Creatives stitch Climate Solutions into Stories that Bring Everything Alive
Manda Scott talks to Michelle Cook
Michelle Cook: Manda, I’m excited to meet you. I was wondering if Thrutopia was something that you made up, because it isn't a thing that I'd heard of before, even though I suspect I was writing around it.
Manda Scott: Really good to meet, you, too. I loved Tipping Point—really impressed with the way you handled such a complicated subject and kept the action moving in ways that gave us such a clear insight into the politics of your world. I’ve just downloaded Counterpoint, and read your outline and you’re definitely writing around it.
Michelle: Thank you!
Manda: So the short answer is Professor Rupert Read came up with the idea of Thrutopia and he let us use it when we were looking for a name for the new genre we’re trying to create, and the Masterclass we ran last year.
The slightly longer answer is that I genuinely thought I'd stopped writing novels. It just takes too long, particularly in standard traditional publishing—to go from the idea to people actually reading it. Podcasts are so much faster: I can interview someone yesterday and put it out tomorrow and the ideas are out there in the world.
But my spiritual path is shamanic, it’s the core of the Boudica books and so now I also teach the dreaming that’s in the books. I was teaching online in summer 2021 and had a particularly clear instruction to create a space on the hill above the farm and sit there every evening as the sun went down in a particular frame of mind until further notice.
Michelle: Whoa, that sounds really precise.
Manda: Really. And twenty years into teaching this stuff, I have worked out that if you get something this clear, you absolutely do not mess about with dumb questions like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You just do it. So I did—and I was happy to sit on the hill watching the sun go down and crows go to bed in the trees along the river. Though I was thinking by February this is probably not going to be so much fun.
Michelle: Yes! I was thinking that too!
Manda: So, we never got there, because by the end of the first week, I had the idea for the unpublished manuscript that you've started reading (working title: ‘West of the Sunset, North of Tomorrow’). This is my first Thrutopian novel. I’m working on the sequel now.
It starts with a 15-year-old lad sitting by his grandmother's bedside, saying, ‘When you come home, can we go up the hill, watch the crows go to bed?’ And she says, ‘No, this is it. I am dying, you know this. I’m not coming home.’ And in the course of the conversation, he says that he doesn’t want to live in a world with her not in it. She realises he's serious and she promises that if he really needs her and he calls, if it’s at all possible, she’ll answer. Then she dies and all the rest is told from her perspective as she has to honour this promise—and can also have a sense of potential futures, some of which are ones we’d want to get to, and some of which completely aren’t.
Michelle: What a great concept. I’m eight chapters into the advanced copy you kindly gave me. I love it—such beautiful language and ideas. I adore the character of Alanna, she’s a badass grandma! And her relationship with her grandson, Finn, is incredibly moving. I’m wondering how much of herself the author put into Alanna…
Manda: There are bits of me in all my characters—I don’t think we can bring people to life if there isn’t something of us in them. I don’t know you well, but I’d say there’s a lot of you in Essie. If I had to gauge, I think I’m more Finn than I am Alanna but yes, she has aspects of me.
Michelle: Do you still go up the hill now?
Manda: I learned to love it, so yes, occasionally, but I don't have to do it every single night as the sun goes down because the instruction by the end of that first week was to write the book. And the not-arguing thing still applies, but this is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done—far harder than any of the historical novels. Because working out how we could actually get through to a future we’d be proud to leave to our children is really hard.
I realised very quickly that if I hadn't spent the previous two years doing the podcast Accidental Gods, I wouldn't even begin to know the building blocks.
However this book turns out, we need more of this, it can’t just be me: we need every TV show, every movie, every book, every play, every Tik-Tok video…to be exploring how we get out of this mess in ways that work. From dismantling our dysfunctional political system to changing the way the economy works so that it’s in service to people and planet instead of the mess we have now where people and planet are destroyed to feed a growing economy. We need to know the tech that works and the tech that just makes people richer and isn’t part of the solution.
Michelle: Exactly! One of the central themes of my books is the enormous drawback in our attachment of profit to human progress. If something could save us, should it be required to make someone rich as well?
Manda: Yes! And we need so many more people asking this. And so my partner, Faith, and I set up the Thrutopia Masterclass which was designed not to teach people to write—you can get that all over the web—but to give them the ideas of what to write - and to create a cohesive, supportive community that could act as a think tank and an ideas generator and spark a whole new genre.
Michelle: What an inspired idea.
Manda: Well, it all came from the crows on the hill! The course ran from May to October ’22 and one of the first people I contacted was Prof. Rupert Read, asking him to be one of our speakers. He pointed out that we were trying to create Thrutopias, and he sent me the paper that he had published in Huffington Post in 2017 where he defined what a Thrutopia is and why we need it. I asked if we could use the name for our new genre and he was kind enough to say yes, and so here we are.
