Reflecting on the Greenworld: Ecopagan Utopias and How Quickly they Become Dystopian by Anna McKerrow

In 2015 Crow Moon, my first ever novel – and the first in an ecopagan utopia/dystopian YA trilogy – was published by Quercus. 

Set slightly in the future, my concept for the trilogy was that the UK had divided into the Greenworld – a peaceful, utopian ecopagan community based in Devon and Cornwall, ruled by pagan witches, and the Redworld, the rest of the UK (and, to the Greenworlders, the rest of the world), which was corrupt, crime-ridden, dystopian and rapidly running out of fuel, due to an ongoing war fuel in Russia. 

All sounds rather familiar now, doesn’t it? Well, except for the part about the west country being an ecopagan utopia. More of that later.

Of course, I wasn’t being unusually prescient by writing about a war over fuel or a divided country when I began writing in 2013-2014. We have all been aware for a long time that have been many wars over oil, and there will be continuing issues over the ownership of oil and gas.

We are also aware that the petrochemical industry has for many years persuaded governments not to invest in sustainable fuel futures. Anyone who has a vague care about the environment in the past 50 years will also know the terrible things that pollution from fuel, and practices such as fracking, do to the environment. Most people also know that Russia owns some of the most fuel-rich land on the planet.

As to the division between the Greenworld and the Redworld, at the time I was thinking more about Scottish and Welsh (and even Cornish) independence which had been rumbling around for some time. Sadly, I couldn’t imagine at the time that Brexit would happen, and Great Britain would annex itself from the rest of Europe in such a strangely self-defeating act of isolationism. The pro-Brexit among us may have had a utopian vision of a better Britain, somehow, but of course, being in isolation has already exacerbated many existing problems, notably racism and intolerance, and created new ones, such as cost of living increases, food and goods shortages etc.

The first book in the trilogy, Crow Moon, is set in the Greenworld, the annexed Devon and Cornwall, which is run by pagan witches with a strong ecological focus. In these books, I wanted to represent a witchcraft which was closer to the modern witchcraft I know, rather than the fantasy witchcraft one sees so much in the media.

I should note here, by the way, that modern witchcraft and paganism are two different things. Paganism refers to a nature-based belief system in which people believe Nature is divine, and that divinity is immanent in all nature (pantheism). It includes a concentration on seasonal festivals, where the Wheel of the Year is celebrated as the natural times and tides pass by. These include the solstices and the equinoxes, and four other “cross quarter” festivals, making eight in total. Again, some of these are ancient, and some were, arguably, made up for the modern Pagan revival.

Witchcraft refers to a specifically magical practice, wherein a witch, either alone or as part of a group, works magic for their own ends. Witches can be pagan, and celebrate all the festivals, but not all of them are. Modern witches can be Wiccan, traditional, polytheist, atheist; work with particular cultural magical practices or mixes of things, herbal traditions, ceremonial magic, tarot, the list goes on. It is an incredibly “broad church” to use a heretical misnomer, and also completely decentralised and anarchic.

Usually, witches in fiction are either caricatures – warts, noses, green skin (not only a nod to anti-semitic imagery, but also a basic indictment of the older woman); they’re based around Salem or UK witch trials, and unfortunately there’s a morality message there, intended or not – this is what happens when you’re a powerful woman and want to be assertive, want to be independent or sexual or provide a challenge to the status quo in any way. Witches are also sometimes played for humour, or in a horror context.

There’s a more recent move to thriller-based drama using medieval and historical ideas about witches in modern or historical settings. But even so, it’s usually the idea about witches being supernatural in origin or ‘just having’ magical powers that then need to be controlled by some kind of stentorian medieval devices: an essentially untrue and disempowering premise.

That’s not how I wanted to represent a witch. 

To me, it made total sense to link a community run by witches to a strong ecological focus, because the development of modern witchcraft and, more generally, paganism, in Europe and the USA since the 50s, has always revered Nature as divine.1

I wanted to present the reality-based pagan approach where witches are made, not born, out of hard work, in the main. All witches of history in all cultures and all present-day ones learn their skills. No-one is conferred magical powers on their sixteenth birthday, or via an unfortunate accident, or from a curse, or a gift from a mysterious stranger. Of course, the idea that anyone can be powerful – and learn powerful methods – terrifies most societies, which is presumably why we have to have these ridiculous premises for magic in the first place. The other reason is because our secular western society still doesn’t believe magic exists, despite huge evidence to the contrary, eg people all around the world doing it.

I wanted to present witches as deeply devoted and spiritual people that work closely with divinities and nature. Once you understand that a witch has to know the natural world intimately to make magic – understand the natural rhythms of the world we live in – then you realise that the link between witchcraft and ecology/environmentalism (and, sometimes, but not always, activism) is irrevocable.

When you worship the earth as a Goddess, living and breathing, then you should care about what happens to it. Now, this is not to say that everyone in the world that identifies as a witch cares about environmentalism at all. Many don’t. But, logically, they should.

So, witches = environmentalism was not a very big leap to take. Once you have that idea in mind, you can start to imagine what witches might do to try and save the land they revere, and thus the story comes along. (Incidentally, there is also a fascinating history of the intersection between activism and witchcraft, with groups such as W.I.T.C.H and even (though not witchcraft) the recent pro-abortion activism of the Church of Satan in the US.)

In Red Witch, the second book in the series, I examined the dangers of fracking. Clearly, in the “Redworld”, a world at war for the last scraps of fuel, fracking would have been used. Resistance against fracking was very big in England at the time, and in fact there had been talk about fracking in Somerset, near to Glastonbury Tor. Obviously, the hippie community was up in arms about that and local opposition meant it never happened. The Huffington Post summed up Red Witch pretty well when it said:

“Recognisable and therefore terrifying, the Redworld depicts a society oppressed and dismantled by greed, and desecrated by the ruthless search for fossil fuels. Through the eyes of Demelza Hawthorne, the powerful yet anguished teenage protagonist, the horrors of fracking and the extreme consequences of policies which serve the rich and exploit the poor are described with a chilling authenticity. Perhaps most disturbing, are scenes where the sacred areas around Glastonbury have been mercilessly torn apart as a consequence of fracking: plans to frack in Somerset were put forward by UK Methane in 2013. As she struggles with romance, deception, betrayal and grief, Demelza’s relationship to the environment itself is also put under tremendous strain as she begins to understand her own hard-won power.”

A Magical Solution to Fracking and Climate Change? The Huffington Post, 2016

It’s interesting to look back and see that fracking was also pretty unpopular with the upper-class villages of the south west too. For a while, the dangers of fracking was a topic that hippies and toffs could both get behind. It may have been that Tory voter pressure that made the government step back from pursuing fracking quite so enthusiastically as it once did – who knows. Or perhaps it was the dragon dance that happened on the Tor in the summer of 2016.

When I imagined the Greenworld, it was utopian from the point of view of being self-sustaining, nature-loving, woman-centred, connected to magic and having its heart in the right place. I knew that no utopias are perfect, and that they often become dystopias rather quickly (the Netflix series about the spiritual guru Osho Wild Wild Country is very interesting). One of the things I was interested in writing about was how even an environmental, right-on green, witchy community run by women could very easily become corrupt because of its intentional seclusion. Like Brexit Britain, the Greenworld suffered because of its lack of connection to the outside world. It became stagnant and ignorant. Spoiler alert: in the final book of the trilogy, the Greenworld and the Redworld have to reunite to stop the end of the world. A salutary lesson for us all that no closed off community works in the long term – even a green utopia.

However, it’s interesting to look back on the ecopagan utopia I created in the Greenworld and think about some things that have happened in real life that put it into a different perspective: namely, the pandemic.

If there is anywhere in England that already inhabits the Greenworld vibe, it’s Glastonbury in Somerset. Glastonbury has a long history of welcoming spiritual seekers, from the days of the Abbey and Christian hermits living on the Tor to the Victorian occult revival, when Dion Fortune would bring her moneyed London friends down to Glastonbury on the weekends for some rural magic fun. Today, it’s witchcraft central. You can’t buy bread without overhearing someone talk about their past life regression.

During the pandemic, the already super-hippie Glastonbury got taken over by conspiracy theories about the vaccine. A very high proportion of Glastonbury residents refused to be vaccinated. If you wore a mask on the high street, you got dirty looks or shouted at (this continues still). Posters went up everywhere about how Covid wasn’t real; there were anti-vaccine marches in the high street.

What was always quite a mad place became absolutely, stark, crazy bonkers, ushering in a new, troubling allegiance between formerly as-left-as-you-can-go people and hard right QAnon philosophy. It’s the perfect storm of what happens when a group of anarchists who already have big issues with Big Pharma and government and, in many cases if not all, are engaged in being as off the grid as possible, become radicalised further by conspiracy theories.

This is not to say that all modern witches have refused the vaccine or now believe that the holocaust didn’t happen (I have heard of friends of friends who now believe this. Or that the vaccine has taken away a part of our souls. Or that vaccine passports are tantamount to a police state. Or that there is a tracking device in the vaccine. Standard paranoid crap, but you don’t expect anyone you know to actually believe it).

Most modern witches and pagans are entirely sensible people. And, indeed, I think it’s fair to say that many of the anti-vaccine, conspiracy group are likely not doing witchcraft or magic – or, if they are, not doing it very successfully. However, it is likely that they would characterise their beliefs as broadly pagan, or perhaps Buddhist or some more general new age philosophy.

Whilst I think we all could have seen a possible conflict with Russia over fuel coming, and may have been disappointed but unsurprised about the Brexit result, I definitely did not predict Glastonbury, the real-life Greenworld, going full circle to meet the fascists. And I think that there’s something sad about the fact that countercultural Glastonbury, the closest parallel in the real world to the Greenworld, is so susceptible to corruption. Because what does that say about the link between environmental activism, Nature worship and Britain’s proud countercultural tradition?

