What is Thrutopia with Denise Baden, part 1
What is Thrutopia with Denise Baden, part 1 – How To Write the Future podcast, episode 74
“First, it’s about imagination. What can we imagine better? And then it’s about, well, how can we change our incentive systems? How can we change our systems with policies, different incentives?” – Beth Barany
In this episode of “How To Write The Future” podcast, “What is Thrutopia with Denise Baden, part 1,” host Beth Barany discusses with Denise Baden, a professor of sustainable practice and Thrutopia writer, what Thrutopia stories are, the research behind her eco rom-com Habitat Man, and how she’s raising awareness for the future of climate change.
RESOURCES for What is Thrutopia with Denise Baden, part 1
Thinking in Systems – Donella Meadows – https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Primer-Donella-Meadows/dp/1603580557/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1701383919&sr=1-1
Free World Building Workbook for Fiction Writers: https://writersfunzone.com/blog/world-building-resources/
Sign up for the 30-minute Story Success Clinic with Beth Barany: https://writersfunzone.com/blog/story-success-clinic/
Get support for your fiction writing by a novelist and writing teacher and coach. Schedule an exploratory call here and see if Beth can support you today: https://writersfunzone.com/blog/discovery-call/
About the How To Write the Future podcast
The *How To Write The Future* podcast is for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to write positive futures and successfully bring those stories out into the marketplace. Hosted by Beth Barany, science fiction novelist and creativity coach for writers. We cover tips for fiction writers. This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.
This podcast is for you if you have questions like:
– How do I create a believable world for my science fiction story?
– How do figure what’s not working if my story feels flat?
– How do I make my story more interesting and alive?
This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.
About Denise Baden
Denise Baden is a Professor of Sustainable Practice at the University of Southampton, UK. She has published widely in the academic realm and also in fiction. Her eco-themed rom-com ‘Habitat Man’ was published in 2021, followed by ‘the Assassin’ and ‘No More Fairy Tales: Stories to Save the Planet’ in 2022. Her most recent research explores the use of storytelling to promote green behaviours, looking at how readers respond to eco-themed stories. In 2018, Denise set up the Green Stories Writing project that challenges writers to embed green solutions in their stories via a series of free writing competitions. These are open to all, and 19 competitions have been run so far, which have resulted in several publications. Denise is listed on the Forbes list of Climate Leaders Changing the Film and TV industry and speaks regularly on how to write for a cause. Free 4-story mini-taster of ‘No More Fairy Tales: Stories to Save Our Planet’ is available here: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/q0t8op70mt.
More about Denise here: https://www.dabaden.com
TRANSCRIPT for episode 74 – What is Thrutopia with Denise Baden, part 1
Hey everyone, welcome to How to Write the Future. I’m Beth Barany, your host, and this is a podcast where we talk about the future for science fiction and fantasy writers, because I believe that when we vision what is possible for all of us, for humanity, we help make it so through our stories.
So I’m really excited to have a special guest with me today, Denise Baden.
Did I say that right?
You did. Yes. Excellent. Yay.
And welcome so much. I’m so glad to have you here.
Thank you for inviting me. Delighted to be here.
I would love for you to introduce yourself a little bit to our audience and, yeah, tell us a little bit about yourself. And then, and I’ll just tell the listeners that, we have a special conversation with you today to talk about specific ways we can put our visions into our stories in a very practical way to help change people’s behaviors.
So yeah, Denise, tell us a little bit about you.
Thanks, Beth. So my name’s Denise Baden. I’m a professor of sustainable practice at the University of Southampton in the UK. And, I have a side hustle as an eco-fiction author. And I guess the reason I got into that is that I worry that I’m in a good position to know all the climate solutions are. It’s my job, but you’re preaching to the choir the whole time.
So very few people read academic articles and only those who already are interested, but there’s a whole world out there. So, that’s one of the reasons I turned to fiction. Plus it’s just much more fun to write than academic articles. And it’s a little bit of writing therapy for me personally, so I just enjoy it.
Yeah. Oh, that’s so wonderful. And I saw that you got on a Forbes list for people who do creative things for highlighting the issues of the environment.
