The Next Dawn of Everything — Stories of Human Cultures

Writer and researcher Jules Pretty explores stories that reveal how human cultures don’t converge on one ‘advanced’ model, as our current views of history assume, finding in The Dawn of Everything rich accounts of diversity, freedom and hope.


2,750 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes


These days, we find ourselves in the midst of world-spanning crises of climate, nature and social inequality. All three have the same proximate causes: a type of economy that promotes too much material consumption and a dangerous reliance on fossil fuels. Something is about to change. Yet we have never been here before. We are in the dark forest, at our darkest hour, and we are not sure if we can choose a new path.

We often don’t know what to do when great moments of transformation in life appear: the rites of passage from small to big school, a first date, your first day in a new job, a baby in the family, a friend’s death, your own advancing mortality. We have no plan for what happens next. There is no rehearsal – apart from stories that tell how others have crossed their own thresholds. We are going to need ways to open up the world ahead, where fear could still be one of our greatest emotions.
Most of life is inconceivable. Living without fossil fuels seems so, for many people. Living without air pollution from cars, also seems inconceivable.

The Red Queen said to Alice, “Why sometimes I’ve believed, as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass (1872)

Should we think of a new diet, perhaps less meat and more oat milk; should we buy an electric car now or later, fly less and cycle more; insulate our home or install solar panels, listen to the birds, have coffee with a friend? Well, one of these, then maybe another one, soon after.

The point is this: we have choices. We just may not realise this yet.

There emerges a need for new forms of story-telling, combined with a language of kindness and generosity. Kindness is both our common state and best response to threat. It is selfishness that is the outlier.

What kinds of language and values might we use to find our ways out of these deep woods? Berthold Brecht wrote in 1939:

“In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

We find ourselves now in need of stories with hope, and then to explore how to use these to create more effective agency to address the great crises of these times. Fast transitions, regime shifts and positive tipping points are beginning to occur, showing that new ways of living can be just and fair.

Calling time on ideas of linear evolution of human cultures

This is where a brilliant, clear, refreshing and fabulous synthesis of a book comes in. It is called The Dawn of Everything, and draws on recent archaeological evidence and anthropological insight to say highly salient things about human history.

The authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, say: most accounts of pre-modern human history “simply aren’t true, they have dire political implications, and make the past dull.”

This is interesting, not least because this book is also about the future.

Storie of human cultures: Showing the cover of 'The New Dawn of Everything', by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

The authors are willing to call out many contemporary commentators who believe in linear evolution of human ideas and cultures (the ecological determinists and evolutionary psychologists, for example), and who say that modern life must be superior to all that has gone before. Graeber and Wengrow call these “dismal conclusions”, and “prejudices dressed up as facts.”

For this book is about freedoms, not the “weird arguments” made by many in support of modern and high-consumption ways of living and organizing. We are neither at the top nor the end of a process of betterment. What has gone before was more diverse, egalitarian and astonishing than many would think.

Human cultures of the past have always diverged; they have not converged on one model perceived as more advanced or even perfect.

This book also overturns ideas about the assumed superiority of agriculture over foraging-hunting-gathering, and of city civilisations over agrarian. It also suggests that large-scale public engagement leads to innovative and diverse futures. People have always valued the things they do and places they live as extensions of identity, and so have often and explicitly refused to adopt practices and ideas from other people and places.

This cultural refusal is a key finding (it is not rejection on the grounds of being better; it is about something just being for other people and not for us).

Cultures can also get stuck, becoming less innovative. Many cultures and cities were abandoned after hundreds of years of continuity when people just walked away. They got stuck, and decided to seek something new. They sought the next dawn of everything.

Story-tellers for ‘stuck’ times

Stories of human cultures: showing Mayan masks from Guatemala
Mayan masks from Guatemala. Photograph © Jules Pretty

There are numerous valuable findings from this wonderful book.

First, humans are not inevitably nasty and selfish. More often than not, cultures and cities have been egalitarian.

Human cultures are projects of self- and co-creation. They emerge from engagement, participation, story and sense-making.

Human cultures do not converge on one model, and one model does not follow another (e.g. agriculture after foraging). All cultures diverge in space and over time. Wherever and whenever we look, there is endless human diversity. No single system is preferred, and evolutionary stages do not exist, where one model of life inevitably follows another.

Evidence from all the world over shows the enormous long-distance interactions between people and cultures. We have always lived in a small world politically and culturally connected. People travelled and journeyed to see and learn from other places. Recent DNA testing of skeletons shows much higher rates of interaction. Human cultures have never been isolated or biologically “pure.”

At times, cultures do get stuck, thinking they know or have it all. The modern era of neoliberalism and planetary nature and climate crises is an example of being stuck. We are living now in the latest of “stuck times.”

