The news is full of the catastrophic scenarios that could face humanity, but where are the heartening visions of the future we're all longing for? Transition Town Network founder Rob Hopkins is on a mission to help us dream it into reality
Rob Hopkins has seen the future – and it’s glorious. You should see it too, he says. Smell it. Hear it. There are children playing in the street again. Deafening dawn choruses. Cycle lanes chocka with rush-hour traffic. Indie shops galore. Restaurants spilling onto streets. No homelessness. Oodles of civic pride. Crystal-clean rivers rewilded by beavers. Community orchards. Pollen on the breeze. No fumes, no smog, just fresh air.
The year? 2030. Just seven years away. How did he get there? Well, the writer and activist has – whisper it – a time machine. It’s hidden in a secret laboratory under Totnes Castle in Devon, near to where he lives, along with a “disbelief suspender” and a “cynicism overrider”. At least that’s the yarn he spins when he’s invited to give talks on what he believes is a curiously underrated tool for tackling the climate and biodiversity crises: our imaginations.
The part of the brain associated with imagination is the hippocampus, which is also where our memories are stored. This may explain why fantasising about the future, like recollecting past events, can be so evocative. Tapping into that is a powerful tool for driving positive change, reckons Hopkins. It gives people a hopeful vision to work towards, a longing, which breeds creativity and action, although he’s preaching to the converted – this ethos underpins our journalism.
Curious things happen when Hopkins gives his talks. People come up to him afterwards and ask him, with no hint of sarcasm or cynicism, about the future, as though inquiring about a foreign city he’s just returned from. After a talk he gave to people in the sports sector recently, someone asked him if there were many repair cafes in 2030.
“I said, ‘well, I can answer that in a minute, but I just want to say that I love how you’ve suspended your disbelief to the point where you’re asking me that’,” he tells me, grinning.
That anecdote, says Hopkins, underscores his point, which is that we need to fire up our imaginations with creative storytelling.
It gives people a hopeful vision, a longing, which breeds creativity and action
Our civilisation is built on stories. We tell them all the time, especially to children, who we encourage to have active imaginations. Yet it’s a trait many people do not deem important enough to carry over into adulthood.
“Going to 2030 should be a daily practice for all of us, because every time you do it, it becomes stronger and clearer somehow,” he says.
Easier said than done, especially given the pervasiveness of negative news.
“We can only be as imaginative as the things that are in the stories we have heard, or the places we have gone, or the experiences we have had,” he says. “So, when people ask me how they can be more imaginative about the future, I say ‘you need to change your social media feed, you need to get stories from places like Positive News’.”
Why did Hopkins choose 2030? It’s just around the corner and hardly exotic. But that’s the point. It’s near, tangible. Most of us will be around for it. It’s also the kind of timeframe other epoch defining societal shifts happened in.
“It took 10 years from Rosa Parks refusing to give up a seat on the bus to the Civil Rights Act being passed in the US,” says Hopkins. “There are many, many examples of change happening in that kind of time window.”
I started by telling you that Hopkins has seen the future – and he has. We all have. It doesn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to visualise it because the future is already here, it just hasn’t caught on yet. Hopkins travels around to experience it, not in his time machine but by train. And he records the sounds he hears for Field Recordings from the Future, a collaboration he’s working on with musician Mr Kit.
“What does a bicycle rush hour sound like? Go to Utrecht at eight o’clock in the morning and stand by the train station. What does a car-free neighbourhood sound like? Go to Vauban in Freiburg where 3,000 people live in a neighbourhood with no cars – incredible place. What would it sound like if beavers rewilded our landscape? Go to Cornwall to Woodland Valley Farm – again incredible,” he says.
It took 10 years from Rosa Parks refusing to give up a seat on the bus to the Civil Rights Act being passed
Surprisingly, the inspiration for Hopkins’ nearfuture work came from a T-shirt. It was worn by a woman at a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington in 2020 and read: ‘I’ve been to the future. We won’.
“It gave me goosebumps,” he says. “I thought, ‘how different would our activism around climate change be if that was how we approached it?’”
Quite. So, what does 2030 really look like, then?
“It’s not paradise,” he says. “But the direction has changed. And there’s this very real sense that we might actually do this, and people can see the benefits around them. It’s the 2030 that resulted from us doing absolutely everything we could have done.”
Main image: James Bannister
This is the first article in our Imagining a Better Future series. Over the coming weeks we will publish fictional news reports from the year 2050, where everything turned out just fine, and talk to experts for a present-day reality check.
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