Last week, I attended my first ever protest, where at 28, I was 20 years older than many of my fellow protestors. This protest, the School Strike for Climate Change, came at the end of a week where I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, and the nature of stories. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about the stories we tell, the way we tell them, and what the impact of those stories are. With that in mind, I thought that this was a story worth sharing.
In 2018, I completed my master’s thesis, a hybrid critical/creative piece titled Reading and Writing as Representations of Agency in Dystopian Fiction. Its title was dry – it was an academic thesis after all – but the subject matter was timely, and given the way of the world, the content hit close to home. It looked at three key texts from the 20th century, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, all three of which have experienced a contemporary renaissance in one way or another. As part of my research, I came across the following passage from Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor, and staff writer at the New Yorker.
“Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.”
I was reminded of this passage with the release of The Testaments, Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve thrown myself into the new novel and returned to Gilead with the same mix of shock and wonder that motivated me to write my thesis on this dangerously, less and less fictitious society. This new release comes riding on that same wave of dystopian renaissance. As The Handmaid’s Tale was a response to Reagan era politics, the world is now rife with new demagogues and impending cataclysms for dystopian authors to be inspired by.
But still, I found myself troubled, my thoughts returning to Lepore’s assertions, and the need to imagine a better world.
I was a couple of chapters into The Testaments when I found myself having lunch at a café, where I overheard a mother speaking to her son. They’d just been to see 2040, a new documentary by Damon Gameau, wherein he explores the options that currently exist to us as possible solutions to climate change. The pair had been as part of a school trip, and the excitement with which the boy – he was probably about eight or nine – was speaking about what he’d seen was inspiring. A few days later I took a leaf from their book, and saw the film. Gameau presents his vision for 2040, a world populated by the ReGeneration, and a day when the amount of carbon in the atmosphere begins to decrease, a goal we’ve reached through technologies and opportunities that already exist, from electrical microgrids, alternative transport and city designs, to regenerative agricultural practices, marine permaculture and access to education for all young girls and women – the solution that would be the most effective in removing us from the reality of Gilead.
It was at this point an idea occurred to me, an experiment if you will: to pair my reading of The Testaments, with an imagining of a more utopian future. To engage critically with the work, and consider it a catalyst in my own behaviour. I’d seen the film, now it was time to walk the walk. I started with a change in diet, a commitment to a more vegetarian lifestyle. I say more vegetarian, because up until this point meat has always featured on my table at least once a day. My thinking here was a soft transition, rather than having meat one, two, or even three times a day, I’d move to one, two or three times a week, and I’d select those meals with more care, and intention, looking at what I was eating, and where it had come from.
In two days, I was reading a full kilo lighter on the scales, and I had the energy of an early 2000s battery mascot. My attempts at semi-vegetarianism were proving a success. I felt better, and I found myself realising that this was something I could do long term. When it came time for my trip to the market that week, I came away with a trolley that looked very different from my previous expeditions.
And all the while, my audiobook of The Testaments played on. Now hours into the story, I was once again become well acquainted with an alternate, parallel reality, one where the kinds of choices I was making weren’t even an option.
Which brings us to Friday, and the Climate Strike. I rode my bike into the city – the final chapters of The Testaments being read to me as I peddled – found a place to lock it up, and then I walked, one in a stream of what I would later find out was more than 100,000 people. All around, the cardboard cut-out face of Greta Thunberg watched on, bobbing amongst a collection of placards: “There is no Planet B”, “The water’s rising and so are we”, and my personal favourite, “Please, recycle your signs”.
I would later see video footage of this sea of people flowing into Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. I tried to spot myself, but it was impossible, I was one of 100,000 ants on screen, moving with purpose, acting, in the face of uncertainty. I let myself be washed to the front of the crowd, where I heard the “Welcome to Country”, and speeches by school children who were missing, and failing, exams to be there. The soon to be voters, who were more engaged and outspoken than I had ever been as a teenager or young adult.
I cheered, and I clapped, I snapped photos of my favourite signs – Thanos, Captain Planet, Surprised Pikachu and the cast of Mean Girls all made multiple appearances – and when I heard more cheering and chanting from the back of the crowd, I went exploring. I climbed back up the hill through the tens of thousands of people there. I listened to the cheers, and the chants, and the conversations. I saw a reporter interviewing a group of kids who couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, having their voices heard on national TV.
I got to the top of the climb, and I looked back down at a sea of people demanding change, all of whom had given something up to be there on a beautiful, windy, Friday afternoon. It was a scene far removed from the Gilead I pictured in my mind.
After that, I went looking for a bookstore. The first one I found was closed, its staff had taken the afternoon off to join the protest. The second one I found was open, but it was quiet, there were a few people in there, meandering in that way that is so unique to the bookshop. The Testaments was in pride of place at the front of the store, on the new releases shelf. I picked up a copy, thumbed through its pages, got a sense of its weight. It’s something I like to do when I listen to an audiobook rather than read its hard copy. I like to get a sense of how minutes played translates into pages turned. But standing there, soaking up that bookshop smell so many of us know and love, and holding this piece of art in my hands, it made me think about the lasting impact of my week, and what the next step was.
I already cycle or walk to work most days, so I gave myself a tick in that department. The diet was something I could maintain, and I knew that the next steps involved thinking about my money, things like investments, and super, and the decisions I was making through those channels, but standing there, something else occurred to me.
It had to do with paper.
My love of stories is one of the reasons I became a writer. I believe in their power, their capacity to share ideas and knowledge, to have a positive. I also love books as objects, but I realised now that in my mind stories were becoming separated from those objects. I myself was already listening to the same book I was holding. I had chosen that medium in this instance because of its convenience, and because I already had a novel I was reading – I usually have one of each going – but given the context of the day, I realised there was opportunity here as well.
My first novel is being published in December, as an E-book, and print on demand. I didn’t make that choice, an E-book was the offer that was made by my publisher, and I requested the print on demand option because I liked the idea of it existing in that form, I wanted to hold my first novel the same way I was able to hold The Testaments, but suddenly I found myself elated that its primary existence would be in a digital form. The choice was there, but the default would save trees in a time when trees are perhaps the best natural solution we have for the pressing climate emergency. As a writer, someone who has always aspired to create a very particular, paper object, it was confronting. It was something I had never considered in terms of impact.
I left the bookstore, thinking about a quote my partner shared with me once: “we don’t need a few people doing sustainability perfectly, what we need, is a lot of people doing it imperfectly”. I’d seen that in action, and I realised, that with some of these simple choices, by thinking about what I was taking from the world, and what I was putting back into that, that I could do that. I could go on making those small, imperfect choices. I could continue riding my bike, I could continue eating less meat, I could continue thinking about what I bought, who I bought it from and where I put my money. I could continue thinking about how I put my work out into the world. I could continue imagining a better, utopian future.
And maybe, I could plant a tree.