Rob Hopkins: From What If to What Next?

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Rob Hopkins, climate activist, co-founder of the Transition Network and host of the podcast series From What If to What Next talks about an engaged, passionate form of Buddhism that actively works for positive change in our communities and in the world.

Rob Hopkins Bio

Rob Hopkins is a climate activist, co-founder of the Transition Network, and host of the podcast series From What If to What Next. He is also the author of several books, including From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want. Rob has spoken at TEDGlobal events, and holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth.

Rob Hopkins, climate activist, founder of the Transition Network, author of From What Is to What If
Rob Hopkins, climate activist and founder of the Transition Network, photo: www.stephan-roehl.de

My guest today is Rob Hopkins and he spoke with me about an engaged, passionate form of Buddhism that actively works for positive change in our communities and in the world. I came away from our spirited talk feeling both empowered and optimistic about our individual and collective ability to solve the climate crisis together.

We bring this interview to you today in partnership with Science and Wisdom Live, where science and meditation meet. I regularly serve as a host for Science and Wisdom Live’s podcast and events, and you can learn more at sciwizlive.com.

Interview with Rob Hopkins

[00:01:30] Scott Snibbe: Rob Hopkins, it’s a delight to get a chance to talk to you today. You combine a couple of my own passions and interests in climate and in meditation, contemplation; and you’re much more deeply involved with them than I am. So I’m really excited to hear some of your wisdom today.

[00:01:43] Rob Hopkins: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

[00:01:46] Scott Snibbe: Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, your background in contemplation, and how you started the Transition movement? 

Rob Hopkins and the start of the Transition Movement

[00:01:57] Rob Hopkins: Yeah, sure. I’m Rob, I live in a town called Totnes in Devon. I guess my first experience with contemplation was when I was about 15, 16. I lived in Bristol, I was living in my aunt’s house. I was a slightly bewildered, angry teenager who listened to lots of loud records, very into punk at that time. And my aunt’s house was the Bristol Buddhist Center at the time. And I was really like, Oh God, I can’t stand all this stuff. Lamas coming round to give teachings and I’d be stropping up and down the stairs — not the ideal thing to have in a Buddhist center. 

Through that, I met a guy called Dan who was the son of somebody very involved in the Buddhist center. He’d come down to visit and I would take him out and introduce him to people that I knew. And then a couple of years later, he and I shared a flat. He was very involved in Buddhism. We had a kind of a competition with each other to see who could get out of England and stay out of England. We were very disaffected and we’d had enough, and we wanted to find ways that we could stay outside of England. So we both bought interrail tickets. We went off in different directions.

I ended up coming back. I couldn’t find any way to stay away. He went to Italy to a place called Instituta Lama Tsongkhapa, which is a big Buddhist center in Tuscany. And he would send me postcards saying, Oh, it’s fantastic. Oh, it’s really nice, I’m having a great time. So the next summer, after a year of doing really terrible jobs, I went out to go and see him, even though I wasn’t interested in Buddhism.

Instituta Lama Tsongkhapa in Italy where Rob Hopkins worked and studied Buddhist philosophy and meditation

I still had a bit of my kind of baggage from stropping up and down my aunt’s stairs when it was full of Buddhists, but I was interested in learning to meditate. So I went there and I loved it. It was the most beautiful place. It was very friendly. At the time, the way it worked was that if you work, then your work covered your stay there. So I thought, This is amazing, I’ve hit the jackpot. I can stay out of England. I can be in Tuscany and I can learn to meditate. This is amazing! 

I always tell the story how, when I arrived there, it’s like, it’s a big place. It can sleep like 140 people, like a hotel. They said, Okay you’re going to work with Alessandro, he’s the house manager; and you’re going to help with all the cleaning and the rooms and everything. So he shows me the ropes.

After about three weeks, he says, Right, I’m off to Elba now to work the summer season. I said, Oh, who takes over after you? You do, here are the keys. So I’m like 18, just arrived, and there’s a hundred people coming for a course on Thursday. Oh my God, what am I going to do? But it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was there for two and a half years. It was like my life university. It was just amazing.

It was at a time when a lot of those extraordinary Lamas who left Tibet in 1959 were still alive and came there to teach. I took refuge there and I went to some extraordinary teachings with some phenomenal teachers.

After two and a half years, I went to India and worked at the Enlightenment Experience Celebration there for six months. My big mission then was to go to Mount Kailash. And I set off on this journey to try and get to Mount Kailash through Pakistan and through China, which ended with my being arrested by Chinese police, 10 miles north of Lhasa because I didn’t have a visa. But I have gone all the way around Mount Kailash, just at a very wide distance. So I feel like I got something out of that. I met my wife there in Dharamsala, and we’ve been together ever since. Then we started having a family and that was my kind of crash course in it all.

