The relentless news about climate change can leave us despondent — but what if we can use fiction to help people with positive ideas of what the future could look like and the actions we can take to change things? Denise Baden talks about the power of eco-fiction and explains the Green Stories Novel Prize, sponsored by Orna Ross.
Denise Baden is Professor of sustainable business at the University of Southampton in the UK. She's also a screenwriter and novelist and founded the series of Green Stories Writing Competitions.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How stories can change minds
- How to smuggle green ideas into stories rather than preaching
- What is eco-fiction?
- The Green Stories Novel and Short Story Competitions
- Environmental issues in publishing
Click here to check out the Green Stories Novel Award and remember, there are short story awards and more, so even if the novel one isn't for you, maybe enter something else!
You can find Denise Baden at DABaden.com and on Twitter @DABadenauthor
Transcript of Interview with Denise Baden
Joanna: Denise Baden is a professor of sustainable business at the University of Southampton in the UK. She's also a screenwriter and novelist and founded the series of Green Stories Writing Competitions. Welcome, Denise.
Denise: Hello, nice to be here.
Joanna: Oh, great to talk to you about this topic.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and also sustainability and environmental issues.
Denise: I've had a bit of a butterfly background. I actually worked as a sales rep for publishers many years ago. But I couldn't do that once I became a mum, so I went back to university and I did a bit of psychology.
I was harassing them on their green policies and not having a recycling bin. So when the person teaching business ethics, which is one of the things we're also doing, left, I got put in charge of that, and then I ended up doing stuff on sustainability. So that's my academic career, and also I've done articles on that.
I think I was inspired to be a greeny by a fictional book myself, which is why I'm quite interested in writing fiction. So I read Stark. It must have been back in the early '90s by Ben Elton.
Joanna: Oh, me too. I remember that one.
Denise: I'm not sure if it still stands the test of time, but I thought it was brilliant at the time. It was really fun. And right in the middle of this love story epic adventure, he says something like, ‘Dave was a water birth, but he died soon after being born.' It turns out that Dave is a dolphin that got caught up in a tuna net.
And I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. I can buy dolphin-friendly tuna.'
I never would have chosen to read a green-themed book. I read for fun. But that really made me think and I think it awakened my green conscience.
I realized what we're doing without really realizing it. It had loads of examples like that. And it gave me the idea that perhaps I might like to write fiction and perhaps smuggle green issues in myself.
Joanna: I love that. And I think it's so important what you said. We read for fun. And if people haven't read Ben Elton, his books are funny. Well, most of them. His more recent ones are less funny, but his early ones are really funny.
And you're right. Reading for fun. We read for escape. And the news is, let's face it, full of pretty dire stuff and people feel anxiety around the environment and just feel like it's too big. So obviously, you did psychology as well, which is great.
Why are stories a good way to, like you said, smuggle these ideas in?
Denise: Everyone turns to science as a way to address the climate crisis, but I think it's stories that engage our imaginations. It's stories that enable us to see things from other points of view, especially things like sci-fi and ones set in the future. They also say how things could be.
I think it's a real shame that actually a lot of stories set in the future are dystopian, because we think, ‘I don't want to go there.' And I thought, wouldn't it be nice if we had some stories set in the future that were utopian, that gave us a positive vision we could aspire to perhaps.
I love stories, and I also think, because I teach in the area of sustainability, you're always talking to the same people. So you're teaching those who have chosen to take that course and people who are putting the word out about climate crisis and so on. They're only reaching those who are choosing to watch that. We're preaching to the converted all the time.
I quite like the idea of using fiction to engage a wider audience, and also, perhaps focus a little bit more on what we can do rather than just on what's wrong. If you know what I mean.
Joanna: I'm still reading, because it's got many levels, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. Have you read that one?
Denise: I have. Yes. It's an epic book.
Joanna: It is epic. It's massive. But I feel like that book has made a big impact on me. I feel like I was halfway there on many of these things, but it is actually what he talks about, for example, with his carbon credit system. The way he talks about it in the future. I've been getting into this cryptocurrency side of things.
Denise: I know. I've been trying to follow you.