All human cultures engage in refusal. They know what others are doing, but in order to remain true to their own identities, they commonly refuse to adopt certain other technologies and ideas. Some foragers lived alongside agriculture for 3,000 years, and refused to adopt it. Some city states knew all about metal and the wheel, and again refused to use them.

Of course, non-conformists exist in every culture. What differs is how each culture reacts to them. Many cultures in history valued non-conformists (such as tricksters, jesters, story-tellers, shamans, and the physically and mentally diverse), seeing them contributing to diversity and divergence.

Agriculturalists and forager-hunter-gatherers lived side-by-side for thousands of years. In many places, cultures used different modes of living during different seasons; some foraged and took up agriculture; some farmed for hundreds of years and adopted foraging.

Foragers-hunters-gatherers established many cities and monumental cultures, and engaged in small-scale gardening and domestication of what we now call weedy species.

There was also oscillation within years and across seasons: within years some people foraged-hunted-gathered for certain seasons, and then farmed in others; some peoples developed different social structures and even personal names in different seasons of the year (a ruler in one season, people’s assemblies in another). Seasonality of values and identity is still with us – we behave differently during Christmas and Ramadan, during long holidays (the French grand vacances). People set aside work, for a bit, and affirm values in community, family, giving and resting.

Many city states and cultures had no kings, queens or rulers, no palaces or temples. People governed through assemblies, councils (as often women-led as by men). Some cities built public baths, others huge social housing projects. Many created co-housing units larger than for single families (long-houses). The traditions of long-houses for co-living continued to Norse-Icelandic culture, the Pacific North-West, and in rainforest forager cultures worldwide.

After a time, many cultures simply hit a wall. They stop. They are abandoned. It seems people in them choose to go and create something different. Most were not conquered or beaten by war.

Active choices and human futures

Showing wheat from Suffolk.
Wheat from Suffolk. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Catalhöyük was long thought of as one of the first agricultural sites and cities. But the people are now known to have preferred and celebrated wild aurochs over domesticated cattle. They knew about the latter for 1,000 years, yet never used them. Elsewhere in Mesopotamia, there are many examples of refusal: cities that knew about agriculture for 3,000 years, yet never adopted it. Such refusals were not irrational or silly: they were on the grounds of choices about practices that defined others who were not them. People want to stay as themselves.

The first organised city cultures in the world were not in Mesopotamia, but at the mega-sites and mammoth houses of current Ukraine-Moldova (4100-3300 BCE), each with huge central assembly places for exchange, sharing and decision-making. Individual cities were 300 hectares in size, contained co-living houses, and reached populations of 10,000 people.

In today’s California, the dozens of cultures and language groups centred on only foraging-hunting-gathering are sometimes described as existing because agriculture failed to reach them. Yet there was interaction with agricultural communities of the greater south-west. They also knew about agriculture, and refused to use it.

Poverty Point in Louisiana of today contains some of the largest mounds in the Americas. These cities were built around 1400 BCE by forager-hunter-gatherers. In Japan, the Jomon culture comprised 14,000 years of (pre-rice) forager culture, producing cycles of settlement, craft, storage, and traditions of building things and breaking them down again (traditions that continue to today in Shinto and Buddhist culture).

Teotihuacan in central America was a city culture on eight square miles of land. It had no central ruler, nor did it adopt the ball courts, kings and palaces of nearby Tikal and Calikmal. Teotihuacan was egalitarian, with stone social housing containing plumbing and sanitation, each finely decorated with art and images (much psychedelic). After 500 years, Teotihuacan was abandoned. Again, we today do not know exactly why.

The largest city culture in the Americas before modern times was Cahokia (in current Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi). The city had a population of 15,000, and flourished for 300 years between 1050-1350 CE. The people were forager-hunter-gatherers, supplemented with gardens with domesticated sumpweed, goosefoot, knotweed and mayweed. Cahokia and all the surrounding river valleys were depopulated at the same time, creating a long-lasting “empty quarter” that no other peoples entered.

There was public engagement and assembly for culture-making, where individual and collective agency leads to divergence of choice.

There was refusal of what appear to be more efficient or productive options. Identity was more important.

There was explicit adoption of egalitarian structures and social support.

Showing prayer flags, Tuva.
Prayer flags, Tuva. Photograph © Jules Pretty

Cultures have lived alongside other differing cultures for thousands of years. They knew about other ways of living, and decided not to adopt. There was no perfect economic system of living waiting to be revealed.

There was long-distance travel, journeying and staying, leading to biological mixing inside stable cultures.

There was sudden abandonment of modes of living, when people decided they had become stuck and needed to do something different.

