has done the permaculture training? Do you know what I mean? It’s like, for me, this is the time where, you know, there’s an amazing in London there’s a guy who created the increase, transition time, crystal palace started a new food market, amazing. And they’ve won all the best market and London awards. And it’s fantastic. And I said to them, why you do this? And they said, because we want our children to grow up thinking that this is normal. And there’s something for me about how we make this normal. And, uh, and I think I, you know, and there are more people within the kind of permaculture world who, who, and it’s, it’s, it’s less like this than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still to a degree that thing of wanting to change the world, but not really wanting to engage with the world. It’s like wanting to opt out of the world, but somehow get it to change at the same time. If you want to get the world to change, you have to roll your sleeves up. You have to speak their language. You have to wear a shirt sometimes, and be able to speak in their language and put together for, for a landscaping project and the construction project. And we need to have natural building companies who can tend to for housing developments and who know where the cold weather clay is, and then have teams of trained up professional plate masters who can come in, do you know, we need to scale the ship out really fast. And that requires a kind of a, um, climate emergency thinking is the perfect kind of narrative to frame that around.

Morag Gamble: That.. I’d like to say that you so much. It’s perfect. It is. We do, we have the skills, we have this global network that communicates together and having the motivation to, I should say, scale it up and really get it out there.

Rob Hopkins: I bet that’s totally in our hands. It’s like, it’s not that we can no longer sit and say, they need to do this. They need to do that. We’ve got all this stuff we have to. I remember I interviewed Michael Schuman who wrote all the go local stuff. And I said, what advice would you have for people? And he said, go to business school. You know, in terms of, you know, we need to be thinking in that kind of a way of making jobs for people. Because, because as long as we are creating livelihoods for people, then we’re relying on volunteers. And if we’re relying on volunteers, then it will always remain a mostly white middle class movement. It’s when we can start, like you see in Jackson and in Detroit and in Richmond, California, where people have got nothing and they’re using permaculture and cooperative principles to rebuild the economy. You know, that’s what we need.

Morag Gamble: 
I met up with Davidson recently who runs the food lab in Detroit. And she was saying exactly that all that vacant land it’s shrunk from about 2.5 million people down to six or 700,000 and all this vacant land pretty much left. And now they start to turn that around with permaculture gardens and food enterprises. And it is about, it is about creating sustainable or regenerative for people doing community gardens. And I think it was, you know, people spend two years doing that. It’s that the livelihood at the end of things, I think as a permaculture educator, there’s a livelihood in that. So many different ways, in doing permaculture and embracing that sounds like the way to go.

Rob Hopkins: There’s a woman in Richmond who’s one of my total heroes teaching young people to become urban food growers. And we did a talk together and, and I talked about this and said, you know, if we, if we imagine we’re going to do everything with volunteers, we’re not going to get anywhere. She said, yes, if this is a revolution that depends on volunteers. I can’t be part of it. People are working six days a week four jobs to keep a roof over their heads. We can’t be part of this if that’s the idea you know.

Morag Gamble: Thank you so much.

Rob Hopkins: My pleasure.

Morag Gamble: So thanks for tuning in to the sense-making in a changing world podcast today, it’s been a real pleasure to have your company. I invite you to subscribe and receive notification of each new weekly episode with more wonderful stories, ideas, inspiration, and common sense for living and working regeneratively. And core positive permaculture thinking of design interaction in this changing world. I’m including a transcript below and a link also to my four-part permaculture series, really looking at what is permaculture and how to make it your livelihood too. So join me again in the next episode where we talk with another fascinating guest, I look forward to seeing you there!


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