The Transition movement came around in about 2005, 2006. I’d been a permaculture teacher for a long time. Permaculture arrived in my life when I was about 22, 23. And it rewired my brain as this sort of extraordinary toolkit for putting the world back together again. 

I came back from India, I arrived back in the UK, I met a friend of mine I hadn’t seen for a while, and he said, I think you might enjoy this, and he gave me a copy of Bill Mollison’s big Permaculture- A Designer’s Manual. I opened it onto this term, “earth repair,” that someone had written a book about; how taking the best learnings from traditional agriculture systems, indigenous practice, and so on, how to put everything back together again. And I thought, This is phenomenal.

So I then dedicated my life to learning as much about that as I could and implementing it. The Transition movement came around because I’d had my climate change dark night of the soul in around 2004. I’d been very involved with permaculture for a long time. I’d lived in Ireland. I set up the first two-year full-time permaculture course in the world, at that point.

But I felt like the permaculture movement had this idea that it wanted to change the world, but it also didn’t really want to interact with the world very much. It was very much in a kind of an alternative culture sort of place and wanted to change the mainstream but it really didn’t want to engage with it.

So Transition for me was the idea of how you might take those principles and get communities working with them. And I’m sure we’ll talk about it more, but in a nutshell, we started in 2005, 2006. It took off all over the place and you can now find Transition groups in 50 countries around the world, in thousands of different places. My role is that of supporting the movement, collecting its stories, and telling them in lots of different ways. 

[00:07:28] Scott Snibbe: And you’re still there in Totnes, Devon? 

[00:07:30] Rob Hopkins: I’m still here. I love it. 

[00:07:32] Scott Snibbe: That area is a kind of hotbed for this deep ecology movement where there are these communities and education activism. Can you talk about how you go from activism to community to education, and how Transition Network fits into that arc? 

Activism, community, and education in the Transition Network

[00:07:53] Rob Hopkins: I guess for me, going back to Buddhism, one of the things that I missed out talking about was when I was about 18, the first book I read when I arrived in Italy was Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior and it had a massive effect on me, that book. I guess before I had always thought that spiritual practice was something a bit flaky and a bit woolly and something that people did to get away from realities, in my vague judgmental kind of teenage mind.

And actually, that book said, No, you need to live your life as a warrior, with bodhicitta as your shield and your tools in the world. Pretty much from that point forward, that bodhisattva notion–that you live your life as a life of service to other people–profoundly shaped what I do and how I do it.

So for me, my activism is an expression of that spirit and that commitment. That it’s not about me. It’s about what is needed at the moment and to bring whatever skills and insight I can to that. For me it’s about the act of activism: community and education.

Then there’s community, because of course we need international action. We need the things that national governments do, acting as if it’s a climate emergency, an ecological emergency, a social justice emergency. We need local governments. We need business. We need all the things we do as individuals. But the thing that always underpinned my work and my thinking was that there’s a bit that’s missing, which is the community piece: What can we do with the people on our street, in our neighborhood?

If we come together and we work together, what could we create?

And I now know having visited hundreds and hundreds of Transition communities across Europe–I don’t fly, so that’s as far as my range extends–that communities working together can do extraordinary things and are a really vital piece of the equation. Even 20 people in a community working together can create a community energy company that can then raise millions of pounds in community investment to unlock all sorts of renewable energy infrastructure. They can create community farms. They can reimagine a city’s food system. They can do extraordinary stuff.

There’s a beautiful quote by Thich Nhat Hanh that says something like, “Maybe the next Buddha will come back as a community.” It’s a really lovely quote. In the Transition movement it’s very much about an expression of activism, not the only expression of activism, because we also need the kind of activism we see with Extinction Rebellion and organizations like that.

And certainly for my wife who was–we’ve very much shared a path into Buddhism. And then through working with that–Extinction Rebellion is very much her expression of compassionate action, nonviolent, direct, bodhisattva practice is Extinction Rebellion. And mine is much more Transition and working as a community, working with communities, working to build community around the things that we create, and education is a fundamental part of that. 

[00:11:27] Scott Snibbe: Would you have one specific story you could share about success, however small?

Photo credit: https://transitionnetwork.org

Climate action success stories

[00:11:34] Rob Hopkins: Yeah, I mean, there’s loads and loads. We could do a 20 hour long podcast; I could just tell you story after story. One of my favorite ones that I always tell all the time is from Belgium in Liege, which is a big old industrial city, not that remarkable as cities go, but about nine years ago, they formed Liege en Transition, a Transition group for the city.