We know that fossil fuels will have to be almost entirely eliminated from all economies worldwide (excepting perhaps communities living at high latitudes that are dark and cold for long periods of the year), and thus the spread of adoption of renewable energy generation is central to preventing climate catastrophe. The overarching aim is to electrify everything, with a particular focus on wind, water, solar and battery storage.

Most countries are now committed to 100% renewables for their electricity supply at some time in the future. Some have made dramatic advances in implementation, others have been slow (see Table 1).

Many poorer countries are predicted to save money by these investments, as many spent up to half of national export earnings on importing oil, and now increasingly have the resources to invest in other social priorities. Countries highly dependent on the income from oil will find transitions hardest, even though some have large sovereign wealth funds. Qatar styles itself a “hydrocarbon-enabled economy.” It has the highest carbon emissions worldwide at 55 tonnes C per year per person, and to date has effectively zero contribution from renewables for its electricity supply.


Table 1. Proportion of domestic electricity supplied by renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass), 2022

Proportion of domestic electricity consumption supplied by renewables Countries
98%-100% Albania, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway, Paraguay, Uruguay
90%-95% Ethiopia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Tajikistan
60%-80% Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden
40%-50% Ireland, Spain, UK
20% China, India, Japan, Morocco, USA
Less than 0.2% Bahrain, Brunei, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia

Note: World 28%; Europe 35%; Low-income countries 66%; Upper-income countries 30%. Some of these high percentages are in countries with low total energy consumption and low access to affordable electricity. They will need to consume more to escape poverty, and there will be a need to generate more renewable energy than today. Sources: International Energy Agency (2023) (www.iea.org); Our World in Data (www.ourworldindata.org).


Choices by governments matter. In the UK in 2023, the government chose to invest in a new nuclear plant (to produce 3 GW per year); in Denmark, the government has chosen wind power on two new energy islands in the North and Baltic Seas (total of 6 GW capacity). These islands will be the largest infrastructure in Denmark’s history, and will be generating electricity by 2030. Nuclear in the UK will take 10-15 years longer to be commissioned, costs will be twice as great, and there will still be a need to pay for costly nuclear waste disposal. Such nuclear developments will therefore be delivered too late to influence the meeting of 2050 net zero targets. China and South Korea are planning 1-6 GW of floating offshore wind parks for installation in 2025-2030.

Globally, the International Energy Agency believes strong growth in clean energy means the world can deliver fossil fuel emission cuts of 35% by 2030. The IEA also say we have the tools to go much faster, and that there is now a need for “a fierce urgency of the now.”

These advances towards 100% renewables are the start of a new dawn of everything. It is instructive to see which countries are taking the lead, and how cost benefits nationally will accrue.

Cultural connections for transformations

Showing plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach.
Plastic from Iceland Arctic Sea beach. Photograph © Jules Pretty

In my 2022 book, Sea Sagas of the North, I visited and wrote about 160 ports, villages and coastal places culturally facing inward to the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic (in Iceland, Norway, Finland, England, Scotland and the Faroe Isles). I talked to an 80-year-old famed skipper of the trawlers and drifters, and he said, “You know we were more tolerant and kind in the days of fishing, when we travelled to other places and came back with gifts and stories.” Fisher communities on the coast of the east of England felt greater closeness and affinity with people 1,100 miles away in Iceland and Norway than communities 10 miles inland.

The ecological collapse of fisheries led directly to social and cultural change on the coasts, and people lost their friendships with others across the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic.

For my 2014 book, The Edge of Extinction, I visited and stayed with place-based and indigenous cultures in Aotearoa, Australia, Tuva, Finland, Labrador, Louisiana and California. A Finish ice-fisherman friend stood up in the audience at a conference at the American Museum of Natural History, and demanded: “Where is the escape route for our culture and people to leave your modern world? Will you give us one?” The title’s play on words was intended to suggest it was modern societies and economies that were on the edge of extinction, not indigenous ones. The book should probably have been called ‘The Edge of Our Extinction’.

My 2023 book, The Low-Carbon Good Life, centres on the diverse ways of living and public engagement we need to create to solve the nature, climate and social inequality crises facing the planet. We will be needing divergence of practice, choice and behaviours rather than convergence.

Above all, we will need good stories that lead to agency and transformation.


Find out more

Jules Pretty’s new series The Climate Chronicles is posted at his website, where you can also find details of his books, including The Low-Carbon Good Life (2023) and Sea Sagas of the North (2022). Jules is part of the project team behind the Hope Tales events and chapbooks, with fellow ClimateCultures member Nicky Saunter. See Nicky’s post, Hope Tales — Stories for Change.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2022) is published by Penguin.

Jules Pretty

Jules Pretty

A researcher and writer on environment and society, including 'The Climate Chronicles', and host of the Louder Than Words podcast and Brighter Futures films

School Strike For Baby Hope

Writer David Thorpe introduces his forthcoming climate fiction collection, School Strike For Baby Hope, and explores how our imagined futures must include the costs and dilemmas of better pathways, even where we avoid the worst of climate change.


