Rewilding and our connections with the natural world by Nicola Penfold

My first book Where The World Turns Wild came out in February last year, just as the COVID-19 crisis was building. Readers contacted me to say how struck they were by eerie parallels with the dystopian nightmare we were all living through: the virus there wasn’t (then) a vaccine for; the locked down cities; the (brief, it turned out) breathing space the natural world had been given from our carbon-spewing cars and planes.

In the UK, it was a record-breaking sunny and dry spring, and one of the few things we could still do was take daily walks for essential exercise. We sought out places that brought us comfort: parks, rivers, woodlands, beaches (for those lucky enough to live within walking distance of the sea). There’s a whole host of reasons why and how the natural world is good for us (anyone interested in the data should read the influential, and beautiful, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need The Wild by Lucy Jones). Most of us didn’t need the evidence, we knew it instinctively. COVID had made us worried and sad and lonely, and we knew the wild spaces would make us feel better.

Did the birds really sing louder last spring, or did we just notice it more, without the roar of traffic and the daily grind? Lots of people said (often guiltily, acknowledging the horrible death toll and the horrendous stories coming out of the COVID wards) that it was nice to slow down. It was nice to have the chance to discover local green spots and learn our environments better. We felt reconnected to the natural world.

At least that’s the story we’ve told ourselves. There were also many for whom it was the opposite – people stuck at home all day, with vastly increased screen time. Playgrounds were shut. Children were told off for playing outside. It wasn’t nature rambles all round, and there was an uneasy tension between those who lived close to local beauty spots and wished, understandably, to keep outsiders out, and those from grey, urban places who just wanted a couple of hours respite in the wild.

When writing Where the World Turns Wild a few years ago, in my innocent, ignorant pre-pandemic state, I was just hungry for a new and exciting landscape to explore. The disease in my book (carried by ticks, too mutable for a vaccine) was just a plot device. It was like the princess pricking her finger in Sleeping Beauty and everyone sleeping for a hundred years. The disease allowed me to imagine a world with the humans taken out for a while. Because what I really wanted to write about was rewilding.

We hear the word all the time now – rewilding our gardens, our parks, our balconies, our road verges. There is of course an actual defined meaning too. A bigger, more scientific meaning that defines a progressive approach to conservation. Rewilding Britain says rewilding is “the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. Rewilding seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.”

Most rewilding advocates take care to emphasise the role of people. Rewilding isn’t just what’s good for our landscapes, to help mitigate the huge climate and biodiversity crisis we are facing, it’s what’s good for us too.

Rewilding Britain talks about sustainable futures, jobs, communities, tourism. It’s also about a state of mind and a way of living – living wilder, our senses more fully engaged, more connected to our hunter-gatherer past. This desire for a wilder existence is compellingly described in George Monbiot’s Feral, first published in 2013, and a seminal text on rewilding. Rewilding, Monbiot writes, is not just about reducing floods and erosion and stopping the spread of disease (COVID-19 wasn’t the first virus caused by the pressure humans put on the natural world, and won’t be the last). Monbiot writes about “the sense of freedom, of the thrill that comes from roaming in a landscape or seascape without knowing what I might see next, what might loom from the woods or water… It is the sense that without these animals the ecosystem is lopsided, abridged, dysfunctional.”

This is the kind of landscape I wanted to write about. Something vast and unexplored, with secrets corners and unexpected encounters. Something so wild it could be dangerous. And I didn’t want to have to make the setting the Amazon rainforest or the Serengeti or some other place I’d never been. I wanted to write about landscapes close and familiar to me, but make them wilder. Like going back in time, except I didn’t go back, I went forward instead. Fifty years after humans have been locked up in cities, shut away from the natural world.

Nature has taken care of itself.

My characters meet lynx and wolves (released from old wildlife parks). But even more common creatures like wood pigeons, rabbits, squirrels, are more thrilling in the un-sanitised wild world of my book. Juniper and Bear, a sister and a brother, see everything with fresh eyes, because they’ve been locked up for too long without any of it.

“Anyone who lives in a city will know the feeling of having been there too long,” Robert Macfarlane writes in his 2007 book, The Wild Places. “The gorge-vision that the streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac….”

As COVID restrictions ease, people are flocking back to the green and blue spaces they love, excited to leave urban homes behind, but inevitably we’re already hearing stories about litter in parks and on beaches, and crowds, congestion, damaged footpaths, wildfires. Now so many of us have a hunger to explore the wild, will it stay wild?

Rewilding must continue as a real integral part of the “green recovery” so many people are clamouring for, and which our planet is so desperate for. The truth is we need a heck of a lot more wild places, protected, restored, funded, connected, and some close to all our towns and cities, so everyone gets access to somewhere wild. Indeed our urban spaces themselves need to incorporate the wild. Like Singapore, the “garden city”, with its vertical gardens, green roofs and interspersed parks, rivers and ponds. The possibilities are exciting and heartening, if we are bold. I love hearing plans like those from Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, to reimagine the site of the old Broadmarsh Shopping Centre as a green space – to make a natural oasis right in the beating heart of the city, with woodland, wetland and wildflower meadows. All our towns and cities need such plans, to bring nature in, so we can all live alongside it again, for our own sakes and the sake of the wild.

And then can we start talking about bringing lynx back?

10 Wild Reads

Here are some of my children’s and young adult recommendations, for books which connect you with the wild.

Nicola Penfold was born in Billinge and grew up in Doncaster. She studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Nicola’s worked in a reference library and for a health charity, but being a writer was always the job she wanted most.

Nicola writes in the coffee shops and green spaces of North London, where she lives, and escapes when she can to wilder corners of the UK for adventures. She is married, with four children and two cats.

Nicola’s first book Where the World Turns Wild is out now with Little Tiger Press, and a second book Between Sea and Sky is due to be published on July 8th.

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Emma Shevah talks about her new Middle Grade eco-adventure

Tell us about your new book.

How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg is narrated by Ivy Pink Floyd, animal communicator, and Nathaniel Breakwell, an animal- and routine-loving boy with Asperger’s who has been brought up by his grandmother. After his grandmother’s death, Nathaniel goes to stay in Southwold, Suffolk, with his eccentric, confusing mother, and meets the equally odd Ivy, a fostered girl with a ‘difficult past’, chicken friend wedged under her arm and a dog daddy who follows her everywhere. Both Nathaniel and Ivy are committed to animals and saving the world, but it’s hard to know what to do when the world is huge and you’re not even a teenager yet, and neither is great at making friends (human ones, at least). But when the impossible possible happens one night on the beach (let’s just say it involves a leatherback turtle and a lot of rumpus), they learn two important lessons: one, saving the world means doing what you can when you can, and two, none of us can do it on our own.

How does climate change play into the plot?

It’s central to the plot: both Ivy and Nathaniel want to save the planet, but they do it different ways (neither of which is very successful). Ivy talks to creatures and tries to help them, although their human owners are not very compliant or believing, and she mainly fails. Nathaniel tells everyone he meets fascinating facts, but this seems to drive them away instead of persuading them to change their habits or be his friend. The ‘impossible possible’ is actually impossible at the moment but with sea temperatures rising, perhaps one day it could actually be possible.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I read books on animals and animal behaviour; I read about and watched documentaries about animal communicators; I read books by ecologists and emailed turtle professors and experts about leatherback eggs, and their transportation, incubation and hatching. I contacted Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and the Leatherback Trust (only the first of those organisations was helpful!); I researched fostering, Asperger’s, and the Seri tribe in Mexico, and returned to Southwold to ride around on a bike and see where there were and weren’t lampposts, and what views you could see from e.g. Gun Hill, which meant walking around near people’s houses and taking photos like a suspicious stalker. I also did lots of internet searches for animal facts, mucus and saliva – if you’d seen any of my searches at that time, you’d have been very concerned about me.

What approach did you take to talking about complicated topics, either political or scientific, for younger readers?

I usually consider the benefits and drawbacks of being optimistic or pessimistic about a subject and how this might affect young readers. David Wallace-Wells begins his book, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ with the line, ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think.’ I’m not sure I could start with a similar message for kids.