Michelle: So you’re heading for plausible futures where we heal the damage we’ve already done and work out a new way to live that we can sustain longer than ten minutes?
Manda: Right. The kinds of futures where everyone will imagine it and want to get there because it’s so obviously better than where we are now. We all know how bad it could be: The Handmaid's Tale meets The Road and life is hell forever.
But where you put your energy is where you get to. And our pathetic political leaders just implement what's in the zeitgeist. If we don't create a zeitgeist that has multiple visions of futures that everyone really wants, we’re sunk. We need not just ideas that are going to stop us crashing over the edge of the cliff into four degrees C of warming, but actually things that are better than we have now. And I still think that's possible.
Michelle: Interesting what you say about leaders. I’ve been plagued recently by the idea that our democratic systems only create followers of the crowd, not leaders. And I’m remembering the internet meme where someone is saying, ‘So what happens if we implement all these things and it wasn't going to be as bad as we thought, and we accidentally create a better world?’!
Manda: Yes! But the problem is that the people with the money and the power are afraid to let go. Which means we’re headed to the total extinction of all life on Earth because a handful of mostly old, mostly white, mostly blokes don’t want to give up power. This is what you wrote about in Tipping Point.
Michelle: And they are doing this knowingly. When I was writing Tipping Point, I thought, ‘No one's going to buy this. This is too evil.’ And actually, some of the things that have happened in real life have been way worse than that. I realised I was going to have to dial it up a bit. Obviously, there have been terrible acts in history, but creating a character prepared to see the end of human life for the sake of profit I found quite difficult.
Manda: It’s hard, particularly if we do incorporate a bit of ourselves in everyone we write. We have to find the monster inside. I have a theory that we can do all the factual research we like, and that’s fine, but we can never write beyond our own emotional intelligence. And what’s going to get us through this, is everyone growing in emotional literacy. So paving the way means a lot of internal work.
Michelle: I feel as if I need to understand the destructive mindset to get my head around it. But maybe that's not the point. Maybe we just need all the people who don't understand to get on the same page. Because the ones who are creating the evil are a tiny minority.
Manda: Right. They are the 1% of the 1%. It's just that they have the power to make their voices heard.
Michelle: And we’ll never reach the people who are wholly invested in business as usual, because that's where their power lies. I was doing some change engagement training the other day and they quoted from The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli: ‘…the innovator has for enemies all those who do well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.’ Maybe it’s the lukewarm people in the middle who can make the difference.
Manda: I hope so. Everyone can make a difference – and everyone has to. We don’t really know where the tipping point is, but I think we need at least 25% of people talking to all of their friends with ideas of a better world. That’s everyone who reads this and orders of magnitude more.
Michelle: I’m thinking of the campaign group 38 Degrees. Apparently, 38 degrees is the angle at which an avalanche occurs—a metaphor for the tipping point of change. It just needs a critical mass. We need to craft stories with a positive message and get it onto the right platform. Climate Spring have the same vibe. They're not interested in purely dystopian narratives where everything’s going over a cliff and we end up almost fetishising disaster. On the other hand, where’s the story in utopia? Where’s the conflict? We have to find the stories in how we get there.
Manda: You managed to find one in Tipping Point and Counterpoint, though. The sense of threat is palpable, and the ingenuity of the characters is really striking. I read the outline for Counterpoint and it feels as if it’s heading somewhere generative—a Thrutopian future?
Michelle: Thank you, I tried to hit an optimistic note among the grit. I think I had to create this terrible world to find the story, but I couldn’t leave it there. I had to find a way for us to survive. And then in the second book I confess cheated a little bit, went years further into the future to look back and say, ‘Yeah, it wasn't easy, but we got there and now we do it like this.’ Now I really want to get underneath the building blocks of how you get there. Sounds like that’s Thrutopia. And it sounds like I’ve got some work to do…
I find it weird that amongst everything in mainstream entertainment—books, TV, film— the majority of it doesn't mention climate change at all. Like it’s a minority issue, not something most people worry about. And somebody who's actively trying to make positive change is portrayed as out of step or fanatical. It feels deliberate.
Manda: Because it is. I have a friend who used to write for one of the big UK TV soaps and they used to write in little things like characters taking out recycling and it would be cut out by the subeditors because—and I quote directly—‘Our income depends on people needing to buy a new granite worktop for their kitchen every year, and you cannot undermine that.’
Michelle: That’s so frustrating!
