In the spirit of working out how to communicate the climate crisis message I’m talking today to Manda Scott.
Manda is a long-time patron of the Sustainable Futures Report and has joined me previously, though that was a few years ago. Manda started off as a veterinary surgeon - becoming a midwife to racehorses - before switching to writing novels at the turn of the millennium. Her first novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, her most recent, the fourteenth, for the Saltire Award.
More recently, she studied for an MA in Regenerative Economics at Schumacher College and went on to teach on the course for the next four years. She is host of the Accidental Gods podcast and co-creator of the Thrutopia Masterclass. She has written a Thrutopian television series and is working on a Thrutopian novel. She believes absolutely that the creative power of humanity, if unleashed, has the capacity to avert near term extinction and social collapse.
In today’s conversation she explains more about what Thrutopia is - that’s Thrutopia.life - and discusses a wide range of other issues as well.
By the way, this was recorded a few days before the Masterclass was launched on 1st May. It’s a 6-month programme and all sessions are recorded so you can still sign up now without missing anything.
Anthony: Well, we're talking about communication, aren't we? I think the raison d'être of the Sustainable Futures Report is communication.
Anthony: Trying to get the message across, but it's so difficult and nobody's actually found the silver bullet, or the philosopher's stone or the answer. In other words, nobody has really got the world at large motivated to doing enough. Things have changed. More people are motivated. More is being done, but nothing like enough. You've got a new initiative now, called Thrutopia, so explain to us, please, what that is Manda.
Manda: We're taking your premise that you've just outlined, and we're seeing where we can go with that, because the definition of madness is doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different result. We, who have been climate aware since the '80s, have spent decades going, "Guys, guys. It's all really scary and it's getting scarier," and it doesn't work. I don't know, are you familiar with the GOES report, Global Oceanic Ecological Survey report from the Rosalind Foundation?
Anthony: No. I'm not. I'm not.
How long have we got?
Manda: I'm going to answer your question, but before we get to that, I just want to ask you a question. How long do you think we've got and what is the most likely edge point, trigger point?
Anthony: How long do I think we've got? I think we've got at least until 2050, but when I say, "We," I think that the population, or part of the population, of the rich west will survive longest and some will survive to 2050. But I think there's going to be serious disruption throughout the world, by 2030, I'm afraid. I think we're beginning to see this sort of thing because energy shortages, food shortages, are just beginning and they can only get worse, unfortunately.
Manda: Yeah. Yeah, I live on the edge of Wales and the old thing about Wales was if you can see the hills, it's going to rain and if you can't see the hills, it's already raining and we haven't had rain in April.
Anthony: No, that is worrying.
Manda: April. The month of showers. It's just dried up there.
Anthony: The whole of the United Kingdom actually has had an unusually dry April.
Anthony: Yes. Yes.
Manda: Yeah. So I'm heading towards answering your question, but one of the things that really motivated me in this is the GOES report, which I will send you so you can link it. Everyone is familiar with the oxygen and the carbon cycles. If you have mitochondria, you take in oxygen, give out CO2, if you have chloroplasts, you take in CO2 and you give out oxygen, and these things have been in balance pretty much for the entirety of The Holocene, which is a very long time.
The oxygen in our atmosphere is currently about 18%, 1-8, and it's created by plants. What the GOES report highlighted for me that I hadn't really picked up on before is that 50% of the oxygen in the atmosphere is created by phytoplankton, so the little tiny single celled plants in the sea. This is a massive oversimplification, but phytoplankton create 50% of our atmospheric oxygen.
A combination of acidification because of rising CO2, plus toxins, mostly nitrates from industrial agricultural runoff, (but that was before our delightful government decided that the water companies didn't need to process sewage and Britain became an open sewer, so heaven knows what now), and microplastics. These three together are wiping out the plankton. It's a very straight line down, and the GOES report assessment is, that by 2045, the oceans will be dead.