If we think it’s too late to change our habits and create positive climate change, we won’t be motivated to do anything, but if we think it’s all fine and dandy, we won’t be motivated to make any changes or take action. I wanted kids to feel that although they don’t have jeeps or skills, they can help, and they can make a difference. With first person narrators, the political and scientific topics are limited to what the narrator might know, being an eleven or twelve-year-old child, so that frames how you present that information and what you include. Ivy doesn’t understand the scientific jargon the scientists use so she paraphrases it; Nathaniel would understand it but children only have the information taught to or discussed with them and often not the whole comprehensive picture, so this changes how you write it. I also wanted to highlight autism, different types of families, and feeling abandoned by a parent, and these are also serious subjects. I tend to use humour a lot to balance it out.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change? (fictional or non-fiction!)

I love Carl Safina’s books: he’s an ecologist and scientist and is a poetic, insightful writer who shares his deep love for the natural world in every haunting and beautiful sentence he writes. The following are less about climate change but ‘Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?’ by Frans de Waal; ‘The Unexpected Truth about Animals’ by Lucy Cooke and ‘Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith are all great reads.

Can you remember when your journey with environmental activism started?

I can’t say it’s a ‘journey’ or when it might have started because it’s just always been important to me. I’ve always deeply loved and felt profoundly connected to this planet and its creatures, and all of my actions are related to my experience of being here and sharing life on Earth with the people and creatures that are also here, have been here before me, and will be here after I’m gone. I think if you love the Earth, your whole life is – or should be – an act of activism. It’s just so hard in the modern world to walk the walk. I get on planes and I buy veg in plastic because it’s hard not to. I drive if I’m really tired and I know I could do more but I’m also running a home and a family, and two careers, one of which is ridiculously demanding. I’m not perfect – none of us is – but I really do care.

Why is it so important for you personally to see the environment discussed in fiction?

This is the biggest problem we face. I tend to write about what bothers me, and this bothers me hugely – I can’t not write about it. I know it also bothers other people, and kids have growing anxiety about climate change and what they’re inheriting, so it needs to be addressed and I feel compelled to offer them hope, even if it feels (and maybe is) hopeless.

Can you share a quotation from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

This part can be found towards the end of the novel, when Nathaniel is talking to a scientist called Irina about some baby turtles that have just hatched and swum out to sea:

‘It’s too late, isn’t it?’ I asked quietly.

She paused, checking what I meant. ‘For them?’

‘For the planet.’

….

She paused, then added, ‘Those tiny hatchlings have so little chance, but they do everything they can to survive anyway. And that’s what we need to do. We can’t lose hope. The odds against us are enormous, but we have to do everything we can. And keep doing it. You understand me, right?’

You can find out more about How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg here.

Emma Shevah is half Thai and half Irish, and was born and raised in London. She holds a BA Honours in English and Philosophy from the University of Nottingham and an MA with Distinction in Creative and Professional Writing from Brunel. She is the author of Hello Baby Mo!, an early reader published by Bloomsbury, and four Middle Grade novels published by Chicken House: Dream on Amber (2014 – winner of the Odyssey Award), Dara Palmer’s Major Drama (2016 – optioned by CBBC), What Lexie Did (UK)/Lexie’s Little Lie (US) 2018 and How to Save the World with a Chicken and an Egg (2021). She currently lives in Brighton with 50% of her four children and is Head of Year 13 at Roedean.

A Letter to my Children by Cara Hoffman

Author Cara Hoffman shares a letter for her climate-anxious children.

Dear Creatures,

Yesterday I put on my mask and met a friend and we walked together in the National Forest. The leaves had begun to turn yellow and orange and red. The sun was shining through the branches We saw TOADS and chipmunks and blue birds. We heard owls and woodpeckers, wind blowing through the treetops, small animals skittering over dead leaves. The forest was bursting with life and it made me want to write you a letter.

I know this can be a scary time. There are fires in California and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Polar ice caps are melting. The weather is changing and the land where people and animals live is changing. Adults are worried and kids are too.

I have a few important things to tell you about climate change.

The first is this:

No matter what anyone says—it is not up to YOU to personally fix this frightening problem. Climate Change is not YOUR fault, or your parents’ fault. The environment didn’t get this bad because you used a plastic straw.

The environment is in danger because large companies have not listened when groups of people asked them to stop polluting the air and the water and the land. This is because they think the air and the water and the land belong to them.

The most important thing you can do right now to help the environment is

DON’T think like they do.

Plants and animals have their own lives. The earth doesn’t belong to you or me or an oil company anymore than it belongs to a cricket or a tree or a frog.

Right now, the National Forest Foundation is replanting trees everywhere in the country from Florida to Alaska. Their goal is to plant fifty million trees to repopulate the forests. Trees filter carbon out of the atmosphere and help clean the air. Forests help filter and supply water, and provide homes for animals of all kinds. More than 400 species depend on national forest habitat, including humans.

YOU and your family, and your friends and their families, can help plant those trees so that National Forests can exist in the future. This page will explain how you can help.

The climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote recently in her book No One is Too Small to Make a Difference that “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and the solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.”

Many people have worked hard for those changes. Activists have told the world who the polluters are. Scientists have invented new ways to clean the air. Whole countries have promised to stop using coal and gas. We don’t know if they will keep their promises or not. They have broken them before. Together we can make sure they keep them. But right now YOU can make a promise to yourself and to the other creatures on this planet. You can promise to never believe the earth belongs to people.

People belong to the earth. And we need to remember that, because there’s no where else for us to go.

See you in the forest,

Cara

You can find out more about The Ballad of Tubs Marshfield here.

Cara Hoffman is the author of Running, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an Esquire Magazine Best Book of 2017, and an Autostraddle Best Queer and Feminist Book of 2017. She first received national attention in 2011 with the publication of So Much Pretty which sparked a national dialogue on violence and retribution and was named Best Suspense Novel of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

Climate News

World’s Revolution are seeking talented authors from all walks of life to submit climate fiction stories to our first anthology, set to release Fall 2021.They pay $0.01 per word for accepted stories, up to 10,000 words, for climate fiction with a fun science fiction/fantasy twist. The stories should also reflect themes of climate justice and an understanding of the intersectionality of the climate crisis. https://www.theworldsrevolution.com/submissions

Join Zoom writing sessions on 27th April and month onwards with Writing the Climate

Rewilding our cities: beauty, biodiversity and the biophilic cities movement [Guardian]

NFTs Are Hot. So Is Their Effect on the Earth’s Climate [Wired]

Climate change has impacted agricultural productivity growth by 21% since 1960s [Sky News]

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Lauren St John talks about KAT WOLFE

Science writer Isabel Thomas talks to the acclaimed Middle Grade author and founder of Authors4Oceans, Lauren St John, about her books.

Isabel: Congratulations on the publication of Kat Wolfe on Thin Ice, the third adventure in the Wolfe and Lamb mysteries series! What can readers expect if they are discovering the series for the first time? 

Lauren: Writing Kat Wolfe Investigates, the first book in the series, was one of the most enjoyable, fun experiences of my life. In the opening chapter, Kat Wolfe, the daughter of a busy city vet, encounters a burglar. What happens next changes their destiny. But after they move to the Jurassic Coast and Kat opens a pet-sitting agency, her very first client disappears under suspicious circumstances. Kat’s new best friend, American Harper Lamb, joins Kat in solving the case. They’re assisted by Tiny, Kat’s wild cat, and other unruly animal friends.

Isabel: What can fans expect from the third instalment?

Lauren: In Kat Wolfe on Thin Ice, a series of unfortunate events result in Kat and Harper finding themselves alone in a snowbound cabin in America’s Adirondack wilderness with a snowstorm moving in. When Kat realises that she might have been the last person to see a missing girl, presumed kidnapped, she and Harper get on the case, helped by a team of huskies and a naughty racoon.

Isabel: Each Wolfe and Lamb adventure deftly weaves in environmental and conservation issues. Was this tricky?

