Stories for Our Future

EarthQuaker Issue 95

One of the characteristics distinguishing humans from other species is that we tell stories; before the written language and literacy were widespread, storytelling was the way to communicate a people’s history, as well as morality and lesson-learning for children. Many of us read to escape the present – whether our personal difficulties, or the dire state of the world around us. As we face an uncertain and frightening future, we are in desperate need of positive visions for possible futures - not utopias, but what Rupert Read calls thrutopias: stories about how we can work our way to a way of living more in harmony with the rest of life on earth and find joy in so doing. A few years ago, I undertook the Equipping for Ministry course at Woodbrooke, to discern if I could become a storyteller. I found I had some relevant skills, and I developed a few stories for oral telling. Then the pandemic came, and there was no opportunity to practise. Now I find those stories are already irrelevant to the situation where climate breakdown is already here, even in Britain. So I have been looking for ideas for new stories.

I have read three novels recently which take climate breakdown as a starting point. The first, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, begins with an appalling heatwave in India in which millions die, leading to the establishment of a new body by the U.N. – the Ministry for the Future. It painted a comforting picture of governments finally funding measures to adapt society to a low carbon future, but I found the concept of a powerful and effective U.N. body improbable. 

Overstory by Richard Powers is not so much about what the future looks like, but more about how trees are intertwined with our lives, and how they do, and likely will, long outlive us – both individually and as a species. The book centres through their concern with trees.  As someone who loves trees, I found the stories comforting. 

The third book is The High House by Jessie Greengrass. Though beautifully written, I found this the bleakest story. It is about the lives of a household in flooded East Anglia, surviving through the careful planning by the climate activist mother of one of the household, before the floods, to create a self-sufficient farmstead, stockpiled with essential goods including clothes. The bleakness was that these few people were not part of any community – they lived only by and for themselves. At one point the youngest asks if life is worth it on this basis and answers himself by saying he would rather be alive than dead; he still found beauty in the world around him. 

To me, being connected with people and having a role in the various communities and groups to which I belong is fundamental to my well-being and wish to be useful. My search for stories that I want to tell continues.

Rachel Berger