I feel sad that what I used to think of the pagan community  – a bastion of healthy resistance against the norm and a cheerful if slightly bonkers love of mother earth – has, in some quarters, morphed from caring deeply about the land and its divinity to being obsessed with how it is being controlled by a shadowy, fictional elite. Paranoia has taken over.

Eva Wiseman wrote a great article about just this in The Guardian in which she used the phrase “conspirituality”:

“A rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews”. It describes the sticky intersection of two worlds: the world of yoga and juice cleanses with that of New Age thinking and online theories about secret groups, covertly controlling the universe. It’s a place where you might typically see a vegan influencer imploring their followers to stick to a water fast rather than getting vaccinated, or a meditation instructor reminding her clients of the dangers of 5G, or read an Instagram comment explaining that vaccines are hiding tracking devices.”

What do we want to protect Nature from now? For me, it was (and still is) pollution and harmful practices like fracking and dumping rubbish at sea. But for many, it seems that the number one concern of the Greenworld (as it exists as a mindset) seems to be revolting against a drug that has saved millions of lives.

I am disenchanted with where we find ourselves now, but I also think it’s instructive to see all this play out. With the “conspirituality” movement in our minds, it feels reasonably impossible to me that anyone could write an eco-utopia now – but, there is fertile ground for dystopia.

Find out more about the Greenworld trilogy

Anna McKerrow is an author, Reiki Master, tarot reader and witch. She lives in London and wrote Daughter of Light and Shadows, an adult commercial fantasy romance set in Scotland and the faerie realm. In 2019 her occult novel The Book of Babalon was published by Black Moon Publishing, a small press based in New Orleans and dedicated to voudoun, ceremonial magick and Left Hand Path subjects. In 2021 she published a mythic novel about grief and healing called The Bird Atlas. She is currently working on The Path to Healing is a Spiral, a nonfiction memoir about her experience of a variety of healing modalities for Watkins Books (September 2022).

How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune.

Author A.E. Copenhaver chats to their editor/publisher Midge Raymond of Ashland Creek Press about the editing process for My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, a satirical novel of how a life on the edge of eco-anxiety can spiral wildly out of control, as well as how promising and inspiring a commitment to saving our planet can be.

Midge Raymond: What advice would you have for debut authors as they work with their editors?

A.E. Copenhaver: Being able to have a book published is a huge privilege, and at the same time, authors need their editors to be advocates of their book, especially as part of their editors’ job is to help refine and perfect the book so that it is the best possible version of itself before being brought into the world.

My advice would be to make sure that authors and their editors have a very clear understanding of what the book is truly about and why it’s important. Making sure you align on the specific niche that this book is fulfilling, too, is incredibly helpful and will inform the entire experience up to and beyond publication day. If authors and their editors can align on those two things, everything else that comes after–such as drafting, revising, formatting, publishing, and marketing–will be a truly enjoyable experience.

MR: What surprised you most about the editorial process?

AEC: How fast it was! I know publishers have different timelines and processes to get books from manuscript to novel on the shelf, but I was thrilled and often surprised with how fast everything happened. I went from contract signing to publication in a little over a year, I think it was, and I know that is considered super fast. Of course I was so happy that it wasn’t going to take two or more years to get my book published, and this meant that each revision of the manuscript carried more weight for me. The first edit was the cull — getting the word count down from 97k to about 90k. The second edit was the proofread and copyedit after the professional proofreader. And then it was a couple rounds of reading the novel in its final formatted state.

I’ll never forget sitting in my kitchen amongst moving boxes and cleaning supplies as a crucial editorial moment came up. I had to get my laptop out and sit in the middle of my empty living room and make a decision about a single word that could impact how the entire rest of the book appeared on the page. And not only that, I had to make this decision just before the doors closed and all additional edits from there forward would be non-negotiable.  Luckily, everything worked out, of course, but it felt very dramatic in the moment. There is something terribly nerve-wracking about “calling it,” about saying “yes, this is the novel in its best possible form and we are publishing it now.”

MR: I find titles challenging, both as an author and especially as an editor/publisher. In what ways do you think your book’s title fits the novel, and what was the process like in getting there?

AEC: I struggle so much with titles, too! And, as I expected, I was incredibly stressed by the process of choosing a title for this novel — all due to my own anxieties about the significance of naming something, anything, but especially a book that will be published and will be something I would need to refer to for the rest of my life. That is a huge commitment!

As you know, I was somewhat attached to my working title of the novel and was convinced almost up to the end that I would get to use it! So funny. And now, of course I cannot imagine any other title for this novel than the one it has. I really adore it and couldn’t be happier with the title.

The process itself was entirely reasonable: I had a note on my phone where I kept title ideas; then we shared a few emails back and forth with our top choices for titles, and I talked almost incessantly about the title options with my early readers and my family and with you and John (Yunker). I feel like our email discussions about the title were so helpful because it was another moment where we could clarify, again, our own understandings of what the book was about and why it was important.

The best feeling in the world was when you and John and I got on a Zoom call and we all agreed on the best title out of our final options. We all came to that title at the very same moment, it felt like. And it was this momentous occasion — to have a name for this novel — and for all of us to feel equally as enthusiastic about it. I like to give kudos to my best friend and poet Marisa Silva-Dunbar who helped formulate the final iteration of the title that we all loved.

MR: How did you envision the book’s cover, and what was this creative process like?

AEC: I really appreciated how you wanted my thoughts and ideas about the cover. I kept a folder in Google Drive with images and art for cover design inspiration. I had hoped to feature lots of greenery, foliage, and definitely flowers. And when the three options for cover designs came around, there was one that blew me away. Obviously, that was the option we chose for the final cover, and to me it is truly a work of art — because it actually features an artist’s original work! The Nasturtium Garden by Leah Yunk, with graphic design by Matt Smith to include the title — to me it’s flawless! It’s a perfect visual representation of the novel, and I could not be more proud and pleased with the final novel. It’s a joy to be able to read a physical copy of this book, and I can’t thank you and John enough for helping bring it into the world.

A.E. Copenhaver: You’ve had a wide range of writing and publishing experience. At what point in your own writing career did you know you wanted to become a publisher?

Midge Raymond: I never envisioned being a publisher back when I worked in publishing; I was just becoming a writer then, and I’d been enjoying working as an editor and copywriter. It wasn’t until many years later, after my first book came out and then went out of print a year later — and John’s wonderful eco-thriller had no luck finding a home in the mainstream publishing world — that we thought about starting a small press. By then I’d worked in many aspects of publishing, from editing to proofreading to copywriting to production, and John has an extensive marketing and tech background — so together, we had what we needed to get going. We opened our (virtual) doors in 2011, and in that first year we published five books, including John’s novel, The Tourist Trail. We now publish about two books a year — in part because we have other work, and also because we’re doing other fun things like hosting the Siskiyou Prize (which of course you won for Euphoria in 2019!) and hosting our Writing for Animals classes, plus a new class with poet Gretchen Primack called Writing Like an Animal.

I couldn’t have envisioned being a publisher decades ago when I worked in New York City publishing, but things have changed so much in favor of small presses; it’s actually doable thanks to technology like print-on-demand production and e-books. And I’m glad to still be a working writer as well; I’ve found it invaluable to navigate both worlds with the knowledge and experience I’ve gained from being on both sides. It helps, for example, to have been asked to change the title of my own novel when I have to ask a writer to consider changing hers — I’ve been there, and I know how connected we get to our titles and how important it is to find just the right one.

AEC: We’ve talked a bit before about the purpose of fiction and the power of books. What sort of responsibility (beyond producing and selling books of course!), if any, do you feel publishers have?

MR: I feel as though small presses are far more free to do what they love than to have to try to predict what the market wants, as the big publishers usually need to consider. When you are part of a giant corporation, there’s a responsibility to make money that could very well eclipse your wish to publish the books you adore (especially if they are niche books or for whatever reason unlikely to have a huge audience). For the Big Five publishers (perhaps soon to be the Big Four), they do have their mega-bestselling authors who help subsidize the new and emerging authors, but the truth is that if you’re a debut author and your book doesn’t sell as well as anticipated, it’ll be tough to get your next book deal; it’s far more about sales numbers than subject matter or literary merit.

Ashland Creek Press certainly isn’t in this for the money; we’re all about publishing the books that we feel are first and foremost greatly entertaining and that also have the potential to change the world for the better. I do think that publishers have a responsibility to do good in the world; books are an amazing platform, and I think all great art has a message and a point of view. If well done, it’s never preachy or moralistic, but I do feel that art should exist to enlighten as well as entertain. And books have such a unique way of getting people talking that the more we can open readers’ hearts and minds to the myriad issues facing the world today, the more we can move forward and see things improve.

AEC: How would you compare the experience of writing and publishing your own books to helping your authors bring their books into the world? It must feel, on some level, amazing to do both, but I’m curious about how any differences might manifest.

MR: It is amazing to do both! As I mentioned above, being on both sides of the process helps tremendously in understanding what’s at stake — an editor who isn’t also a writer can’t truly understand how challenging it is to re-envision a book title you’ve lived with for so long. And an author who isn’t a publisher may not understand why a title change is necessary; I remember sitting in meetings in New York amid vivid arguments over book titles — usually it’s a lone editor versus the sales and marketing team. It was very edifying to witness editors passionately defending a beloved title and the sales and marketing folks explaining how a title may be perceived in the marketplace; it helped me learn why a title matters from a sales perspective, as well as how much it means to the author. Over the years at ACP, we’ve suggested changing several book titles, and our authors are always wonderful about it — I feel as though they know we don’t ask lightly and that we really understand the challenges of that process. And most important to us is that we are all happy with the new title; a great title can’t work if we’re not all proud of it and willing to go out and enthusiastically share it.

