What do we keep when the virus has gone?

By Amanda Thain


Rob Hopkins, author and founder of the Transition Towns movement believes COVID-19 has shown what is possible in terms of transitioning to a new way of living. However, the key period will be when we re-emerge from our houses.

“I’ve spent the last 13 years working on climate change solutions and Coronavirus has achieved more in the last two weeks than I have in all that time.”

Rob Hopkins is the co-founder of the Transition Towns movement and the author of “From What Is to What If”. He has argued that unleashing our imagination is the key to reversing climate change.

Speaking to Safia Minney as part of the Ethical Agenda podcast series he says while the virus should never be trivialized, nor the thousands of deaths dismissed lightly, what it has done is shown what is possible in terms of transition.

“All those things we were told were pie in the sky have actually happened. It was nonsense to even suggest that people couldn’t fly around the world; that you could have a business where meetings were held online; that you could reduce consumerism and close shopping centres. The question now is which bits do we keep?”

Rob says enforced isolation should be helping both individuals and businesses take the time to pause and reflect and monitor the data.

“This period will hopefully mean we are focused more on our needs and realise how our short-term desires are often manipulated and manufactured.”

Data will be key

“At the end of six months we will have some really impressive data about what happens when you pause all of this stuff. What happens when you shut down aviation and cruise liners? What happens when big teams work from home? What happens when people are unable to wander around shopping centres and be dazzled into spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need.”

Rob says this data could end up being more useful than all the COP negotiations put together for governments, individuals and businesses.

“But when it finishes, that will be the key time. The temptation will be to try and bounce back to how things were before, but things weren’t working before. We need to bounce forward to something better. We need to use this as a springboard to say: no we don’t just go back to where we were before.”

He says it is possible that during the next six months a Universal Basic Income will need to be put in place. There is already a petition with over 100,000 signatures calling for its introduction during COVID-19.

“If we bring that in then we can make a much stronger case for a lot of the stuff we’re talking about in the Transition Towns movement and help make connections between health care and mental health and strengthening communities.”

Rob says despite social isolation COVID-19 has proven how powerful local communities can be, with towns and neighbourhoods working together to help each other and the vulnerable.

“Now we need to build on what we’ve learned. How do communities support each other in doing the future work that needs to be done?”

He points out that localism is now flourishing and where he lives the bio-dynamic and organic farms and the local brewery have been snowed under with business.

He laughs: “Anyone with a crystal ball would have invested in market gardens last year. We need to start funding urban market gardens.”

The key, he says, is resilience and how to maintain change. “In effect the transition movement has kind of been piloting this stuff for the last 13 years.”

The Transition Towns Movement

Rob set up the Transition Towns movement in 2005 while teaching a permaculture course at a college in Ireland.

“We looked at how our town of Kinsale could achieve fossil fuel independence in such a way that in 20 years’ time it was a better, happier, more connected place to live.”

Transition Towns is now a global movement, with thousands of groups in over 50 countries. Like the Kinsale project, the wider movement encourages towns to promote climate change solutions and prove what is possible post fossil fuel. A deliberate ‘side effect’ of these activities is the building and strengthening of communities, which have the power to solve a whole host of other social problems along the way.

Transition Towns has no formal membership structure or central leadership.

“They’re a mutinous lot!” Rob adds. “We’re not like a Coca-Cola franchise, it’s a self-organising system. It was intentional on my part that we didn’t need some kind of centralised control system. You don’t need to pay an annual membership. All resources are free. The only commitment we ask of our groups is that they share their stories – it’s a network of story telling really.”

But storytelling must start with imagination and Rob laments what he calls the complete failure of our collective creativity. This ‘imagination crisis’, he argues, must be tackled through legislation.

“The model for it is a piece of legislation in Wales called the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. It’s an amazing piece of legislation, which has a completely different definition of prosperity – not economic growth but the wellbeing of future generations.

“The Act asks every single public body ‘how are you going to achieve sustainable development?’ and it develops teeth by being used in court cases. They’ve recently blocked an extension of the M4 through Wales partly by using the Act.”

So, what can individuals and leaders do now?

Be the change

He offers three things everyone could be doing even while stuck at home:

  • Develop your imagination. Despite the temptation to spend hours on social media while in isolation, Rob points out smart phones inhibit imagination. Try switching off your smart phone for some of the day and instead use the time imagining and working through a range of different scenarios and outcomes that the current situation has suddenly made possible and plausible.
  • Reconnect with nature. If you are only allowed outside once a day, use it to appreciate how important your connection to nature is for happiness. Look up at the trees and the sky and really notice them. Look at the ground and the soil and think about what it provides.
  • Play. It has been proven that children learn through play but it is also important for adults to feed imagination and creativity. Think about how play could unleash your own, your family’s and your team’s imagination.

For example, Rob points out that politics including play have been proven to be more effective.

“The extraordinary Mayor of Bogata appeared on live TV in the shower to demonstrate how to save water during a serious drought.

“He also deployed a team of mime artists to playfully hand out red and yellow cards to drivers on Bogata’s notoriously dangerous roads; reducing traffic death rates by half.

“The Mayor of Bogata talked about politics needing play and I completely agree with him.”

Conclusion: COVID-19 has taken a large and heavy hammer to our global economic and social systems. When it stops hitting will we try and glue the damaged pieces back together or do we let them fall? Do we instead set ourselves to the task of building something healthier, happier and more sustainable in its place?

The Transition Towns movement shows what is possible by daring to imagine.

Rob passionately believes we have a unique opportunity now to imagine a different reality and work through what will be required to build a new future.

Listen now

Find out more

From What is to What If by Rob Hopkins

Lean Logic by David Fleming

Transition Towns Network