1,440 words: estimated reading time = 5.5 minutes


ClimateCultures is seven years old this month! David was one of our first authors back in 2017. Throughout this year we’re delighted to celebrate our anniversary with new posts from some of those inaugural contributors, alongside other returning — and new — ClimateCultures authors.

***

In November, just in time for Christmas, my new collection of climate fiction short stories will be published by Android Press. The ten stories have been published elsewhere, often in obscure places. For example, the title story, School Strike For Baby Hope, was published by Extinction Rebellion on one of their websites.

Cautionary tales and possible futures

If a citizen living in pre-20th century Britain were to be told that in the future they would be able to travel anywhere in the world in a few hours, to buy any food from anywhere in the world at a local shop throughout the year, have free healthcare, most likely live until their 90s, and hold a device in their hands which could give them any kind of knowledge they asked and permitted them to talk to anyone in the world, and to see their faces, they would think the future was some kind of paradise. Well, we live in that age and we know different. We have threatened ourselves with the end of life on Earth — including our own end — in order to have these unnatural luxuries. We know the cost.

It seems to me that in imagining a future free from climate change we must be careful to imagine what kind of costs that might have. Every decision presents a dilemma. The purpose of governance is damage limitation; minimising the negative consequences of any decision. Unintentional consequences must be thought through. Climate fiction consciously does this.

Some of these stories are about the unintended consequences of action on climate change, so they serve as cautionary tales. These stories – At the Crux and For the Greater Good – reflect my interest in ‘one planet’ thinking – the ecological footprint as a measure of sustainability. I asked myself: if the country set itself the same task as one planet development in Wales – of satisfying the needs of inhabitants within the confines of a global fair and equal distribution of environmental impact – what could be the implications for the population? Living like this would demand monitoring of the entire ecological impact of the country and dividing it by the population each year.

School Strike for Baby Hope and Beacon arose from my experience of being in my local Extinction Rebellion group. We had many successful actions in Swansea and joined the national demonstrations in London. School Strike For Baby Hope appeared in Teens Of Tomorrow: Stories of Near and Far-Flung Futures, which explored possible futures through the stories of twelve courageous teens.

Showing the cover of 'Teens of Tomorrow' - published by Odd Voice Out Press © 2021 - featuring David's story 'School Strike for Baby Hope'
Teens of Tomorrow – published by Odd Voice Out Press © 2021 – featuring David’s story ‘School Strike for Baby Hope’

What else is cli-fi? If you read the Wikipedia entry it cites Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole as an early harbinger, which imagines a climate change due to tilting of Earth’s axis. His Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1883 and set during the 1960s, has Paris have a sudden drop in temperature, which lasts for three years. Wikipiedia lists J. G. Ballard’s climate extremism novels from the early ’60s and then, as knowledge of climate change increased, says fiction about it really started coming out, one of the earliest being Susan M. Gaines’s Carbon Dreams.

Should we always go with our imagination?

Imaginative works can be used to reinforce people’s prejudices, too, such as Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004), which was pounced upon by climate sceptics for reinforcing their view that climate change was some kind of conspiracy.

Then we encounter lots of dystopic films. From Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, through George Orwell’s 1948 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, Mega-City One from Judge Dredd, conceived in 1977, to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). They have all set the template for many other stories and films, such that in the popular imagination the sprawling mega-cities of the future will largely be over-populated, polluted, broken places, featuring dark towers, high levels of surveillance and crime, their citizens treated little better than battery-reared animals, and no room for nature.

But is the dystopic metropolis a self-fulfilling prophecy, subconsciously, if not consciously, reinforcing the mindsets of planners and architects? Does it soften up the public, preparing them to acquiesce in the face of grim and unimaginative design, polluted air, poor policing and service levels, corrupt or inefficient governance, long commute times, constant noise, high levels of personal danger?

Is this the reason why people do nothing despite being bombarded by the truth about the future and climate?

I think we need comedies about climate change and the future. For this reason, I have included The Chernobyl Effect and The Last Laugh in the collection. These are stories from my body of work about the character Doc Chaos, a darkly satirical character in the tradition of William Burrough’s Doctor Benway and Alfred Jarry’s Doctor Faustroll. This is dark comedy, exaggeration for comedic effect. Making people laugh is a way of slipping things under their radar.

Showing the cover for The Chernobyl Effect & The Last Laugh - stories of David's Doc Chaos character
The Chernobyl Effect & The Last Laugh – stories of David’s Doc Chaos character

The End

These days I spend all day in a wheelchair because of cervical myelopathy. I have become unable to feed myself or use both my phone and computer. The only way I can write this article is to dictate it, as a friend is kindly typing it for me. I have written elsewhere that my stroke in August 2021 was caused by high blood pressure and a result of climate change stress.