That’s right. I think what it’s called the Forbes is for Climate Leaders in the TV and Film Industry. Yes. ’cause I did some work for BAFTA, which is our version of the Oscars.
And we did a project with them where we wanted to start the conversation about fictional characters and whether they can influence us. And I think it might’ve been part of that that got me put on that Forbes list, but we had a lot of fun with it.
We picked characters like Bond, James Bond, and thought, well, to kill bad guys, he needs to use many planets worth of resources.
He’s got a single-use sports car, Aston Martin. He’s got his walk in wardrobe of luxury suits.
But then you’ve got Jack Reacher who travels by bus, shops in thrift shops, has a much lower carbon footprint. And we had fun with it.
We compared Emily in Paris who needed her own Paris Agreement to manage her wardrobe with Frankie from Grace and Frankie uses vintage clothing.
And we just had a bit of fun with starting that conversation.
Is it still okay to write characters that have excessively high carbon footprints and portray that as aspirational? And it was quite interesting. It’s quite a new conversation, but we found that I think nearly 40 percent of people thought actually they are beginning to notice and think they’re not sure that is as okay it used to be, perhaps.
So that was very interesting.
That is wonderful. Is there any way we can see that footage that you created?
Yeah, sure. I don’t know if it works here, but I can post a link. If you go hashtag climate characters, you’ll see some of the ones we did, Yeah, it was good fun.
Great. We’ll track that down then and put it in our show notes. So you are a professor and what does your research say about what kinds of stories inspire sustainable behaviors?
Well, it’s counterintuitive actually, because most climate fiction writers I know think that you really have to write catastrophe-based stories, dystopias, And the idea is that if you tell people what terrible things will happen unless we take action, then they’ll be scared into doing the right thing: writing to their politicians, giving up flying, eating beef, you know, that kind of thing.
Actually, my research showed the opposite. My research showed that I’ve done it in a number of fields. I’ve done it in journalism, like news stories. Positive solution focused news stories versus your typical catastrophe ones.
I’ve done it in the field of education, positive role models, and cautionary tales. But relevant to writers is the one I did where I exposed people to four short stories and with a green theme, a climate theme. Two were catastrophe based and two were solution-focused. And I found that with the more negative ones, some people were inspired and thought, yep, that made me realize something needs to be done, but just as many switched off absolutely, went into denial, avoidance, felt manipulated, felt guilty, felt scared.
So it could be counterproductive. With a solution-focused ones, no one did it. So you’d get comments like, “This made me realize what I could do. I could see now that I could do this.”
Whereas the negative ones, even if they did inspire awareness, it was more like something should be done rather than I will do it.
So mostly it seemed to give rise to kind of passive despair.
And I worry cause I’ve replicated those results in so many ways in so many contexts, but still, almost all our climate communications is trying to scare people into action. And I worry that it’s giving rise to a lot of eco anxiety. It’s only engaging a small amount of people.
I see it as like revving a car when you’re not in gear. You know, you’re creating a lot of negative energy, but it’s not necessarily going anywhere. And, and actually, my background is psychology and I used to do this stuff into terror management theory. Basically, when people are scared, they don’t necessarily behave the way you’d hope.
So, you might hope that they’ll become more environmentally friendly, but they’re just as likely to buy up all the toilet rolls, get a gun… They’re not necessarily going to engage in the kind of behaviors that are helpful. And I think most people in that field writing that kind of fiction do focus on the problems. And partly it’s because as a writer, conflict is much easier to write, isn’t it?
It’s drama. So it’s not necessarily easy to write very engaging fiction where everything goes right.
But it can be done and it can be done very well, but it’s not the way we’re used to thinking about it.
Yeah. Yeah, well, I thought you demonstrated it beautifully. I started reading your eco rom-com.
Oh, Habitat Man.
Yeah, Habitat Man.
And I really enjoyed it. I had just downloaded a sample to get ready. And then I read your alternative opening in the four short stories, a collection in the sample, and I see what you’re saying.
You had him go from basically despair to being introduced to a solution and being invited to step into his role as Habitat Man.
