Interview: stories for a better future

Tony Emerson has been involved in Green Christian for many years, and was instrumental in the formation of Joy in Enough. His latest venture is into fiction. In this interview with Jeremy Williams, Tony talks about the role that fiction can play in imagining a better world and a fairer economics.

JW: In a nutshell, what is Unlikely Alliances about?

TE: Unlikely Alliances is set in 2029/30. It’s a story about how a community responds positively and effectively to the challenges of our worsening climate conditions.  With lots of drama and some romance thrown in! It illustrates how local communities can contribute to climate action by doing practical and exciting things – provided they are willing to include all their fellow citizens in their work – and play! The local churches also play a significant role.

JW: You have spent many years advocating for a fairer economics, including helping to set up Joy in Enough. Some might see your fiction as a side project, but it sounds to me like you see it as part of the same work. How do you see fiction as a way of exploring these issues?

TE: I see it very much as part of my Joy in Enough work, not as a side issue. Certainly it is a story, one which I want the reader to enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it. (Writing it, incidentally, was a group experience, with five of us working together on our draft novels.) But I also have a conscious climate action and political change strategy woven into the story.

Quite early on we see a new coalition government being formed, and one of the main factors that brings these parties together is the need for even more urgent action on the climate. We see national policy being formulated to support the local level initiatives, such the renewable energy research and production up on the Downs, and the local food-growing. We see the local council putting pressure on the two local golf courses to amalgamate, to free up land for food growing. We see taxes being raised to help subsidise such enterprises and many others. Many of these enterprises will not be financially viable, so we see trade-union supported training initiatives to help employees and volunteers work side-by-side. In chapters 23 and 24 we see political lobbying in Bourne Valley to defend the coalition government when it is threatened by hostile vested interests.

The story puts lots of emphasis on product longevity, ensuring that everything from the clothes we wear to the white goods we use last longer. Tim Cooper, a researcher in this area and a Green Christian trustee, has written this article for Joy in Enough.

So we have lots of repair, renovation and maintenance workshops cropping up in Bourne Valley, with pride of place going to Revive and Thrive, the former Oxfam second-hand shop which now renovates clothes to a high standard as well! 

Of course all this requires legislation to outlaw planned obsolescence, the deliberate manufacture of cheap, throwaway goods. So the new government outlaws planned obsolescence – as the French government has actually done. Interestingly, there is nothing new about all this. In WW2 there was legislation to ensure all goods were built to a standard, so that they lasted in an era of great resource scarcity.

JW: What can storytelling do that campaigning can’t?

TE: Both effective campaigning and good storytelling can energise us for action.  But campaigning often feels like hard work.  We usually feel quite tired on coming home from rallies or marches or lobbies. Stories should be enjoyable to read, with the reader looking forward to her or his next ‘date’ with the book.  I try to create characters that the reader will want to spend time with.  More than one reader has told me she or he couldn’t put the book down, because they wanted to find out what happened to the characters!

I want the reader to (virtually) live the experience of transforming a community and contributing to transforming society. And then to move from virtual to real action.

JW: Are there real life projects, perhaps around social enterprise, that inspired you as you wrote? Or is it more of a utopian project?

TE: Mainly the former. Power for Good is a Birmingham church solar energy project. My wife Oona and I have invested some of our pension money in in this and six other renewable energy projects, including the nearby Brixton Energy Solar. We support many local food growing projects, and the most impressive I’ve seen are in our nearby Brockwell Park and in Brampton, Cumbria. There are lots of good examples of sustainable enterprises in your own book The Economics of Arrival, and among the case studies on the Joy in Enough website.

I’ve (virtually) brought many of them together in one place to help transform Bourne Valley and the people in it! Yes, it’s an optimistic scenario, but I think it’s a realistic one.

JW: As the title suggests, relationships – including romantic ones – are a theme here, showing how people can collaborate and work together around common goals. Consumerism pushes us towards individualism, so this is a counter-cultural, perhaps ‘prophetic’ way of seeing the world. Tell me a bit about the role of relationships and community in creating a fairer and more sustainable society.

TE: Research on happiness and well-being tells us that friendships and relationships lead to our happiness much more than money and stuff.  Consumerism is based on a myth: the belief that more stuff can make us happy. Yes, if you are very poor you need more money to buy more stuff, but consumer marketing is targeted at people with money to spend.

Consumer marketing also systematically creates dissatisfaction. Once you have made a purchase you often find yourself targeted with ads to upgrade to newer or better models or products.
The book reflects my belief that climate action at the local level is as essential as national or international legislation.  People working together locally reinforce each other in their beliefs and create the demand for effective supporting legislation. Of course there will be conflicts, as there are in Unlikely Alliances, but if people can work through the conflicts they can come out stronger, more bonded to each other.   

  • Unlikely Alliances can be ordered here, or read on for a review of the book.

Unlikely Alliances – a review by Chris Walton

This new novel by Tony is a surprise in a number of ways. First, while I have known Tony for a good number of years working and sharing together as a part of Green Christian’s Trusteeship and admired his dedication to environmentalism, and his practical leadership within Green Christian, what I didn’t know was that he is skilled and entertaining writer of fiction. From what I can gather Tony didn’t realize that himself until recently! I am honoured to have the opportunity to recommend Unlikely Alliances to you.

 It’s the story of ordinary people achieving the extraordinary in planning, desiring and imagining the greening of hospitality businesses, of local community life and even the local churches!

Jamie, a local councilor and part-time university librarian, enlists the support of Hannah, a local hotelier’s daughter, in a quest to get the Channel View hotel to take over “Curruthers’” catering. They recruit Noel, a trade union officer, Alison an HR specialist, and Andrew – a Catholic priest whose flock includes many of the catering workers. They succeed in winning over Derek, the dour no-nonsense businessman hotelier of the old school – but not without opposition from some quarters.

As I followed the story I became impatient to know what happens next (a pretty good sign for a novel). Some of the relationships are at least as raunchy as those in the Archers, but have their own big issues, especially in the case of Andrew the Catholic priest. So this is a novel not about living sustainably, not urging the reader to adopt a green life style. It’s the detailed story of a small community living the dream of an eco-lifestyle not simply in the domestic bubble, but in the community and corporate arena. 

 If you ever want to endorse this saying from George Bernard Shaw, then read this novel by one of our community: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire,  you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

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