Lauren: Conservation and animals are so much a part of my daily life that I focus on the plot and adventure first and I think the nature parts of my book come sort of naturally. The only book where I’ve found getting the balance right hard was Kat Wolfe Takes the Case, where extinction and climate change are intertwined with the plot. I wanted the book to have lots of hope and humour in it too. Fortunately. Kat’s pet-sitting agency allowed me to put it a mischievous python and other funny animal characters. One of the things I love most about animals is how strongly individual and full of personality they are if you take the time to get to know them. I’ve known a lot of funny animals, including pythons, and have lots of memories to draw on.

Isabel: Tell us about Wave Riders, your new standalone novel, out on June 10th.

Lauren: Wave Riders is about twelve-year-old twins, Jess and Jude, who live a dream life sailing from one exotic destination to the next with their guardian, Gabriel Carter. But after Gabe vanishes and a storm smashes everything, they’re left orphaned and alone. When a wealthy, glamorous family offer them a home, everybody tells them they’re the luckiest children in the world. But the Blakeney’s stately mansion is full of secrets – secrets that seem entangled with the twins’ own fate. As they race to uncover the truth, Jess and Jude must confront their deepest fears. How do you solve a mystery when that mystery is you?

Isabel: As well as being part of the Climate Writers’ League, you launched Authors4Oceans to campaign against single-use plastic. Why do you think the words of authors in particular can have such a powerful impact on readers’ awareness of environmental issues? 

Lauren: I think that stories have the capacity to move and inspire children in a way that no amount of dry news articles or facts can do. I vividly remember the impact books such as Black Beauty, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose or Patricia Leitch’s For Love of a Horse or The Summer Riders, all of which have strong themes around compassion not just towards animals and the natural world, but also humans. To me, social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand. In my experience, people who are cruel to animals or chop down rare forests and use bee-killing pesticides are cruel to humans and vice versa.

What’s so powerful and wonderful about the writing of some of our Authors4Oceans members – I’m thinking of authors such as Gill Lewis, Piers Torday, Nicola Davies and, of course, Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris, who created the magnificent Lost Wordsis that they tell moving, exciting stories that also change minds and hearts. I’ve tried to do the same with my White Giraffe series and through books like The Snow Angel. I’m hugely hopeful that young readers of today will grow up to make the world a better place.

Isabel: What sorts of feedback do you get from readers on the environmental, conservation and sustainability themes in your books? 

Lauren: The best thing about being a children’s author is receiving letters and emails from kids who have been inspired to save wildlife and/or the environment after reading my books. I’ve been a children’s writer just long enough that some of those kids are now adults and have gone on to become wildlife cameramen or volunteer on game reserves or study environmental science. It’s so utterly lovely and inspiring. Nothing makes me happier.

Isabel: I first fell in love with your writing in The One Dollar Horse. I loved the detail of a single-parent family lovingly cooking ambitious meals without most of the ingredients because they were unaffordable. It captured something I remember very fondly from my childhood – so much love despite tough circumstances.

Lauren: Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed The One Dollar Horse! That series and The Glory, my standalone YA horse book, have a special place in my heart. I loved writing and researching them. Growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, I used to dream of being an eventer, so writing those books was a joy because I sort of got to live out my dreams vicariously. The bond I had with my own horse, Morning Star, who was my best friend when I was a teenager, inspired The One Dollar Horse. I could totally relate to Casey Blue’s love for Storm, the horse she rescues. I could also relate to her struggles to realise her dreams against all the odds and with no money in an expensive and sometimes elitist sport.

As far as possible, I want the characters, places and adventures in my books to feel authentic, so I’ve always tried my best to travel to the places and have some of the experiences I write about. I went to the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique to research Dolphin Song, rode a palomino mustang through the snowy mountains of Wyoming to research The Glory and took a five-day RYA (Royal Yachting Association) course to learn to sail in order to be able to write the technical bits in my new book, Wave Riders.

Isabel: When you’re building characters and their traits and habits, how much do you draw on people you know in real life? 

Lauren: Some of my villains have characteristics of baddies I hear about, read about or encountered when I was a journalist. Politicians, spies, spoilt celebrities or hapless burglars or whatever. I never consciously do it with the good people in my books, although in some cases I’ve probably drawn on the essence of people I’ve known. For instance, Mrs Smith, Casey Blue’s teacher, is definitely influenced by some of my favourite elderly friends.

Kat Wolfe, like Laura Marlin and Tariq or Makena in the Snow Angel isn’t inspired by anyone in real life. She just sort of arrived fully-formed in my head one day. Within a week, I felt I knew her. That said, I’m sure there’s bits of me in her.

Isabel: I often find that when I’m writing middle-grade non-fiction, such as This Book is Not Rubbish, or This Book Will (Help) Cool the Climate, I’m led and inspired by the young people I know and work with – they have as much to teach me as I do them! Do you go through a similar process when crafting your novels?

Lauren: I definitely agree about young people having as much to teach me as I do them. More so, in many cases. I am in awe of incredible Dara McAnulty, author of Diary of a Young Naturalist, and of my fellow Born Free Foundation ambassador, Bella Lack, who is writing her own book. They give me hope for the future of the natural world.

Isabel: The last year has been very tough for so many reasons. One of these for me is the worry that environmental awareness has taken backwards steps, compared with the end of 2019 when the School Climate Strike movement had given it so much momentum. We see this in big ways (e.g. the postponement of the COP26 climate conference) and a million small ways – for example plastic masks tangled in hedgerows and floating in rivers have become an everyday sight.

Lauren: You’re absolutely right about the pandemic derailing the climate change movement and I’ve been absolutely horrified at the amount of litter and plastic in the fields and woods in the beautiful area where I live. The slump in fortunes of many companies and the block on travel also means that the funding of many environmental charities has been slashed or stopped altogether.

Isabel: What would your message be to young people thinking, what next? 

Lauren: Being in lockdown has given many people the chance to appreciate nature in a way they’ve never had the chance to do before. People are taking ‘birdsong’ classes on YouTube and making bee hotels and watching otters and raptors on livestream cameras. It’s amazing. Hardly anyone is flying, which hopefully is cutting pollution too. Those things give me hope.

When The White Giraffe was published in 2006, I realised that conservation was completely missing from the curriculum of most UK schools. I approached the Born Free Foundation about working on a schools project called Animals are NOT Rubbish to get kids and teachers thinking about endangered animals. It’s been incredible to see the picture in schools change since that time.

Personally, I think that conservation and climate change should play as big a part in the curriculum as maths or English. Unless we address those things as humans, we’ll have no future. However, it’s also wonderful seeing children and schools embrace those things in a huge way. All credit to Greta Thunberg and the school strikers for standing up and demanding that grown-ups, governments and companies change their habits and thinking in order to save our world.

Isabel: You’ve previously written about becoming an ‘overnight success’ after 10 years of hard writing graft! There is this ongoing paradox in this industry that loves debuts and yet also values the work of established writers who have really honed their craft.

Lauren: You’re absolutely right; it is an ongoing paradox. I love reading debut authors and the energy around new voices and dazzlingly original ideas, but it’s important to celebrate experience too. After all, writing is one of the few professions where you should, theoretically, get better as you get older.

Isabel: What are your tips for establishing a long and successful writing career?  

Lauren: My career has had so many ups and downs and years and years of struggle that, before I wrote The White Giraffe, I spent a couple of years trying to figure out how else I might make a living. I’m so grateful to the readers who’ve supported my children’s books over the years, and feel so grateful that I’ve been able to do what I love. To anyone considering being a writer, my advice would be to write the books that are in your heart, as opposed to those that you think publishers might be buying, and put everything you have into them. Children, especially, read between the lines. They know when an author really believes in their story or feels deeply for their characters and they respond to that.

Isabel: Thank you so much Lauren! And just before you go, which books have inspired you recently? 

Lauren: I adored Gill Lewis’s A Street Dog Named Pup (out in April) and Hilary McKay’s The Swallow’s Flight (out in May). Both are beautiful, stunningly well written books. Highly recommended.

Kat Wolfe on Thin Ice is out now. Wave Riders is published by Macmillan Children’s Books on 10 June 2021.