Joanna: It was interesting because reading his book, I suddenly understood how a carbon credit economy could emerge that actually made sense. And what's so brilliant about his writing, he's obviously delved down into the research, but then turned it into a story.
And it's like you said. It's not the facts and figures that actually engage us. We actually couldn't care that… The 1.5 degree, like, people don't know what that means. But like at the beginning of The Ministry of the Future, if you have this heatwave, and you describe it, that just makes a lot more of an impact, doesn't it?
It's taking those facts and figures and turning them into characters and stories.
Denise: It's a great example because he imagines there was a Ministry for the Future and what it might do and he gets glaciologists on it, economists, sociologists, scientists, and they're all working together. And at heart, it's actually quite optimistic.
There are tragedies in it, but overall, we kind of crack it. The only issue I had, and actually, Joanna, and I'm so glad you brought it up because I consider you the expert on this, is one of his solutions is based on blockchain technology as a way to leverage finance towards low carbon solutions.
But my understanding of cryptocurrency is it's about 1000 times more energy-intensive than normal currency. Now, I understand that's being dealt with. But simply switching to a renewable energy supplier for that won't really crack it because we've got a supply issue as well as a demand issue with renewable energy. Do you have a view on that?
Joanna: Well, as you said, and I recently shared on the show, there are carbon-negative blockchains at this point, which I think is absolutely fascinating. I can't speak to the technology on it, but what I do know is many of the people involved in cryptocurrency and digital currencies are younger people who absolutely want to save the planet.
I think about it now, and also I'm into the AI side, what I think is that some of the smartest people on the planet are now thinking about this and do care about this. So that's why reading someone like Kim Stanley Robinson is good because obviously, he's a very smart dude who does a lot of research but then turned it into a story.
I always think with cryptocurrency and blockchain and all of this stuff, you don't necessarily need to know how it works technically to think that it might be a way of doing things differently in the future. And that's what we've got to think, isn't it? We've got to do things differently and try and make decisions in that way.
But just coming back to stories in particular. Tell us about your novel, Habitat Man. You call it eco-fiction as well as romantic comedy. So tell us about the book.
What is eco-fiction anyway?
Denise: Eco-fiction typically is quite doom-laden, most of it. I don't think it has to be, but it typically is. It often imagines that some terrible things have happened. We've messed up our planet and now we live in this post-apocalyptic world with no bees or nature. And so it's quite alarmist.
I wouldn't like to read it. I'm afraid I'm very frivolous when it comes to my reading matter. But I mean, not all of them are like that. Some of them just have very strong nature themes.
I think that The Call of the Wild is a classic by Jack London perhaps, and I think Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is about butterflies and climate change and the human drama at the center of it. But most of it is quite dystopian, I would say. I call mine eco-fiction I guess because the aim of it is to try and share green solutions via fiction.
The book is really inspired by a real-life ecologist who retired and he set up this green garden consultancy. You pay 10 pounds to the local transition network and he'll come around and advise you on how to make your garden wildlife-friendly.
He gave me so many wonderful tips and I just really wanted to share them with a wider group of people. I also thought what a lovely premise for a story because he visited all kinds of back gardens and his first client, he falls in love.
He digs up a body. He creates habitats for the wizard of Woolston for bats and frogs and Dawn the polyamorist who wants hedgehogs. So there's a lovely opportunity to meet a variety of characters.
And very naturally, through the process of the stories smuggle in green solutions, because they're all in my head. I research it and it's quite frustrating when you get an article out and maybe three, maybe four people might read it, and they'll misquote it. So I already know that I've affected people and people have said, ‘Oh, I didn't know this. I didn't know that.' And so on.
For example, I've happened to know that we're very worried about our barren soil and the lack of life and microorganisms in the soil. Is it pesticides? Is it slug pellets? One of the things it seems to me is pet treatments like fleas treatments and wormers. Now, not many people know that.
My heroine has a dog. I can easily put that in and suggest less toxic alternatives or so on. And people didn't know that. They're sort of, ‘Oh, I didn't know this. I found it in your book.' But they would never have chosen to watch a documentary on flea treatment or barren soil.
