Utopia on the radio: climate justice and utopia-related podcasts.

For those times when reading is impractical – chopping vegetables, folding laundry – you can still absorb utopian content through your ears. Have I made that sound appealing? What I mean to say is you can listen to inspiring and funny podcasts about climate justice and the possibility of a better world. Such as these.

Free-Thought Podcast by Shuddhashar

I came to this podcast for an interview with Dr Heather Alberro, an academic working in the area of social and political sciences. Alberro has an interest in green utopianism and the interview discusses the challenges of ‘creating a world that is sustainable and environmentally just’.

Alberro explains with such ease how the good health of economies and the environment are intertwined it makes you wonder how anyone thinks we should have to choose one over the other.

The whole idea behind environmental justice is that these things are very closely intertwined, you can’t have ecological wellbeing and sustainability without guaranteeing social wellbeing, breaking down hierarchies around class, race, gender, access to resources.

Dr Heather Alberro

After the interview with Alberro, I rolled straight into the next episode – an interview with anthropology scholar Avery Delany about decolonisation. I am very intrigued by this podcast series.

Jon Richardson & The Futurenauts

Comedian Jon Richardson, of BBC 6 Music Sunday morning radio show fame (yeah he’s done some telly and stand up since), hosts this podcast with futurists/Futurenauts Ed Gillespie and Mark Stevenson. The structure of each episode on subjects such as food, work, energy and nature is based around two questions. Firstly, how fucked are we? (Invariably, royally.) Secondly, how do we unfuck ourselves?

In series two they consciously invited guests in to break up their all-bloke line up a little. Highlights for me were Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, on the Future of Economics and an episode on the Future of Shit (yes, human faeces) with Rose George. I think about that one every time I flush the toilet, and every time I don’t.

I have to say though I think I preferred the first series. Three people saying stuff I agree with about topics that worry me and making it funny, with some practical ideas too. I found it reassuring and hopeful.

Mothers of Invention

Climate change is a manmade problem with a feminist solution. Boom! Each episode of this podcast features women around the world who are taking action in their communities to change the world for the better. The show invites them to tell their own stories of inventing sustainable solutions to the climate problems they face.

Learning about these womens’ fights for climate justice is inspiring and inspires hope. This is another hugely uplifting podcast about terrifying issues.

The hosts are former Irish president Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins, joined by their producer Thimali Kodikara in series three.

ASLE EcoCast

This is the literary entrant in my list. The ASLE EcoCast is the podcast of the Assocation for the Study of Literature and Environment, an academic society. Each episode the hosts are joined by a different academic working in the areas of literature and the environment.

I have two favourite features of the show. Firstly, host Jemma Deer exploring the etymology of an apposite word like ‘forest’, ‘scene’ or ‘book’ in a poetic kind of way at the start of each episode. Secondly, I like hearing about the guest’s route into academia and whatever specific area of interest they are currently working on. Hearing their way in gives me a way into their work. It also makes me wonder what story I might tell in the future…

Listening to climate justice and utopia podcasts
That’s it folks, happy listening! Let me know your recommendations in the comments or contact me here.

Five top tips for imagining climate fiction utopias

Climate fiction utopias could be enormously important. We all know by now the horrors that await if we carry on as we are. This knowledge can be paralysing and depressing. What we need to envision are alternative ways of being where we are on the right track. We need to believe that alternative futures are possible.

This is where climate fiction utopias come in. I recently participated in a workshop on this subject organised by Green New Deal UK – Bristol and hosted by Sophia Cheng of Cli-Fi For Beginners and Deborah Tomkins of Bristol Climate Writers. The writing prompt was to imagine Bristol in 2040: “Bristol is a city transformed through its citizens’ collective vision and committed action. What do you see?”

What I want to share with you from the workshop isn’t a piece of creative writing, because I didn’t come up with anything (let alone anything good). But I certainly thought a lot about the genre of climate fiction and what a climate fiction utopia needs to do in order to achieve its radical potential.

Keep it radical

If you imagine a near future climate fiction utopia you might think of a family who have solar panels to generate all the electricity they need to power their home and electric car, and who grow their own veg according to organic principles. This seems uncontroversial enough, right? But stop and ask yourself, are they a nuclear family unit living in a privately owned home with a private car? Are they white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender?

What I’ve outlined above isn’t a utopia, it’s an aspirational middle class lifestyle within the already existing status quo. What a climate fiction utopia needs to do is think differently, to be based on a different system of thought, where different ways of living and being are in action, are being enacted. When it does this, it might achieve its radical potential of teaching us to imagine alternative and better ways of being. And, bearing in mind that whatever we want we have to imagine first, if climate fiction utopias can teach us how to imagine better ways of being they can give us hope. Hope that we will end up somewhere other than in climate catastrophe.

With that in mind, these are my five top tips for harnessing the radical potential of climate fiction utopias.

1. Imagine the future, not the present

Here in Bristol, UK in 2021 you can already have organic oat milk delivered to your door, cycle to work and eat local, seasonal food for lunch. Sometimes it’s nice to realise there are choices you can already make to feel better about the future. But to imagine climate fiction utopias, we need to go beyond what already exists.