Lauren St John grew up surrounded by horses, dogs, cats, a warthog and a pet giraffe on a farm and game reserve in Zimbabwe, the inspiration for her bestselling White Giraffe, Laura Marlin and One Dollar Horse series. Kat Wolfe on Thin Ice, her third Wolfe & Lamb mystery, will be out in January 2021. Lauren is an Ambassador for Born Free, a Patron of Mane Chance Animal Sanctuary and the founder of Authors4Oceans, a coalition of children’s authors campaigning against plastic pollution and dolphins in captivity.

Isabel Thomas is a science/nature writer and the author of several books for young readers that explore human impact on the natural world, including Moth: An Evolution Story, Fox: A Circle of Life Story, This Book is Not Rubbish and This Book Will (Help) Cool the Climate.

Putting a Narrative Loop around the Future by Nicky Singer

Many moons ago, I asked my friend Tom Burke, then Director of Friends of the Earth, what he really thought would happen if we failed to get to grips with increasing global temperatures. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘you’d better be prepared to go to Scotland and take a gun’. The image stayed with me – but I didn’t know how to write the book he was telling me needed to be written. The subject was too big, too disempowering – people’s eyes glazed over when you mentioned it.

Years later, a chance encounter with a real climate-change story (melting ice-graves on the Arctic island of Herschel) gave me a way in to the subject and I wrote a play –Island – for the National Theatre, which I later re-wrote as a novel. The book made the Carnegie longlist and was routinely called ‘beautiful’, ‘calm and magical’ and ‘full of wisdom’, but somehow the Arctic setting meant that, for most people, the drama was just too far away – both geographically and emotionally. Not our problem.

Then came the migrant crisis – and the hardening of attitudes and borders. And now the girl with the gun came back to nag me. Might her story intersect with this new anxiety? And why were we so anxious anyway, so lacking in empathy? I began to think it might be because for us in the north (in Europe particularly) the migrant is almost always ‘other’, as we are not the displaced, the ones forced to travel. So here was my challenge: could I finally bring this story ‘home’? Write about a very near future where one of those displaced people could truthfully be you – or me?

The result was The Survival Game: the girl with the gun, Mhairi, and the story about what she’s prepared to risk – or sacrifice – to get to safety in a climate changed world. It seems that this story has hit harder (published in numerous territories, already optioned for film etc) but it ran into the sand in America. Six major publishers put in bids, offering eye-watering amounts of money – but only if I’d change the ending. I refused. Disney didn’t seem quite where we’re headed.

But I thought I’d check in with my friend Tom again. He now heads up the independent climate think tank E3G. He doesn’t think we’re headed for Disney either, in fact the only change in his advice re Scotland is to get there quicker and take some friends. I got out my list of additional climate questions. ‘Let’s talk about story,’ he said. ‘Story is the only thing that matters. Facts don’t persuade people, stories do.’

I didn’t need asking twice. So, what does Tom want from story makers now? 

He explained it like this: about 5000 years ago a guy turned up on Salisbury Plain and told the subsistence farmers there a story. The farmers had a life expectancy of about 20-30 years and were beset with forces they couldn’t control; wild beasts, pathogens, raiders, extreme weather events etc. Plenty to be getting on with. But whatever the storyteller said, made then get up, walk 150 miles to the North West, dig up a bunch of huge stones and drag them back to the Plain, erecting them into what we now know as Stonehenge.

What on earth did the storyteller say?

In terms of time and technology, the achievement of those farmers is, Tom suggests, equivalent to the mountains we must move to save ourselves from climate catastrophe. Only instead of persuading a bunch of farmers, we have to persuade the 8 billion people currently on earth. And we don’t have a story.

So – I hazarded, you’re saying, as writers, we’ve failed in our job?

Yes, Tom said. (He doesn’t get to address governments about this stuff without being straight talking.)  Put another way, the sci-fi dystopian stuff, is only half of the job. In order to create a better future, Tom believes we need to be able to imagine it first. We need to have an image as strong as the Garden of Eden to aim towards. ie it has to be aspirational, something as big as god was before the death of religion or as reason before the demise of the Enlightenment. A story, if you like, outside all normal boundaries.

Piece of cake, eh?

I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. What Tom actually wants is a Good News story and ‘as any fule kno’, good news is death to story makers which is why eg Paradise Lost is a marvel and Paradise Regained – isn’t.

Just before anyone throws in the towel here, let me (or rather Tom) re-cap on timescale and context. Unless we’ve seriously decarbonized by 2050 then we’ve had it, not as a species (some of us will survive, of course) but as a civilization. It’s already beginning to happen (increased tribalism, nationalism, rats in sacks) but it won’t come with a label on. Another of Tom’s stories (hey, why doesn’t he do this job himself?) is the Persian Carpet analogy: the pattern on a carpet in an area of high traffic gets worn away. But not at the same rate everywhere, for a long time, there will still be islands of colour among the faded bits, and you’ll still be able (just) to imagine the pattern. Then, one day, a seemingly small erasure will tip the balance. Substitute order/disorder for pattern and fray and you get the picture. This, incidentally is why Tom thinks the scenario in The Survival Game is ‘just a matter of time’ because there’s an island of functionality (Arran) and many patches of fray on the journey from the Sudan. Meanwhile, as a comparator, no-one will be going on holiday to Southern Spain or Italy in 50 years’ time. It will be too hot to be pleasant.

So – back to the challenge. What’s the story? Can we make ‘a narrative loop around the future and make it accessible’? We’ve unlocked the secrets of the cell and the atom but not the nucleus of wisdom.

So – one helluva big story needed and not much time. Who’s up for it?

You can find out more about The Survival Game here.

Tom Burke is the Head of Climate Change Think Tank E3G

Nicky Singer has written four novels for adults, two books of non-fiction but most of her recent work is for young people. Her first children’s novel Feather Boy won the Blue Peter ‘Book of the Year’ Award, was adapted for TV (winning a BAFTA for Best Children’s Drama) and then commissioned by the National Theatre as a musical with lyrics by Don Black and music by Debbie Wiseman. Her new novel The Survival Game is a migration road-movie about a girl with a bullet-less gun and what she’s prepared to risk – or sacrifice – to stay alive in a climate ravaged world. If you want to join the conversation about how to keep our planet beautiful and our future bright, check the #ChooseLovetoSurvive campaign.

Climate Change in the News

Stopping Carbon Pollution by 2050 Would Add $1 Trillion to the Economy [Gizmodo]

Global Action Is ‘Very Far’ From What’s Needed to Avert Climate Chaos [NY Times]

THE CLIMATE CONTROVERSY SWIRLING AROUND NFTS [The Verge]

Video panel: League founder Lauren James talks to climate activists Dr. Sinead Collins, Laura Lam and Dr. Johanne Vad, whose work looks at animal behaviour around oil rigs


Teaching Resources

Are you an educator or librarian? We’d love to hear how you teach your students about climate change, to help guide our work in the future. You can fill out a survey here.

See below for a book-related teaching quiz about water resources.

Memory of Water, written by Emmi Itäranta, explores a setting in which clean water is a scarce and controlled commodity. The book is set in a post-war Finland which has been taken over by a foreign power. Rising sea levels, war, and other environmental factors have eradicated many sources of water. Access to clean water is limited and under military control. The possession of any secret water source, such as a well or a spring, is a crime punishable by death.

The book is written from the perspective of seventeen-year-old Noria as she takes over the responsibilities of tea master from her father. A position which will force Noria to know of, and protect, a secret spring. A spring her family has taken care of for generations. After the death of her father, Noria must decide whether to keep the spring safe or go off on her own in pursuit of knowledge.

As clean water becomes an ever-scarcer commodity in our world, Memory of Water invokes a sense of alarm within its reader. The dystopian setting that Noria is forced to contend with seems like a not-so-distant future to the modern reader. How much water are we using? And how long can we continue to take clean water for granted without repercussions?

Although the idea of clean water running out is uncomfortable, it is important to address. It is especially important to take note of how much water we are currently using, so we can find ways to eliminate practices that waste and/or deplete our fresh water supply. 

Test your knowledge of water usage within the UK by taking our quiz!