Joanna: I think that's a really good point. I agree that so many of these books are dystopian, either we've destroyed everything, or it's like nature has come back and nature is now almost taken over.
I read Eden by Tim Lebbon recently which is a horror eco-thriller, and they have to go into the wild nature where things have been transformed by radiation and all that. And it's really cool, but it's like, ‘Yeah, I don't really want to live in that.'
You mentioned some of the simple things. I'm just starting to consider other genres, so writing in the travel genre, for example. And I guess I'm talking about walking: walking, train travel, changing ways of slow travel.
There are angles that we can tackle, aren't there? In pretty much any genre.
Denise: Yes. Simply choosing to show someone who's taken a green alternative, and you don't even have to play the green card. There are all kinds of reasons to want to go by train or by bike, or I've got a couple of friends who tandem right from Scotland down to Cornwall on their bike.
There are lovely stories to tell there. You don't have to say, ‘Oh, they did it for the climate.' You can just have people thinking, ‘Well, that might be a nice way to do it and have an adventure.'
I do often think when you come across a vegan character or green character in a book or a film, quite often, they're really preachy and annoying. I think simply showing these characters as being maybe nice would help.
Joanna: Yes, I think that's important, and we're all a bit tired of the preachy and some of the more aggressive forms, I guess, of green activism. Some people will say that is entirely necessary, but again, there are different layers, as you've talked about, different layers of how people want to change their lifestyle, and that's actually super important.
Even in my book, Tree of Life, I did a lot of research on trees and ended up donating money to the Tree Council for tree planting and that kind of thing because of what I discovered. Now, in the book, in the author's note, I've put, ‘This is what I discovered from the Tree Council and part of the profits are donated to it.' Hopefully no one has read that book and thought I was preaching about trees.
Denise: Yes, it has to stand on its own terms. And I think you're right. There's something a little bit toxic at times in the way climate change is portrayed. It's like people are saying, ‘Don't live on this planet. The planet would be better off if you weren't here.' And that's not nice.
Yes, we could walk more lightly on this beautiful earth, but some of it is quite anti-human and that that's not a nice thing for people to be reading. And I also think, how you pitch it depends on where you are. So maybe in some countries, there's still quite a lack of awareness in certain segments of the population about climate change. But I think in the UK, now, people are aware.
I'm hearing surveys like the majority of young people think humanity is doomed, or wake up in the night with nightmares and eco-anxiety. So when you've got that, if you continue to raise the alarm, all you're going to do is create eco-anxiety, and perhaps alarm fatigue.
Whereas if you tie it to solutions, or suggest some positive visions of what it might look like if we did it right, then I think you're taking that energy and putting it somewhere constructive.
Joanna: How would we do this? For example, it's such a big thing that I would suggest people pick one thing that they particularly care about. For example, I do care about walking and slow travel.
I would really like us to be able to get trains much more cheaply than fly in the UK and in Europe. So I could take that one thing, slow travel, and turn that into a story where a character does some slow travel and weave ideas in there. How would you suggest people do that?
Denise: Perhaps would this be a good time, Joanna, to talk about the Green Stories Competition?
Joanna: Yes, absolutely.
Tell us about the Green Stories Competition
Denise: Because it ties quite nicely into that. Three years ago, I was quite frustrated that everything was problem-focused in the whole green discourse and climate change debate. Very little was solution-focused. Everything was raising the alarm. Everything also was preaching to the converted.
So I set up this series of Green Stories Competitions and they're free to enter. And the criteria was that writers had to, first and foremost, write an engaging story or no one's going to read it, and then either aim it at the mainstream and perhaps smuggle green solutions into the plot and the narrative, or develop a positive vision of what a sustainable society might look like.
I put on the website all kinds of different solutions. People always tend to do the same ones over and over, like recycling or planting trees, but actually, there are some quite systemic things that I think we could change in society. You touched on it a little bit earlier.
If we started accounting for carbon, for example, perhaps we all instead of money we had a common credit card or a personal carbon allowance, or perhaps instead of shops, we had libraries or libraries of things. So just things that might be quite systemic if you're world-building.