I now think that my present condition, and the fact that I see no hope in my future again, is a mirror of the present and the future of the planet as a whole. I wish it were not so, but I can’t believe anything else. For example, as the average temperature of the planet has risen, so has the myelopathy of my spine, and just as we find tipping points such as the melting of the ice caps in climate change, there are tipping points in my body when the nerves in my spine become trapped and suddenly I find I can no longer do something, like feed myself, that I could do yesterday. Then I think to myself “What will happen before it ends?”. And I’m glad I won’t be around to see the world shrivelling up as it gets too hot. Unfortunately, my sons will.

Look after yourselves and find something you love and stick with it.


Find out more 

School Strike For Baby Hope will be published by Android Press in November 2024. As well as other fiction — including novels Stormteller and Hybrids — David has written several books on sustainability, including One Planet Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits and The One Planet Life: A Blueprint for Low Impact Development. Find out more at his website. And you can read David’s blog on Substack.

The Fifth Estate published A personal story about climate anxiety and illness from our UK writer David Thorpe in August 2021: a “personal account of his illness and its connection to his absolute commitment to avoiding the worst of climate change. It’s a sobering and very worthwhile read”, where David talks about the link between climate stress and the stroke he had recently suffered. That article also links to his story Don’t Follow Leaders, which David wrote for the publication.

In previous posts for ClimateCultures, The Rise of Climate Fiction Part 1 and Part 2, David explores how the term ‘Cli-fi’ reveals the tension between our twin fascinations with utopian and dystopian visions, how fiction engages readers with human stories within the climate change one, and writers’ responsibilities — given that “stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves.” David also contributed a piece for our Environmental Keywords theme on Environmental Justice.

In 2017, David was one of our inaugural authors at ClimateCultures. He was one of the short story writers, poets and non-fiction writers commissioned to produce new writing at Weatherfronts climate change conferences for writers — two TippingPoint events that also inspired the creation of ClimateCultures. In Utopia and Its Discontents, he explores the thinking that went into his winning story, For the Greater Good, which was included in the free Weatherfonts ebook anthology published by Cambria Books.

Dystopian Farming: An Inquiry

For animist farmer and author Paul Feather, 2024 brings a creative inquiry into ‘dystopian farming’ as resistance as well as sustenance, and a search for joy and meaning that makes our dire times tolerable: the potential for liberation.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


I have been farming for twenty years, and I’ve had some success in growing food. Enough success that people ask me lots of questions about it, and that I have several hundred pounds of sweet potatoes, yacón, pumpkins, and potatoes stacked in crates in the cellar alongside shelves full of canned tomatoes, pears, and pickled everything. Enough that I don’t feel overworked in producing all of this. I have been farming for twenty years, yet I still don’t feel like I know how to do it — even less do I know how to talk about it or how to answer your questions about farming.

Farming dystopia. Showing Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains.
Farming dystopia: Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. Photograph: Terra Currie © 2023

Whether I have answers or not, people continue to ask how my farm works. So, in pursuit of these answers that I don’t yet have, in 2024 I will make an inquiry into what I do. I shall call it ‘Farming Dystopia’, because I feel that dystopia best describes our cultural and ecological context. I resonate with the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte who points out that “some indigenous peoples already inhabit what [their] ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” in which settler colonialism has so drastically altered people’s environment that it is harder to obtain the traditional foods and materials that they have relied on for millennia. He emphasizes that in spite of this unfortunate reality, “we do not give up by dwelling in a nostalgic past even though we live in our ancestors’ dystopia.”1

This dystopia does not only affect Indigenous people (even if it does affect them most severely). We all live in a world of façade and confusion, where every practice, including farming, requires some not-quite-tolerable measure of exploitation half perceived, but partly veiled by the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to get through the day. The present dystopia is a soul-numbing experience for anyone, at best; and a terrifying and dangerous one for far too many.

Farming for liberation

If I would honestly describe my farming methodology, acknowledgment of our dystopian context would have to be the jumping-off point. I am farming within a dystopian context. I am inside The Matrix. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this is a Brave New World. Dystopian farming is a means of sustenance and also resistance. It is a frank admission of our dire context, but also — maybe even primarily — a search for the joy and meaning that makes that context tolerable.

This inquiry originates as an attempt to answer questions about my farming methods, and so its initial structure will be blog-like: if I can’t ‘explain’ my methods, perhaps I can narrate them every week or so. However, I would also like to de-center my own methods, because farming is extremely context-dependent. I have no real way to know whether my particular methods will be helpful for people with different access to land, different body types, different social and family structures, different climates … different everything. In the dystopian context, the value of a method is in its potential for liberation, and I don’t know how much my methods can liberate others, especially people with less privilege than I have enjoyed. I would like to be able to answer that question.

