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1 February 2023

Environmental utopias can save the planet

Stories about better futures inspire humanity to make them happen.

By Martha Gill

The children’s author E Nesbit, writing in the early 1900s, had a strangely prescient vision of the future. It was not the kind in vogue at the time. In her book The Story of the Amulet, a family of time-travelling children are at one point transported to a “lighter and brighter” London, clear of smog. The clothes of the citizens are “of bright, soft colours and all beautifully and very simply made. No one seemed to have any hats or bonnets.” Meanwhile, “the streets were wide and hard and very clean. There were no horses, but a sort of motor carriage that made no noise.” There are also, to the astonishment of the children, punishments for littering (the first UK littering law would come some 50 years after The Story of the Amulet was published), and a ban on smoking chimneys. The Thames is clean enough to fish in. These Victorian children learn that their own era is now dubbed “the dark ages”. 

Nesbit’s vision, so ahead of its time, seems almost within our grasp. London is much lighter and brighter than it once was. One day it will be brighter still. Walking through the streets after a break in the countryside I found myself wondering what it will be like when electric cars have replaced petrol ones and the air smells as sweet as it does outside the city. Views will be sharper, and we’ll hear birds – and perhaps wildlife numbers will increase. Cafés will spill out over pavements, those living near busy roads will be able to throw their windows open in the day and sleep soundly at night.

You don’t hear stories like Nesbit’s these days (or my bit of purple prose). Storytelling about our environmental future is – quite understandably – almost universally gloom-ridden. It is nearly always the tale of the catastrophe we could have averted but didn’t. There are tidal waves, desert-scapes, frozen wastelands, dust bowls, killer viruses, monsters and falling asteroids. And it doesn’t stop at the cinema or bookshop. Climate activism always of course takes the form of the dire warning. Now, many of these warnings are perfectly accurate – in fact, some have already happened – and all too necessary. But, oddly enough, not all that motivating. 

Part of the trouble with getting people to care, and then act, on climate change is that the problem is so huge and terrifying it feels overwhelming – especially if we are told it is probably too late anyway. It is also now rather familiar. Even the most urgent of alarm bells gets tuned out if it drones on for long enough. The siren-call of the utopia, on the other hand, has an appeal that doesn’t fade so fast. Without drifting too far into pop psychology, campaigns with optimistic ideas about the future tend to garner the most recruits, and inspire the most action. Amid the warnings driving us to despair, we could do with a few tempting glimpses of Eden. 

After all, Eden is not impossible, even now. Nature is surprisingly forgiving – it recovers quickly given half a chance. The most unexpected nature reserve in the world surrounds the remains of Chernobyl nuclear plant. Within a few years of being left alone, populations of plants and animals exploded – including about 60 rare species. Environmental efforts have returned ospreys to Britain after two centuries. Beavers are back after four. Rewilding projects here and abroad have shown just how rapidly ecosystems spring back if you just leave them alone for a bit.

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Stories matter. Tales about the future – even bleak dystopias – tend to inspire us to try and get there. By far the biggest impact of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, a grim satire on colonialism, was that its “space guns” gave Robert Goddard the idea for the liquid fuel gun, and its “heat rays” inspired scientists to come up with the laser. When the Microsoft Surface tablet ranged was launched, representatives assured us it would “feel like Minority Report” (a frightening film that predicts government overreach). Architects and fashion designers have long been inspired by “futuristic” designs they first saw at the cinema, probably in a plot involving human extermination. These prophesies are often self-fulfilling. So what would an ideal climate-friendly future look like? And how could we get there? 

Governments could take heed too: voters respond to grand and exciting environmental visions. When Boris Johnson pledged to rewild one third of the UK (“bring back beaver!”), it appealed to the national imagination: some four fifths backed the plan. Of course, once pledged, politicians need to actually follow through (Johnson’s plans were scaled back). Rishi Sunak’s environmental blueprint, released this week, includes the idea of everyone living within 15 minutes’ walk of woodlands, wetlands, parks or rivers – but environmental groups say the plans could be bigger, bolder and more inspirational. 

One day, perhaps 2023’s sewage-coated coastlines and polluted city centres will seem like the dark ages too. 

[See also: Seven ways to make leaders act on climate change]

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