Bringing a book into the world, both as author and publisher, is an incredible privilege — I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it, especially given the books we publish, which I think are not only terrific reads but important to the conversations we need to be having. We’re at such a crisis moment for our planet, and I hope our books help readers feel that they’re not alone in this — and I especially hope our books reach those who may be less aware but are awakened by reading, say, a great satirical debut novel like My Days of Dark Green Euphoria.

AEC: What advice do you have for authors who might want to get involved in the publishing industry or even start their own press?

MR: A publishing colleague of ours shared a brilliant joke about independent publishing: How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Answer: Start with a large fortune.

So, my first bit of advice would be to keep the day jobs! (We have.) This gives you the freedom to publish what you love and not worry about keeping the lights on or feeding yourself. Keep your overhead low, and consider print-on-demand, which is a bit more costly per unit but doesn’t require expensive print runs or warehouse fees associated with storing unsold books; it also reduces the waste and the huge carbon footprint associated with large print runs.

I’d also suggest having a niche so that you can stand out amid the competition. When we started ACP, there wasn’t anyone else out there (that we knew of) publishing environmental and animal-themed fiction. Now there are a few more of us out there, and of course, this is a good thing — but when you’re starting out, it’s good to have a way to be a little different.

As we often tell writers, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” — and this is true for publishers as well as authors. We couldn’t have envisioned exactly where we’d be eleven years later; all we knew was that we’d just keep going — and likewise I can’t imagine where we’ll be in another decade, only that we’ll still be here, doing our thing, however that evolves.

Find out more about My Days of Dark Green Euphoria.

A.E. Copenhaver is a writer, editor, science communicator, and climate interpreter. She’s worked in the environmental and nonprofit sectors for nearly a decade.

Midge Raymond is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short-story collection Forgetting English. Midge worked in publishing in New York before moving to Boston, where she taught communication writing at Boston University for six years. Midge lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is co-founder of the boutique publisher Ashland Creek Press.

The Flowers of the Future by RB Kelly

In the early 1990s, I came across a novel that my dad had recently finished reading. He and I share the same tastes in fiction, and, although I was in my mid teens at the time, it was common for me to pick up a book once he was done with it and dive in. This one was This Other Eden, by Ben Elton, and it changed the course of my writing life.

In the novel, which was published in 1993, eco-terrorists fight to save the planet from greedy corporations more interested in profiting from environmental collapse than preventing it. Suddenly, I knew what kind of science fiction Iwanted to write.

A few years later, I had a draft of the manuscript that would eventually become Edge of Heaven, my Arthur C Clarke Award-shortlisted debut novel. It’s set in 2119, on a climate-changed Earth, where altered fluvial patterns have led to both flooding and drought, and sea-level rise has drastically shrunk the planet’s livable space. Environmental refugees are housed in bi-level cities built wherever the space can be found. Creo is one such city: dark, crumbling and overcrowded. And when a novel pathogen starts killing off its citizens, Creo is the perfect breeding ground for a deadly new wave of disease.

The novel was released in April 2020, just as the Covid pandemic took hold. I can only hope that I wasn’t as prescient about the climate science.

Today, in early 2022, I’m getting ready to launch Edge of Heaven’s sequel, On The Brink. The writing of this novel was a different experience. Whereas the early drafts of Edge were an exercise in “what if…”, On The Brink came into being in a world in which climate catastrophe is already starting to arrive. It’s no longer a question of “what if…” but, rather, “when” and “how bad.” Edge of Heaven was about what happens to the planet when it’s pushed past the point of sustainability, and what life will look like for the average person. On The Brink, similarly, is about the technological life rafts humanity will have to build if we want to survive this century. In Edge of Heaven it was a bi-level city. In On The Brink it’s the orbital factory town of Luchtstad, one of the few places left on Greater Earth where it’s still possible to cultivate flower bulbs.

The idea came to me during a glorious summer spent in the Netherlands, where I, along with a group of other late-teens and early-twenty-somethings, lived in a campsite and worked in a local factory, picking and packing bulbs. The work may have been long and repetitive – and I had no appreciation until that summer of just how dreadful a rotten hyacinth bulb can be – but the people and the place were wonderful. I was staying just outside of Noordwijk, a seaside town in the Randstad, fronted by sandy beaches and surrounded by picturesque countryside. In spring, the area is blanketed beneath a rainbow of colour as the tulips blossom, and an annual flower parade sets off for nearby Haarlem. By 2050, if current projections hold, it will be underwater.

On The Brink’s orbital cities are the answer to a question nobody wants to have to ask: what are we going to do when huge swathes of the globe become uninhabitable? How are we going to produce enough food for an overpopulated planet when so much arable land is submerged beneath rising sea levels, sterilised by drought, or subject to dangerously unpredictable weather? I have no doubt that we’ll find some kind of stopgap, because humans are stubborn, tenacious, and endlessly resourceful, but I very much doubt that it’s going to be an improvement on what we’ve already got. Luchtstad is a fanciful solution – and it relies on entirely speculative science for its existence – but, in the future of On the Brink, it’s a solution without which there would be no future, because the climate of an orbital city, unlike the climate on an overwhelmed Earth, is controllable and readily adapted to the kind of environments that plant matter needs to grow and thrive. If we can’t find a real-life Luchtstad equivalent in the next few decades, we may be in trouble, and for the kind of money that’s going to be required, it strikes me as incredibly likely that our own solution will have to involve corporate finance. Even today, space exploration is beginning the slide towards commercial control; research and development in service of the elucidation of mankind is all very well on paper, but for the kind of sums involved, it makes a weary kind of sense that it will all eventually come down to the potential return on investment. Luchtstad, humanity’s life raft, is no different.

Luchtstad monetises climate catastrophe by providing a home, job security, and a future for a group of people without access to the resources needed to survive ecological collapse – those on or below the poverty line – and trapping them in a cycle of dependency whereby keeping their job almost literally becomes a matter of life and death. Luchtstad looks after its citizens – but there’s a price for that care. You are owned by the city and your ability to survive belongs to the corporation for whom you work. There’s no escape, because there’s nowhere to escape to. After all, where are you going to go – Earth?

And that’s the trouble with life rafts. They’re supposed to be a temporary solution to a temporary problem. They’re not meant to be forever.

As a species, we’re wired to think in the short-term. That was critical to our survival when we were evolving the brain processes that have set us apart from our ancestors and allowed us to dominate the world on which we live: you deal with the immediate problem as it arises, and then you conserve your resources so that you’re ready for the next big threat. And that mindset was useful when we were dealing with short-term dangers, but our society has evolved faster than our threat response, and it’s now actively detrimental to our future. The 2008 financial crisis was the result of short-term thinking over long-term fiscal responsibility. Our democratic model of leadership is built around an election cycle that prioritises quick wins and navel gazing. And because we’re the proverbial frog in boiling water when it comes to irreversible damage to our planet, short-termism is the reason why we’ve left it past the point where we can stop the coming catastrophe. What’s left to us now is mitigation.

But I do not, and never will, believe that humanity is irredeemably flawed. That stubborn, reckless, head-in-the-sand mentality that’s got us into this mess and has been overwhelmingly failing, so far, to get us out is also the source of what I think will save us.

Hope.

“The world may be broken,” says John Green, author of The Anthropocene Reviewed, “but hope is not crazy.” Yes, things look bad right now. That’s because they are bad, and we’ve let them get bad when we didn’t need to. But science fiction, which looks to the future and imagines “what if…?” has, in the past few years, begun to conceptualise a different way forward. Solarpunk imagines a world in which we’ve met our current crisis head-on and worked together to find a solution in a fairer, more equitable society. In times of crisis, the most revolutionary stories are tales of hope.

So, Luchtstad steals souls and feeds them into the corporate machine as the price of food security. So the planet it orbits has been ravaged by unchecked greed, and the gap between rich and poor has widened to an abyssal gulf. I make no claims to write solarpunk; I cut my teeth on a more dystopian vision of the future, and it’s etched its way firmly into the stories that I want to tell. But Luchtstad, bread basket of a world too broken now to feed its own, may represent the very worst impulses of a species addicted to short-term thinking – but it can’t quite erase that spark within us that seeks the beautiful from the depths of ugliness.

Twenty years ago, I spent the summer packing flower bulbs in a factory that, twenty years from now, may be under a risen sea. There’s no reason why Luchtstad, a city-sized agrifood processing plant that exists to mitigate against global collapse, should have room to grow anything other than staple, plant-based foods: it’s a crisis response, after all. But hope exists in the darkest spaces. I packed bulbs for a summer, and so Luchtstad produces not only the plants that feed our bodies, but also the plants that feed our souls. Because I believe that, no matter what the future holds, we’ll find a way to make it beautiful.

And I’d rather not live in a world without flowers.

Find out more about Edge of Heaven.

RB Kelly’s debut novel, Edge of Heaven, is published by NewCon Press and was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. The sequel, On The Brink, will be released in May 2022. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Best of British Science Fiction, Aurealis, and Andromeda Spaceways Magazine. She has a PhD in film theory and, with Robert JE Simpson, runs CinePunked, an organisation dedicated to bridging the gap between academia and film fandom.

Climate Anxiety is a Daily Reality

Mary Woodbury (pen, Clara Hume and social media manager for the League’s Twitter account) talks to Mark Ballabon about his YA novel Home: My Life in the Universe (released on Earth Day, April 22, 2022).

Mary: What is your background, and what led you to writing Home?

Mark: I’ve always had a great love of philosophy and the big questions about life on earth. It began when I was 8 years old and it led me to my first big question, Why is the human on Earth? Many years later, I had a book published entirely about that question. 14-year-old protagonist Leah has her own big question, which no one can answer.

I also have a love of nature and wildness, and a passion for discovering the natural patterns, geometry and systems in living things – from a flower to a human cell. This has led me to being a strong environmentalist, involved in projects and supporting groups who defend the integrity of the planet’s natural ecosystems and habitats. Leah, who grew up near the great lakes in Killarney, south west Ireland, develops a similar passion for nature.