I liked both of them. I thought it was hilarious, the novel the opening that I read. And then to read an alternate opening that felt like it had closure, like a short story, I was like, wow, yes, this really worked.
And it was also really fun to see you do it two different ways. I thought, oh, what a great exercise.
I’ve done it as a novelist to write scenes where I’m like, what about this? What about that?
Write the scene in one way and then write the scene another way.
So I thought, the positive example that you showed in the sampler, and we’ll be sure to link to that in the show description.
I thought that was wonderful.
I’ve just been oriented towards positive optimistic futures because I’m– I get discouraged by- I don’t read dystopia. I get discouraged by dystopia.
So I’m like, well, how can we write stories that show things in a more positive light just as a matter of course like this is reality?
And that’s what brought me to, well, it’s kind of a circuitous route that got me to Thrutopia in terms of a class that we both took last year.
So, I would love to hear your definition of Thrutopia, because it’s a new term, it’s not dystopia, it’s not utopia, and yet it invites something else,
Yep, sure, just to go back to Habitat Man. I’m so glad you liked it. I do have some research that’s just coming through on that as well. We researched 50 readers, some based in Salt Lake City, some based in the UK. And after they read Habitat Man and we researched, we surveyed them a month afterwards and Habitat Man’s got all kinds of solutions in it.
It’s basically how you can make your own garden wildlife-friendly, but we also talk about low-carbon foods and we got quite a lot of fun subplots. There’s a burial. He digs up a body, so that’s an opportunity to talk about a natural burial.
And, I’ve had quite a few people write to me saying they changed their wills because they didn’t realize that a burial involves putting toxic, ecology-killing chemicals into the ground and hardwood, knocking down rainforests, and they thought that scene was so inspiring.
So we did some research and 98 percent of the readers had adopted at least one green alternative as a result of reading the book. So we’ve got hard proof now that taking a positive approach can work because I skip the alarming statistics almost entirely actually in the book and just move straight to some of the solutions.
And so, yeah, that does lead on to the Thrutopia question. I love that term, don’t you?
Yeah, I do. I do. I really hope that it becomes more widespread.
I think it might. I think it might. So, Utopia is this perfect land, and it actually means “no land” because it doesn’t exist. It’s unrealistic.
And, of course, we know Dystopia.
But Thrutopia, the way I understand it is like you take a vision of a world might look like if we did it right. A sustainable, flourishing society. And then you think what that might look like.
And then you work backwards from there to think how we might get there.
And I think this is such a lovely idea because we have science fiction, as you know. But that focuses very much, I think, on technology and space. And I’m a little worried about the space narrative because I do sometimes worry that you get all these people like wanting to go off from rockets to Mars and abandon this planet and it might divert resources into that. So despite being a bit of a trekkie and inspired by that, I do sometimes worry about that. So I like the idea of what we can do right here and it leads to a different kind of thinking.
So at the moment, you might think, okay, we know we need to switch to renewables. We know we need to move away from fossil fuels, so what might that mean, say, for transport?
So we start where we are. We just try and be a little bit less bad. So we try and maybe do tax, cuts, or tax incentives for electric vehicles.
But is there enough lithium in the world? And then the resources to make an electric vehicle are not marginal. So if you look, what would work to fix society, it would be public transport so brilliant that you wouldn’t even need a private car. It would be electrified buses that come with an app when you call them. And there are these things called on-demand buses.
They’ve been trialed in certain places. And if you get high enough take up the absolutely brilliant, you can get where to be however you need to go very, very quickly.
But the trouble is they’re only going to work on a mass scale with proper investment where people feel confident enough to give up private transport and cities are designed around them.
So certainly in London, no one has a car. I don’t know anyone who lives in London who has a car. Why would you or New York, you know?
So you would just think very differently. And then you think, well, what kind of policies might you need to get us there?
So unlike science fiction, which just focuses on the tech, Thrutopian ideas, I see as more like social science fiction. You think what systemic aspects in our political economy and our culture would take us there.
So, we might, for example, stop measuring success by the gross domestic product, which is basically consumption, isn’t it, and production. We might then switch to a wellbeing index, which some countries have done now. I think Bhutan has the happiness index. New Zealand has trying a wellbeing index.