That not only means an end to, for instance, The Gulf Stream. Another factoid that I picked up on the way through is that a lot of The Gulf Stream is created by sperm whales, which have the capacity, because this thing in their head to dive very, very, very, very, very deep. They scoop up huge amount of what's on the ocean floor and they come up and they spit it out and they create a nutrient cycle that is also a temperature cycle that is also a salt cycle basically, that keeps The Gulf Stream going. No more sperm whales, no more Gulf Stream. Then we have a climate a bit like Norway, which will frankly be the least of our problems because if we have 50% oxygen, that's not a global north, global south thing, it's like standing at the top of Kilimanjaro at sea level.
I don't know what happens then, but I don't think it's going to be good. I don't even know if internal combustion engines work at 9% oxygen for instance. And that's 2045 when the assessment was made a couple of years ago. It can only have got worse since then and nobody seems to notice this. We know we're in the middle of the six mass extinction. We know that we're in the middle of greenhouse gas ocean... Sorry, global heating that's horrendous. But the oxygen component is something that I really hadn't picked up on. So we don't have until halfway through 2044 to turn this round, if we don't turn this around this decade, then those of us still alive by 2045, will be struggling to walk. What happens to the rest of the ecosystem if the ocean is dead? We don't know and it's not an experiment that I wish to see happen.
Don't Frighten People
So we know that frightening people doesn't work, but that still scared me witless. It works for some of us, those of us who are trying to do something, but we still don't have the narrative of what to do. There's a lot of, we need to cut back, we need to use less fossil fuels, it's obvious, we need to stop using fossil fuels tomorrow. But what does the world look like if we do? What does it feel like? How does it work? And the crucial question I think is, can we create roadmaps through to a future that feels like we'd like to get there? Because at the moment, most of us are imagining a future that's hybrid between The Road and The Handmaid's Tale.
It's very, very bad and we're all going to end up being kebabbed over piles of burning tyres by our bigger nastier neighbours, and that's the good part. The rest is worse, getting worse after that. So if we can't, as human beings, look forward to something that we want to get to, then our default, and it's so deeply wired in our amygdalas, is to hunker down. It's, without getting too deeply into polyvagal theory and the whole concepts of neurophysiology, it's very hard to think creatively when we're under sympathetic overload.
Our sympathetic system is not designed for creative thinking. It's designed for getting away from the sabre-toothed tiger and the sabre-toothed tiger is the climate and it's there all the time, then it's really hard to be imaginative. Imagination happens when we are in parasympathetic overload, or at least it has a tendency with sympathetic.
So it seems to me that while we still have breathing space, because at the moment, we're still breathing 18% oxygen. Technically we might be able to grow something this year, don't ask me next year, but this year, then I feel that as a writer, I have an absolute obligation and I cannot think why it's taken me this long to realise it, to create visions of the very near future that feel accessible and, at least enticing enough, that people who are not perpetually terrified by what's going on want to get to them. Because if you walk through the middle of our local city, which is Birmingham, the number of people who actually even recognise that there's a climate crisis happening is vanishingly small.
We have a government that is creating perpetual sympathetic overload with people who are terrified of being able to heat their houses or having to choose between having power and eating. When you're in that kind of distress, thinking about the bigger picture doesn't happen and particularly thinking a way forward doesn't happen. So I think in many ways, it would've been good if we'd started this in the '80s, instead of Mad Max and The Road and The Handmaid's Tale, if we'd been writing pathways through, but they're hard. I'm writing a novel at the moment, which is this, and it grew out of the shamanic work and I genuinely thought I'd stopped writing all novels. They were too slow. I got what we might call a shamanic imperative to do this, and along with it was, it needs not to be just me.
There needs to be a lot of these. It needs to be that every time we turn the television on, we don't just get business as usual crime thrillers or yet another variant on some costume drama set in the halcyon days of the 18th century when everybody knew their place and it was all hierarchical and amazing and people liked it really. We need to have narrative stories that show people that we can recognise and empathise with doing amazing and wonderful things in a future that feels like you wake up in the morning and you're not stressed. You wake up in the morning and your daily life does not feel like you're destroying the planet or about to become destitute. Sorry, that was a very long answer. Did it make sense?
Anthony: Well, it certainly raises an awful lot of questions and ideas and a lot of dystopian views of the future, I'm afraid. How is Thrutopia going to address this situation? What exactly is Thrutopia?