In the last decade I’ve been involved in a growing number of international projects with youth, and co-founded a youth group (12-17yr olds) who love to explore the big questions about living as well as contemporary issues of our modern culture, relating to body image, bullying, people pleasing and so forth. Through all of these projects, the climate crisis features all the time.

So all of these themes form the foundation for HOME. Yet it was a particular experience in leading an international group of 80 teenagers on a trip to Greenwich, which inspired me to not only write the book, but to develop the main characters. After a meditation and movement session, which I took them through on the hill, right by the observatory, they began asking questions about their lives, their issues, and their hopes for the future, which to me were profoundly moving. I felt I had something to offer them, which became Leah’s story in HOME.

Mary: We recently chatted on Zoom, and you mentioned that some of your earlier reviewers were children and teens. What did you learn from them?

Mark: Humility, I hope! I realised that as much as I tried to empathise with their world, I didn’t really understand it, and I wanted to. So I listened, a lot, took many notes and encouraged them to freely edit my draft manuscripts with a red pen or a finely sharpened pencil! It was actually very liberating when I received feedback such as “I don’t think like that”, or “I don’t speak like that”. After a few years of this, I finally got a piece of feedback from one of the teenage editors, which told me that I was on the right track. It simply said, “Great. It’s working. You’ve written yourself out of the story!”

Illustrations by Grant MacDonald

Mary: What’s happening in Home, and what would you like us to know about it?

Mark: A lot! 14-year-old Leah’s story was inspired by true events and real teenagers.

Beneath the daily noise of social media, clips, memes, and role models, Leah is trying to discover who she is and where she fits in, not only in the world, but in the universe which she sees herself to be part of.  While she is affected by the super-competitive culture at school, it doesn’t define her. Initially she becomes a loner, but she doesn’t feel alone. She has a big question, and although no one can answer it, she knows that there is an answer.

In the handwritten prologue from her journal, Leah says, “I’m writing this for anyone whose ever had an experience that no one could explain or asked a big question that no one could answer…” I hope people will relate to Leah’s quest to find herself, to find true friendship and to feel that very special feeling that you are really worth something.

Mary: Your main character, Leah, writes in a journal, so we get to see her perspective of the world, her friends, and her family. This allows the reader to better understand the mind of a younger person and see the world through their eyes. How did you step into that mind?

Mark: I’ve been trying to develop the art of listening for many years. And in the book, Leah’s mentor, Maia shows her the anagram of the word ‘LISTEN’ which is ‘SILENT’. So with the many young people I’ve met, I’ve tried to maintain an internal silence so I can fully listen to what they’re saying, unconditionally. That’s when their deeper thoughts, fears, hopes and aspirations reveal themselves. And it’s those feelings, which imbue each character in their own unique way.

Mary: Climate change, pollution, and other ecological horrors are a part of this story. Can you talk about why it was important for you to bring these issues into the story?

Mark: The climate crisis and climate anxiety are a daily reality for millions of people around the planet and for myself too. But for young people, this is the biggest threat to their future, the biggest threat to their hopes and the biggest threat to their enjoying the beauty of nature, the planet, flora, fauna and natural ecosystems. The conversation about this needs to go deeper as well as more practical, and the clash between climate activist Kayleigh and Leah hopefully offers some original and practical ways of approach.

Anything else you would like to tell audiences who read Home?

My main hope in writing HOME is that it would promote meaningful conversations in schools and homes, between friends and families… not only about the climate, social media, bullying and other contemporary issues, but about finding one’s place in the world, and in the universe.

Are you working on anything else right now?

I’m working on book two in the Trilogy, called DRAGONFLY which is about what it really means to change. Leah’s first love, Sean, will have a big part to play in that!

Find out more about HOME.

Mary Woodbury (pen, Clara Hume) has written the Wild Mountain Series: Back to the Garden (Moon Willow Press, 2018) and, upcoming, The Stolen Child (Dragonfly Publishing, 2022) as well as The Adventures of Finn Wilder’s children’s series, Finn’s Tree Alphabet (Dragonfly Publishing, 2021), with more to come, and Bird Song: A Novella (Dragonfly Publishing, 2020). Mary contributed to the book Tales from the River (Stormbird Press, 2018) and edited the anthology Winds of Change: Short Stories About the Climate, which received kudos from Bill McKibben. She is a graduate of Purdue University and lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two cats. They maintain a 2-acre property with beehives, over 50 newly planted trees, and much more. You can read more about her at her blog. She runs the site Dragonfly.eco, a place to find meaningful stories about our natural world and humanity’s connection with it.

Mark Ballabon is a philosopher, environmentalist and author who has been teaching and writing about personal and spiritual development for over two decades. He is the author of several non-fiction books, including the acclaimed, ‘Why is The Human on Earth?’ and ‘Courting the Future: Preparing for a Different World’. The latter features a collection of essays that explore the future in a visionary and practical way, including a section of writings on the climate crisis and climate change in the human. ‘Home: My life in the Universe’ will be published on 22nd April 2022.

Mark is an honours graduate from the University of Greenwich and lives in England with his wife. He continues to be actively involved in a variety of international projects with youth groups.

Learning Earthmind in a Time of War

“To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

I am sitting outside in the patio looking onto the Santa Monica mountains, green fields and hills, peppered with yellow mustard flowers. It is a wildly beautiful summer day, one of the last days of winter.  I relish this day as the grass will soon turn brown for lack of rain and fire season will probably begin early.

For several long summers, I sat here in this way, in the shade of Eucalyptus trees, writing, watching for fires, listening to the counsel of an old woman, La Vieja, who had, herself, taken refuge in a Fire Lookout in the Sierras, watching for fires. She is living there to see what we must see in these times, and she demands that I do likewise. That we do likewise. 

I have sat here with this focus and intent since October 2017.  Today, March 1, 2022, the book, La Vieja, A Journal of Fire, emerges into the world.  For the last five years, La Vieja slid between dimensions, slipped into various realms of the human and non-human, made connections across time and space, gathering ways of seeing and knowing that are significantly different from how we are living our lives.  She was looking as far as she could across this Earth, back into history, forward to the future, struggling to comprehend how to meet a world continuously, self-righteously set on fire each day through the most commonplace and conventional habits, activities, assumptions and beliefs.

It is bitter that she comes into the world today as another unconscionable war proceeds in Ukraine and the UN IPCC assessment 2022 is released. What does this simultaneity of war and climate dissolution indicate?  What is it we are called to see? 

 “Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC says. “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction.” The report asserts, “Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature…” 

“Human-induced climate change ….  Miles of lines of tanks. 

“Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world, despite efforts to reduce the risks. People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit, said scientists in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released today.

Today, March 2, 2022, an even more violent attack on Ukraine cities has begun. A news photo shows a group of Ukrainian people standing across the road blocking access to a nuclear plant in Enehodar.  

In 1945, the US dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima.  The Fukishima nuclear disaster was in 2011. 

The American Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, “We have seen videos of Russian forces moving exceptionally lethal weaponry into Ukraine, which has no place on the battlefield. That includes cluster munitions and vacuum bombs – which are banned under the Geneva Convention.”

“The United States dropped about 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 bomblets between October 2001 and March 2002.” [1] “The United States also used cluster bombs extensively in its cave campaigns near Tora Bora and Shahi-Kot. [2] Forty-six of the reported 232 strikes fell on these regions. [3] Reporters who arrived at an al-Qaeda camp in mid-December described the aftermath of a cluster strike, including denuded trees, shredded clothing, “twisted cooking pots,” torn religious books, and dead al-Qaeda fighters.” [4]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that if a third world war were to occur, it would involve nuclear weapons and be destructive, according to Russian media.

Conservative as the IPCC report must be in order to be approved by the 195 government members, it, inevitably, does not mention war as a major contributor to the destruction of the environment. It does not say that every war is a war on the earth.  The report says we must change our use of fossil fuels now; it does not say we must end war now. 

Perhaps this is the most unlikely time, the most necessary moment to say no to war, to say no to ecocide, to recognize they are intrinsically inter-related and to act now.

“There is increasing evidence of adaptation that has caused unintended consequences, for example destroying nature, putting peoples’ lives at risk or increasing greenhouse gas emissions. This can be avoided by involving everyone in planning, attention to equity and justice, and drawing on Indigenous and local knowledge.”

A forty-mile line of tanks is advancing on the ancient city  of Kyiv that traces its history to the year 482 while its first settlements were 25,000 years ago. 25,000 years to come to this?  Russian paratroopers deployed in Kharkiv, the city of poets, as key port city of Kherson falls under Russian control.

IPCC Assessment Report, 3/1/2022.  SPM.D.5.3 The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.

The first IPPC 1990 assessment said that certain that emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface. They calculated with confidence that CO2 had been responsible for over half the enhanced greenhouse effect. They predicted that under a “business as usual” (BAU) scenario, global mean temperature would increase by about 0.3 °C per decade during the [21st] century.

We didn’t make the necessary internal or external changes to meet the dire circumstances being revealed to us. We didn’t understand.  We didn’t want to understand.

Thirty-two years later:

SPM.D.5 It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems. Past and current development trends (past emissions, development and climate change) have not advanced global climate resilient development (very high confidence). Societal choices and actions implemented in the next decade determine the extent to which medium- and long-term pathways will deliver higher or lower climate resilient development (high confidence). Importantly climate resilient development prospects are increasingly limited if current greenhouse gas emissions do not rapidly decline, especially if 1.5°C global warming is exceeded in the near term (high confidence).

Circumstances are changing so rapidly that even this essay is being rewritten five minutes before posting because circumstances have changed extremely in twenty-four hours.  The war advances, the dead and suffering soldiers and citizens increase.  The injuries to people, structures, land intensify. 

Let’s pause and take a breath.

This is an extreme moment.