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Angie Hockman discusses the Galápagos in her new Romance

Two authors inspired by travel in their work, YA author Angela Kecojevic and romance author Angie Hockman, talk about Shipped, a delightful romance novel with a heart-warming climate twist which is out now with Gallery Books. Kecojevic also talks about her forthcoming novel Train, published later this year.

OK, so let’s talk about Shipped. This was delightful escapism at its very best. The way you combined conservation topics with romance was a breath of fresh air, and the gorgeous book cover screams at days we can only dream of (at present!). Shipped has a truly exotic location. Can you tell us what drew you towards the setting of the Galápagos?

Sure! For my day job, I manage conservation and education programs for Lindblad Expeditions, a small-ship expedition cruise company, and a few years ago I had the great good fortune of traveling to Galápagos on a Lindblad voyage. I was familiar with the islands and the opportunities they afford to have up-close-and-personal encounters with wildlife, but I never imagined how profoundly the experience would touch me on a personal level. To have the chance to hike amongst endemic marine iguanas and past nesting waved albatross, snorkel with endangered Galápagos penguins, spot giant tortoises roaming in the wild, and more…and have the wildlife not be afraid of me…it gave me this feeling of being connected to nature and the larger world—a feeling that hasn’t left me. The Galápagos is one of the most special, unique places on earth, which is why I was inspired to share it with readers through the setting of Shipped.

Pictures by Angie Hockman

Henley Evans, your ambitious heroine, delights at sighting a giant tortoise in the wild. In your ‘acknowledgments’ section you talk about the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galápagos National Park Directorate’s Tortoise Breeding Center. Can you tell us a little more about this?

The story of Galápagos is (sadly) one of destruction: early sailors hunted the famed giant tortoises to near-extinction. But the story is also one of immense hope. Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station—along with nonprofits, government leaders, the Galapagos National Park Directorate, and community members have undertaken extraordinary efforts to preserve native and endemic species like the Galápagos giant tortoise, and it’s because of these efforts that you can find giant tortoises thriving in the wild on certain islands today. It’s an inspiring example of what a tangible, positive impact people can make when we choose to take action.

Shipped is set aboard a cruise liner (Seaquest Adventures). As Henley finds herself falling in love with her new (and often challenging) environment, she makes a powerful decision to try and take the company in a different direction: eco-tourism. This may still be a new idea to many travellers. What is eco-tourism and how does it benefit our planet?

Eco-tourism is travel, most often to wild or remote places, that promotes responsible exploration and conservation of the natural world. The travel industry on the whole gets a bad rap (for good reason!) for its negative impacts on the environment. But travel can be done sustainably and responsibly, and there are eco-tourism companies out there leading the way. Lindblad Expeditions (the inspiration behind my fictional cruise line in Shipped), for example, is a carbon neutral expedition-cruise company that has been committed to sustainability, responsible travel, and environmental conservation for more than 50 years. So if you want to travel, but also want to do so respectfully and sustainably while contributing to preservation of the environment, choose eco-tourism!

In Shipped, Henley and Graeme battle with the expectations and stresses of everyday life. Yet their priorities change as they find themselves falling for the beauty of the Galápagos and each other. As an author, and having researched the environmental work that takes place on the islands, what effect has this had on you in today’s world?

Learning about the incredible conservation work in the Galápagos—and witnessing its successes first-hand—has made me more hopeful for the future. I think it’s easy to get sucked into the endlessly bleak news cycles of devastation and destruction, but the fact is that the future of the planet rests in the hands of people. We can have a better tomorrow…if we choose. Even seemingly small, everyday choices like reducing single-use plastic consumption, recycling, and opting for sustainable goods and services (and voting in elections!) can add up to making a big difference if enough people join in. And that’s a very hopeful, empowering thing.

Conservation efforts are clearly dear to your heart, and this shows throughout Shipped.  Do you have any more adventures lined up for Henley or are you working on something new?

I’m currently working on something completely new! My next romantic comedy, Dream On, is coming out from Gallery Books in summer 2022, and follows a woman who wakes up from a coma with memories of a picture-perfect boyfriend who isn’t real, only to meet him months later. This one takes place in Cleveland, Ohio, so quite a bit closer to home than the Galápagos! After Dream On though, I would love to return to the world of Shipped—if not in a sequel, then perhaps in a standalone rom-com set in another wild, remote part of the world…stay tuned!

Authors are always looking for new and exciting ways to highlight conservation and climate issues, often taking us on adventures spanning all four corners of the world. Yet what about the earth beneath our feet? This still remains uncharted territory.  Whilst Shipped takes place on a cruise liner, my upcoming novel, Train by Angela Kecojevic, uses another form of popular travel to raise awareness on climate change.

Inspired by Jules Verne’s 1884 classic novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I wanted to explore a frozen planet, often referred to as a ‘snowball’ planet. The idea that Earth’s core could be habitable led me to the creation of a high speed train that would break through Earth’s crust and explore its depths.

Train focuses on a group of international teenagers summoned to the only remaining train station in the world: Station X. Here, they must train for survival. Their mission: to fix a dying planet. Their destination: the centre of the earth. Train will be published by the Untold Group later this year.

Angie Hockman is a RWA Golden Heart Award® winner. Her professional background includes stints in law, education, and eco-tourism, but these days you can find her writing romantic stories, enjoying the outdoors with her family, or dreaming of her next travel adventure. She lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband, young son, two cats, and one ornery golden retriever.

Angela Kecojevic is the author behind award-winning adventure park Hobbledown in Surrey. Two YA novels are upcoming with the Untold Publishing Group, including Train and Arc. She has also written ‘The Laughing Shepherd’ (OUP 2020) for the Oxford Reading Tree programme. She lives with her family in Oxford, working as a school librarian.


Climate Change in the News

Why oil giants are swapping oil rigs for offshore windfarms [The Guardian]

Here’s how to talk with your kids about climate anxiety [Grist]

PhD opportunity to produce a commercially credible TV drama script, working with themes from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals  [BBC Writers Room]

Renewable Energy Had a Record-Setting Year Despite… All This [Gizmodo]

I Was a Climate Change Denier – This Is Why I Changed My Mind [Vice]

A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids [NY Times]

What is a billionaire’s role in saving the planet? [Grist]

The Climate Fiction Writers League is still looking for volunteers: a graphic designer and a curriculum developer! Check out our opportunities at Jointly Earth.

Journalism inspiring Fiction

by Joanne O’Connell

My debut novel, Beauty and the Bin was partly inspired by my food journalism, particularly by a column I wrote for the Guardian, about giving up supermarkets.   

For twelve months, I whizzed nettles into pesto, baked my own bread, grew vegetables, and stocked up on everything from chilli flakes to tomato ketchup at my local independents. At first, it was about saving money (it was for the consumer affairs section of the paper) but alongside the savings (£2,000 in a year, by the way!) it allowed me to explore how to live and eat in ways that protect the planet.  

It led to so many inspiring conversations, with people like eco chef Tom Hunt, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage, and expert forager Fiona Bird. I ate seaweed spaghetti on a Scottish Island, drank velvety smooth chocolate with a chocolatier in London, and learnt about everything from hydroponics to how much perfectly edible food gets wasted each year. And I didn’t just write about this stuff, the point of the column was to live it. So, my sourdough starter bubbled on the kitchen worktop, peas grew up the garden fence and the windowsills of my house became a blur of leafy salad greens (much of which ended up in Beauty and the Bin). 

Once the column was over, I carried on writing for the Guardian sustainable team, and begun to research my non-fiction food history book: The Homemade Vegan – which led me to connect with lots of climate pioneers all over the world.  

As a journalist and a non-fiction writer, you interview so many people. You’re looking for the real reasons behind what they say and do, and the privilege of the job is that it allows you an access to others from politicians to pop stars to the people eating surplus food from the supermarket bins.  But there are things you can’t say easily in journalism. You can report what people do or say but you can’t say for sure what they’re thinking. Plus, there’s a formula, which you must write to, there are fact checks and fast-paced deadlines.  