If my inquiry is to be successful, it will also have to include other voices, other platforms, and other knowledge. Perhaps it will evolve away from a personal blog to become more like a book, a zine, or a journal article. If there is dialogue, we could even borrow the format of a podcast.

For now, I will inquire and write. My initial reflections have been about the curious mix of liberation and obligation that goats bring into my life. As I make small daily movements in preparation for spring seeding, I will snap pictures and share thoughts about how to coax another round from the dirt. What do I owe the dirt for this?

Dystopian farming in dialogue

As I hope to include others in this inquiry, I think it is helpful to situate dystopian farming in a broad dialogue about global agriculture. Without making prescriptions about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in contexts that I haven’t experienced, I hope I can narrow the scope of the inquiry in a way that invites the participation I am looking for.

I think that dystopian farming should be agroecological and radically holistic. Agroecology is a broad framework that includes dimensions of science, social movement, and practice.2 It is true that like many frameworks, the concept of agroecology is partially coopted by institutions3, so for this inquiry we retain the multidimensionality of agroecology and emphasize its roots in peasant social movements such as La Via Campesina.4 We also use it as a framework that addresses multiple scales: from the ecology of a single farm plot all the way to the global food system as a whole.

This inquiry will naturally interact with dialogue about permaculture — which along with ‘regenerative farming’ seems to have captured much of the imagination of the ecological farming movement — but we should critique these frameworks for their extraction of Indigenous farming practices while failing to integrate Indigenous critiques of modernity. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have also failed to credit Indigenous people for their intellectual foundation or adequately address the legacies of settler colonialism. This is not something I will critique on the basis of morals or ideology, but because the approach I describe as dystopian farming is radically holistic and acknowledges that failure to integrate these critiques makes our farming practice more damaging to the land, weakens our social movements, and undermines our scientific foundation.

Showing Full Life Farm logo
Full Life Farm. Design: Terra Currie

Finally, dystopian farming is pragmatic. There is room for abstract discussion — and possibly even fiction — but in the end we must have sweet potatoes and a cellar to put them in. Obviously my initial inquiry is personal and fundamentally anecdote, and perhaps that is all it will ever be. But this is also an invitation — or maybe it’s a manifesto to co-create something far more interesting than anecdote or my personal critique of a farming ethos that fails to address the deeper crises of our modern dystopia.


References

[1] Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene”, in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2021, Routledge).

[2] Steve Gliessman (2018) Defining Agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42:6, 599-600.

[3] Omar Felipe Giraldo & Peter M. Rosset (2017) Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:3, 545-564.

[4] Val, V., Rosset, P. M., Zamora Lomelí, C., Giraldo, O. F., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina I. The symbolic and material construction of agroecology through the dispositive of “peasant-to-peasant” processes. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 872-894; Rosset, P., Val, V., Barbosa, L. P., & McCune, N. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina II. Peasant agroecology schools and the formation of a sociohistorical and political subject. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 895-914.

Find out more

You can find Paul’s Farming Dystopia blog at his website with Terra Currie, where they discuss Full Life Farm — the ecological experiment they established in 2007 on five acres in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains – as well as present their art and writing and health and education work.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

The Start of Something Going Wrong

Ecopoet Helen Moore reviews Her Whereabouts, a new collection from fellow poet Joanna Guthrie, whose accumulated acts of noticing and subtle inferences weave her mother’s debilitating strokes with ecological loss in the climate crisis into a poetic memoir.


1,130 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


In a striking second collection, Joanna Guthrie’s often filmic work forms a poetic memoir, chronicling the aftermath of two debilitating strokes suffered by her mother. In Her Whereabouts, there is a steady accumulation of precise acts of noticing, with images created as handholds to chart a terrain of deep uncertainty, as the poet comes to terms with the severe injuries sustained to her mother’s brain. This imagery frequently connects with the natural world, and through this a thread of concern about the climate crisis is woven.

In ‘The start of something going wrong’, the second poem in the book, we read of an occurrence which reminds us of the moments prior to the onset of a tsunami:

It rained fish. This was the herald.
They thumped down on the hillside like silver blades
or loose tongues sliding whole from heads.

Guthrie also fuses the language of storms, particularly of lightning strokes, with the “dry heat that was a whole new season / day out day in by your shrill bed” (‘Indian Summer’). Inside and outside become merged in a new location, where the family’s focus is the mother, who occupies the centre of a labyrinth in which husband and children struggle to orientate themselves. And to process the emotional fall-out.