Whether we are in Ukraine or seemingly safe gazing across a line of eucalyptus trees to a green field radiant with yellow mustard flowers (mustard gas, developed into chemotherapy, with serious and unacknowledged effects on the environment) we are in war. One war seems to demand our immediate reaction and the other to allow for gradual change. A misunderstanding of the realities of time and space leads us to these assumptions.

We have had so many alerts to what could be coming and so much sooner than we have expected.

Two years ago, Covid 19 or Queen Corona could be seen as a warning to change our lives. Disregard for the environment and the animals, the disruption of natural system led to the virus mutating and jumping to humans and the ensuing pandemic, still not globally contained. It is only hours since those in the US learned we could probably take off our masks and, statistically, be safe.

The global Covid death toll is almost 6 million.

In the last months, many of us, in the US and Canada and globally, have been struggling with unfathomable explosions of random violence, hate crimes, and extreme polarization in response to Covid, masking and vaccine. Divisions we had never imagined were emerging everywhere and we were not able to avoid them even in our own lives, even here (wherever here is for you who are reading this.) We were alarmed by the vitriol and violence even in the most intimate relationships. Now we see that these seemingly milder but alarming conflicts were harbingers of what is occurring. A difference, perhaps, in degree, but not in intent or consequences.

IPCC Assessment Report, 3/1/2022.  SPM.D.5.3 The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.

Whether we live by signs or can connect the dots, this moment of extremity calls.  What are we to do?

We are to know that each of us, that we are at war.  That we live in terms of conflict, domination and winning, That our language is bellicose and we make war on everything and so war is pervasive. 

We do not think in terms of interconnection, interrelationship, and interdependence.  We do not think ecologically.  

The wars against the Earth and all living beings and the wars against nations and peoples are the same wars.  Each one affects the others.

The medicine for ending war and the medicine for ceasing ecocide, the methods, the strategies, the actions, are the same – interrelationship, interconnection, interdependence.

Insisting on relationship is a radical act that is only effective if it is universal, occurring in every realm and on every level, between all beings – without exceptions.  Further, it will only be possible if our activities of inter-relationship are pre-emptive. 

To step out of ecocide we must learn to think like an eco-system.  We must learn to think ‘we,’ to step out of making enemies.  Even today, as we watch the attacks increase, peacemaking is not a choice; it is an absolute necessity.

Even today, we are called to soul search and find ways not to be at war. 

Today we step out of war mind.

Tomorrow we truly change our lives.

We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they only rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism.

Thich Nhat Hanh

On behalf a future for all beings,

Deena Metzger

This essay was originally posted in Deena’s substack here. Find out more about La Vieja: A Journal of Fire.

Deena Metzger is a writer, healer, and teacher whose work spans multiple genres including the novel, poetry, non-fiction, and plays. She is the author of many books, including the novels: A Rain of Night Birds, concerning two climatologists, La Negra y Blanca (2012 PEN Oakland Pen Award for Literature), Feral, and The Other Hand. Her other books include The Burden of Light, Ruin and Beauty and Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing. Metzger co-edited Intimate Nature, The Bond Between Women and Animals, which pioneered the radical understanding that animals are highly intelligent and exhibit intent. Her experiences with Elephants in the wild over twenty years is based on their spiritual agency and complex narrative communication. Some of that experience is chronicled in her latest novel, La Vieja: A Journal of Fire. She has developed The Literature of Restoration to, among other goals, advance Earth based writing, restore climate and counter extinction.

Ecological lake pollution in a merfolk folktale

Mary Woodbury, social media coordinator for the Climate Fiction Writers League, talks to C.S. MacCath about their new podcast radio play The Belt and the Necklace, which is available to listen soon here. It was commissioned by the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa for its new Wondrous Tales Podcast. These plays are contemporary adaptations of traditional folk tales produced for audio by professional actors and sound engineers under the direction of Laurie Steven.

Mary: As someone who grew up enjoying fables, folklore, and fairy tales, I wonder sometimes if these stories—where animals, myth, magic, and parables aligned heavily with the natural world—informed my adult gratitude for what we consider the wild making its way into fiction. Not to mention, I never lost the wonder felt as a child when reading these genres. So, I was happy to reach C.S. MacCath and talk with her about her upcoming play The Belt and the Necklace, which is adapted from an original fairy tale. Who better to take this on?

I’ve been enjoying your folklore and fiction newsletter. What drew you to the genres of folklore and fairy tales?

C.S.: I’ve been drawn to narrative all my life as a reader and writer, but as a doctoral candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, I’ve gained a far deeper appreciation for it. My academic research documents ethical beliefs among contemporary animal rights activists and the ways they are expressed in activism, and it also engages with the idea that narrative can be a means of maintaining or resisting power. My interest as a writer is in traditional folk narrative genres like myth, legend, fairy tale, ballad, and tall tale because these kinds of stories are an integral part of humanity’s storytelling heritage.

Mary: Your newest radio play is “The Belt and the Necklace”. It’s based off a tale of the same name. What did you change?

C.S.: “The Belt and the Necklace” is one of five hundred fairy tales collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in the 19th century and subsequently lost in a Regensburg archive for over a hundred and fifty years. Schönwerth was careful in his transcription of these tales, and many of them have not been collected elsewhere, so they aren’t sanitized or heavily adapted like the tales collected by the Grimm brothers. “The Belt and the Necklace” itself is short, barely a page, and in it the ugly daughter of a king wants to be beautiful, so she bargains with the merfolk for a magical belt and necklace that will either make her radiant or invisible depending on how the pieces are worn. In exchange, she agrees to give the merfolk her third-born child and the most beautiful of her children when they are born. My adaptation situates the plot in a modern setting where the fat daughter of a fashion magnate loses her inheritance to a model because of her body shape, and the merfolk want her future children for reasons that aren’t part of the original fairy tale.

Mary: Can you talk about the structure of folklore tales like this, and the importance we derive from them?

C.S.: The Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast endeavour to help writers emulate the structure of traditional folk narratives so they can tap into the ways these narratives resonate with people. For example, fairy tales are:

·       Short Prose Narratives: Short stories which may be told or written as prose.

·       Both Magical and Mundane: Containing supernatural beings, objects, and other story elements that intervene in the everyday lives of people.

·       Infused with Moral Lessons: Imparting social values relevant to the contexts in which they were created, told, and received.

·       Resolved by Rewarding the Good and Punishing the Wicked: Often called “happy endings,” it might be more helpful to think of these resolutions as logical outcomes of moral lessons the tales impart.

·       Passed Down from Oral Traditions: Collected in cultures where people learned these stories from other people.

Hallmarks like these can act as structural aids for writing new fairy tales that remind people of the traditional fairy tales they already love. The same is true for myths, legends, ballads, tall tales, and other folk narrative genres. I would add, however, that it’s not always possible to categorize folk tales as one genre or another, and folk narrative genres can be slippery in general.

As for their importance, well, that’s another sizeable topic. The Grimm brothers collected and sanitized German folk tales in part as a means of preserving German national identity. Gàidhlig waulking songs contain elements of Scottish and Cape Breton history, but they’re also work songs that help to pass the time. Apache stories connected to place are told as teaching devices in such a way that the places themselves encourage people toward right behaviour. So the importance of folk narratives is nuanced, just like the cultures that give rise to them. As a folklorist, I care about what these cultures can tell me about their stories, but I also care about what you think of your own favourite folk tales. For example, we’ll never know why “The Belt and the Necklace” was important to the person who told the story to Schönwerth, but it’s important to me because it tells a truth about what it means to be labeled “ugly” and mocked for it. It might be important to you for a different reason.

Mary: Mermaids and mermen are an important part of the story. These creatures have a rich background in myth and stories. What makes them so interesting to you?

C.S.: I wasn’t particularly interested in merfolk before I adapted “The Belt and the Necklace,” but I did find several points of interest along the way. Much as there is a horizontal veil between this world and the Otherworld of the fairies, I came to see the water as a vertical veil between this world and the Otherworld of the merfolk. With that in mind, I was able to treat the merfolk as beings who enforce the bargains they make (much as fairies do), abduct children (much as fairies do), and are somewhat inscrutable (much as fairies are). I also came to see them as representatives and protectors of an underwater world plagued by ecological hardship, which led me to the motivation I gave them in the play.

Mary: How does your play relate to climate change and modern ecological imbalance?

C.S.: Ecological imbalance is a supporting theme in the play, and it’s the second time I’ve made an ecological issue part of my work without giving it centre stage. The first time was in a short fable I wrote for Rhonda Parrish’s Alphabet Anthologies series titled “Metal Crow and Ghost Crow,” in which a little girl dying of thirst on a boat once populated with climate refugees seeks safe harbour in a small Canadian settlement. “The Belt and the Necklace” addresses ecological imbalance from the perspective of merfolk living in an over-fished, polluted lake. I hope that by including these themes as supporting plot concerns I can help people engage with them in a way that doesn’t come across as sermonizing.   

Mary: Do you have any favorite books or plays that relate to climate and ecological change in the world? What are they, and why do you enjoy them?

C.S.: There’s so much good, new fiction about the climate crisis right now, and there are several books by members of the Climate Fiction Writers’ League in my queue. Ghost Species by James Bradley and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse look especially interesting, and I’m hoping to read them soon. But for books I’ve already read, I’d have to put Dune at the top of the list. Frank Herbert’s Arrakis is a desert world its Fremen inhabitants hope to terraform into a green paradise, but there are tragic consequences associated with the planetary engineering they undertake.

What’s so interesting about this is the inversion of our expectations about terraforming and the ways turning Arrakis into a green world disrupts not only the planet’s native ecosystem but much of the galactic civilization itself. Another tremendous climate-themed duology is Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, in which a slave-owning species obsessed with death unleashes a weapon that turns much of the planet Orthe to glass. The descendants of the slaves venerate the planet itself as a goddess and eschew technological advancement in the hope they can preserve what life remains on the world. It makes me wonder what our descendants will venerate and preserve.