The more I thought about my writing, the more I realised there are things that novelists can say that journalists can’t. That sounds so basic! But this was my process. I knew I wanted to write a truthful, honest book about that awkward tug between family and friends when you’re just trying to find your place in the world. So, I wondered if writing a novel for children was also a great way to share what I’d learnt about food, and climate-friendly ways of eating – a new way of writing the story. And I knew I wanted the story to be a fun, light-hearted, magazine-style read, which could inspire a reader or two (fingers crossed) but which didn’t heap pressure on younger generations or worry them. 

But it wasn’t really until the final edit of the book that I realised how much the story had been influenced by my journalism work. The characters in Beauty and the Bin are nearly always either eating or putting food on their faces or feet; the family lives in a hydroponic growing farm, where Laurie, the main character, makes her plant-based beauty products from surplus food. And while I did of course know the idea for this book had sprung from my journalism and love of food, even I was surprised to discover that the word chocolate appears 91 times.  

‘You have two choices, Laurie. You can either get some food out of the bins to take to the party or you can get back into the car and sulk.’

Laurie got back into the car and sulked.

Unconcerned, her mum picked up the bags. ‘Come on, Fern,’ she said to Laurie’s little sister. ‘Last night’s rubbish should still be in the containers. We’re looking for bagels, salad, strawberries . . .’

‘Can I get into the actual bin?’ asked Fern, jumping up and down on the spot. Her bracelets, home-made from bottle tops, jangled loudly. ‘Like properly inside it? And throw things over to you?’

‘But you’re the lookout,’ said Mum. ‘What if the manager comes out and you don’t give me the signal in time?’

Laurie pulled her cardigan around her. Normal people, she thought, don’t slip around the back of supermarkets and take things out of the bins for free. She stared out of the window. It was nearly seven o’clock on a Saturday evening and the car park was busy. Shoppers were going through the shiny doors, into the brightly lit aisles to pay for groceries.

Her eyes rested on a girl and her mum – both dressed in this season’s statement jeans – who were trying to prise a trolley out of the rack. The mum kept tugging on the handles and then throwing her arms up, panto-style. Laurie couldn’t see the girl’s face but she was tossing her blonde ponytail.

She’s probably laughing, thought Laurie. Like I’d be, if I hadn’t been asked to climb into a bin and splatter myself with yogurt, custard and hummus. 

You can find out more about Beauty and the Bin here.

Joanne O’Connell is a journalist whose inspiration sprang from a year-long column she wrote for the Guardian called ‘Goodbye Supermarkets’, during which she met food waste campaigners, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and eco-chef Tom Hunt, and presented a short video about taking her children foraging on a Scottish Island. She has written for The Observer, The Times, The Daily Express, The Independent and various glossy magazines, and is the author of The Homemade Vegan, published in 2016. She occasionally appears on television and radio, most recently on BBC Breakfast and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

James Bradley talks about Ghost Species

James Bradley, author of the critically acclaimed climate fiction novel Clade, is publishing a new adult science fiction novel this week in the UK, Ghost Species. Lauren James talks to him about his career in climate fiction.

Tell us about Ghost Species.

Ghost Species begins with the creation of a Neanderthal child as part of a secret project in the Tasmanian wilderness, and then imagines the childhood and adolescence of the child – Eve – against the backdrop of hastening climate collapse. It’s about extinction and de-extinction, the boundaries between the human and the non-human, and what love means in the face of impossible grief.

How are the climate politics/science in this book different from your first climate fiction title, Clade, which was published 5 years ago? What drew you back to the topic?

In a lot of ways Ghost Species is a companion book to Clade, and shares many of its concerns. But it’s also a more intimate book, and in a lot of ways, both more despairing and more focussed on what it will take to survive coming decades and what that survival might mean. That’s partly because a result of what was going on in my life while I was writing it – I began it just after my father died, and my mother died just before it was published – but it’s also because I think the tenor of the conversation around the climate crisis has changed over recent years, and the knowledge we’re careening towards catastrophe has become harder to avoid. So in one sense the book is very much about that sense of imminent disaster, about trying to give shape to ideas of collapse and catastrophe and inevitability, and what it might be like to live through that. But it’s also about the bonds of love and care and communality that sustain us, the questions of justice that underpin them, and what we need to hold onto to survive in the world that’s bearing down on us.

What kind of research did you do when writing it, beyond knowledge you already had? How do you keep up to date on the latest climate news – do you subscribe to any specific media sources?

I suppose that like a lot of people who are interested in environmental questions I spend a lot of time reading news reports and articles in newspapers that take climate issues seriously, but because I write so much non-fiction I also often find myself talking to scientists  about their work (which is always a wonderful experience) and reading more technical material in scientific journals and various official reports. That tends to be a bit brain-breaking (and always makes me wish I had some formal scientific training) but it really does force you to get to grips with the research.

Obviously some of that sort of research went into Ghost Species – I read a lot about Neanderthals, for instance – but I always treat the science as a starting point rather than a straitjacket. That’s partly because I don’t think it’s what readers are there for – certainly in Ghost Species the de-extinction stuff is deliberately very lightly sketched – but it’s also because I don’t think fiction’s function is to lecture or educate, it’s to create worlds and ways of seeing and understanding. For me that usually means creating a version of the future that feels plausible, but isn’t necessarily entirely constrained by the facts (in Ghost Species, for instance, there’s an ice sheet collapse, but it happens much faster than that’s likely to be in the real world). And it also means I think there’s a place for work that inhabits every point on the spectrum between rigorous scientific accuracy and complete fantasy; what matters to me isn’t accuracy, it’s that the work feels real and true and necessary.

That said, one of the things I find most disturbing about writing in the climate space is the sense that reality keeps outpacing your predictions. The final chapter of Clade depends upon something that was pure science fiction at the time I wrote it, but has since begun to happen. Likewise Ghost Species is full of fire, and smoke, and I ended up editing it in a city choked with smoke from the bushfires last summer. That collapsing of present and future, reality and imagination is extremely unsettling and uncanny.

Ghost Species includes a lot of high-concept elements like resurrecting Neanderthals, as well as being set in a future time facing the climate crisis. Do you see the representation of climate trauma as an essential element of any book set in the near-future?

Absolutely. One of the things I very much wanted Ghost Species to do was to capture something of the sense of trauma and dislocation that’s so much a part of the experience of being alive right now. In order to do that I tried to write in a way that erased the boundary between me and the work, and between the work and the world, so it made the experience of environmental and social breakdown tangible. That meant processing a lot of very personal and very intimate stuff straight into the text, but it also let me make a whole lot of connections between very personal forms of grief and larger, more planetary forms of grief.

Are there any elements of the climate issue which you rarely see represented in the climate fiction you read, which you’d love to see discussed more?

I often worry about the fact writing about climate skews so White, Western and middle-class, especially when the worst impacts of climate crisis are going to be felt by poor people and people of colour. The solution to that is greater diversity at every level of the process, but we need to be reading more work by Indigenous writers, and writers from communities in the Global South and elsewhere who are on the forefront of both climate change and the fight against the forces driving it. I also want to see more work that inhabits the lived reality of climate crisis, and the way it touches our lives already, rather than treating it as a specific subject to be tackled: we’re way past the point where it should be regarded a trope or a genre; instead it’s a tangible condition, like modernity, and should be part of everything we write and think.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“For months now the news has been about West Antarctica, the possibility the ice sheet has reached a critical point, but as she calls up the news she sees the story has moved rapidly in the hours she has been away, and the sheet really is collapsing. And when she sleeps she dreams of shifting ice, the yaw and tectonic creak of it, the way it slithers down into the waiting ocean, dark as grief.”

Can you talk a little about the differences between your climate fiction and non-fiction? How do you personally feel about the formats – and are you trying to achieve different things with them both? What message do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I think like a lot of people who write both fiction and non-fiction, the two processes are interconnected, so I often use non-fiction as a way to think through questions or ideas connected to the fiction I’m writing. But they’re also very different processes, and seem to me to come from quite different places. For me at least, fiction is a very intuitive process, a way of capturing and communicating emotion and certain kinds of awareness that aren’t easily expressed in other ways, and of making various sorts of connections. As a result it’s perfectly suited to capturing the feeling of being alive right now, the weirdness and dissonance and confusion of our moment, and of helping us approach and process grief and trauma.