In their food group they came up with a really great “what if” question: What if in a generation’s time, the majority of food eaten in Liege came from the land closest to Liege? This idea of what they called a food belt. I went there to meet them at a very early stage, and they did a big public event where they launched this idea around this “what if” question.

They invited everybody in the city who cared about food: academics, politicians, baristas, chefs, everybody. They did a really great launch event. And then I didn’t hear anything for 4 or 5 years. I went back in 2018 and in that time in Liege, they’d started 27 new cooperatives and they raised 5 million euros of investment, not from the bank, but from the people of Liege investing in their co-ops. For me, it was really emotional, as someone who spent 12, 13 years with this kind of vision in my head of how a low-carbon future could be more local, more resilient, more diverse, more connected to place.

And there it is in Liege and I’m having my lunch in it and meeting people employed in it, and going to the shops and visiting the brewery and visiting the vineyard and the farm. And just getting a sense of this is possible, this is just extraordinary. And it’s now the vehicle that’s being used by the municipality in Liege to reimagine how they procure food for the hospitals, the schools, the universities.

I met the mayor of Liege. She said, “This is now the story of our city. We used to say we wanted to be a smart city. Now we want to be a Transition city.”

It’s a model that’s spreading to other cities in Belgium. It’s just phenomenal and it has a beautiful culture of just saying yes to everything.

That’s one example, but the beauty of it is that there are big, really ambitious stories like that and then there’s just the really simple stories about a community who made a little garden on their street. Or the community who just started planting trees at their local school and what that then led to. That’s the thing I love most. I always say to people, When you are in a meeting with other people and you come up with an idea and you say, Should we do it then? Yeah, let’s do it. You never know what that moment can lead to, what it can unlock, and what its potential is. 

From What Is to What If by Rob Hopkins

[00:14:20] Scott Snibbe: That phrase, “What if” is in the title of one of your books, From What Is To What If, and you talk about how we live in a time when we’re lacking stories about how things turn out okay. It’s hard to disagree with that statement. But then when you look at the climate crisis, in some ways worse than ever, undeniable, absolutely true; the implications of which we’re probably going to live with for a few hundred years. Can you talk about why we need positive stories? What’s their power? 

Why we need positive stories about our climate future

[00:14:49] Rob Hopkins: That’s a really good question. When I go to Belgium and France, there’s a movement there called “collapsologie,” which is this sort of collapsologist movement; that it is now inevitable that everything is going to collapse and the best you can do is just prepare for that and get used to the fact. I feel on some level if we carry on as we are, they may well be right and actually in some ways I think there is value to that.

It’s like the first noble truth, there is suffering, and things are impermanent, and for people who still imagine that the world in 21st century as some kind of permanent, well-functioning thing with no fragilities, that is quite a useful thing. Although it can also be massively disempowering. And I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve got into it and it’s just taken all the joy out of everything. 

You know, Joanna Macy is somebody who I have a huge amount of love and affection for. She’s phenomenal and an incredible Buddhist scholar as well. And she does these very powerful activities where you sit in a pair with somebody, you take turns saying, “When I think of the ecological collapse I feel . . .” and it’s about going into that grief. And then she calls it despair and empowerment work. And it’s amazing. I’ve done a few things with her in the past and I think she’s one of the great bodhisattvas of our time, in our practice. She’s amazing. 

But I saw a video of her doing it recently and she asked three questions: “When I think about the collapse of civilization I feel . . . .”, “When I think about the inevitability of climate change I feel . . .”, and there’s something else like that. And I thought, where’s the one that says,

“When I think about being part of the most astonishing global movement in history that turned this around, I feel . . . ?”

Because I worry that if you read a book like Paul Hawken’s Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, which I haven’t got yet, but I’m looking forward to reading. He wrote a book called Drawdown before that, basically pulled together everything that we know already exists. We’re not waiting for some silver bullet to be invented. We know this works, we know this works, we know this works. If we just got on with it and did it all with incredible focus and urgency, where would it get us to? I think that we shut that down so often with these narratives about it being too late.

One of my loves in my life is football. And I’ve seen enough games where a team is losing three-nil at halftime, which is basically what we are at the moment, but who came out on 5-3, and I’ve no idea how they did it, but I know at halftime their manager didn’t say, Wow, it’s probably too late, isn’t it? There’s not really much point in trying and I think we’ve had it.

So for me, in terms of stories, often we either have the dystopian stories. We love dystopian stories, we make endless films about the way humanity is wiped out by diseases or aliens or robots or gremlins, or God knows what, wiping out. We love that stuff. We have a lot less, but still a good tradition of utopian stories. People telling stories about everything turning out amazing and fantastic. What we don’t have is what Rupert Read calls “Thrutopias,” which is the stories that start now and point a way through the next 10 years, and bring it alive.