Manda: Isn’t it, just?! Needless to say, my friend doesn’t write for that team anymore. But this is where I got to with writing my book. We live in a culture that is defined by consumption, extraction, destruction, and by a lack of meaning. We don't know what we’re here for at the moment. I get a lot of people coming on courses with the Shamanic dreaming or the Accidental Gods membership who are essentially searching for meaning. Which is really heartening – we need to find what we’re here for individually so that we can shape what we’re here for culturally. Just now, our culture is programmed to consume and thereby destroy, but we have so much potential. When we exert our creativity, grow up and bring the best of ourselves in all our resilience and emotional intelligence to the world, then we’re awe-inspiring in its truest sense.
And we all know we truly weren’t born to pay bills and then die. If we put our minds to it, we can create a regenerative culture we’d be proud to leave to the future generations. It will just require a complete dismantling of the way that our current system works.
Michelle: Sometimes it feels too difficult. Like, how am I going to do this without utterly changing my life? I mean, I recycle; I’ve got an electric car…
Manda: That’s great.
Michelle: But it’s not enough.
Manda: It’s not going to undo the effects of our overshoot, for sure, but it’s a start and it sends the right signals, which at this point matters a lot.
Michelle: What else can we do?
Manda: That’s a whole other conversation, but if we look at it overall, clearly there are things we can do individually, and things we can only do collectively and we each need to be working on both so that we don’t just barrel over the edge of the cliff by default.
And you have to be kind to yourself. I recently heard a Spanish philosopher who said that when you look at your life, if you have less than four internal contradictions, you're a fanatic. If you have more than ten, you're a hypocrite. But somewhere in the middle is fine—you're doing your best. Sounds like you’re well into doing your best!
Michelle: I like his thinking… You’re talking about a huge shift.
Manda: Totally. We have to think big. But we’re not alone. People are already planning for this. Sane governments are already looking at what’s necessary and making it happen.
I think the answers to all of these lie in a simple set of principles. When we get this writing out into the world, everyone will have a slightly different take on exactly how we get from where we are to where we need to be. But the value system underpinning it will be broadly similar. We’ll need a sense of integrity, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt, of assuming good intent unless there’s evidence to the contrary. We’ll need community and ways of making decisions that are more sophisticated than a single vote on complex issues. We’ll need to rediscover our sense of connection to the land and the web of life.
There’s a brilliant book called The Dawn of Everything by Davids Graeber and Wengrow that outlines how so many other highly complex cultures avoided the obvious pitfalls of ours—namely giving power to corrupt psychopaths and letting them set the agenda. David Graeber also wrote, ‘Debt, the First 5,000 Years’ and ‘Bullshit Jobs’ so he was really on top of the insanities in our culture.
Michelle: Rings true. I’m buying The Dawn of Everything immediately. I do worry about our collective disengagement from politics, small p. We enable abuse of power when we stop paying attention to those who wield it. Whether we like it or not, politics will engage with us and determine fundamental aspects of our lives: our health, what we learn (or don’t), how safe we are, the quality of the air we breathe, whether the work we do is considered valuable (or not). It makes no sense to ignore this stuff.
Manda: I love that you get this. So many people are disengaged with politics and don’t realise that genuine engagement could change everything. I just interviewed someone for the podcast who’s created an app that enables quadratic voting on the blockchain and the potential for that to change how things are done is huge. Way too geeky for now, though.
But if we take a step back and look at the system as a whole, in essence, we have created a hell where most people don’t spend their days doing vocational work that feels truly purposeful, they just do whatever they can to stave off starvation or homelessness and even that sometimes isn’t enough. If I were to offer you the chance to find that sweet spot where your heart’s greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need, would you not jump at it?
Michelle: Oh, I wish. I remember feeling intensely sad towards the end of the last lockdown period because, awful as the pandemic was, that was also an opportunity to change course, wasn't it? People didn't want to go back to the grind. And then suddenly you've got Jacob Rees-Mogg telling people they had to be at their desks and it's all about control. I knew it was going to happen. I could see us all trickling back. And the air smelt sour again. For that time where all we were doing was walking around our neighbourhood, the air was sweet.
Manda: The birds were singing…
Michelle: Yes! You could hear it. We are so indoctrinated. Even those of us who want to think outside the box are influenced. This idea that what is happening now is inevitable; that eternal economic growth is a natural law, and there's inevitably going to be inequality. Because it's all about getting ahead of your peers. It’s ingrained. All that nonsense rhetoric about ‘world-beating’ this and that. Why are you doing that? Who's winning the race?
Manda: And who's losing if you're winning it? Why is this set up as a zero sum? We don't have to have this whole society of zero sums that's being imposed on us.