But if you're not, you can plug stuff in probably like Habitat Man does. I've got water buckets in there, I've got green funerals, I've got green fashion, avoiding pesticides, all kinds of things just naturally in the plot.
We've had 12 competitions, and the first one was a short story one and we had an anthology out from that. And now we've got one coming up, which Orna Ross, who I know is well known to you and probably your listeners, who set up the Alliance of Independent Authors, she sponsored us now for a novel competition every year, and that's coming up.
The deadline is 30th of December. And we've got short story competitions coming up in the new year.
The idea is that you kind of try and tie these issues to actual solutions readers can engage with.
And we get quite a few entries, but I have to say, Joanna, most of them have not met the criteria, which is one of the reasons I ended up writing Habitat Man. I thought I need to show them what it looks like.
For example, we probably had 20 entries about rainforest destruction, where our hero or heroine goes off and becomes an eco-warrior in Indonesia, tackling evil tree cutters. But your average reader isn't going to up sticks and head off to Indonesia. And none of them mentioned solutions.
So for example, solutions might be, well, a lot of the trees are being cleared for beef crops, so perhaps giving up beef is a solution, or look where your wood comes from.
If you're writing a crime thriller and there's a body, perhaps it isn't buried in a mahogany coffin, perhaps it's buried in a willow coffin, a local willow coffin that would be really good for the environment. My book has a body and it's buried in a willow coffin. I try and steer them towards the solutions.
Whenever I do workshops, I do them quite regularly. I did one just yesterday actually with some 14-year-olds, and they come up with lovely ideas for stories. But when I said, ‘What actions do you want your reader to take or not take as a result of reading this,' a lot of them realized they'd only raised the issue. They hadn't actually created a story that enabled them to show solutions.
It's hard because a lot of fiction we like drama, don't we? We like conflict. So writing a world where everything's lovely, doesn't really lend itself, but I had a lovely entry the other day of a detective one where… It was in a sort of a utopian society, but there's lots of issues going on. There was a doping scandal in sports. There was something else. But the detective then can go everywhere and explore this society.
And there was another one where something weird happened and people got sick every time they did anything eco-unfriendly. It was a really wonderful device and then wonderful ideas such as the rich people paying other people to get sick, so to clean their house or drive their car. So there are some wonderful devices there and ideas.
Joanna: Let's be clear on what you have to do for it, because obviously, this is going out in November, and the end of the award for 2021 is the end of December. So if it's a novel award, do they have to write a whole novel? What do you have to submit for the competition?
Denise: Bear in mind that we're going to run this every year now, so if it's not ready for this year, maybe next year.
We asked for three chapters. The first chapter, a chapter that most demonstrates your green criteria, and another chapter, preferably the final one. We don't require it to be complete, but we would expect it perhaps to be almost 50% complete because the idea is then that we take the winners and we mentor them towards publication.
This is why having Orna on board is so great because she has that knowledge of the self-publishing world. I'd certainly want it sort of first draft half complete at least.
Joanna: What's the website for that so people know?
Denise: It's www.greenstories.org.uk.
Joanna: And is it just for UK writers?
Denise: No, it's open to anybody, as long as it's in English and it's not yet published. We've had entrants from Australia, from Canada, from America, from all over. And there's also the short story competition.
The deadline for adult entrance is I think 21st of February, and we've got an under 18 one, which is 3rd of March and that's up to 5000 words.
Joanna: Fantastic. So that sounds really good.
Orna Ross on why she wanted to sponsor the Green Stories Award
When Denise invited me to become the sponsor of the Green Stories Novel Prize, I was immediately intrigued. I'm the kind of novelist myself who believes in the power of fiction to affect change, to change hearts as well as minds. And it's one of the reasons I write, one of the main reasons I write.
We have this huge, enormous challenge as a species, as a people. And of course, we need the politicians and the journalists and all the good people to do what they do. But the conversation about climate change can sometimes be quite fixed and narrow as sometimes we're speaking to those who are already converted and failing to reach those who are not convinced, and I think story can cut through all of this.