We were talking before we started recording about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for The Future book, which I think is a really brave attempt at doing that. But we need so many of those stories. And actually at the moment, I’m reading a lot of stuff around Black utopias.

A lot of Black writers and Black culture actually have been better at that, cause they’ve had to be. Because they’ve been in the most appalling places and had to try and figure out, How do we get out of here and what would it be like when we get out of here? It’s one of the things that I think we need a lot more of.

So in the work that I do, I try to collect stories like the story of Liege, stories about ordinary people just starting things and where they go. And sometimes they don’t work and sometimes they work in ways that nobody could have predicted. Aometimes they’re completely taken by surprise about the direction in which things go. So I feel like this idea of writing thrutopia is absolutely vital. 

[00:19:16] Scott Snibbe: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but could you share a thrutopia? Is there a relatively brief, plausible, positive story about our future, you could share with us?

[00:19:25] Rob Hopkins: From What Is To What If is a book I wrote about imagination that starts with a six page story from 2030. It’s like what I try and do in the podcast that I do, called From What If To What Next. In every episode I ask my guests to step into my time machine–I always use this imaginary time machine in lots of talks and workshops that I do–to imagine that they’re traveling to a 2030 that’s not a utopia, but it’s the result of us doing everything we could have done. So that those nine years between now and then felt like living through a revolution of the imagination, which felt unimaginable in 2021, but it built and built and built. And to the point where the 2030 that we get to feels like in many ways it looks the same, but it has really changed.

So here are some of those stories: We now use “re” a lot more in our language: rebuilding, refurbishing, remaking, reusing, recreating, reinventing. The “re” is now a big part of our language. Financial insecurity has been eradicated. People no longer go to work because they have to. All those workspaces that used to be occupied by big banks are now redirected and used for creative purposes of all sorts, whether it’s technical or artistry. When you see girlfriends meet each other, they don’t say, I see you’ve got a new dress. They say, Well, you’ve got the same dress you had last week, but you’ve made a little change to it and that’s so fancy and so fashionable. And this city really changed since the Ministry of Imagination opened in 2022. The city’s become a huge laboratory in which everyone can participate. You hear laughter, not just of children, but of adults.

Photo credit: https://nextpittsburgh.com

The place is alive with activity. There are people everywhere doing things. People walk freely in their bodies, regardless of their shape, their size, their abilities, their gender expression, the color of their skins, their age, and there’s an embrace of that. It smells like growing things and the air is filled with birdsong again, and the city looks much more like a rich parkland or forest and all the city’s children have access to good food.

So what I do is I invite people, whether it’s in a small workshop or with 1500 people in a hall in Brussels, to imagine that they travel to a future that’s not utopia, it’s not paradise, but it’s the result of us doing everything we could, and then to take a walk around and to imagine what it’s like and then describe it to somebody else. Then, to think what were the “what if” questions that people asked in 2021 that unlocked this? To go back and say, How did we get here? What did we start doing in 2021? For me, the telling of a thrutopia has to start by stepping a bit into the future and then looking back and then starting to tell the stories about how we got this process rolling and and what it led to. 

Is it dangerous to be too optimistic about solving the climate crisis?

[00:22:14] Scott Snibbe: What would you say to people that say, If we’re too optimistic, it might reduce the urgency we feel towards these issues. 

[00:22:20] Rob Hopkins: I think anybody who goes around being giddily optimistic all the time is really not paying attention and is probably in an enormous amount of denial. At the same time, anyone who spends all of that time feeling completely pessimistic, is also missing out on a huge amount. I think Paul Hawken put it really beautifully. He said,

“If you read the climate science and you’re not a pessimist, you haven’t read it properly, go back and read it again. But if you spend any time among the movements around the world, that are trying to do something about it, and you don’t feel optimistic, then you don’t have a heart.”

—Paul Hawken

When the last IPCC report came out, I had a very difficult few days reading it. Aldo Leopold, who was one of the first sort of people we might think of as an environmentalist, once said, “To live in a world with an ecological understanding is to live in a world of wounds.”

It’s why Joanna Macy does so much work around grief and despair and empowerment because it’s really very, very painful. Particularly when you see the levels of inaction and the people who are still vigorously pushing us in the wrong direction. Yeah, it’s very hard, I guess I feel like there’s maybe a healthy cycle where grief and despair are at the bottom, and fully engaged, purposeful action at the top. And we naturally cycle. It’s not that we stay there all the time, but it’s that we can move from one to the other and not get stuck.