Michelle: Yeah, exactly. The ‘race’ is just considered human nature. How would we ever know if it wasn’t? It's heart-breaking, isn't it?
Manda: But even thinking this means you're a Thrutopian at heart! It's great. So now we just need to find the route to get to there. We need to do the creative thinking and have the alternatives ready, because otherwise people default to what they know. And what they know is violence and retreat into tribalism. Because it’s easier to imagine the total extinction of life on Earth than it is to imagine an end to predatory capitalism.
Michelle: Where do we find the details, though? That’s the bit I’m missing underneath all my big ideas.
Manda: It’s everywhere, honestly, you just need a nudge to get you looking in the right places. Podcasts are amazing. In the last four years since I started the Accidental Gods podcast, there's a whole rash of others in a similar field. Just off the top of my head I’d recommend Nate Hagens, ‘The Great Simplification’ and Nathalie Nahai’s ‘The Hive’ and The Upstream Podcast with Della Duncan, and Rob Hopkins ‘From What if to What Next?’ There are literally hundreds more—I’ll create a list if anyone’s interested—all by super bright people who are really engaging with this.
The thing is, most people are really focussed on their own field: the economy, politics, material flows, regenerative agriculture, urban design…whatever. What we can do as creatives to stitch them together into the stories that bring everything alive, that show how everything works in one holistic way. We have to think systemically and that’s what writing does: it creates whole systems and shows them working. I genuinely believe it's up to us, the writers, to create the visions and show how we got there. Because other people are too busy surviving. And that's not their fault.
Michelle: There is something about the power of stories. It clicked with me a few years ago when I started writing Tipping Point, that you can bash your head against a brick wall trying to convince people. I rant at people all the time, anyone who’ll listen, but building a story, creating somebody who doesn't really exist that they care about is so much more powerful. Engaging with these big ideas emotionally is the best way I can think of to do it.
Manda: And you do it brilliantly. So keep doing it. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again.
Michelle: And right back at you, Manda. I can’t wait to sink back into West of the Sunset’s delicious language…
Manda: Thank you. We should do this again sometime.
Michelle: I would love that! Thanks Manda—I’m feeling super inspired right now.
Michelle Cook lives in Worcestershire, UK, with her husband, their two young children, and a cat called Lyra Belacqua. Her first joyful steps into creative writing were at the age of ten, when the teacher read out her short story in class. A slapstick tale of two talking kangaroos breaking out of a zoo, the work was sadly lost to history. Still, Michelle never forgot the buzz of others enjoying her words. More recently, she has had several flash pieces published, was long-listed for the Cambridge 2020 prize for flash fiction, and placed first in the February 2020 Writers’ Forum competition with her short story The Truth About Cherry House.
Novelist, columnist, blogger, podcaster, broadcaster and red-green activist, Manda Scott's novels have been shortlisted for an Orange Prize, nominated for an Edgar and dived into the endless iterations of TV adaptations. She's currently host of the THRUTOPIA MASTERCLASS which is helping a whole generation of writers to craft plausible, generative, thriving, near-term futures we'd be proud to leave to our children - and map the routes to get there. Her latest novel, A Treachery of Spies weaves a contemporary crime thriller with the courage and heroism of the Special Operations Executive in WW2. She's written a Thrutopian TV series and is working on a Thrutopian novel. Because we have the answers to a flourishing future, we just haven't created the visions that will draw people towards them. When not writing, she is host of the Accidental Gods podcast, and runs a horticultural smallholding, which one day will feed the local community.
In this extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Ruth Hartley shares an extract from Dust and Rain about the re-wilding of agriculture:
I remember what Makemba said to me at the Source of the Great River in the Evergreen Forest.
“Chipo! Can you cry enough tears to end the drought? Think of your brother! Perhaps he needs your help? A river that forgets its source will dry up. A people that forget their roots will not be able to survive.”
I’m looking down on the Great River below me. I can hear the sounds it makes as it flows past. It is talking to me. It tells me that it doesn’t stop doing what a river does. It carries on flowing down to the sea. No river can run backwards. No life can be lived backwards.
When I travelled with the Rain Spirits, they took me all over the world, so I’ve seen the sea. I’ve seen that water is Life. I’ve seen that the river is always the same and always changing. The river that Chibwe, Mokoro and I travelled on has left us and gone on ahead of us to the sea. The river that runs past me now is a different river that knows different people. I’m only one tiny part of the River that is Life. All I can do is be that tiny living part of the River of Life. No matter how much I cry, that is all that I am.
The Great River has spoken to me. I know what I must do. I slip and slide down the bank and walk back to the camp.
Learn more about the World Food Crisis Appeal, helping people in Zambia cope with drought conditions.