Good non-fiction can do some of that as well, but it’s also better at argument and ideas and, because the timelines are so much shorter, tends to be more immediate in its concerns. For me that immediacy is definitely part of the appeal of non-fiction, because it allows you to actually intervene, by bringing some information or perspective to people in a very direct way. Write well about the plight of the oceans, or about the need to accept the reality of climate change, or the inner lives of fish, or Australia’s lost oyster reefs, and there’s a chance you might actually change people’s perspectives or behaviours. Obviously fiction can do those things as well, but it works differently, and at deeper levels, so its results are often slower and less tangible. But that’s also its strength, because it shows us things we can’t see any other way, and alters us in ways we can’t predict.

James Bradley is the author of four novels: the critically acclaimed climate change narrative, Clade (Hamish Hamilton 2015), The Resurrectionist (Picador 2006), which explores the murky world of underground anatomists in Victorian England and was featured as one of Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008; The Deep Field (Sceptre 1999), which is set in the near future and tells the story of a love affair between a photographer and a blind palaeontologist; and Wrack (Vintage 1997) about the search for a semi-mythical Portuguese wreck. He has also written a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, the novella, Beauty’s Sister, and edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean and Blur, a collection of stories by young Australian writers.

The History of Dystopia by Jamie Mollart

Dystopian fiction in its current form has been around for a long time. It’s been a prominent escape route from our daily life and has been a reflection of our collective fears and concerns for a couple of hundred years.

Since the events of 2020, and now 2021, have begun to make it look as if we’re actually living in a Dystopia, I’ve begun questioning what the place of Dystopian fiction is in our consciousness and whether it’s possible to cover new ground in a genre that increasingly looks like a mirror to the world, rather than a flight of fantasy.

I have a vested interest to declare here. I have a Dystopian fiction novel due to be published this summer, Kings of a Dead World, and as I’ve gone through the editing process it’s seemed more and more horribly prescient.

To understand Dystopian fiction, we need to understand its roots. Utopia, the perfect state, came before Dystopia, Sir Thomas More invented the term in 1516 and it took us quite a long time to come up with the flipside. We had to look forward to imagine a good future before our pessimism could imagine it’s opposite.

Dystopia literally means ‘unhappy country’ and was born purely to be the negative reflection of Utopia. The first recorded public usage of the word was in the House of Commons in 1868, when John Stuart Mill said, ‘it is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians.

The truth is people like the black and white of extremes, think right back to the Garden of Eden and Hell, so we needed to build a Utopia in order to define a Dystopia.

It was, however, authors who took control of the word and rooted it in our lexicon. Jack London’s Iron Heel’ and Yevgeny Zamyatins ‘We’ were front runners and there’s no coincidence that they book-ended the First World War.

Dystopian fiction is almost always fired by global events – World Wars, Pandemics, the War on Terror –  all of them have seen a boom in popularity of stories about the end of the world.

So, what is it that makes people enjoy Dystopia from a psychological point of view?

Some of it can be put down to simple Schadenfreude; the sense of taking pleasure from other people’s misfortune. In a very unpleasant, basic way human beings are wired to find satisfaction in other people’s problems, if it’s happening to them it’s not happening to us.

But we also have a morbid fascination in disaster. We see it in the slowing of traffic on a motorway to view a crash, in the obsession with reality TV shows and in the obsessive hitting of the refresh button on news about Covid-19. It’s a kind of group rubbernecking, and if it’s at a distance and removed we can observe it and take lessons without suffering the pain.

There’s no doubt people like to psychologically prepare for real disasters by taking a dry run and Dystopian fiction plays into this beautifully. It acts as a dress rehearsal for potential horrors.

We live in a world, which pandemic excluded, is the safest it’s ever been. Max Roser, an economist at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University says “We live in a much more peaceful and inclusive world than our ancestors of the past. The news is very much focused on singular events. All of these trends that I’m looking at are slow changes that happen over decades, or sometimes even centuries. These developments never have a ‘now’ moment that would make them interesting for news that is following current events.’

Murder rates are down globally, poverty is down globally, there is more readily available democracy than ever before, people are working less hard than ever before, there is more economic success and education than at any point in our history, technological advances are happening at an unprecedented rate.

And yet all of this comes at a price.

For a lot of people, myself included, awareness of the Climate Crisis is a constant chatter in their subconscious, and with it a sense of an impending reckoning where we will be faced with the consequences of the way we’ve played fast and loose with the world.

One of the problems with understanding Climate Change is that it can easily be seen as an issue that is too big for one person to have an impact on and so a modern Dystopia serves as a clean slate, wiping away everything that we’ve done to the world without having to imagine the steps in between. It is a shorthand way of jumping to the end of the story and enabling us to consider consequences without having to live through the horror that will get us there.

Equally an imagined Dystopian world can help us cope with a perceived stressful reality in the same way that horror movies do. It enables us to explore our worst fears in a way that isn’t immediately threatening, and this is exciting. It engages our fight and flight mechanism, kicks in the adrenaline, but in a controlled way. We can walk away from it safely and then consider what we’ve seen. It’s part of our way of coping with the rigours of the world.

Because we’re human beings though, forewarned is not always forearmed. We have a collective self destructive nature, an ability to ignore the bigger picture, and politically we work in a cyclical nature, you just need to look at American President’s approach to climate change to see this on a relatively short time scale.

Writing in the Guardian, Obama said ‘During the course of my presidency, I made climate change a top priority, because I believe that, for all the challenges that we face, this is the one that will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than the others. No nation, whether it’s large or small, rich or poor, will be immune from the impacts of climate change. We are already experiencing it in America, where some cities are seeing floods on sunny days, where wildfire seasons are longer and more dangerous, where in our arctic state, Alaska, we’re seeing rapidly eroding shorelines, and glaciers receding at a pace unseen in modern times.’

Trump’s attitude to Climate Change is the opposite, at once extreme and startling: “Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee – I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” and “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Then, four years later I’m writing this as Biden is about to be inaugurated, and the news is reporting that he will undo up to 17 of Trump’s executive orders on day one of his presidency.

According to Paul Bledsoe, climate adviser to Bill Clinton’s White House, “Day one, Biden will rejoin Paris, regulate methane emissions and continue taking many other aggressive executive climate actions in the opening days and weeks of his presidency.’

There’s a microcosm of human behaviour here playing out in the role of the leader of the world’s biggest polluter. Human attitudes change in a cyclical nature and Dystopian fiction by necessity changes with them. In its role to discuss our worst fears it changes along with the geopolitical and socio economic landscape it reflects.

Here and now in 2021 we’re faced with the worst health crisis in a century, huge swathes of the globe are in lockdown, hospitals are filling up and economic disaster is piling up around the world. To all intents and purposes we feel like we could be living out the plot of a Dystopian novel. If anyone has watched Twelve Monkeys recently it suddenly doesn’t seem so fantastical. What has personally surprised me is that even in the midst of all this horror, our desire to delve into Dystopia hasn’t waned. For weeks at the start of the first lockdown Outbreak was trending on Netflix.

If Dystopian fiction is a mirror to our current concerns and a practice run for imagined horrors, then Covid-19 has served to bring our long standing relationship with the genre into sharp focus. Waterstones have reported a surge of sales of The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and Brave New World during lockdown, whilst online sales of Stephen King’s The Stand increased by 163% in the first week of March last year.

So are we living in a Dystopia now? The answer is no and the reason being a subtle but important distinction.

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Margaret Attwood, the grand dame of modern Dystopia and author of The Handmaid’s Tale, said “a Dystopia, technically, is an arranged unpleasant society that you don’t want to be living in. This one was not arranged. So people may be making arrangements that aren’t too pleasant, but it’s not a deliberate totalitarianism. It’s not a deliberate arrangement.”

What we are doing though is living through a time when we are as close in living memory to something that reminds us of the potential of Dystopian fiction and this affects us on a deep level.