I think through story, we can expand the conversation. We can expand our awareness of what's possible, and that's what I would most like this prize to do. There is a focus on solutions and there is also a mentoring dimension to the prize, both of which were very significant for me. I think that's really important.
And so this is more about the kind of prize that will reward imaginative expansion. The book doesn't need to be completely finished. What we're looking for is the kind of talent that will both entertain, perhaps amuse or through great storytelling talent sweep us away in a way that, you know, only story can.
So everything is wide open here. There's no particular genre being asked for, there's room for the most dystopian science fiction at one end of the scale, and the most ordinary everyday story around recycling or carbon offsetting or something completely prosaic at the other end of the scale. It doesn't matter what the content of the story is, provided it shifts our way of thinking about this issue and expands our sense of positive possibility.
Click here to check out the Green Stories Novel Award and remember, there are short story awards and more, so even if the novel one isn't for you, maybe enter something else!
Back to the interview with Denise
Joanna: I also wanted to ask you more specifically about our own industry, because I mean, obviously, we're writing these stories, but then we would love to put them out in print and ship them all around the world or print them in different jurisdictions and have it as ebooks and audiobooks.
What are some of the environmental issues around the publishing industry in particular?
Denise: I did look into this because I really wanted to put the FSC label on my books, especially as eco theme. So that just means that the paper has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, but none of them do that.
Amazon don't do that. IngramSpark don't do that. They do say that Lightning Source, IngramSpark expects each of its paper supplies to be environmentally responsible and not use paper sourced from endangered old-growth forests. It doesn't specifically do the FSC certification, and neither does Amazon.
But at the same time, I think it's worth mentioning that the model of print-on-demand has so much less waste than the model of doing large print runs, quite often huge amounts are pulped or sent back, which again, has got transport costs.
So I think print-on-demand has got so many advantages in terms of lack of waste. And ebooks are about 20 times more sustainable than paperbacks.
The fact it's not always on FSC-certified paper is quite a minor issue really, bearing in mind they are actually looking at the forest they've got it from.
And also the fact that we focus very much on ebooks is good. I did a little bit and it turns out that ebooks are about 20 times more sustainable than paperbacks, and if you've got a renewable energy provider, it'd be much more than that.
Joanna: Twenty times?!
Denise: At least, yeah.
Joanna: Wow. That's incredible to know. I hope everyone has heard that. That's brilliant. I was thinking because I know I have to charge my device or whatever, the delivery cost is tiny, but we know that the storage costs of these things go down every year.
It's difficult, because I know some people have issues with capitalism, but actually, the for-profit companies that are driving the costs down and trying to change the technology are often the ones trying to make more margins. The storage and the making of electricity, generation of electricity, and all these things. I guess that's why I'm positive about the future. I am positive.
Recently with AI, DeepMind's AlphaFold, which has solved a problem humans have not been able to solve, which is protein folding, and this is going to revolutionize drug design and all of this. And I'm like, well, this is a problem humans could not solve and the AI has done it, the AI tool has done it. And DeepMind specifically want to save the world, which is awesome.
So I feel more positive that we'll be able to solve some of these intractable problems because of technology and AI. And in a way, you've just said that with the ebook is 20 times more sustainable.
Denise: I know. For example, I was looking at things like is it better to download something on Netflix or buy the DVD and so on. It turns out if you're watching something over and over, it's best just to have it hard copy, but if it's a one off, you're better off streaming it and keeping your camera off on talks and so on makes a big difference.
If you're just listening, don't have the visuals. These things make a difference. Moving away from the massive distribution of physical stuff is generally much more eco-friendly.
Joanna: I would say, just on the CD thing, surely that any of those will go into a landfill and never ever biodegrade. Surely streaming is always going to be better when it comes to the long run because you don't have anything in a landfill?
Denise: Yes, I guess if you have a load of CDs or DVDs and you already have them, it's much better to watch them rather than stream something. But if you're buying from new, then yes, as in most cases, it's better to stream, and especially if you've got a renewable energy provider, your conscience is going to be much more clear on that as well.
Joanna: I think this is a way that I think we want to frame it is instead of looking at the news and feeling miserable and depressed about the world ending, look at the news and do some research into things and turn that into a story that then gives you and other people hope for a change in society, and that to me seems like maybe use these things as clues as opposed to news.
Denise: Certainly, speaking from my own experience, writing Habitat Man has been pure therapy, because when you're working in the area of climate change and the biodiversity crisis, it is quite a frightening world.
Being able to construct my own story and basically move my characters around and have that complete control and scatter little green solutions throughout the plot, it made me feel that I was contributing something positive and making people smile at the same time, and it certainly kept me sane during lockdown.
Joanna: I imagine. I always include an author's note about my research, about my thoughts, that kind of thing.
Do you include an author's note about the research behind it?
Denise: I've got my website. I do say when things have influenced it.
For example, one of the things I talk about is turning your back garden into a meadow. I've done lots of experiments. I let one half of my lawn just grow wild and the other half I got a meadow mat. Then I found out most meadow mats or wildflower turf are backed with plastic. And I thought, well, that's not good. They say it breaks down but it doesn't.
I consulted my friendly ecologist. It just breaks down into microplastics, which is even worse. So I scouted around to try and find one that didn't have a plastic back, and one promised they didn't, delivered it, and it did. So I put a blog out about that on my website and that made it into the book.
Then I found out that composting toilets were supposed to be very good for the environment, so I got my own, completely fell in love with it. Great great for barbecues when you would only be champing inside the house. I've got it in my back shed. So I got a lovely chapter on that.
Everything I've done I've done a little post or or whatever. I could do more, there's no doubt about it. I have probably kept my research quite separate from what I write fictionally, and you have given me the idea that perhaps there is room to tie it a little bit more together, perhaps do a few more blogs about some of the science behind some of the things that sort of are casually referred to in the book. But I didn't want to bore people in the book with too much information so I kept that quite light.
Joanna: That's why I use an author's note which goes at the end after the book is finished, and I always include research there. As a reader, I love author's notes in fiction, and I always look for them and want them to be there, because a lot of the types of thrillers I read are based on scientific stuff or interesting historical research or any of this type of stuff.
I always include a bibliography at the back of my novels as well. Things that I've read that have influenced the story. Again, it doesn't have to be preachy, but I think an author's note, or even you say you create a landing page on your website and then you just say at the back just in the middle of your back page, ‘If you'd like to read about the science behind this, come over to this page.' And then at least people who've read the book are directed to find out more.
Denise: That's a good idea, Joanna. I think I probably might do that. A friend of mine did suggest perhaps doing a podcast where I mix up readings from the book with a little bit of chat about the story behind it. But it's just… I mean, you know yourself…
Joanna: It's a lot of work.
Denise: It's a question of time. I've got a sequel I'm dying to get on with.
Joanna: Yes, absolutely. I think obviously, you're pitching people like me to come on podcasts and that that is a good way forward as well to talk about this topic, and I'm really glad you're doing this. I feel like it's something I want to talk about, but I also know how a lot of people just turn off. So I hope that people are still listening and it can save the planet whilst also writing good stories.
Denise: Well, Habitat Man is good fun. My favorite review was from someone I bumped to while walking my dogs in the park and they said, ‘Oh, you did Habitat Man.' And they said they read it with a smile on their face all the way through and that was lovely. And I said, ‘Please put that on Amazon.' They never did, but it was still lovely to hear.
Joanna: Absolutely right.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Denise: Okay, well, my website is dabaden.com. And that's got a bit about me, a bit about Habitat Man. I've got links to my Green Stories website there as well. And there's a link to where you can buy my book.
At the moment, it's available on Amazon, ebook, paperback. I've got an audiobook narrator as we speak working on the audiobook version. Because I did a book launch the other day and it was so delightful to hear other people read sections. I just said, ‘Come along and read the bit you like best.' And it was so lovely.
It came alive in other people's voices. So I've got to do an audiobook. So that hopefully you'll be ready by the end of the year and on request from bookshops.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Denise. That was great.
Denise: Okay, well, thank you. You gave me plenty to think about.