This October, Transition Network are inviting communities, groups and other organisations to host a Pop Up Tomorrow event. As described in the free downloadable guide, “Pop Up Tomorrow is a space to explore our longings for what we want the future to be, connecting us with each other and a future worth fighting for”. In this blog we explore why, given the scale and urgency of the climate emergency, we are proposing an activity which supports dreaming, imagination and creativity.
By Rob Hopkins and Deborah Benham.
One conversation we’ve been having within the Transition Network team and with other groups we collaborate with, is ‘what messages best support many more people to take practical action around climate change’? What we’ve noticed in some discussions is a tendency to frame this as an either/or question. For example, is it most useful to share messages which evoke hope or messages which evoke fear or outrage? Which of these best help people to wake up to the climate emergency and get motivated into significant action?
Either/or questions can create polarisation, a sense that there is a right and a wrong answer and that these are independent of each other i.e…only one can be true. This can lead to oversimplification of complex issues and complex solutions, and also increase a sense of distance, or blaming and shaming between people who might otherwise be allies. For many issues there is unlikely to be a right or wrong answer. Rather there is a spectrum of answers or approaches, which are more or less useful depending on the context.
This was highlighted for Deborah in an excellent recent webinar presented by Dr Adam Corner of Climate Outreach, who are a team of social science researchers and communication specialists. They explore the most central questions around effective climate change communication, and provide resources to organisations to help them improve their climate change messages. In the webinar, Adam presented this either/or question around the effectiveness of hope/fear based messaging. What was particularly interesting was that the answer, based on extensive research, was that we need both. Here’s why…
Messages which help us connect to and feel the shock, fear, grief and outrage around the reality of the ecological and climate crisis can have positive impacts – acting as a “wake up call”. This can provide us with the courage and motivation to demand and work for change. It’s important to get in touch with and find ways to express anger, fear and grief – these are after all entirely appropriate responses to what’s happening in the world. However, there can also be a downside to sticking only or always with messages that evoke a sense of urgency and despair, as this can push people into overwhelmed or helpless responses.
Once awakened to the need for action, what can support people to stay engaged and motivated is being able to actually see, feel and imagine themselves taking the needed actions, which create an outcome, a future, which is substantively different from the present.
Finding ways to help people connect with their longing for a different way of living and working, a more regenerative, just and zero carbon future, is a different form of motivation, one which can nourish us so we stay committed and contributing over the long term. These messages are sometimes categorised as the more ‘hopeful’ ones i.e. ‘let’s imagine what the future we would love to live in could look like’? And, just as with the messages which help us understand the scale and urgency of the problem, it’s possible to overdo or oversimplify the messages of hope.
Whichever the messages we are using, the outcome we are looking for is engagement, motivation and long term commitment to practical action. With this in mind, we believe that asking these ‘What If’ questions and activating our imagination is crucial.
Pop Up Tomorrow is a powerful and very real expression of Transition Network’s belief in how change happens. From 13 years of observing Transition in over 50 countries, we’ve learnt that having a vision of the future in which we did everything we could possibly do, in which we unleashed a historically unprecedented social transformation, and imagining that with all our senses, is very powerful.
Donella Meadows, one of the authors of the ‘Limits to Growth’ reports summed this up beautifully when she wrote:
“Children, before they are squashed by cynicism, are natural visionaries. They can tell you clearly and firmly what the world should be like. There should be no war, no pollution, no cruelty, no starving children. There should be music, fun, beauty, and lots and lots of nature. People should be trustworthy and grownups should not work so hard. It’s fine to have nice things, but it’s even more important to have love. As they grow up, children learn that these visions are “childish” and stop saying them out loud. But inside all of us, if we haven’t been too badly bruised by the world, there are glorious visions”.
We have learnt in the Transition movement that the creation of well-facilitated ‘What If’ spaces is vital. Spaces where people can come together to explore what the future might be and how they might create it. We have learnt that inspiring people to make change involves calling to people’s emotions and to their imagination. To dream into, feel and take steps toward creating changes we need to make. We have learnt that people need to be able to see themselves in that future, to really have a sense of what their daily lives, loves, losses, work, even breakfasts, might look like in a future where we had really created profound change.
We believe that creating ‘memories of the future’ makes it far more likely that we can actually bring about a future where the things we long for can become real. And there is good research to back this up. Jackie Andrade and Jon May, researchers at Plymouth University, have developed an approach called ‘Functional Imagery Training’. They work with people who have issues around addiction and overeating, helping them to imagine in multisensory ways what their life would feel, smell, look, taste and sound like if they succeed in making the changes they want to. The successful impacts of this are now well established through their research. FIT creates a longing for that future and allows us to test-drive, inhabit, and familiarise ourselves with it. All of this makes it much more likely that the imagined future can become the real future.
And so to Pop Up Tomorrow. What Pop Up Tomorrow will actually look like is entirely up to you. Our hope is that every response to this invitation is different, fascinating, and could only have come from the community of that place. At the heart of the idea is this. How can you create an immersive experience of the future you long for?
You might give your street a makeover with trees in pots and new seating areas and food being grown and cooked. You might invite people to add their dreams of the future to a drawing of the place. Actors might represent people from the future. You might invite people to bring an object that represents the future they long for so they can speak about what it represents. There are many more ideas in the guide.
Last year Rob was in Tooting, south London, where Transition Town Tooting ran a beautiful event called ‘The Tooting Twirl’. In a neighbourhood with no town square or village green, the community were invited to consider an unloved bus turning circle and ask “What if this were our village green?” They put out flowers, they rolled out lawn, there was music and food. Over the day I heard many conversations shift from “if this were our village green”, to “when this is our village green”. That’s the idea fundamental to Pop Up Tomorrow, that it helps make the shift in thinking from if to when. And that’s a shift that is powerful, meaningful, and impactful in creating real change.
We look forward to seeing what you create and sharing your memories of the future.