What I find helpful is grounding ourselves in doing something: it makes a big difference. The thing that is guaranteed to make people feel really pessimistic is just sitting by and watching. I know so many people who’ve gotten involved in projects and in their community, trying to imagine a different future. And that’s what has been their route back to thinking, maybe this is possible. 

[00:24:13] Scott Snibbe: Another thing you talk about is how there’s evidence that things can change rapidly in society. It reminds me of a story. I’m a big fan of the Long Now Foundation. So there’s a story I learned from them that in New York City there was a panic in the horse and buggy era because they were projecting exponential increases in the horse poop levels. They looked at the projections and the growth of horse and buggies, and they said, There’s going to be six feet of horse poop on the streets in 10 years. What are we going to do?

And then of course, the automobile was invented, which in hindsight brought its own problems. The current COVID 19 situation is similar. Before this, the average time to create a vaccine was 20 years or so. Now all of a sudden we made one in 9 months. Can you talk a little bit about that, how fast and rapidly we can change? 

There are no non-radical solutions left

[00:25:05] Rob Hopkins: Yeah, I feel like Naomi Klein puts it really beautifully. She said, “There are no non-radical solutions left.” And I feel one of the things politics in the last 10 or 20 years has really settled on is this idea that change can only happen in small, incremental steps. COVID showed that was the myth that it always was.

We saw companies that make engines for Formula 1 racing cars switching over to making ventilators in a matter of weeks. We saw craft breweries repurposed to make hand sanitizer. We saw the idea that you can only run a successful business if you fly all of your media team to Paris for a breakfast meeting once a month as the total nonsense that it always was. 

I did a talk a little while ago where we were discussing about this. We were talking about “what if” questions and there’s a few kind of “what if” questions for me that came out of COVID. You know, what if we could listen to scientists when they tell us something’s an emergency? What if we could move in big steps? What if industry could be repurposed in a surprisingly short amount of time? What if communities are amazing and can do incredible stuff and could do even more incredible stuff if they were supported properly?

What if we learned to value the work that was actually valuable? What if we could work from home and what would that mean for commuting and pollution? What if we could cut aviation by 90% in a year and things pretty much continued to function? What if money was never the issue? What if we had a universal basic income, which in the UK we almost had during COVID? What if we actually reimagined education, so that education happened outside and we used our cities and towns as classrooms? What if schools taught kids to enjoy time to themselves and to not get bored? 

I feel like the first lockdown was an incredible thing because it gave people space. The imagination needs space and time, which it never has. We all dash around in this imagined vacuum of the imagination with no time to do anything. We saw during this time where people started writing the novel they always wanted to write, doing online art classes, posting their pictures everywhere, and making dance videos with their whole family, doing routines. And it was really quite extraordinary.

I think what it showed us is that so many of the myths–like that change only moves really slowly–were just rubbish and always were rubbish and that we can do things an awful lot better than that. I think it also was a reminder of impermanence, and like you say, a reminder that scientists are incredible.

[00:28:01] Scott Snibbe: You talked a little bit about the ideal of the bodhisattva as an engaged kind of spiritual warrior in the world. But you didn’t talk about meditation. I wanted to ask a little bit about that because that idea of engaged Buddhism is still a little rare. It’s nice to see you embodying that. Can you talk a little bit about the quiet meditation, the quiet contemplation, and what’s that role? How does that relate in particular for yourself? How does that relate to your work with communities and climate?

Engaged Buddhism in modern day life

[00:28:31] Rob Hopkins: I think I’m a pretty terrible Buddhist, really. I had years when I did lots and lots of meditation and then I had kids and basically then that meant there were years where anytime I shut my eyes I just fell asleep, because of working and having little kids. I’m reaching a stage in my life now where they’re all growing up and leaving home. And I really need to build back a kind of a contemplative, meditation practice. I remember when my second son came, going to see my teacher in Italy and him saying, Your family is your practice. And he was right because actually having young kids is the best patience, generosity, loving kindness practice you could ever wish for.

I guess at the moment, because I’m also an artist, for me, my contemplative time at the moment tends to be more when I go drawing and I get into a totally different zone, just sitting and looking and really seeing. And it’s one of the things that I learned from doing the imagination book is about attention.

You can’t have a really vigorous imagination if you don’t also have an ability to concentrate and to focus your attention. And I find the erosion, or you could even say collapse of our attention spans, absolutely terrifying. 

I always ask people to imagine if they’re in the yellow house, in Arles, France, in 1888, in the kitchen, and Vincent Van Gogh comes in with a beautiful bunch of sunflowers and he arranges them in a little pot on the table as the sunlight comes in through the window. And then he gets out his smartphone and thinks, I’ll just check my Twitter and my Facebook and my Instagram, and two hours later, he’s watching skateboarding videos on YouTube and he can’t even remember why he started watching them. Then we wouldn’t have the sunflower paintings and how they’ve transformed everybody’s lives.

