What if?

I have just finished reading ‘From What is to What if’ by Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Town movement. It got me thinking. It got me shouting ‘YES!’ out loud. And as I walked the dogs, which is when ideas tend to coalesce into new patterns, I began to make connections.

The central thesis of the book is that our collective failure to deal with the problems of our time – climate change, extreme weather events, mass migration of people – both refugees and economic migrants, inequality everywhere, breakdown of trust in the political process and the rise of extremism… is all largely down to a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine, or dare to believe, that the problems can be solved.

He goes on to explore why this inability to imagine might have come about. In particular he castigates modern education (not teachers please note) which is target driven and, since Victorian times, has been designed to turn out competent but compliant workers – no imagination required. In fact on an assembly line or working through a script in a call centre imagination can be a definite disadvantage. I was reminded of two incidents from my past.

The first was when both my husband and I were working as fairly new teachers in a Secondary chool in mid-Wales 46 years ago. A colleague joked that teaching was ‘casting imitation pearls before real swine’. Without pausing for a nano-second and without looking at each other we both said ‘They are only real swine because they know an imitation when they see one!’ THEN we looked at each other and knew we had to find other careers! I still think we were right! Most of us delivered unimaginative lessons most of the time, were unpopular with colleagues if we got the children excited (percieved as unruly) and children who were creative were described as disruptive.

The second was a few years later at a party. I was talking to the consultant in charge of a kidney dialysis unit who told me that his ideal patient for home dialysis was a teacher or police officer. They were taught the procedure and would then follow it to the letter. The patients who caused him grief were the ones who were sure that they could see a better way to set everything up and tried it their way. Disaster usually followed.

The book is not all doom and gloom. He also relates how he and others in groups have been enabled to imagine a better way of livng and to believe that it might just be possible to create it. The results have included Transition Towns (begun in Totnes, Devon, UK) and Incredible Edible pictured above (begun in Todmorden, Lancashire, UK) each of which began with a few people asking themselves that ‘What if…’ question.

So far so good.

What happened next was that I made a connection between this idea and ideas from my training as a couples counsellor. Faced with an unhappy relationship clients had 3 options (no-one ever came up with a fourth!) Like it, Lump it or Leave it. Since the situation wasn’t working ‘Like it’ meant changing it into one that was at least likeable and hopefully really enjoyable. ‘Lump it’ was to stay as they were but probably grumble about it to their friends and family and anyone else who would listen. ‘Leave it’ meant just that – separate. Or leave in spirit if not in body – through alcohol, drugs, gambling, depression or other mental illness, becoming physically ill, having an affair or by living sparately under the same roof. Of the three ‘Lump it’ was the least risky. Nobody had to DO anything, the other 2 options were still available in the future if needed, and neither partner had to take responsibility for what was going on; though the ‘leave it in spirit and lump it in body’ ran a close second. What linked this with Rob Hopkins ideas for me was that ‘Lump it’ required no imagination. No need to imagine how our relationship might work better or how I/we might be able to make that happen. Nor any need to imagine life post-separation.

The more I thought about it the more it seemed that the same 3 options face us in the case of each of the global issue I menbtioned above. The outworking is slightly different. Like it again means taking responsibility for my part in the problem and doing something about it. Hold that thought for later! Lump it means acknowledging it is there but remaining helpless – What can I do? Me using paper straws / reusable shopping bags / getting a smaller car / making a donation to a refugee charity… is not going to make much difference so why bother. I am helpless and ‘THEY’ out to do something. Leave it becomes denying there is a problem, or blaming it on others, or the survivalist approach – concrete bunkers full of bottled water and tins of beans.

The Establishment here in the UK and probably in most of the rest of the world is pretty firmly in the Lump it camp. Many fine sounding declarations of a ‘Global Emergency’ but a complete terror at the idea of actually doing something radical. Back to Rob Hopkins – a collective failure to imagine a better world. Not helped by some pretty trenchant vested interests. There are exceptions. The Council for the city of Preston in Lancashire UK (Coincidentally the place where my mother grew up), decided to spend its money with local suppliers. As it is responsible for schools, emergency services, Social Services, highway maintenance (everything from major roads to pavements and street cleaning) that is a lot of buying power. Instead of the money going into tax havens via global corporations it supported local firms and small employers with dramatic results for the well being of the area. (Read more about the Preston Model here)

Just as I was pulling all these ideas together I listened to an episode of the BBC radio 4 series ‘The Life Scientific’ in which Prof. Jim Al-Khlili interviews a leading scientist about their work and how they came to be doing it. The guest in this particular episode was a leading Climate scientist, Myles Allen, who (amongst lots of other interesting things) described talking to a group of engineers from one of the world’s major oil producers. He asked if it would be possible for them to make their industry carbon neutral – to sequester as much carbon from the atmosphere as was produced in the whole extraction, transportation, refining and use of their products. The senior staff looked uncomfortable but the younger ones assured him it was perfectly possible – as long as all the other companies had to do the same. If one company went it alone they would commit business suicide. There would, of course, be consequences including much more expensive petrol and petrochemical products. Which is part of what scares governments and makes them even more likely to play ‘After you, no after you, No you go first…’

So where does that leave me? Well I like a good grumble as much as the next person but I have never really been in the ‘Lump it’ camp. Hiding under a duvet of alcohol or mental illness doesn’t appeal either. And as for living in a suvivalist bunker! On my own I would go crazy and as part of a group, even if they were my nearest and dearest, I would probably murder one of them within days if not weeks. No, it has to be the ‘Like it by changing it’ camp for me!

But what does that mean in practice?

In the political arena I would be a disaster. My favourite question is ‘Why Not?’ I see ‘black and white’ / ‘either or’ thinking as generally unhelpful and tend to the ‘both and’ / ‘shades of grey’ persuasion. I lack the personal ambition and ruthlessness to get any real clout, and despite the views of the current line-up of US Presidential hopefuls I think 70 is too old to be in charge! By the same reasoning I have left it too late to be a Captain of Industry or top Civil Servant. So global, or even National change is not within my scope. In the UK’s ‘first past the post’ system for elections my vote is worthless and I have never thought petitions do much good.

So what can I do? What could any of us do?

Well, even though my thinking carefully about the things I buy, driving less, consuming less stuff, re-using and recycling whatever I can, making puppets for children in Sierra Leone…. is not going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, it will make SOME. And as the Tesco adverts say ‘Every little helps!’ By connecting with other people who are making the same effort we can support and encourage each other and maybe, just maybe, demonstrate to others that it isn’t a recipe for drudgery – all worthiness, going without, and eating a lot of lentils (Dont get me wrong lentils can be delicous but they do have an image problem). I can continue to build my own resilience by looking after my health and learning new skills (and learning new skills is good for my cognitive health too). More importantly I can work to build my local community so that we help each other, share resources and skills, look out for each other, inspire each other. That is how all those imaginative initiatives like Transition Towns and Incredible Edibles started after all.

I hope that all makes sense and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.