Imagination + Activism for Life

9 min readMay 5, 2024
Some of my work with others’ in an installation by Jonathan Adkins about climate change, facilitated by Norwich Theatre, summer 2023.

This is a celebration of imagination and activism, in my own life and in the commoning culture around me, particularly in the emerging response to the Earth crisis.

When I use the term ‘Imagination Activism’ or ‘Imagination Activist’, although I am expressing my own ideas and experiences, I am under the terms of this Creative Commons licence crediting Phoebe Tickell who initiated the Imagination Activism movement in 2022. Phoebe, with Stephen Reid, taught a course Tools for a Regenerative Renaissance in 2021 that I found useful, and is summed up in this post.

I also have to credit Rob Hopkins, who is all about Imagination Taking Power. See his book about the imagination in a regenerative transition ‘From What Is to What Next?’ and his amazing compilation of brilliant regenerative dreams ‘The Ministry of the Imagination’.

Screengrab from The Ministry of the Imagination

The imagination is not quite synonymous with creativity as it’s a specifically mental faculty of calling to mind what isn’t present including what has never been or could be, or making metaphorical sense of experience. Creativity applies the imagination to generate new images or artefacts through play and practice, including in the realms such as activism for change. Creative practice is the bridge between imagination and activism, but regenerative change also requires eco-capacities.

Creativity is the bridge between imagination and activism, but regenerative change also requires eco-capacities.

Essentially, humans are imaginative activists — all of them, and they have been for millennia and yet, at this moment, more of us need to come more fully into our powers as such. Imagination and activism stand on either side of a seesaw of the human disposition, as our brains shift back and forth from inner reflections to physical interactions with the world. Other animals can be imagination activists too, but no species has the intellectual and habitat range and the manipulative capacities of humans. Human imagination activism evolved to enhance our capacities to interact with, steward and optimise our environment, and to communicate and care better for each other (both for fellow humans and other kin). Unfortunately, these beneficial adaptations were in tension with aggressive and destructive patterns that have accelerated with patriarchal and colonial narratives of progress and dominion over nature.

Artists can be the models of imagination activism in human societies and the teachers of this combination of dispositions. Some artists might have been called shamans, artisans, magicians or storytellers, or have different roles that we now broadly categorise as artists. Some who wouldn’t call themselves artists have been imaginative activists (or change-makers) slowly or secretly by tinkering in positively deviant ways to engineer solutions to small problems, or perhaps by singing new versions of old songs to their children. There’s the Gentle Activism gently promoted by the Craftivist Collective Handbook by Sarah Corbett, packed with ideas for textile and paper craft ideas for making a positive difference in the world.

I just received this book in the post yesterday, when I was making some cloth patches and some collages.

Some very imaginative people have been so fired up or troubled by a situation they have worked primarily as activists, using their visionary and communicative powers, and articulating their dreams to mobilise people. Some of the best are children, the most brilliant Imagineers and ‘curiosity fiends’ of any generation. Elders also come into their own as they pull on the threads of memory, to remind younger people what resources to draw upon and what has worked in the past.

Where civilisations have become too authoritarian and destructive, imaginative powers can be hijacked by degenerative thinking, and activism becomes repressed by censorship, laws and violence. At this time, planet-wide we are increasingly beholden to those people imagining futures for themselves that are exclusive, extractive and technocentric — expressed in notions such as Mars colonisation, linear cities in the desert or bunkers to escape from climate impacts. They hold conferences and fund education programmes to generate investment and equip generations of people for this kind of mechanistic ‘imagination’, encouraging action within limited bounds, making people servile to an impossible grand vision of luxury (within a chaotic and collapsing reality).

Screengrab of the Neom linear city in Saudi Arabia.

Some artists in similar situations have been able to break out of the constraints of patronage and power. Some, by visualising and catalysing the connectivity of ideas, emotions and things, can extend and disrupt the social imaginations of traditional cultures. In periods when (or places where) liberal and diverse values are coming to the fore, these artists are cherished and funded to be as generative as they wish. Artists like this from the past are discovered and remembered. We can see some artists as time-travellers prefiguring the future we inhabit decades later, like the women Bauhaus designers who could be in an 80’s Art Rock band. Conversely, the Culture Wars today and similar repressive campaigns in the past have denounced and concealed the liminal, curious, strange and transformative practices of artist-activists.

Photo by Oskar Schlemmer, siehe Wulf Herzogenrath

My parents were activists with their imaginations and often received complaints and barbs for it. My Mum was a teacher using poetry, art, music and nature connection to break open portals into children’s lives in small acts of defiance against the National Curriculum. My Dad was a painter (still is) and local politician who confounded council chambers by talking about the romantic imagination or about artists who were conscientious objectors.

Woodhenge, by Peter Baldwin (my Dad)

My first conscious act of imagination activism was at the age of 10. I made a large painting of a dead swan that we had found shot near our back garden, and I put it up in the village shop with a screed about protected species and the grief of its spouse. I wanted people to imagine how the surviving swan and its cygnets felt. Nobody said anything. I joined a youth peace group and I used my art skills for them, and was disciplined at school for it. Over the 44 years since then I have donated my singing voice, my words, my ideas, my images and more to countless causes for environmental peace, and to gatherings with no cause but many questions. Before we had computers, I designed the logo and name for the Peckham Pecks, a LETS pound, a scheme that later became common in Transition Towns. In my work in museum and gallery education, in the 90’s, I was involved in critical studies groups about play, learning, imagination, identity, equality and change. At the time, I questioned why Tate (my employer) was sponsored by an oil company, and why it was opening a fourth major museum on the banks of tidal waters with projections of significantly rising sea levels.