I worry that as our collective attention span becomes more and more dispersed, we no longer–like, where did the great ideas come from? How many great ideas for solving the climate crisis are we missing because our minds are just elsewhere most of the time.

I feel like at this point in my life my contemplation practice comes when I write, comes when I draw, it comes while I walk my dog in the forest, and that’s when all my best ideas come to me, when I ride my bicycle. But I also know that meditation shaped me in lots and lots of ways–and retreats and all of that–and was really made a huge difference.

So maybe being on this podcast is what will be the kick-up the ass I need to actually get back to it again. 

[00:31:25] Scott Snibbe: Well, one of my teachers said you’re more likely to find a bodhisattva at a football game than on a cushion. So I think you’re embodying that ideal of, if you really feel it so deeply in your heart and you have the skill, which you obviously do, then it’s a better use of your time to be out.

[00:31:43] Rob Hopkins: I guess. What Greta Thunberg would say is, If the house is on fire, maybe you need to get off the cushion and look for the fire extinguisher. When I lived in Italy and I was very committed to and very involved in the community there, learning all the sort of meditation practices about seeing the world as being a pure land, like lapis lazuli and smooth as, the whatever the —

[00:32:07] Scott Snibbe: Pure view. 

[00:32:08] Rob Hopkins: Yeah, but then you’d go around the back and all the bins were full of plastic and all the food came in from the supermarkets and people had showers for half an hour and in a place with real water scarcity. And I’m thinking, Okay, this is interesting. And then going to Dharamsala, where all the Tibetan community was living at the time, and the waste piles everywhere and thinking, Okay, there’s something that’s not quite joining up here.

And so for me, my very original thing was I wanted to do a sort of ecological Dharma practice, centered on all those things together; which didn’t quite end up happening in that way. But I guess that’s always been my drive; how do we do this stuff in the real world? It has to be a lived practice, I think. 

Our House is on Fire, Great Thunberg

[00:33:01] Scott Snibbe: There’s a term I recently learned called spiritual bypass. I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but I think it really resonates a lot. Because it’s this idea that you use your spirituality as a kind of denial, like everything’s fine, whatever it is, it’s not limited to Vajrayana Buddhism. It can be any kind of, any form of spirituality.

I was raised a Christian Scientist, so that was even more extreme; you don’t go to a doctor, I’ll be fine. So what you’re saying really resonates with me, I think all of us who consider ourselves as spiritual practitioners, I think it’s a very careful line to tread, to somehow find that optimism and a vision, but be realistic. Which somehow I think you, of all people, embody that quite well. So it’s really interesting to learn from your example of how to avoid spiritual bypass. 

[00:33:48] Rob Hopkins: I think it’s one of the reasons why the Transition movement and the Transition model put such an emphasis on what we call outer transition and then inner transition.

The Transition movement is not just about solar panels and organic carrots. It’s about how we do the activism that we do matters just as much as what we do; that we don’t replicate the paradigm that we’re trying to replace in the ways in which we try to get there.

There’s no point trying to replace the current system, which is making such a massive mess of everything, if the structures that we use are hierarchical, patriarchal, and replicate the same patterns of burnout that have haunted activism for decades, centuries, even. That we actually run groups where people learn good communication, are able to manage conflicts, and run meetings that people enjoy being at, and all of that stuff.

So when people do our Transition training, it’s a two day training, they might learn how to start a community energy company and print local currency notes or something. It’s all about that. It’s all about how do we work together? How do we do all of that stuff? So I think that inner side of it is really important. And so for some people, doing Transition is a kind of inner practice, a sort of personal growth practice. 

[00:35:14] Scott Snibbe: I wanted to talk to you about something that I think a lot about with climate change: the role of technology and big corporations in climate change. I don’t know if you ever listened to Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, it is fantastic. But he did one recently on detergents and he talked about this detergent that Tide developed called Cold Water Clean. It’s an extraordinary technical accomplishment of a detergent that works just as well as a warm water detergent but works in cold water; which it turns out that’s where most of the energy is wasted or consumed is in the heating and the hot water for your laundry.

But a lot of activists also have this alignment with being natural and so this detergent hasn’t been as popular. It’s been out for more than 10 years, but this detergent hasn’t been as popular, even though it’s maybe one of the very largest energy climate savings each of us can perform as an individual.

I think that place where people’s supposedly natural values collides with an important technology that might really affect climate change. Have you seen that yourself? What do you think about these issues and the role of big companies who are trying to help with these solutions?