Mary: Do you have anything else to add?

C.S.: I invite everyone to read “The Belt and the Necklace” in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales and listen to my podcast radio play by the same name when the Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa releases it this month. Finally, the Folklore & Fiction dispatch and podcast have been exploring folk narrative structure once a month for nearly three years, and my archives are freely available at folkloreandfiction.com.

C.S. MacCath is a PhD candidate in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, a playwright, and a musician. Her long-running Folklore & Fiction newsletter, now a podcast and written dispatch, integrate these passions with a focus on folklore scholarship aimed at storytellers. Ceallaigh’s research interests include animal rights activism as a public performance of ethical belief, and she brings a deep appreciation of folk narrative, ecology, and Neo-Pagan spirituality to her writing. Work from her two fiction and poetry collections has been shortlisted for the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and nominated for the Rhysling Award. She lives in Atlantic Canada. 

Mary Woodbury graduated with BAs in English and anthropology at Purdue University. She grew up in the United States, where her parents introduced her at an early age to hiking, climbing mountains, horseback riding, canoeing, white-water rafting, and camping—filling her with a deep respect for the wilderness. She now lives in Nova Scotia with her partner and two cats. As a curator at Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores world eco-fiction, she has interviewed several award-winning authors and built a database of over 800 novels. She also founded Moon Willow Press in 2009 and its newest imprint Dragonfly Publishing.


Climate News

Pop culture can no longer ignore our climate reality [Grist]

Our pick of the best sci-fi and speculative fiction books for 2022 [New Scientist]

A half-mile installation just took 20,000 pounds of plastic out of the Pacific — proof that ocean garbage can be cleaned [Business Insider]

Counselling resilience by Cynthia Zhang

cw: discussions of suicide, racial violence, hate crimes

For quite some time now, it’s felt like we’ve been living in the end times. Check the news, your Twitter feed, the bookshelves of the YA section—it’s all dystopias and apocalypses, islands of plastic and radioactive waste that will not dissipate for a million years at least. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and no one is feeling anything remotely close to fine.

I know that. I know that the ice caps are melting and the tigers are running out of habitat, that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event and that in fifty years our everyday luxuries—plentiful chocolate and cheap coffee and Florida oranges in the middle of winter—may be mere memories. I know that there is a great deal of suffering that awaits us in the future and that, despite our best efforts, there will be only so much we can do to alleviate it. 

I worry, nonetheless, about the absolutist ways in which we frame global catastrophe. There is, I’ve noticed, a streak of deep nihilism in talking about climate change—well-deserved nihilism, perhaps, but one which still worries me. In some places, it feels like even suggesting the idea of hope can get you labeled as willfully naive, an ostrich blissfully burying its head in the sand to hide from reality. You poor, naive soul—you think there’s still a chance that the world will be merciful, that you will live on? It’s time to face facts, and all the reports are telling us that we’re doomed.

Under reports about the unsustainability of our planet in fifty years, I see people discussing contingency plans and worst-case scenarios. If things are bad, I read strangers commenting on Twitter and Youtube, and if they’re only going to get worse—then how do I know (how will I know) when it’s the breaking point, when I can reasonably give up? Living through the collapse of modern civilization is a harrowing prospect; with so many reports alleging the inevitable death of the human species, is it any wonder that some people would want to decide their own suffering? When you have no home and money and the future looms like a void, what sense is there in holding on for the tenuous hope of change? With Nazis on the horizon and a lifetime of illness and suffering weighing on her, can we blame Virginia Woolf for choosing to drown?

Like all decent people with a shred of empathy, my instinct when faced with other people’s despair is to argue, to comfort. I want to say all the usual platitudes—that there are resources, hotlines, people who would need and miss you even then at the end of the world. That nature is resilient, and that even if we lose chocolate and pandas and processed sugar, there will still be things worth living for—small joys, dandelion fluff and spring clover and squirrels who walk up to you for offerings of bread and nuts.

It’s hard, though. It feels ingenious to talk about the beauty of life when I too often find myself falling into despair, traveling down nihilistic paths of what-ifs. There are a lot of things to worry about these days, and the coming future hardly seems any more stable. Counseling resilience and hope for others feels unbelievably presumptuous and insincere when there are days that I can do nothing but lay in bed, worrying about forest fires and nuclear winter.

And yet, despite everything, I want to believe in hope, in a future built on the slim chance that we are not yet fully doomed. I want to live, and I want my friends to live.

For someone who spent much of their adolescence in a miasma of low-level despair, this has been a rather unexpected shift of attitude for me. I was an unhappy, cynical teenager, obsessed with death and self-destruction—never enough to actively act on it, but enough so that I still remember what it feels like to see the world as nothing but a yawning black hole, an endless abyss into which all happiness would vanish. Even today, I am skeptical of inevitable happy endings, the idea that so long as you make it out of adolescence, it will all get better—that the moment you turn eighteen or move out of your small town, you will find yourself bright and shining on the other side of happily-ever-ever. It gets better for some of us, yes. It gets better, yes but not always, and not for everyone. It gets better for a day, a month, maybe whole years at a stretch, but the world has never promised any of us happiness, only the certainty of silence and death.

Yet I think there’s still value in fighting for something finite, something that will necessarily end. I think of New York City in the 80s, the men who cared for friends and lovers through the height of the HIV epidemic. Was the time they spent ultimately in vain, rendered useless by the fact of death? Or is there still value in that kind of care—care without grand ambition of cure or eternal repair, care that only hopes to better things for today and for now?

I think of N. K. Jemisin’s assertion that “an apocalypse is a relative thing,” the fact that for many people—indigenous peoples dispossessed from their homes, Black peoples forced from their homelands into slavery—the end of the world has already come. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a harrowing vision of a patriarchy, but as other critics have pointed out, the violence Atwood describes is all too real for Native and Black women. So many of the symptoms we associate with dystopia—famine, violence, a stark disregard for human life—are in fact already present in even supposedly civilized countries, just a few feet away from Whole Foods and microbreweries. As anti-trans legislation continues to be passed and ICE separates children from their families, it’s so easy to give in to look at the state of the world and give into despair. 

And yet every time I go out to engage with my various communities, I’m inspired by the strength I find. When the world is literally built against you, it is so easy to give up, and yet there are so many people who do not, who continue to fight against the despair of a world built to erase their existence. I don’t want to fetishize the strength of marginalized communities—Black women shouldn’t be expected to be constantly “strong,” and abuse survivors are no less valid for being angry or scared instead of brave and inspirational. Still, incurable optimist that I am, I can’t stop myself from thinking of the way resilience persists even under the most dire conditions. Like dandelions growing through sidewalk cracks and matsutake mushrooms growing in the wake of nuclear disaster, kindness and empathy are hard to truly kill. 

I think of the Japanese pensioners who, in the wake of the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi, volunteered to help with the radiation cleanup. In their sixties and seventies, they argued that they, and not Japan’s youth, should bear the risk of radiation exposure. “We’re doing nothing special,” volunteer Masaasaki Takahashi told reporters in 2011. “I simply think I have to do something and I can’t allow just young people to do this.”

I think of the documentary Babushkas of Chernobyl, of old women who sing folk songs and make jam from irradiated berries and leave mushrooms for the hedgehogs in the winter. Because species of fungi can feed on radiation, an on-site scientist tells the filmmaker watchers that even mushrooms gathered from safe zones can absorb high levels of radiation. But against the prospect of starving during the winter, what other fate are the hedgehogs meant to choose? If the hedgehogs must live short, irradiated lives, are they still not worthy lives nonetheless? 

I think of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, the love that millions of internet strangers willingly invest in these animals that, to many, are already damaged goods—too old, too sick, too doomed. A bad investment, one that will give out after four or five years at most. I think of the dogs themselves—Leo and Gracie and Captain Ron and Gertrude, all so happy, all so loved. Blind and tri-pawed and arthritic, they did not live in fear of death, did not spend time on pity and trembling in the face of their own impending demise. 

Tomorrow I could be hit by a car in traffic or struck by a sudden freak asteroid; tomorrow my heart could decide to stop, some blood vessel in my brain burst after years of hard service. I have been lucky; I have healthcare, a relatively stable income, and the luck to live in an area of the world with easy access to clean water and modern medicine. Yet I know that all of this is fragile, infinitely contingent and provisional. Tomorrow, someone could set my apartment and all my belongings on fire; I could trip while walking down the stairs or fall sick and lose all my savings in attempting to navigate the US healthcare system. 

For now, there is sky and grass and a content cat napping on my bed. For now, I am alive, and so are you, and billions of people as well, many of them suffering the same or worse than I am. For now, I can leave out bread for the birds and nectar for the hummingbirds, pick up plastic where I see it and participate in mutual aid instead of hoarding against an unknowable future. Maybe these are ultimately all small gestures; maybe they will only be helpful for a few hours or days, the way fallen baby birds so rarely survive even under the best of care. That does not make the work any less important. 

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy.” To respond in kind with joy then is not naivety, but a returning of the gift that the world has given us. If either my life or death is to have any meaning, this is how I want to live—giving joy to others, making use of the time I have to make the world a little kinder for the ones I share it with. 

Find out more about Cynthia’s queer science fiction novel After the Dragons here.

Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain…

Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease—shaolong, or “burnt lung”—afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.

Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.

Cynthia Zhang is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kaleidotrope, On Spec, Phantom Drift, and other venues. She is a 2021 DVdebut mentee and is on the web at czscribbles.wixsite.com.

Step from Conceptual into Actualisation

Anna M Holmes and Jamie Mollart discuss their adult novels. Blind Eye by Anna M Holmes is a fast-paced environmental thriller locating the plight to save a rainforest in a global context showing how independent we are as a community.

Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart is a dystopian Cli-Fi novel set in a near future where the solution to depleted resources is The Sleep, enforced hibernation for most of the population.

JM: Hi Anna, I finished your book last night and really enjoyed it. I admired the pace it moved at, the way in which you discuss BIG ideas in a way that are part of the plot, rather than expository, and I thought the characterisation was really strong.

AH: Thanks Jamie, and I also enjoyed your story, though I hope humanity avoids coming to this! Writing about big ideas in an accessible way is crucial isn’t it? No reader needs to be bludgeoned over the head. Heavy-handed approaches are massively off-putting. We read novels to, in part, entertain us and maybe make us think.

JM: The thing that struck me while I was reading Blind Eye was that it’s really interesting how we’ve effectively approached similar ideas from very different places and perspectives. Kings of a Dead World is very much ‘after’ climate change, whereas Blind Eye is set now and in some ways provides guidance on how to avert the disaster I imagine. It got me wondering how you chose this particular approach to confronting climate change?

AH: Kings of a Dead World and Blind Eye make interesting bedfellows. Yes, your story is both ‘before’ and ‘after’ while mine is indeed right ‘now’. Your story deals with a world that has tipped with limited resources tightly controlled in a dystopian society. At the end of my story I leave readers with a sense of hope.

I felt I was in a unique position to write about rainforest destruction as I love telling stories and my partner is a founder member of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). His international contacts were crucial and my own political contacts were handy to check Westminster scenes. Blind Eye started as a screenplay in 2008. I updated it in 2020 (when it was joint-winner of the Green Stories screenplay competition) and I enjoyed delving deeper and reworking the material as a novel. At least in book form it has a chance of reaching an audience. Getting a film made is almost impossible.

Jamie, I loved the imagination you brought to your story. Tell me how you built your complex future world? I am particularly intrigued by Chronos.

JM: Thank you! For me everything began with the idea of The Sleep. I was looking for the most extreme, yet viable, way of dealing with the crippling lack of resources that we will face as a result of climate change, and I came up with the idea of forcibly hibernating most of the population for the majority of the time. From there it was a case of working out logistics! I had a pinterest board which I built up as a reference point as well. It’s actually still here if you want to have a look.

I’m really interested in the idea of how the monothestic religions are fundamentally layered versions of older beliefs, but I felt that if there was such a cataclysmic change to the structure of society that the existing belief systems would struggle to hold up and people would revert to older versions. I love mythology and wanted to bring that in so I looked for gods that would reflect the two types of people that populate my world. For the Sleepers it’s Chronos, the God of time, as this is the thing they value most and for the Janitors Bacchus, the God of wine, made sense as they live a decadent lifestyle, I also wanted to touch on fairy tales and that’s why I brought in Rip Van.

While we’re talking about place, that was something I wanted to touch on with you, Anna. There’s a real tangible quality to all the places in your novel, the jungle in particular. I wondered how you went about building that or whether you’d actually visited the locations yourself?

AH: While I have visited the tropics, and trekked in rainforest, I haven’t been in the situation I describe, but my partner has. His experience, and that of a tropical forester who advised me was invaluable and a development organisation in Indonesia advised me on specifics of Kalimantan tribal groups. By the way, ‘my’ tropical forester adviser had a $100 price tag on his head – another interfering environmentalist – so I use that in my story. I did loads of desk research: environmental reports, Google Earth, videos on YouTube, images and so on. I like your pinterest board! For my first novel, Wayward Voyage, about female pirates, I spent a week on a tall ship to experience handling ropes and going aloft, as well as the usual reading and archival research you’d expect. I love film and I aim to write visually.

You have asked why I wrote my story, and of course I am keen to learn what set you off to write Kings?

JM: As with most of my writing it was a combination of things. In my day job I work in advertising and I have a deep personal conflict about the fact that I contribute to consumerism, which is one of the biggest drivers of climate change, so I knew I wanted to write something that addressed that for me. This is where all the themes of culpability and personal responsibility come from I think.

At the same time I was watching and reading a lot of classic science fiction and wanted to write something that had that sensibility. A recurring theme in all my work is the cycle of male violence and particularly in male friendships and so that is in there too.

I tend to let things percolate for a long time before I actually start putting words down on the page, so my preoccupations with consumerism, climate change, classic science fiction and the idea of The Sleep as a potential extreme solution all bumped around together in my head until I felt ready to start the actual writing process. There’s always a tipping point where I feel that I am ready to step from conceptual into actualisation, although I can’t predict when it’s going to happen, and I get a really rough first draft done really quickly, then spend the time honing and tidying it up.

I have to say, It’s been a real pleasure talking to you Anna, the thing that has really pleasantly surprised me is that despite working in different genres our work is clearly connected through a concern for our world and a desire to make people aware of climate change through our writing.

AH: This conversation has been fun, Jamie. The climate crisis is such a HUGE thing but we can’t be preachy in fiction as this will turn readers off. Well-told stories matter. It is great that we enjoyed each other’s books.

Find out more about Kings of a Dead World and Blind Eye. You can also read Jamie’s previous League interview with Kate Kelly here.

Jamie Mollart is a reviewer for British Science Fiction Association, a mentor for Writing East Midlands, his first novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Star list and his second novel, Kings of a Dead World is available now. The trailer can be watched here and the paperback was launched on February 3rd with an Exclusive Edition only available from Waterstones.  You can find Jamie on Twitter at @jamiemollart

Communication with different audiences drives Anna Holmes’ work. She was a radio journalist before a career in arts management including with UK Arts Councils as a specialist dance and theatre officer then as an external artform reviewer. To find out more about Anna, visit https://www.annamholmes.com

Climate Change Fiction: Multicultural, Diverse, Global, and with Animals, Too! by Claire Datnow

Fiction can be a powerful way for students to understand how climate change has and will impact their future. Cli-Fi (climate change fiction) can serve as a springboard for lively discussions. In addition, stories offer ways in which students can envision and adjust to climate change through new technology and social adaptations. The ideas discussed below can be used to encourage class reading, enrich a unit on this topic and, hopefully, inspire students to do research, or create their own stories, poems, drawings of the future altered by climate change.

I began writing Red Flag Warning: An Eco Adventure (for Middle Grades and up) three years ago, horrified by the wildfires sweeping around the globe. My novel relates the dramatic story of three special young people from across the world, the amazing animals that are part of their lives, and the terrible threats of wildfires—threats that affect the entire world. Climate change is a serious reality to write about. The good news is that after decades of misinformation, denial, and inadequate attempts to reduce the dire impact of climate change, young people around the world are searching for ways to understand and to take action.

Keeping this in mind, I decided not to sugarcoat the truth. Instead, I choose decided to weave a solid base of scientific knowledge into a compelling story, in order to create a hopeful, yet realistic ending rather than gloomy or magical fairytale one. For me, the books I write will always be grounded in science. Telling a moving story does not mean making up facts—we have enough of that already—the basis of the narrative has to be the truth and reality of climate change and the need for social injustice.

After I’d completed Red Flag Warning, I saw more clearly how I’d woven diverse, multicultural, indigenous, and global themes into my story. The three protagonists are: Aisyah from Sumatra, Indonesia, whose ancestors are the Batak people: Kirri from Australia, whose ancestors are Aboriginal: and Hector from Northern California with roots in the Native American people of Mexico. The three draw strength and pride from the ancient wisdom of their ancestors. And, although they come from very different backgrounds the three become close friends.

As a writer and teacher I understand we need diverse stories to serve as mirrors that reflect ourselves and helps build pride in our identity. We also need multicultural stories that serves as windows through which we can begin to understand people of backgrounds different from our own. By weaving these strands together, I hope that Red Flag Warning delivers a powerful message: young people can work together to take action to heal the Earth. Compelling narratives interwoven with science can entertain, educate, and inspire readers. As storytellers we hold the keys to touching our readers’ hearts, to ignite their imagination to build a bridge to tomorrow that will empower them to take action for the greater good of humanity and the wellbeing of the Earth.

Environmental literacy can be integrated into subjects and activities already in the curriculum. In this way climate/environmental stories can serve as a springboard to lively discussions, projects, or research. Fortunately there are variety of novels to choose from at all levels. For a comprehensive list visit the eco-fiction site dragonfly.eco. Additional resources are listed at the end of Red Flag Warning: An Eco Mystery. For a free Teacher Handout “How to Become an Eco Detective: An Interdisciplinary Unit for Writing Across the Curriculum” here.

Find out more about Red Flag Warning.

Claire Datnow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which ignited her love for the natural world and for diverse cultures. Claire taught creative writing to gifted and talented students in the Birmingham, Alabama Public Schools. She earned an MA in Education for Gifted and Talented and a second MA in Public History. Her books for middle schoolers include The Adventures of the Sizzling Six, an eco-mystery series, and Edwin Hubble, Discoverer of Galaxies. Claire’s most recent novel, Red Flag Warning: An Eco Adventure, weaves in the theme of global climate change. Claire’s books for adults include a memoir, Behind The Walled Garden of Apartheid and The Nine Inheritors.

Walking Lightly on the Earth

Denise Baden and Phil Gilvin discuss their novels, and the Green Stories climate writing competition founded by Denise.

Denise: I was amazed when I heard you had started Truth Sister ten years ago – it could have been written last year as it is so ahead of its time anticipating the trends towards greater female empowerment, the pandemic and increased anxiety about climate change. The central thread of following a girl on the brink of adulthood, coming to terms with the difference between the real world and what she has been taught, had a lot of resonance for me. It’s shocking when you realise who you thought of as the ‘good guys’ really aren’t. It was really gripping, and I’m so glad you left the reader with a sliver of hope at the end.