This work continued as I became more conscious of the planetary emergency and its linked causes. I dreamed up a lot of causes and started too many websites that I lacked capacity to sustain. For example, in 2006, I started Power Parties to encourage people to come together to use energy in spaces (or outdoors, energy-free) while turning off energy at home.

I supported calls for Socially-engaged Arts or Participatory Arts to be better funded and recognised as an art form. Specifically, I advocated for Eco-social arts to be valued, not just in the limited forms we might assume (e.g. art from trash about trash) but being ecocentric as the essential component of all beneficial Public Arts practice. I developed many resources and arts education projects that promoted the application of the imagination to social and environmental issues. As an evaluator and researcher with Flow Associates, I wrote about Cultural Value, trying to break the binary between Art for Art’s Sake versus Art for Social Outcomes by pointing to millennia of global practices of Art For Life. (Art for Life is not just for human life, or therapeutically responding to our needs, but is also about imagination activism for resisting harm and restoring relationships and ecosystems.)

In c.2009 I started supporting Art Not Oil, and now support Culture Unstained. I hooked up with Robert Janes and with Tony Butler, talking about a global movement of museums for sustainability and collapse-responsiveness, and helped write the Happy Museums manifesto. I joined the Dark Mountain Project, attended all its festivals, curated visual art projects, published writing and photographs and more. I supported the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, initiated by Feral Theatre, still running annually on November 30th. Linked to this, I was a trustee for the ONCA Gallery in Brighton, until recently steered by Persephone Pearl. I signed up to Polly Higgins’ campaign ‘Trees Have Rights’ before it was the campaign for an international Ecocide Law, and we (in Flow, then with my co-founder Mark Stevenson) supported her storytelling plans. I got involved in Edgeryders, and went to Strasbourg and Brussels, to explore ideas about open tech and eco-social change. Locally, I supported many social and environmental projects such as creating the Hill Station community cafe, and organising Big Green Days and the Garlic Man parades at summer solstices.

Now I’m full steam on imagination + activism for the Earth crisis, in founding Culture Declares Emergency and Climate Museum UK. My driving principle is to be Possitopian, exploring practices in expanding the imagination to possible futures. I’m exploring this directly in my local programme, Possitopia Norwich and events like Reimagine the City.

This event is today (the day of publishing)…

There’s so much more in my story but it’s getting a bit egotistical! It’s hard to avoid the ego triggering the need to account for oneself in this individualistic culture, and when working across the two areas that are the least funded (in the UK at least): socially-engaged cultural practice and environmental system change.

I could have done nothing without other inspiring (imaginative) and hard-working (activist) people: starting with all our ancestors (e.g. my great grandfather who warned about the 1953 floods); my parents & family; or my teachers (like Ruth Barker and Marcia Pointon); or cultural educators (like Penny Hay, Alison Cox, Jane Sillis and Liz Ellis); or all the regenerative culture leaders I’ve been privileged to connect with (Daniel Christian Wahl, Lucimara Letelier, Jenny Andersson, Phoebe Barnard, Chris Garrard, Lucy Neal, Ruth Ben Tovim, Cassie Robinson, Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine…) and my colleagues (like Victoria Burns, Heather Ackroyd, Asher Minns, Kay Michaels, Jaime Jackson, Susanne Buck, Alex Flowers, Lucy Carruthers, Kevin Campbell Davidson, Justine Boussard, and more, too many to name). Finally, I will add to this inadequately small list Rupert Read, who has founded the Climate Majority Project (into which large pot I am hoping to stir some more arts and culture over time).

Recounting this story of imagination + activism, and the people involved, is part of a process of assessing our impact in all three of my founded organisations. All are at a stage of review and potential growth, needing to raise our game by telling our stories of change and where we each fit in a beneficial ecosystem, in a troubled context:

Flow Associates is a small agency that focuses on the realm of imagination and experience design, for a range of clients with different missions in culture, research and education. It’s only about activism in that we aim to help those organisations achieve their desired impacts, and by exploring the troubled context and means of change-making available to them we can ‘push the envelope’ of their ambitions.

Climate Museum UK is a non-profit collective that equips practitioners — through live projects in places across the UK — with the skills to use their imaginations to activate public audiences in the face of the Earth crisis. We are proactively modelling the kinds of imagination activism that are needed at this time.

Culture Declares Emergency is an international movement that focuses on getting the ‘Imagination sectors’ to be more activist in response to the staggering scale, urgency and complexity of the Earth crisis. It is most definitely promoting the axis of imagination + activism, inviting a broad spectrum of practitioners and organisations to declare an emergency with us, and follow up by forming local hubs, telling truths, taking care of heritage and communities, and making changes for Zero Harm and environmental justice.

Still from new short film celebrating our 5 year anniversary

Get in touch with me on if you’d like to talk about supporting or commissioning either of these organisations.




Director of Flow & Climate Museum UK. Co-founder Culture Declares. Cultural researcher, artist-curator, educator.