Technology, corporations, and climate change

[00:36:25] Rob Hopkins: We talked about the COVID vaccine before, that’s amazing. They developed a vaccine in nine months and they figured out all of that and it’s an extraordinary international accomplishment. But at the same time, they then used it to develop vaccines that are the intellectual property of those companies and took millions of pounds of public money to then create something which they then sell and are making vast amounts of money.

The amount of shock doctrine, opportunist capitalism that we’ve seen during COVID has been terrifying. The transfer from poor to rich during this time has just been hideous. So it’s one thing to look at the technologies themselves and then another thing to look at what they then enable.

One of the chapters in the book was about the connection between imagination and social media and these very addictive devices that we carry around in our pockets. I was fascinated, reading people like Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which is one of the most genuinely terrifying books I’ve ever read.

The number of people now who are making very cogent arguments that actually on balance–if you look at the internet as being a 20-year experiment, knowing everything that we know now about its impacts on mental health, on democracy, on so many different things, really, if you knew all of that now, would we still do it? I don’t know.

I guess for me, the question about technologies is that we shouldn’t just rush in and embrace everything because it’s a new technology. But it should go through a series of kind of filters about, who does it benefit? And some of those things, I guess we don’t know until we’ve tried them out for a while. 

I’m not one of those people, like Steward Brand, who tends to assume that all technological developments are great. And that if you question technology, you’re some sort of caveman. But at the same time, I’m also not one of those people who says only natural things are good and anything man-made is terrible.

But then we also have to balance up. Electric cars are better than petrol cars. Yeah, sure. But they’re still not great. We should still really be trying to design a world that’s not about alternative cars, but about alternatives to people having a car. We need to keep in mind that technologies can often dazzle us away from looking at what the real things that we need to do are. Huge amount of money now going into advertising electric cars, not much money is going into advertising car-free cities. There’s not many adverts promoting public transport, cycling, and walking. 

Can oil companies be allies in fighting climate change?

[00:39:09] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m a huge fan of his work. I think you’re halfway through his Ministry For the Future, and I read it when it came out. But I think this pushes a tiny bit more on that corporate side, because one of the things he writes about in that book is imagining oil companies playing a decisive role in innovating climate change.

He has them drilling through the ice sheets to help suck the water out so that the ice sheets clamp down and stop moving across the Antarctic. That is a really optimistic view, right? Not to see the oil companies as an opponent, but as the only organization on earth that knows how to make massive changes to our biosphere and to enlist their help. My perspective as a Buddhist is, these people could be our allies somehow. How do we transform the relationship and change the incentives?

What do you think of this optimistic idea that, rather than blaming the oil companies for our problems, you enlist them for the climate-changing power to become an ally for climate solutions?

[00:40:09] Rob Hopkins: I travel a lot on the Eurostar cause I don’t fly. So I travel to France on the Eurostar and about 3 years ago at King’s Cross and Brussels, they had big advertising campaigns on the digital screens on the walls, from BP, the oil company, which had pictures of wind turbines going round. And they’re saying we run cars on food waste and the tagline was, “We see possibilities everywhere.” And I took great exception at this because it’s just not true. 

So every time I would pass through, I would tweet something, Dear Eurostar @BP, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I did this quite a lot. And then I had exchanges with them where they would say they’re doing very well and all this.

And so I wrote a blog, I put all this stuff together. And then the guy at BP who was responsible for that advertising campaign, rang me up about this, “We feel at BP, like we’re doing really good things and we feel we should let people know about them.” I said I don’t have an objection to you doing good things. That’s great, well done. But those adverts should have at the bottom of them, something like you have on packets of cigarettes, it should be a thing at the bottom that says 90% of BP’s business is still extracting oil and gas, and then that’s an honest thing. And he said, Oh yeah, I guess maybe you’ve got a point there.

But I said, If you really did see possibilities everywhere, you would say, We’re going to stop oil and gas extraction within 5 years. And we’re going to become a renewable energy company. We’re going to do the kind of things that you were talking about. But he said that’s really difficult because of the pension funds. So they have massive investment from pension funds who invest in them because that’s where you can get a reliable 10% a year return on investment.

Who are going to be the first oil and gas companies to really break ranks and to start doing that stuff? And you have to remember that there’s companies like Exxon that are still actively funding disinformation about climate change and still give huge amounts of money to politicians to protect their interests and to lobby on their behalf.

I feel like a lot of what we hear from oil and gas companies is greenwash and they are trying to present themselves as being part of the solution. Like you, I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt where I can, and I feel like if we were to find ways to invite them to play that role, then they could absolutely, they’ve got all the kit. I think that’s a brilliant thing that that book has. 

We assume that things like oil and gas companies are kind of permanent somehow, or that somehow everybody who works with oil and gas companies are there because they believe in oil and gas companies.

There was a really interesting survey, a couple of weeks ago, of people who work in North Sea oil and gas; 80% of them said they’d much rather work in the renewables sector. There’s not many people who work in oil and gas who love oil and gas and for whom it’s their great calling. 

[00:43:13] Scott Snibbe: How could you create that transformation? I think as spiritual practitioners one of the things we realize is that there is no collective, it’s all made of individuals. The Dalai Lama says this all the time, right?

Because people ask him all the time, How do you stop war? And whenever I’ve heard him answer that question, he always said, “Make up with all the people you’re angry with.” Your take is a bit more nuanced. You’re not only saying to just work on a tiny local level, but that things start there, and you can have a vision as big as the whole world, but start where you are.

Local change can change the whole world

[00:43:45] Rob Hopkins: Yeah, like the story that I told you about Liege, that started in Liege with a few people saying, Let’s try and reimagine the food system. And it’s now spreading across Belgium. It’s a model which has the power to be deeply transformative, but it’s not an idea that anybody sitting in government would ever have come up with.

It’s a beautiful thing, with the Transition Movement, that we have Transition initiatives in 50 countries. How, when one place comes up with a good idea, it can just spread out through all of those networks and be adopted. As I said before, it’s one of the good things with the internet; it makes this kind of movement possible and this kind of sharing of stories possible. 

[00:44:24] Scott Snibbe: Well, I love talking to you. We could really talk for a long time. Is there anything else that you’d want to add before we wrap up this conversation?

[00:44:32] Rob Hopkins: There’s a beautiful story in Shantideva’s, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life; he tells a story about a grove of trees that make poisonous berries. And there are these peacocks that live in that grove who are able to eat this fruit and turn it into this incredibly beautiful plumage that they have. And I’ve always been really touched by that.

The peacock in the poison grove: a metaphor for transforming problems into solutions. Photo credit: https://crythebird.com

He uses that as a story to talk about how acting as a bodhisattva means that you can turn suffering into compassion and spiritual attainment.

For me, I look at it as the climate emergency is the poison, but if we can get our activism up, then it means that we’re able to turn it into incredibly transformative ways to connect people, ways to transform economies, and ways to transform mental health.

So that story is always really powerful to me. And the idea that we need to be bringing the kind of joined-up systems thinking, holistic thinking that is in Buddhism, and different traditions as well, to where we go from here. It’s not okay anymore just to say: We need a mental health strategy over here, we need a physical health strategy over here, and we need a housing policy over here. When we bring a good way of thinking to all of this stuff, it’s all the same. Building homes for people that they can afford to live in and don’t need to pay loads of money to heat is a mental health strategy.

Urban agriculture is a way of ending the epidemic of loneliness, giving people access to good food, building biodiversity, and transforming what our cities look and feel like.

So it’s that sort of complex systems thinking we need to be bringing from Buddhist philosophy classes and into town-planning, policymaking, activism, and how we think about what the future needs to be. 

[00:46:48] Scott Snibbe: That’s very beautiful. For people who want to get involved with your work, where do we go? How do we sign up? 

[00:46:56] Rob Hopkins: Have a look at transitionnetwork.org. If you’re in the US you could look at transitionus.org or the other hubs in America. They’re amazing. If you want to find out more about what I do, then my website is robhopkins.net, or the podcast that I do, which is called From What If To What Next. Every episode takes a different “what if” question and explores it. You can find it on all good podcast platforms, or you could even subscribe at patreon.com/fromwhatiftowhatnext and join me and be part of that adventure. 

[00:47:26] Scott Snibbe: Thanks, I’m signing up. Thanks a lot, Rob. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

[00:47:33] Rob Hopkins: My total pleasure, likewise. Thank you. 

[00:47:35] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with climate activist Rob Hopkins. If you want to learn more about your local chapter of the Transition Network where you can play your part to reimagine and rebuild the world and get through this climate crisis, visit his website at transitionnetwork.org or the website for this podcast episode at skepticspath.org. You can also find a link to his podcast From What If to What Next.

If you enjoyed this episode, please consider making a donation to our podcast. A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by donations that keep all our content free and ad-free. To support us now, visit our website at skepticspath.org. We accept cash, credit, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies and your donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.

This episode was produced in partnership with Science and Wisdom Live: where science and meditation meet. I regularly serve as a host for Science and Wisdom Live’s podcast and events, and you can learn more at sciwizlive.com.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Produced by Tara Anderson
Social Media and digital production by Isabela Acebal

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