Phil: Denise, I really loved Habitat Man – a well-written, light-hearted and pacy read with believable characters and a telling environmental message. When Tim Redfern, stuck in a job he doesn’t like, hits fifty he knows it’s time for a change, and sets out to help people make their lives more sustainably. Along the way he meets a whole range of people, from a hostile teenager with an air-rifle to a Buddhist monk with secret yearnings to be an accountant, and helps them to see what’s great about nesting-boxes, green burials and composting toilets. Helped by his long-time friend Jo, he tackles his problematic love life, confronts a secret from his past and invents the Random Recipe Generator.

Denise: What inspired the story of Truth Sister?

Phil: I’d already written a couple of YA fantasy/ science-fiction-type novels that didn’t make it to publication, but when Truth Sister began to come together – ten years ago, as you say – I felt I wanted to branch out and explore some of the themes that interested me at the time. Climate change was one of those, of course; another was the idea that as our population grows, our energy and mineral resources will run low. Yet another was about the effect of pandemics – about which, of course, we now know a lot more! Truth Sister plays out in a world where each of those threats has taken effect gradually, which I think is more likely to happen than a sudden apocalypse.

Phil: How about you, Denise? What was your own writer’s journey? What inspired you to write about sustainability, and Habitat Man in particular?

Denise: I’ve been interested in the potential of fiction to inspire green behaviours ever since I read Ben Elton’s Stark. I would never have chosen to watch a climate change documentary, but his comedy thriller smuggled in green issues and really opened my eyes. I’d say that was when I became a bit of a greeny.

My day job is as an academic at the University of Southampton in sustainability and it can get frustrating as few people read academic articles. I turned to fiction as a way to reach a wider audience. In 2018, I set up the free series of Green Stories writing competitions. We’ve run 14 competitions so far, but even so, few entries were aimed at mainstream readers, and I was worried about preaching to the converted.

In 2019, I had a visit from a green garden consultant who had retired early to help locals make their gardens more wildlife friendly. He gave me all kinds of wonderful suggestions: what pollinator friendly plants would thrive in my garden, take down my bamboo and replace with a native tree, plant a hawthorn bush to screen off wildlife area at back of garden, and dump vegetation and garden debris there to create a habitat area – so no more trips to the dump. He installed a water butt, put up a bat box, advised on a pond. He was frustrated though that he was only one man and could only do so much, and I immediately thought what a great idea for a book. My fictional hero ditches his job to become Habitat Man and visits all kinds of gardens, falls in love, digs up something he shouldn’t and in the process of telling a love story, I share green solutions naturally as part of the plot.

Denise: Did you worry about writing a female protagonist as a male author?

Phil: That idea chimed with another topic that interested me. In terms of women’s equality, there’s been some progress in recent decades, although there’s still a long way to go. Taking that forward I wondered what would happen if men were (more or less) out of the picture? In turn, that pointed towards having a female protagonist. Yes, I was a little worried, but there are lots of precedents for authors who’ve written with opposite-gender protagonists (J K Rowling and Philip Pullman spring immediately to mind), so I knew it could be done!

Phil: How about you, writing a male protagonist in Habitat Man?

Denise:  I admit I was worried that I might get called out or that readers would think my hero was too ‘girly’! I interrogated all the men in my life to the point of discomfort how they felt and would react. Also I have two boys and grew up with a brother which helped.

Denise: What are you hoping readers will take away from the story?

Phil: In the first place, the conviction that these threats are real: it could happen here (and probably will). In that respect, Truth Sister joins a large body of cli-fi literature that’s saying the same thing. And when you get climate-change deniers who are running the most powerful country in the world, you know there’s more work still to be done! But the other theme, and perhaps the more important, is that in the challenging future that lies ahead, we need to co-operate. We need each other.

Phil: Habitat Man has a very light-hearted style, which makes it an easy and fun read – but within that, it covers some serious issues. What would you say is the book’s theme?

Denise: The theme is walking lightly on the earth. Through the main character, Habitat Man, the reader can see the world from the perspective of wildlife, such as worms, birds, hedgehogs, bees etc. But there are also broader themes of love, friendship and parenthood.

Phil: Whereas Truth Sister looks at the rather dystopic consequences of climate change, Habitat Man is more about what we can do at local level to live more sustainably. Do you think it’s maybe time for writers to switch from being “prophets” of Climate Change to looking at the solutions?

Denise: Certainly in the UK, I think if people aren’t aware of the issues it is because they don’t want to be. This is understandable as the climate and diversity crisis is frightening. I decided upon my approach as a result of my research into readers’ responses to short stories with either a catastrophic focus or a solution focus. The solution-focussed stories were much more effective in inspiring proactive behaviour change, especially if characters were role modelling actions readers can easily do themselves. The catastrophic tales inspired some, but just as many switched off. I was also alarmed by recent statistics showing most young people have nightmares about climate change and think humanity is doomed. I don’t want to increase eco-anxiety – I’d rather enable effective action.

Denise: Phil, Considering the key theme of men being seen as evil, do you expect male and female readers of Truth Sister to respond differently?

Phil: In some respects. The sexes have similarities as well as differences, and I hope some of the messages are universal. But I did want to raise questions for the reader, such as, how would a world without (many) men look, and would a matriarchy make the same mistakes as a patriarchy? I don’t know the answers, of course; indeed, there are probably no definitive answers. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

Denise: A lot has changed already in the 4 years since Truth Sister was first published in terms of the ‘me too ‘ movement. When you republished in 2021 did you make any changes as a result?

Phil: No. The shift in Truth Sister is already a radical one, and although it’s been caused by disease, the establishment view is, at the start of the novel, that men are not to be trusted. I was trying to imagine what would happen if the view that men are the cause of all the world’s evils became dominant.

Phil: The characters in Habitat Man are colourful and diverse, but there are not many who are resistant or opposed to living sustainably. Was it your intention to write it this way?

Denise: The plot is based on a man who reaching 50 who chucks in his job to become Habitat Man, helping to make gardens wildlife friendly. So the people who ask him to visit are necessarily already interested in nature. However in second chapter, he pitches the idea of costing for nature to his firm of financial accountants and he certainly does meet resistance. The scene becomes quite comic, but his frustration is one that many feel. This frustration was portrayed brilliantly by Jennifer Laurence in the Netflix sensation ‘Don’t Look up’.

Phil: In terms of sustainability, have you found that writing Habitat Man has changed your own habits?

Denise: I tried out everything in the book that Habitat Man recommends. I dug a pond and got a couple of frogs visiting it, and last week I saw a newt. I was delighted as I only had room for a small pond.  I got a gorgeous multi-coloured composting toilet from Strumpet and Trollope and installed it in my garden shed for when my son was hogging the bathroom. I lay some meadow mat to attract butterflies and crickets. That was less successful, despite Quality Garden Supplies assuring me it wasn’t plastic backed – it definitely was, so not as great for the wildlife as I’d hoped. This issue made its way into one of my chapters.

Denise: Truth Sister must have involved quite a lot of world building – how did you approach this aspect?

Phil: I asked myself about plausible scenarios for how the various threats might affect the world over the next century, and from that I created started with a timeline of possible world events. To support that I did some research around likely climate change and disease scenarios, for example using Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees and Robert Baker’s Epidemic as well a lot of online resources. And, in guessing how one event might lead to another, I tried to do what detectives in crime novels are supposed to do: follow the money. What would the economic factors be? But all of this was fairly broad-brush. It’s impossible to build down to the smallest details, until you start writing.

Denise: Did you originally plan Truth Sister as a trilogy?

Phil: Yes, I did have it in mind when I started. But the outline plans for Blackwolf (Aelurus Publishing, out in April 2022 and already available to pre-order) and The Scorpion (two-thirds drafted) evolved a lot while I was writing Truth Sister. The main themes continue throughout the three volumes, but where Truth Sister focuses on climate change, books II and III will look at epidemics and at migration and refugees.

Phil: How about you, Denise? What’s your next project?

Denise: I have so many stories stacked up for when I have time to write them. Tim’s back story is waiting to be written as a prequel so we are introduced to him as a 16 year old. To keep Habitat Man down to a reasonable length I had to cut loads of characters and gardens and plot lines so they will make their way into sequels. I also want to do more with the secondary characters, especially in terms of Jo’s (the hero’s best friend) back story. Reader feedback is that some love her and think she is hilarious and others hate her and think Tim would be better off without her. I’d love to give some insight into what has made Jo the way she is today. And of course I’d like to develop the love story with Lori.

However, while I’m still employed as a sustainability academic, I’m focussing on new projects for the Green Stories competitions I run. I’ve done lots of research on the powerful effects of role models, both good and bad (the role models, not my research!) Based on this, I’m launching a new competition with BAFTA to create a short video that raises awareness of the role of fictional role models in promoting sustainable lifestyles, and call out those writers, producers and characters that implicitly promote excessive consumption as an aspiration. I’m very excited about this, as cultural values of consumption are a part of the problem that are rarely debated, and I’m hoping this video will start a conversation around that.

The Green Stories project has also just partnered with the Ecologisers on an Eco Santa competition to make Santa Claus a role model of sustainable consumption. For example one story submitted last year had toys coming from a toy hospital rather than a toy factory, thus implicitly promoting re-use.

But come the summer holidays, I’ll be back at my laptop, working on a prequel to Habitat Man. I can’t wait!

Phil: Denise, thanks so much. It’s been great chatting to you.

Denise: Thank you Phil. It’s lovely to make a connection with other authors with similar aspirations.

Find out more about Habitat Man and Truth Sister.

Denise Baden lives near Southampton by the beautiful riverside park where she is often to be seen walking with her dogs and plotting! Denise has published widely in the academic realm, written 3 screenplays and one musical ‘Fidel’, based on her research on Fidel Castro. This is her first novel.

Phil Gilvin lives with his wife in Swindon, Wiltshire. When his children grew too old to have stories read to them, he turned to writing, winning a number of short story prizes. Truth Sister is his first published novel. His other career is as a scientist (now part-time), and he enjoys walking, listening to classical music and prog rock, and murdering folk songs.