Acts of noticing: showing the cover of 'Her Whereabouts' by Joanne Guthrie
Photograph: Joanna Guthrie © 2023

Loss — the personal and the planetary

In ‘Gibbous, waning’ the moon is compared to “a wounded boat – / or else a balloon as it deflates”, which the poet comes to see as a mirror of her own experience: “it’s me who’s punctured, is the vessel on her side / the shrunk balloon.” Avoiding self-pity, Guthrie’s attention to detail delivers entirely unsentimental poems, which are nonetheless full of pathos. Her prose poem, ‘Synapse as muscle’, focuses on the habitual mothering patterns in her brain-damaged mother. While in the poem entitled ‘What aphasia said’, we read a series of non-sequiturs and neologisms, which result from ‘aphasia’, the language disorder caused by the strokes.

Her mother’s loss of language leads the poet to contemplate the role of the brain, which is brilliantly evoked as “a mothership / that grew itself in the dark”, and

A pinwheel emerging out of space
   sprouting a tail
its grey tunnels knitted by you only
   the cortex an intricate skullcap.
(‘Questions after the fact’) 

Ultimately, this inspires a new sense of her mother’s presence, which is found primarily in her eyes. But in searching for ‘her whereabouts’, Guthrie touches into Buddhist philosophy through the concept of ‘pativedha’ — “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label” — which moves her contemplation into the realm of quantum physics, as she sees her mother as “a loose collection / of nature in flux.” And herself “unscrewed”, “part of myself this balloon / tethered to a roof.” (‘Tiramisu’)

Despite existing in states of flux and radical uncertainty, there is nevertheless a commitment born of love to walk the labyrinth with her mother, and to surrender to the process of being alongside all that’s unfolding. Inevitably, there are moments of despair, (‘Isn’t this the end’) and dissolution (‘Arctic ice wakes up as liquid’). These poems voice both personal and planetary dimensions, and through them a sense of the ecological self emerges, as the poet’s voice becomes one with the fragmenting ‘I’ voice of the Arctic ice:

I am leaving   a
        am whole chunk of a

        was whole chunk of a

Acts of noticing – learning from the more-than-human

Prolonged periods of uncertainty and waiting also yield heightened states of communion with the more-than-human world. Rooks. A stuffed Victorian Baboon. Cuckoo. Deer. A Chestnut tree for whom love is tenderly expressed. Amidst these touching poems, the title poem ‘Her whereabouts’ may be read as both a charting of the loss of her mother and the poet’s grief at ecological loss.

The loss shoots right down
to the feet, through some central shaft
like a flare descends a well, illuminating
mossy sides …

The named storms, which offer titles to poems (‘Irma’, ‘Dennis’), indicate the extreme weather events resulting from the climate crisis. These Guthrie evokes as simultaneously relating to the family’s experience of a missing member:

soon a mouth will grin with
                                             missing teeth, its gap our gap

and on she rails, no home
             to go to, wired, pulling out
                                           posts    like    pins from a new hem.
(‘Irma’) 

The dream image of a house on fire but “burning so slowly there was time / to rescue every cup” additionally suggests both the personal and planetary, while a poem entitled ‘The emergency’ touches specifically on the poet’s experience as a climate activist, and the collective struggle to find adequate words to express what’s occurring. Here the image of a Brushtail Possum waving a burnt paw to a camera, “like it was showing its passport / or like, Look what you did!” becomes the most poignant way to communicate what the reader assumes to be the catastrophic Australian bushfires that occurred between 2019-20, and in which I was personally caught up.

Might I have understood this without my direct experience? Impossible to say. But subtle inference is certainly a hallmark of this collection, the power of which is cumulatively built. As the book draws to a close, there is unsurprisingly no resolution — just an ongoing state of precarity, “teetering / like a bone china jug on a ledge” (‘The lintel’). With this, however, come fearless love and compassion, along with a willingness to help. In the penultimate poem, ‘Human, standing’ — the title itself a poignant image of survival — there is also a sense of learning from the more-than-human world, as the soil is evoked as “a sacred, slow master.”

Note: In writing my review of Joanna’s book, I have wanted to stay true to my own ecopoetic practice of giving capital letters to the names of more-than-human Beings.


Find out more

Her Whereabouts by Joanna Guthrie is published by Pindrop Press. You can read two of the collection’s poems — ‘The emergency’ and ‘Her whereabouts’ — on the poems page of Joanna’s website.

Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, and Nature connector who lives in North Dorset. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and you can read about the inspiration and creative process behind her wild writing and the embodied awareness and resilience it nurtures in her post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature. And she contributed a video performance of her poem ‘Earth Justice’ — inspired by attending a mock ecocide trial at the Supreme Court, London in 2011, and featuring collages of transcript material from the court proceedings — for the Environmental Justice thread in our series on Environmental Keywords.

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.