Manda: What is Thrutopia? Thrutopia is what we're calling, is a writing masterclass, but actually it's for all creators. We're getting puppeteers and animators and things coming along. It runs for six months, it starts on the 1st of May. Every alternate Sunday evening UK time, we will have a speaker who comes in and the remit for the speakers is, what does life look like in the 2030s in your specific field, we can talk about the fields in a minute, if we make the right decisions, now, the good decisions now and what are those decisions? If we make good choices now, we are wanting to get through. The aim is to create roadmaps to a future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us.
So each speaker is going to come in and they're each people who focus on a specific topic, so transport, urban regeneration, food and farming, politics, economics, all of those things. And obviously, I could have picked an awful a lot more than 13, but we're trying to create, for writers... This is not a how to write because you can get that anywhere, this is a what to write, because what I've discovered trying to write the Thrutopia novel is, if I had not been running The Accidental Gods podcast for the last two and a half years, I would have no clue even where to start looking at the things that are already happening now.
My remit for the novel is, I'm not bringing in any technology, social or physical technology that doesn't exist now, but what I'm doing is knitting them all together in a way that feels plausible to me and therefore I hope feels plausible to other people as a way forward. Because I think we have the answers, it's just that they're not knitted into a coherent narrative and it still remains the case that it is easier to imagine the total extinction of humanity than to imagine the end of capitalism.
Capitalism, it's a made up thing. If we all decided we didn't like it, we could change it, but we have to decide what we want instead. So what I'm trying to do is get enough writers to be writing the instead. How could we organise ourselves differently in a way that would feel good? What does it look like and what are the steps to get there? I think if I can create a generation of writers, writing novels and movies, and the next blockbuster Game of Thrones thing for Netflix and songs and poems and blogs and letters to the local parish newspaper and opinion editorials in the mail about, "Hey guys. We don't have to default to what we do when we're scared, which is to attack the other tribes. Look, there are different ways of doing this and it gets us to a place that we would all want to go."
Anthony: How are you going to get the commissioning editors of the movies, of the paper articles and so on, so on, to accept this, which is very much divorced from business as usual, very much divorced from, arguably, what their readers and viewers want to consume?
The Media Angle
Manda: Along with the main speakers on Sunday evenings, I've got five people coming in to address that, so I've got the managing editor of a publishing house. I've got one of the Harry Potter producers. I've got an amazing theatre producer. I've got someone who produces indie films. All of these people coming in for us to ask them that question. "Okay, so we are writing this new genre, which you understand." Because I, Manda Scott, have had lots of conversations with them, so I know that they do, "In your field, you are embedded in," let's say publishing, "in a major UK publishing house," not, "Here's my manuscript, please will you publish it" but, "If we're creating this new genre, how do you think we get it in front of the people who want it?"
Because I think there's a huge appetite out there for people. People don't know what we could do and yet they want to, particularly anyone under 30, these are the ones who are either in outright denial because it's really too bad or they're waking up at night... A friend of mine says she has pre traumatic stress disorder of, it's going to be very, very, very bad, but I don't know what to do. I think if we create narratives of, "Hey guys, it doesn't have to be Mad Max meets Handmaid's Tale, there are better ways."
Humanity is extraordinary in our capacity for creativity if we have a vision towards which we are going. Everything that you and I have ever done, running the podcasts, building a relationship, moving house, taking a new job, all of them are because we built in our head ideas of what we thought it was going to be like. I don't know about you, but in my life, it's never been like I imagined, never, but the imagining got me onto the path and generally speaking, once I'm on the path, it's amazing and brilliant.
I don't expect that the world would be exactly like what I'm writing, but it will give people ideas of what we can do, and the core of what we can do is we need to change our political and economic system. The existing one is utterly dysfunctional and we don't have the visions for how to change it and we need to.
I think to answer your question specifically, if necessary, we set up our own publishing house, because I think the market is out there, but I also think that once we've described it clearly enough, the publishers are there to make money at the moment, so they will publish it, I believe. I had a very interesting conversation with the lady who edits a publication called Mslexia, which goes out to women writers and people who want to be writers, and we have the lead cover article for June. I spun it to her more or less as I spun it to you, and she went, "Everyone I know wants this." They want the answers.
Anthony: But it's the politicians, that's the next stage. I mean, just looking at-.…
Manda: But the politicians are always followers. We don't have a single politician in the Western world at the moment who's a leader. Well, with the possible exception of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a couple of her friends. They follow, they are weather vanes.
Anthony: They're following the wrong people surely at the moment.
Manda: Yes, but that's why we need to be writing the thing. Yeah, yeah. At the moment they're following The Daily Mail comments section. Everything that our government in the UK does is to placate The Daily Mail Comments section and the more they do it, the further to the right it drifts.
Anthony: Yeah, yeah. But then again-
Manda: But they're a tiny fraction of the population.
Anthony: But let's look then at the global perspective and people like Putin and Xi Jinping, they don't follow, surely? They don't follow.
Manda: Putin follows a guy called Aleksandr Dugin. Totally, yeah. We don't need to go into that. It's really interesting and it's very accessible. Dugin's view is he wants, a Russian Federation that stretches from Dublin to Vladivostok and that it is based on medieval principles because that's the last time that there was a proper White male theocratic supremacy. There’s…
Anthony: Well, it's a bit of a challenge to get over that, isn't it? I mean-
Manda: Yes, but we don't need to. The number of people... Yes, Putin pulls the strings. Yes, the people around him are completely and utterly barking, but they're a very small population, even as a percentage of the Russian population. The problem at the moment is that people are becoming more tribal because they're afraid. What we need is to give people a vision of things that can be different and the route to get there, because then, Putin and the others can do whatever the heck they like over in their corner and nobody is listening to them, and nobody is following them, and everyone is over here doing something different. Particularly, if we change the economic system. The only reason that people like Elon Musk have $44 billion to pay for Twitter is because the dollar... We all go, "You know what? Dollars aren't worth anything anymore." A dollar is an idea.
Anthony: Oh, yeah.
Money is an Idea
Manda: Money is an idea. We can change the idea and if the alternative is extinction, we need to change the idea and if the Putin no longer has anything that's valuable, he isn't a guy who can pull strings anymore.
Anthony: Yeah. But I mean, let's just go back to what you were saying about Putin and his clique, if you like-
Manda: His mad pack.
Anthony: ... it's a very small group, but very small groups manage to run complete states. We see this in Russia, we see it-
Manda: Because we have very-
Anthony: ... in China. We see it in North Korea and whatever the people believe in North Korea or in China or in Russia, and what they largely believe is what they've been told. And the press and media have control and you're not going to be able to get in there because they're going to block it, so how are we actually going to make a significant change? Because we've got to change not the UK, we've got to change the world.
Change the UK First
Manda: No, we have to change the UK first because that's where you and I are. There is no point in me focusing on Russia, unless I can change the UK. If I can change the UK, I can change Europe. If I can change Europe, then Russia will notice. But you don't start with Russia and you don't start with China.
Anthony: So tell me, how we're going to change the UK? Because I think…
Manda: By creating visions of a different way of doing things. As you said, "A small group of people can create radical change, if they have a vision." Putin, to his credit, has a vision. It's not his, but he's carrying through someone else's vision. It's very clear and they know what they want and they know how they're going to get there. So we need to know, collectively, and we don't want to do things in the hierarchical model. There's an amazing book, which I totally recommend everybody read, it's called the Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow.
David Graeber, the late, very sadly, David Graeber, he's the guy who wrote Debt: The first 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs. He was an amazing thinker. He was a social anthropologist. David Wengrow was an archeologist. They had a 10 year conversation. The original question was, how does inequality arise in humanity? Because there was a point when... It depends how far about you go and it depends what your vision is, but we were not always in this desperate hierarchical situation.
They realised, after a year, that they were asking themselves the wrong question. The question was, how did what we call the WEIRD (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies) end up in extraordinarily insane hierarchical systems where basically the kleptomaniac psychopaths get to the top and are promoted to the top and then are able to suck the value out of the remaining 99%, when all around the world, for the rest of human history, other cultures have created highly advanced cultures that have managed, not only not to do that, but to create social technologies that deliberately meant that that could not possibly happen.
They go through in the book the various cultures and their ways of attaining this. It was one of those books, I don't know about you, but I quite often read books where they take an idea that I already know and fill in a few of the gaps and expand my thinking a little bit, and then the occasional book just goes, "Okay, everything you thought you knew, forget it. Totally wrong." And, "Here, look. Here, we've done the research," is something completely different.
Because I had wandered along with the concept that hunter-gatherer tribal communities were quite small and quite egalitarian because when you're hunting and gathering, foraging, hunting, and you're not accumulating stuff, then it's very difficult to have a hierarchy that, at the point when agriculture started, we began to hoard stuff, then hierarchies arose. I think it was Yuval Noah Harari who said that, "The worst possible thing that ever happened was the first guy who put up the first fence and said, 'This land is mine'." But what Graeber and Wengrow showed is that that's totally not the case.
All my ideas of human anthropology, social anthropology particularly, were utterly wrong and that it's entirely possible. Humanity has in the past, and therefore I believe could in the future, create systems of interacting between and amongst ourselves that are not the parametral hierarchies that we have at the moment where the psychopath kleptomaniacs get to the top and then destroy everything for the people underneath them. We don't need to organise like that, but what we need then is models and stories and narratives of how it looks and feels when we're not organising like that.
Because if we stay in the mindset of, “we have to change Putin's mind or the world is sunk”, then the world is sunk. We may as well just string ourselves up from a light fitting now because that's not going to happen. But if we can create a pathway through, to where an entire nation, and I would say to be honest, I would start with Scotland because it's a lot further along the way than England is at the moment, it only takes small places to start.
Changes in Israel
I've got a couple of friends who were with me on the masters in regenerative economics at Schumacher, and they are now... They're Israeli, and two people making dramatic change in a small country. They're already significantly changing the way things are done and it's amazing to watch and a lot of it's happening under the radar, I don't want to talk about it too much because there are people who would step on it, but it's possible. There are a couple of people that I know well in Scotland, who at the start of lockdown started as many conversations as they could with people as diverse as they could, in a political sense, in order to set the ground for a people's assembly, which would set the ground for a citizens’ assembly, which would set the ground for a constitutional convention to create an entirely new democratic system for an independent Scotland. That work is happening.
We need to, then, create the narratives, so the ordinary people for whom the word people's assembly, citizens’ assembly and constitutional convention mean nothing, to see that there are ways forward. Everybody knows that the current system is broken. There isn't a single person with the possible exception of the current cabinet that doesn't think that our current political system is wholly dysfunctional and not fit for purpose. What we don't have is models of what could replace it, so I think that it's up to writers to create the difference. I'm just going to read you if I can find it, you might need to edit out my gap, a quote fro Amitav Ghosh, who's a...
Blame the Artists and Writers
So this is Amitav Ghosh. "When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement, they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians at this time for their failure to address the climate crisis but they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable, for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats." And it is our job and we haven't been doing it.
I've been focused on this for decades and I've been writing historical novels, because I thought I could show people how we were, it would be what they would become. That was the entire premise of the Boudicca series, and 20 years down the line, I'm thinking, "Oh, why did I ever think that? Why have I not been writing, what we would now call, a Thrutopia?"
But anyway, I'm starting now. I don't think it's too late because we need to give people the ideas, not only of where we might go, but of exactly how they get there. We definitely need more than one vision. My vision will be mine and it will enthuse, I hope, a few hundred thousand people. But there'll need to be other visions and others and others, but they're all coalescing on broadly the same place, which I imagine the commonalities will be the value system that we bring to it. And our understanding that, he who dies with the most toys wins, is not a useful concept and it doesn't actually help anyone to feel any better about themselves.
Anthony: The people who are joining the Thrutopia master class presumably will include journalists whose lead time is very much shorter.
Manda: Oh I wish. I so wish. I'm not aware of any journalists joining yet. If there's any journalists listening and you want to come, please, that would be very good. I think we've got a number of podcasters whose time is even shorter and who also don't have subeditors to have to negotiate. So yeah, of course I would be delighted of a couple of Daily Mail journalists turned up, but what are the chances? I'm hoping the Mslexia article might reach journalists because I think quite a lot of them read that. Who knows?
Anthony: Okay and the whole thing starts on Sunday, in fact. The first.
Manda: Sunday, 1st of May. Yes, but we're recording everything.
Manda: This probably won't be out by then, but people are still welcome to join for sure. And as much as anything, I want this to be a think tank.
Anthony: This won't be out until the 4th of May, but it won't be too late for people if they want to pick up?
Manda: Definitely not. No, no, no, absolutely. You'll only have missed one. 7th of May, we've got Sharon Blackie who's a mythologist coming to talk about the heroic journey and that cycle and how we can take the structures of that and build them into something different and bigger. One of my big questions always has been, since I was teaching at Schumacher was, is the heroic journey so deeply embedded in our psyches that we have to follow that, or is there another model and if so, what is it?
Anthony: Do you have a message for people who are not creators, who are not writers and cannot take part within this master class, but probably are the targets for those who do take part? What is the message that you hope the people participating in Thrutopia will share with their audiences?
Manda: So two things. First of all, we've got quite a lot of not writers who have joined up because they want to be part of the thinking process. So just because you have no intention of ever putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, doesn't mean you can't join because as much as anything, this is a think tank to create the ideas for the stories that lead us forward. So come anyway, if it appeals to you. And if not, then I will be putting out a lot of links towards the end, so ends 16th of October, or at least in this duration, of the people who are on it and the stories that they are creating.
Pathway to the Future
I genuinely believe that there is still a pathway to a generative future. It's narrowing by the day, but I believe that if we can get the stories, the narratives, the roadmaps of how to get there, and it feels like a place that enough of us want to go, then the whole weight of human creativity will be brought to bear on this and we can make it happen. Then the idiots in charge, Johnson and Putin and probably Trump again in the States, if Musk get his way, become utterly irrelevant. There are only people.
Ephemeral Human History
There's one last thing. This is quite a fun thing. So if you put one finger on your nose and stretch out your arm, then in the old days, when the king did that, that was a yard. I've always wondered what happens when it was Henry VI and he was three months old, very small yards, but anyway, that's a yard. But if you take that instead as an indication of the length of time since the formation of the earth, and then, you sweep the middle finger of your outstretched hand across a nail file, you have just erased the entirety of all human history. Not just written history, all human history and we are facing an extinction moment where all of that might go and we can either work out a way through it that lifts people into something that is better, or we could accept extinction. Of those two, I'm going for the first one.
Given that nail file moment, everything that we take to be fixed in stone, like our political system and economic system, are all ideas and agreements that we make between ourselves. We can have new ideas. We can make new agreements. None of this is static. It's not laws of physics. It can change if we want it to change, and if we know what we need it to change to. So anybody listening, think what you wanted to change to. Think forward to the 2030s, how would the world be if you woke up every morning and you knew, deep inside, that the world was a safe and good place where you could feel confident and secure and connected ,and working back from that, how did you get there?
Anthony: Manda, thank you very much for sharing your ideas with the Sustainable Futures Report. I think we're going to have to follow you up later on in the year and see how things have developed as your masterclass continues.
Manda: Sure thing.
Anthony: But thanks again.
Manda: That'd be great. Thank you.
Manda Scott - Patron
Links to the books, reports and podcasts she mentioned can all be found on the Sustainable Futures Report website at the end of this piece.
As I mentioned, Manda is one of the original patrons and we’ll hear another view from another patron next week. I’m also looking for a patron who is an expert on mining for a future episode. If that’s you but you’re not a patron yet, just hop across to patreon.com/sfr and you’ll find the details there. Once you’ve signed up.
Patrons are the life-blood of the Sustainable Futures Report, keeping it independent and ad-free.
That’s it until Friday when I shall bring together a lot of loose ends and ideas and stories which have popped up since Easter.
That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report with Manda Scott of Thrutopia.life.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
Sources and Links
The GOES Report
Sarah Ichioka & Michael Pawlyn
Less Is More - How Degrowth will save the world
The Handmaid’s Tale
The Dawn of Everything
David Graeber and David Wengrow
Outrage and Optimism