And then we’re changing the conversation from what’s good to the economy to what’s good for us. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of overlap, but they aren’t the same thing.
The most precious thing at the moment is carbon emissions. Everything should be coming together to reduce them, to pull carbon out the air, and stop pumping it in. So what if we all had our own personal carbon allowance?
So if, for example, you have green transport and you eat mostly vegetarian, you wouldn’t even reach your carbon allowance and you could sell your spare carbon credits to someone who’s gone over. And then you’re incentivizing behavior. Cause at the moment I think, well, why should I give up beef and flying if everyone else is doing what they want?
It won’t make a lot of difference. Just me.
So that kind of thing will be very just, equitable, and transformative. And, it was actually proposed, I think, about 15 years ago in the UK, but it was an idea before its time. We didn’t yet have the carbon footprinting software. We weren’t yet scared enough.
I think UK were probably a little bit ahead of America in terms of awareness and concern over climate change, but you’re catching up.
You might think very differently what kinds of things might change the way we do business, change the incentives within a system. And these in turn would lead to the kind of innovation into more sustainable products and services.
Oh, that’s wonderful. It gets me thinking about the change I want to create in my science fiction story, which is set 100 years in the future. But in my story timeline, the world really did a radical shift around 2060, 2070. I haven’t pinned it down. I’ll pin it down. So the world comes together for radical cleanup reasons that will be revealed in the next book, but then I’m going to take my time over some subsequent books to, in the series, to actually dig into more what actually happened.
So I’m deeply thinking about what systemic issues could cause the world to come together and go: Oh, we need to work together in ways we never have before because of this potential disaster, and it becomes very real too – I want it to feel so real that people change their behavior.
So hearing you talk about this and how change is – First, it’s about imagination. What can we imagine better?
And then it’s about, well, how can we change our incentive systems? How can we change our systems with policies, different incentives?
It reminds me of Donella Meadows book, her primer for systemic change.
That’s great, isn’t it? Yeah.
Yeah. I feel like I could run a whole class or series of classes just to explain the premises, the basic levers of change, as is understood now inside of systems work.
I love the thing she says like everyone seems to understand the key lever is economic growth, but what they don’t realize is it should be slowing it down, not speeding it up.
Because that makes everything go faster. And if we’re on a trajectory, towards runaway climate change, we should be slowing down.
Right. And that’s a hard sell. That’s a hard sell for the powers that be.
That’s why I think another important solution is to look at the way to basically reboot our democracy because at the moment our politicians are incentivized to think short term. We’ve got these electoral cycles. So a policy that isn’t going to pay off until the election cycle further on it’s going to be a hard sell for them, let alone all the vested interests and business lobbying that’s going on.
So I’ve just written a play, Murder in the Citizen’s Jury, which is a fun whodunit, which imagines eight people in a citizen’s jury debating climate solutions, and then there’s a murder.
But actually, the real climate solution here is that process of participative democracy. So it’s like a real jury where you’re informed by experts.
You’re invited just to discuss that topic and you’re a one-issue person turning up, your childcare and work is covered. And and it’s been trialed quite a lot in Europe. And it’s been particularly good for very contested topics that politicians don’t want to go near quite often, like abortion and gay rights. And it’s actually easier if you get the public involved than risking dividing your votes down the middle on these kinds of issues.
There’s been quite a few climate assemblies going on, so I’m using my play as a way to raise awareness because again, the main barrier for citizens assemblies is lack of public awareness, and this is where writing and culture can really, really make a difference, because it can put these ideas out there.
Hey everyone. This is the end of part, one of my interview with Denise.
Stay tuned till next week, where I ask her the question: how do you go about writing stories and scripts that will inspire these new green behaviors and really appeal to the mainstream audience?
So stay tuned. That will be next week’s episode, part two of my conversation with Denise.
And yeah. That’s it.
All right, everyone. That’s it for now.
So write long and prosper.
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ABOUT BETH BARANY
Beth Barany teaches science fiction and fantasy novelists how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, consultant, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.”
Learn more about Beth Barany at these sites:
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