The last living UK veteran of World War 1 died in 2009, The Spanish Flu and World War 2 will soon be out of living memory, Covid-19 is a worldwide trauma which is forcing us to look again at our collective fears, and with that comes a desire to delve back into Dystopia.

Speaking more broadly you have to ask is Covid-19 going to help us learn our lessons and lead to a more Utopian culture?

I truly hope so, but history tells us this hope is unfortunately probably unfounded. As discussed, Dystopia is a mirror to our fears, so it will always hold an important place in our culture until we agree on Utopia. (An aim which appears contrary to human nature.)

Dystopia holds a unique position in the literary canon because it speaks to us on a primal level and answers deep needs within the human psyche.

As the challenges the human race faces change so too will the Dystopian fiction that it consumes.

And this is why it will always be relevant. Until we fix the flaws in our species’s nature there will always be new ground for Dystopian fiction to cover.

Category: Dystopia, Science Fiction

Published by Sandstone Press (June 2021)

Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart

The Earth’s resources are dwindling. The solution is The Sleep: periods of hibernation imposed on those who remain with only a Janitor to watch over the sleepers. In the sleeping city, elderly Ben struggles with his limited waking time and the disease which is stealing his wife from him. Outside, lonely Janitor Peruzzi craves the family he never knew. Around them both, dissatisfaction is growing. The city is about to wake.

Jamie Mollart

Jamie Mollart runs his own advertising company, and has won awards for marketing. Over the years he has been widely published in magazines, been a guest on some well-respected podcasts and blogs, and Patrick Neate called him ‘quite a writer’ on the Book Slam podcast. He is married and lives in Leicestershire with his family. His debut novel, The Zoo, was on the Amazon Rising Stars 2015 list. His second novel, Kings of a Dead World will be published on June 10 2021.

Climate News

Are you an educator, blogger or graphic designer? Would you like to get involved in climate activism as an online volunteer? The Climate Fiction Writers League is working with Jointly Earth to find activists who can volunteer some time to help the group develop further into a resource for teachers and librarians. If you would have a few hours to spare, you can help us with Outreach, Graphic and Web Design and Curriculum Development. There are lots of other opportunities on the website to work with other environmental groups if none of those are a fit for you.

How Biden is reversing Trump’s assault on the environment [The Guardian]

Waiting to Address Climate Change Will Cost Trillions of Dollars [Gizmodo]

The Shift Toward Clean Cars [NY Times]

How to spot the tricks Big Oil uses to subvert action on climate change [Vox]

League member Laura Lam and University of Edinburgh evolutionary biologist Sinead Collins have launched C.Y.O.TOPIA, or Choose Your Own Topia, a YouTube series that investigates two different approaches to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to build these two versions of a future, and discover what we can do collectively to bring about a better world.

An extract from new book The New Climate War, where scientist Michael Mann explores the concept of ‘soft doomism’ and how it threatens vital action [Crikey]

League founder Lauren James talks about her new Middle Grade release The Deep-Sea Duke

The Climate Fiction Writers League was created and run by Lauren James. This week her new novella The Deep-Sea Duke is published by Barrington Stoke.

Tell us about your new book.

The Deep-Sea Duke is a sci-fi novella set on an alien planet. It’s aimed at struggling readers (age 8+). The story follows a pompous amphibian Duke Dorian as he takes his best friends – a living volcano and a servant-class android – to meet his parents.

How does climate change play into the plot?

Dorian’s parents happen to be the monarchs of a water planet (think: space mermaids!), which is currently struggling to find housing for an influx of climate refugees. A race of butterflies have made their planet uninhabitable by burning fossil fuels, so they had to leave the hot planet. Dorian’s parents have to find habitats for them.

What kind of research did you do when writing it?

I read a lot of books about climate change as research for this novella and my upcoming climate thriller, Green Rising. I also subscribed to email newsletters like Heated, Lights Out , and Green Light by The Guardian to make sure I was getting up-to-the-minute climate news.

What approach did you take to talking about complicated topics, either political or scientific, for younger readers?

It’s all about character – as long as readers can see the effects of a difficult topic on someone they care about (whether that’s a human, animal, alien or robot!) then they’ll understand the importance. Empathy is a really powerful force in creating change.

So many of the climate fiction books I read focus on the effect that individuals can have on the planet, with the message that we all need to be more responsible, greener consumers. I wanted to look at how industry and businesses are causing pollution, to make it clear to my young, scared readers that it’s not their responsibility to fix climate change. No amount of careful consumption can fix an industry-wide problem.

What are some of your favourite books about climate change? (fictional or non-fiction!)

The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climateby Naomi Klein

Can you remember when your journey with environmental activism started?

I studied Chemistry and Physics at university, so I’ve been studying the science of climate change for many years. It’s incredibly frustrating that I was taught the science of the greenhouse effect and the proposed solutions over a decade ago, and yet we’re still no further along in fixing it.

Why is it so important for you personally to see the environment discussed in fiction?

I’m most interested in seeing the politics of climate change discussed. Everyone is aware of the science, but I’m not sure that everyone understands the details of oil companies’ campaign of science denial, or the other political events which have slowed down the efforts to counteract climate change.

Can you share a quote from the book that you hope will resonate with readers?

“Climate change, I’m afraid. They’ve been using those motorised penny farthing bicycles for centuries now. It burnt up all the fossil fuels they dug up from the ground. It released chemicals into the air that changed the atmosphere of their planet. It has been raising the temperature for decades, but they just ignored the problem. This summer, the planet got so hot that wild fires started breaking out everywhere. Global warming has turned it into a desert wasteland.”

Dorian winced. “Oh dear. They’ve had to evacuate?”

What message do you want readers to take away from The Deep-Sea Duke?

The carbon emissions responsible for climate change are largely caused by industry, and can only be reduced through government action. However, if you’d like to make lifestyle changes to help limit your individual emissions, here are the most effective changes you can make. Some of these will take many decades to achieve, but long-term societal changes are the only way we can tackle this problem.

  • Vote in all political elections you are able to, and make sure your representatives are aware that your vote is based on their climate policy views
  • Replace garden lawns with wildflower meadows
  • Switch to LED lightbulbs
  • Don’t fly – and pay for carbon offsetting for any flights you are required to take
  • Make sure your savings and pensions schemes are not invested in companies contributing to climate change. Ask your company to divest from their harmful default options
  • Avoid eating beef, and transition to dairy alternatives
  • Buy in-season food, grown locally (avoiding hot-house produce grown out of season)
  • Change to a renewable energy utility supplier
  • Buy electric cars – but only once your current car is absolutely unable to be fixed. Keep current cars on the road for as long as possible, to keep manufacturing emissions low
  • Install solar panels or solar roof tiles
  • Air dry clothing instead of tumble drying
  • Avoid disposable, cheap fashion and invest in long-term, quality pieces that can be worn for many years

And, of course, plant trees wherever you can. They truly are the lungs of our planet. Depleted forests, savannahs, peatlands, mangroves and wetlands have the ability to grow back quickly, but we need to give them the opportunity to do that. 

Lauren James (founder)

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the End of the World, among others.

Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide, been translated into five languages and shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award.

Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She teaches creative writing for many organisations, including Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

Lauren is currently working on Green Rising, a Young Adult climate change thriller about nature, geoengineering and civil disobedience in the face of overwhelming corporate negligence, which will be published in 2021 with Walker Books.

The Deep-Sea Duke by Lauren James

When Hugo and Ada travel to their friend Dorian’s planet for the holidays, android Hugo is anxious about being accepted by Dorian’s powerful family. But when they arrive on Hydrox, there are more pressing things to worry about, as the planet has been overrun by refugee butterflies. Displaced from their home by climate change, the butterflies have been offered sanctuary by Dorian’s parents, but they’re quickly running out of space. Meanwhile, beneath the seas, a strange creature is wreaking all kinds of havoc …
Can Hugo, Dorian and Ada step in before the crisis gets out of control?

The sequel to The Starlight Watchmaker is particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers aged 12+. 

Categories: Science Fiction, Dyslexia-friendly, Romance, Scavenger hunt

Published by Barrington Stoke (out now)