Climate fiction is a subgenre of science fiction. There should be some sort of novum – a technological or societal innovation that has enabled a significant change in the way we live. And as we’re talking about utopias, it should be something that has brought about a better way of being.

2. Don’t just write a shopping list

In the city of the future maybe you can buy honey made in hives on the roofs of skyscrapers clad in living walls of bee-friendly flowers. Maybe on the high street there’s a weaver’s workshop next door to a tailor and you can commission them to make you bespoke cruelty-free clothes from organic, regional materials. They sound like lovely things to buy. And there’s the rub. This is a dream of buying lovely things. Dreamt by a dreamer who lives in a consumer capitalist society. We need to think of a future that we make, not one that we buy. We need our climate fiction utopias to think beyond capitalism.

3. Climate fiction should be more than marketing for green tech

Scientists and technologists need artists and writers to help communicate the climate emergency. But art is needed for emotional engagement, not advertorials. The greatest power of fiction is not to showcase green tech. Far far far greater is its power to drive change by fostering new ways of thinking.

New types of home insulation might feature in a climate fiction utopia, but featuring a new type of home insulation shouldn’t be the purpose of a climate fiction utopia.

4. Borrow this technique from the genre of utopia

Setting out a new world can involve a lot of exposition. Asking the inhabitants of a climate fiction utopia to volunteer it in private musings or even in conversation with each other can get clunky. People don’t tend to wake up in the morning and think about where their electricity comes from (even if they should), they check their phone and put the kettle on. So if a character in a climate fiction starts the day thinking about how their utilities work this can undermine our belief in the plausibility of the utopia.

Luckily, there’s a tried and tested solution used in literary utopias. Get some sort of guest or visitor in to question what everyone’s up to.

GUEST: Cor it's toasty in here, don't you worry about your gas bill?
UTOPIAN: What? No, no-one's used gas for years, decades now. Here, do you want a cup of tea?
GUEST: Yes please. I suppose it's nuclear?
UTOPIAN: Um, I've got camomile if you want decaff?
GUEST: No the heating, is it nuclear?
UTOPIAN: Er no, it's from the ground source heat pump.

Now you’re seeing why I stick to essays rather than creative writing. Hopefully I’ve not disproved my point that having an outsider prompt the utopians to talk can be a more naturalistic way of imparting information about an imagined society.

5. Think about who is in the future

This is sci-fi. You can imagine anything. So don’t just imagine a slightly different bunch of white blokes (or even white women) running the world, please.

Added value of my five top tips

Here’s an added bonus for you – you can also critique any climate fiction utopias you happen to be reading using the five points above. Ask of the text, does it enable you to imagine a reality that does not currently exist? Is the world it portrays organised according to a system other than consumer capitalism? Does it engage you emotionally and make you re-examine your feelings about the climate emergency? Is it well written? Finally, does it imagine a future that empowers a diverse range of people?

Alrighty, I hope we’re all nicely equipped to go out and change the world through the medium of climate fiction utopias.

Peaceful Portway, Bristol 2015. Photo by the author.

Hello! Here’s an awesome utopian reading list.

It’s my inaugural blog post! I thought I would start by sharing my current utopia-themed reading list with you. As you will see, it’s a list of Afrofuturist, African Sci-Fi and Black Utopias. This is where I’m at right now. In this post I’ll tell you how I got to this amazing place and why I think these books are must-reads.

This list is designed to be collaborative so it was published in the Bristol Utopian Book Collective Facebook group. If you have problems accessing it let me know.

Image by John Jennings

Utopia and colonialism

Utopia has an uneasy relationship with colonialism. I say uneasy, but that’s my feeling about it. It would probably be more accurate to say it has a too easy relationship with colonialism. Take this quote from Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516, the foundational text of the genre, about how the original Utopia came to be:

Utopus, that conquered it (whose name it still carries, for Abraxa was its first name), brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind.

Thomas More, Utopia (London: Verso, 2016) pp72-73

I’ve written elsewhere about how the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol in June 2020 brought the colonialist logic within utopia to the forefront of my mind. To address this I could have re-read the old utopias through an anti-colonial lens, and I might still do this one day. But what I really wanted to do was seek out Black, Indigenous and African utopias and start reading those instead.

The first thing I read was N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? Since then I’ve read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, and I’m currently reading Paradise by Toni Morrison. If you know of any others that should be on my list, please add them to the collaborative doc, post in the comments below or contact me.

Other things I’m currently reading…

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

Spike Island in Bristol are currently hosting a Braiding Sweetgrass reading group, meeting monthly (online) to discuss extracts from the book. While this is far from sci-fi, I’m interested because Kimmerer explores other ways of being and relating to nature than the prevailing consumer capitalist status quo, with its insistence on defining the more-than-human world as ‘natural resources’.

Underland, Robert MacFarlane

This I’m reading for another book group. I actually suggested it myself, despite subscribing to Kathleen Jamie‘s view of the author as ‘A Lone, Enraptured Male‘, peddling an exclusive and over-privileged idea of nature. But everyone goes on about how brilliant this book is, so I’m going to give it a try.