A Drop in the Pond

Writer and online community newspaper publisher, Rod Raglin shares the story of a local Vancouver, Canada, park pond reduced to a seasonal wetland — and a neigbourhood’s dispute with administrators on how to respond amid severe climate change.


940 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


The pond at South Memorial Park is not so spectacular. It’s situated in the northwest corner of a thirteen-and-a-half-hectare suburban park in the Sunset neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada. A few picnic tables are situated beneath the shade of some willows at one end of the pond and are popular during the summer months.

The vast majority of the park is given over to tennis courts, baseball diamonds, a soccer pitch and a running track complete with outdoor exercise equipment.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it was
The pond as it was. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

Intervening in the park pond

In the past, the water level of the pond would fluctuate somewhat with the seasons, but never to the extent that it threatened the resident Mallards. What did begin to impinge on their living space were the reeds (phragmites) and yellow flag irises (Iris pseudacorus). These invasive species choked most of the shoreline and extended further and further into the open waterways, limiting flight and paddling paths.

The Vancouver Park Board decided to take action and initiated a costly renovation of the pond that included backhoes removing the infestations of reeds and yellow flags. A new boardwalk was constructed along a stretch of the shoreline and the pond was transformed from a brooding marsh to a sparkling gem.

But something went wrong and the pond levels began to recede – dramatically. Residents claimed Park Board workers damaged the pond’s natural clay membrane with the heavy equipment, causing it to leak. The Park Board denied it but, being an election year, conceded to the demands of the vocal and vociferous pond advocates.

The water levels were topped up with trucked in water for the balance of the summer until the fall rains did it naturally.

The next year the same thing began to happen, and once again the same people demanded that the pond be topped up until the Park Board fixed what they’d broken.

But by this time Vancouver City Council had passed the Water Works By-law (Prohibition Against Wasting Water) and the Drinking Water Conservation By-law (General Prohibition Against Wasting Water) which prohibited the use of potable water in park water features until such time as they could be retrofitted to be recirculating.

Significant ripples

British Columbia is feeling the brunt of climate change. For a number of years now, hot dry summers have sparked forest fires in the interior of the province that raged unabated. Outflow winds blow toxic wildfire smoke onto the coast and it’s not unusual for Vancouver’s air quality during the summer to be the worst on the planet.   

In 2021, a heat dome parked over the province and sent temperatures soaring into the mid 40s Celsius for six days, resulting in 619 related deaths. The temperature in the village of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon hit 49/6° C, the highest ever recorded in Canada. The following day a wildfire burned the entire town to the ground.

Every year, the snowpack in the mountains is less, summer starts earlier and lasts longer, with the average temperature inching up. Where once watering restrictions were imposed occasionally, now they’re implemented annually without exception.

It turns out, to top up the pond for one year took 11 million litres of drinking water.

No, the Park Board said, the pond would not be topped up and would become a seasonal wetland.

Park pond - showing the local pond in Vancouver, Canada, as it is now - "a seasonal wetland".
The pond as it is today – “a seasonal wetland”. Photograph: Rod Raglin ©2023

The response immediately devolved into the type of rancorous debate characterized by adversarial rhetoric and personal attacks. Proponents for the pond cited the fact that a number of park water features had been exempted from the bylaws and were still operating. All were on the west side of the city, home to the affluent neighbourhoods. Politicians were accused of favouring one side of the city over the other, the side where they and their supporters live. It was even suggested that the decision to not top up the pond was racist, Sunset being one of the most racialized neighbourhoods in Vancouver.

The opposition was mute. If you were against the pond and for water conservation it was implied you were racist, elitist, privileged. Open-minded thinking shut down, trust was undermined, and misinformation thrived.

In the end, City Council passed a motion acknowledging the concerns of the pond proponents and requested an “update on the Park Board’s assessment of and plans for the restoration of the pond.”

A glimpse of the future

At the moment, the pond is almost dry, the ducks have abandoned it, and no one is picnicking around a smelly mud hole. On the other hand, the reservoir is ahead 11 million litres of drinking water.

Whether the pond is full or empty doesn’t put anyone’s life at risk, nor anyone’s livelihood for that matter. Livestock don’t die, crops don’t wither. Climate conflict is happening throughout the world and in many areas it’s not about a meditative moment or a family picnic

Vancouverites got a glimpse of the future. They saw how a small issue exacerbated by a far greater one can divide a neighbourhood, even a city. The advocates let emotion trump reason, and our leaders chose expedience over prudence.


Find out more

You can read more about the dispute over the South Memorial Park pond in The Revue, the Southeast Vancouver neighbourhood newspaper that Rod publishes and edits. For example: Information swirling around pond just gets murkier (8th July 2023).

Rod Raglin

Rod Raglin

A journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues ...