A tale of crisis and coping
The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids.…Cory Doctorow
ATMOSPHERIC carbon dioxide has reached 470 parts per million (ppm) and the wildness of the weather is matched by the dysfunction of social conditions, of the national economy, national politics and environmental conditions. In all of this, Kat, Sophie, Zanna and their family and friends do what they can to cope.
That, more or less, summarises Linda Woodrow’s book, 470. The title refers to the concentration of carbon dioxide measured in parts per million in the atmosphere, the common indicator of the extent of global heating. Linda has taken the changes projected to occur at this concentration and woven characters and events around them. In May 2020 we reached 417ppm.
The book raises questions about human behavior, technology and how life might unfold during the collapse of social and environmental systems. Is it one of the growing number of post-apocalypse novels? I suppose it could be read as that, however it is more hopeful despite the disasters Linda describes. Unlike some of those novels there is a sense of adaption and continuity in life that brings to mind the lifestyle of Annie Raser-Rowlands and Adam Grubbs book, The Art of Frugal Hedonism.
A new literary subgenre
It was decades ago that I read my first post-apocalypse novel. That was Earth Abides, the 1949 work of American writer, George R Stewart. The novel tells the story of the lead character and of others who band together as some of the few survivors of a pandemic, and how they cope.
470 is a work of speculative fiction. We can view it as dystopian fiction, a subgenre that can be a tale of social and environmental disintegration, or it can be a story of redemption as solutions are found and civilisation is rescued. Linda’s 470 covers too-short a time period to be a tale of redemption. It leaves us wondering. That’s no bad thing because an open ending can be the stimulus to thinking about the scenario, what we might do in similar circumstances and how they could be avoided. The tag ‘cli-fi’ is a recent invention adapted from sci-fi, science fiction, to define the subgenre of climate-change-based fiction which Linda’s book neatly slots into. With the way things are going, cli-fi has an assured future.
Cli-fi might be new but it is not so new it doesn’t have a past. American science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson (usually abbreviated to KSR) is the most noted cli-fi author with his Science in the Capitol trilogy about science, climate change politics and adaptation in Washington DC, and his New York 2140, about the city flooded by sea level rise. His 2020 novel, The Ministry for the Future, is set in 2025 and is about the creation of the Ministry to advocate for future generations as the impacts of global heating make themselves felt. Readers of science fiction familiar with the permaculture design system will know that KSR speaks highly of it.
Robinson is the latest in a long line of sci-fi writers, going back to Judith Merril and Robert Heinlein in the 1960s, who argue that science fiction is the only genre that, one, treats seriously the complex effects of technological change on humanity, and two, confronts the ecological devastation of Earth by industrial capitalism…https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/11/kim-stanley-robinson-socialist-novelist
Noted science fiction author and scientist, David Brin, brought climate change and environmental chaos into his 1990 novel, Earth, in the time before it became a prominent political issue. He also talks of a global web of communications—the internet didn’t exist in its present form when he wrote his novel and social media lay in an unimagined future.
Although not about climate change, in her 1993 post-apocalypse novel, Parable of the Sower, American author Octavia Butler has parallels with content we find in Linda’s 470: a nation in social and economic collapse; crime; the destination of an intentional community in northern California that is reminiscent of the ecovillage in 470. In the novel, the Christian right supports a presidential candidate whose campaign slogan is ‘Help us make America great again.’ As the writer Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. We already have the gated communities the affluent live in in Octavia’s novel. We can only wonder whether ecovillages could become gated communities in a crisis and shut their gates to family and friends seeking refuge.
KSR summed up the role of the writer of speculative fiction when he said:
“It’s almost as if a science fiction writer’s job is to represent the unborn humanity that will inherit this place. You’re speaking from the future and for the future. And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse. But you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.”
My review: a note
As I read the chapters, the novel triggered memory of my own experience. I refer to it in some of my comments. I also make links to bigger-picture trends and events where they are relevant to 470’s storyline.
In reviewing 470 I clump my comments into themes which the author raises, through which she develops her characters and around which the action unfolds. I refer to the permaculture design system, which Linda is more-than familiar with. Her book achieved its initial popularity with the practitioners of that system.
Not quite the conventional structure
As I started reading 470 I expected it to follow the classic fiction writing structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, the common structure of dramatic fiction consisting of successive phases which graph to form a bell curve: background/setting > rising action > climax > falling action > resolution.
470 starts by situating the characters in their personal and social background and in their geographic situation on the NSW North Coast in the Byron Bay-Mullumbimby region. We learn that Zanna, one of the main characters, is a pilates and yoga teacher house-minding a waterfront property at Belongil, a beachfront enclave on Byron Bay’s northern outskirts. Kat, Zanna’s sister, and her partner, Sophie, live in an ecovillage in the Mullumbimby hinterland. An ecovillage is a type of land sharing settlement developed from the intentional communities of the 1970s and beyond, of which there were quite a few in the region.
The coming of the cyclone and the response of the the main characters moves the story into the rising action phase. The setting moves from Byron Bay to an evacuation centre and on to the ecovillage.
Rather than move to some dramatic climax, the story plateaus at the ecovillage. There is no conclusive, dramatic action scene which sets the stage for the story’s resolution. What Linda provides are a number of smaller action scenes. There is a resolution of sorts signified in the final chapter which suggests continuity in the way that life that is unfolding in the now-changed social and environmental circumstances of a world altered by global heating.
Spanning the years from 2031 to 2036, the book is divided into three parts, a device to navigate the passage of time. The opening chapters background place and characters. Here, Linda starts the character development necessary to any work of fiction. The protagonists are true to the character types of the region. Did Linda base them on actual people she knows or has encountered, changing details to make them unrecognisable in the way Jack Kerouac developed characters in his novels? Did she amalgamate several real characters into a single fictional character, a fiction writing technique?
We learn of the climate crisis in the opening chapters. The fierce weather introduced in chapter 6 becomes a theme which gives continuity through following chapters. With the characters and their settings introduced in the chapters establishing background, and the presence and threat of global heating also introduced, we move into the story’s rising action.
The climate comes to Byron
There is a cyclone off Brisbane. Linda has obviously done her research, as a more-southerly cyclone track is predicted by climate scientists as the climate warms. Cyclones are nothing new to Brisbane although they are infrequent at present. I recall cyclones during my childhood in the city when our family took shelter under the dining room table.
The impending cyclone arrives at the same time as a king tide. Zanna is rightly worried about the fate of the beachside house she is minding and the two small dogs there. The king tide could only worsen the impact of the cyclone.
Beachfronts are not good places to built houses. Beaches are mobile formations. Tides, swells and currents sweep sand away. A big storm swell coming at the same time as a king tide does this rapidly. There are a growing number of real-world examples that demonstrate why Zanna should be worried:
- I saw what tides, currents and swells can do when living at Manly, at the southern end of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, when part of the beach disappeared in a big tide only to return as the current replenished the sand
- the disappearance of beaches led to the construction of a series of groynes to trap sand after dredging at Port Botany disrupted longshore current flow and sand drift, scouring away the beaches along the Botany Bay foreshore
- although it was more related to longshore sand drift than to storm swells, something similar happened in 2020 at Clarks Beach, Byron Bay, where I sometimes had breakfast in the little cafe when it was nothing more than a shack on a sand dune before council upgraded it, and at Main Beach in town (more)
- then there was erosion of the Collaroy and Narrabeen foreshore on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 2016 when a big swell came ashore at the same time as a king tide and took away 50 metres of the beach; beachside residents lost parts of their backyards as the erosion crept closer to their homes; there was a startling photo of someone’s swimming pool upended onto the beach, or what remained of it (more)
- there was a repeat performance in 2020 when the heaviest rain in 20 years combined with a king tide and huge seas to remove 25 metres of the same beach and threaten beachside homes
- in December 2020, Byron Bay’s beaches were again swept away (and here) as a storm surge from an East Coast low off Brisbane and torrential rains brought coastal erosion and flooding to the region.
With the cyclone heading her way and as the Belongil area starts to flood, the SES (State Emergency Services) evacuate Zanna to a shopping centre, now as evacuation refuge. Here she encounters Doobie who made his way there after helping take down a music festival. He is flat broke although he carries some interesting cookies that can be exchanged for cash. Mistaken for a looter at the refuge, he is assaulted and is rescued by the roadie he met at the festival. Doobie is a secondary character who reappears in the story. Linda does a good job in developing him as a character, however his fate is left hanging after his last appearance. What happened to Doobie? We never learn.
In Chapter 14, Zanna is back in Byron Bay and walking through flooded streets when she is told by a dirt bike rider of Belongil’s fate. It has gone. Where there was Belongil there is now sea.
Here, Linda’s novel joins hands with reality again. Belongil and its beachfront houses were threatened by erosion around 15 years ago . The threat continues with one report admitting that “parts of the present coastline may well need to be abandoned as they become impractical and too expensive to protect”. Plans for the construction of a rock barrier to stop the erosion of beachside properties were hotly debated in town with some locals saying to just let the beachfront houses fall into the sea. In 2020, Belongil property owners wanting council to extend the rock wall lost their court case against the NSW Coastal Panel which opposed their demand. There was evident resentment of what some described as wealthy beachfront homeowners. Echoing the sentiment, the local newspaper reported that “The Echo has previously reported that almost all of the Belongil landowners who submitted their DAs do not live at the properties and are some of Australia’s wealthiest individuals.” I can only imagine that we will see this replayed time and again as rising seas, deteriorating weather and coastal erosion worsen.
Kat and Sophie’s house in the ecovillage survives the cyclone, however some of the houses are damaged and a collapsing wall breaks a woman’s leg. Flooded streams prevent her immediate evacuation, however an ecovillage resident with nursing experience patches her up until they get her out later, only to find a line of people awaiting attention at the hospital.
Zanna encounters looters who threaten her, the same youths she confronted when they were harassing a woman in the evacuation shelter. They give chase and Zanna grabs a damaged surf ski, paddles offshore and decides to follow the river into Mullumbimby. The story's setting now shifts to the ecovillage.
The services crash
Economic retraction and political dysfunction has led to the slashing of government services. We discover that hospitals are affected. In Melbourne, Zanna and Kat’s parents, Phil and Maureen, grapple with power and water outages. Maureen, a nurse, is owed back pay by the state government. The national parks service is no more. We learn more about the retraction of government services as the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) lacked the capacity to issue early warning of the impending cyclone. This doesn’t ring quite true for me. Wouldn’t the BOM be one of the last services to be cut because of its importance to the economy? Farming, air transport, personal lives and so much more depend on it.
In Melbourne, housing prices are down and mortgage repossessions common. There is no watering of gardens. The water went off when the electricity supply to the pumps went off, and the electricity went off because there wasn’t enough water to cool the Latrobe power plants still burning brown coal. Here, Linda highlights the interlinking of the systems which support us. Failure in one part spreads to the failure of others in a downstream collapse scenario. With the impact of the drought, the economy in decline and power and water shortages, we have synchronous systems failure, the most difficult scenario to fix and to cope with.
This cascading crash occurred in the non-fiction world when a few years ago the Bass Strait undersea power cable connecting the energy distribution systems in Tasmania and on the mainland failed, and was out of action for months. At the same time, a drought in Tasmania led to low dam levels and insufficient water to run the hydroelectric turbines. The scenario was this: drought led to diminishing dam storage which reduced hydroelectric power generation which, with the undersea power cable out of action, pushed the state into energy uncertainty. The state government had to purchase diesel generators to ensure supply. It was another example of cascading systems failure, of how a malfunction or failure in one part of a system travels through the system.
There is also a deterioration of non-government services in Linda’s novel. Supermarkets have closed in the cyclone. The internet is down, as is the mobile network. Even the brush turkeys marauding Kat and Sophie’s vegetable garden are in danger from the women’s slingshot they use to deter them — diversity might be good in permaculture theory, but some diversity is of the unwanted kind.
Sophie’s carrying her bag in front with the strap across her chest while in town suggests a worsening personal security situation. Fear and precaution feed anxieties and can be as limiting on free movement as any real threat.
Siding with the Greens, the Climate Code Red party forces a no confidence vote against the government and triggers an election. Meanwhile, China is swept by a polar vortex.
The rising action of Part 1's chapters is carried on the worsening weather and social disintegration.
Planning for emergency
Coming out of Part 1, the story raises the need for people to plan for emergency situations like bushfire and flooding and to include an evacuation plan. What risks are there in the local area and could they trigger evacuation? Where could people evacuate to? What should they pack ready to grab and run? How would they get to their evacuation destination? What could impede evacuation? How do they stay in communication with family, friends, news sources and emergency authorities? Bushfire authorities already recommend preparing emergency plans.
The extensive 2019 bushfires along the Australian South East Coast demonstrated the need for reliable communications. For ecovillages with scattered dwellings, like Kat and Sophie’s, a citizen band radio network makes sense for internal communication. This they have. Isolated in the backcountry with creek crossings to get in and out, a reliable vehicle capable of handling rough roads is an asset, as is a radio for news of the outside world and for warnings issued by the authorities for the type of situation the two find themselves in during the cyclone. During the bushfires, people tuned into ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the government-funded national broadcasting network) radio for news. We suddenly realised the critical value of the internet and the mobile phone network, including for text messages from emergency authorities and for contact with family and friends, and of the need to reinforce these to make them more resilient to disaster conditions.
Isolated settlements like that in the novel may be out of range of the mobile network and the internet unless someone has a satellite connection, which is the case in the ecovillage. Hosting servers are down but text-over-amateur-radio is possible using message boards. Later, two ecovillage residents set up a local-area mesh network.
With the rising action now in the ecovillage, recalcitrant goats, chooks and assorted wildlife including a rare frog sought by a researcher staying in the ecovillage become players in the story as it explores how people live there.
An emergent local economy: food and salvage
Kat and Sophie join the street sellers in town, offering what little surplus they can grow in the ecovillage. A black market exists, however the street stalls suggest the start of an informal local economy trading in food, tools, goods and salvaged technologies. We learn later that cryptocurrency is being used.
The makings of an informal economy raise the question of how trading could be made more effective. During the financial crises of a decade ago in Spain, people set up community-based trading systems not unlike the cashless LETS (Local Exchange and Trading Systems) that existed in Australia from the 1990s and then went into decline although some, like CENTS — Community Exchange Network Tasmania — appear to still operate.
A system like this could ease trading within the ecovillage and move away from the barter that is in use. The problem with barter is in finding something of equivalent value to swap for something else. LETS avoids this because it is based on credit and debit for goods and services supplied and used. With this recorded in a ledger, there is no need for direct exchange. While mutual credit systems like LETS have struggled in the mainstream economy, they may be a solution during a crisis.
Gardening: for subsistence of fun?
There’s a revealing scene when Sophie realises they have too-little stock of basics like rice, sugar, flour, salt and cooking oil. She fears food shortages and realises they have been gardening for fun rather than need. They have vegetables but lack staples like grains and root crops. Theirs’ is not true subsistence gardening. They have been gardening without the threat of going hungry and have no knowledge of how to make anything from the staples they could grow.
How does this translate to the gardens of permaculture people? It raises the question of whether they, too, garden for fun rather than for need.
One of the questions Linda’s story raises is about diet. The crisis is not the time for vegetarianism. We are treated to a wallaby killing scene as Kat and Sophie trap the animal, kill, butcher, cook and eat it.
With garden irrigation banned in Melbourne, Phil surreptitiously waters his garden by night. Here we have another example with its feet firmly in reality. The drought of 2007-2008 saw watering was banned in some regions. It undermines the belief that home food gardens could sustain families in some disaster scenarios. Certainly, grey water could be reused on vegetable gardens, however it too would be in short supply in a prolonged drought. Likewise, rainwater harvested from roofs and stored in tanks would offer a finite supply even when judiciously used.
This presents a case in favour of hydroponics with its low-water use and the electricity for its pump available through a photovoltaic and battery system. It would depend on the ability of gardeners to make their own nutrients to add to the system, something which is already being done. Still, hydroponics does not grow the energy-rich root crops and the grains a balanced diet needs. We do not live on vegetables alone.
Linda introduces the question of household security in a crisis when kids jump the fence to steal Phil’s vegetables from the garden. It is reminiscent of what reportedly happened to a few permaculture gardeners during the pandemic. One of the kids picks up a garden fork and moves towards Phil. He reaches for his slingshot, usually used to deter possums in the garden, and injures the kid with three well-placed ballbearing hits. Personal and community security reappear later in the novel.
The dilemma of friends and family
It would be a dilemma. Whatever assistance ecovillage residents might want to give to displaced people would have to be counterbalanced by the resources available. As the novel shows, it could become a source of internal tension.
The challenge of visitors comes with Bodhi, Sophie’s dad, and Dee, her mum, arriving from Brisbane on an electric motor bike, as well as another family in a diesel truck. The parents bring news of toxic blue-green algae in Brisbane’s water supply, so river water can’t use on edible plants. They report that there is water theft from household tanks at night. People are getting out of the city.
The community meets to thrash out what to do about people who want to live in the village. Craig, a prepper, is a bit of a pain although security conscious and capable. He emphasises the need to keep the community safe by not allowing strangers to come in. Our little community isn’t an island, someone says in return.
An uninvited visitor, Seraphina, is discovered camping on the edge of the ecovillage. She speaks New Age word-salad and lives on pranic energy, she says. After being rescued by Kat and Sophie, Seraphina disappears. A shot alerts everyone that something is going on and the family who came in their truck packs and leaves after Craig orders visitors out. Another meeting, and a solution is worked out in making friends and family the responsibility of their hosts.
In Melbourne, extreme temperatures lead to the loss of Maureen from heat stroke. Phil loads a pack and sets off by train and thumb for his daughter’s place. He meets Noah who lives in an earthship near Cootamundra and who derives energy from a methane digester although he doesn’t produce enough waste to run it effectively. Noah breeds bisexual carob, a dry-tolerant tree crop, and naturally hybridised cherries grown from roadside-collected seed. Phil eventually arrives at the ecovillage.
The visitor incidents raises the seldom-explored dilemma of what intentional communities like ecovillages should do were a severe, prolonged crises to force people out of the city and into the countryside. Support the refugees or close the gates and become a gated community?
Through descriptions of Kat, Sophie's and Zanna's daily life we learn of life in the village. Tending animals, gardening, cooking using whatever ingredients are available and trips to town for selling excess produce has become Zanna's life now that she lives with the two women.
We learn that Kat and Sophie’s off-grid home is powered by a photovoltaic system feeding deep cycle batteries. As the text explains, these batteries should not be discharged below 50% capacity. It is interesting that a house in the 2030s would still be using deep cycle technology rather than lithium ion batteries, which can be run down without damage, or some other battery technology not yet invented.
Now, Zanna discovers she is pregnant.
Security and health
Craig is a skilled hunter of feral animals. One night, he sets up an ambush to catch the thief who made off with Kat and Sophie’s water pump. Ducks have disappeared as well, and a shot was fired by the thief. The intruder comes along the track only to be scared off by a snake. In another incident, Sophie gives chase when someone tries to steal their goat. The thief is caught on Craig’s wildlife camera. They visit him and recover their property.
Ensuring security would become an issue for any intentional community during a prolonged crisis. There are gardens to raid, animals to steal, tools and equipment to take. How communities would deal with this is unknown. Security is probably far from the minds of present-day communards.
The value of vaccination
Linda bravely tackles the vaccination issue. Bravely, because she lives in a region known as the national epicentre of anti-vaccination sentiment. The issue arises over whether Zannia should immunize her baby with a vaccine that Belle, the nurse who lives in the village, obtained from the clinic where she works.
Zanna is uncertain and mentions one of the women in her yoga class claiming that vaccination is a cover for a mass sterilisation program. Kat responds by saying: “And I have a sister who believes in fairy dust and water swirled ten times anticlockwise! We’re going back to the Dark Ages here and we have one little bit of twenty-first-century science that we can grab before it disappears.”
Kat tells Zanna that the risk of diseases spreading are high since medical services have been reduced. Diphtheria is back. Cholera is in town. Handling horse manure in the garden risks tetanus. With dengue, yellow fever and zika around, the challenge of summoning urgent medical assistance when it is in high demand, and of transportation when road and vehicle conditions are poor, comes up. The risk of contagious disease is growing and could sweep through their little community. Vaccine is in high demand and worth a lot now that people realise its true value.
The mesh network allows them to track bushfires within ten kilometers. One is on the way. It has been a dry winter. The air smells of smoke. The animals are jittery. The smoke gives Marli, Zannia’s son now a year old, asthma. She makes an ebicycle trip to town to get Ventilin from a black market extortionist.
Just as happened with toilet paper and staple foods during the opening months of the 2020 pandemic in Australia, in the approach of a crisis like that of the story we can expect to find people bulk-buying essentials, mostly for themselves as well as, in the case of the extortionist who hoarded medical supplies, as high priced black market goods. There was the case of the Adelaide man who hoarded over 5000 rolls of toilet paper as the Covid-19 pandemic triggered panic buying in early 2020.
It is 2036
It is now 2036. The book ends with a birthday party for Zanna and another ecovillage resident's sons, both born on the same day. They are five.
If we think back to the Freytag's Pyramid storytelling structure, this scene is the falling action, the second last phase. In its domesticity and with its happy vibe it is a reassuring scene but not quite the resolution of the story, the 'lived happily ever after' or its opposite ending. It is uplifting, and I wonder if Linda wants to leave us with a sense of continuity, that the characters and their lives in the ecovillage will go on as they have been? Still, surrounded by a deteriorating environment and society, there’s that feeling of uncertainty hanging there in the background.
Could we recover from collapse?
On reading 470, David Holmgren’s 2009 book, Future scenarios: how communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change, came to mind. David co-developed the permaculture design system and now positions himself as a public intellectual and futurist.
David presents four future scenarios in his book: brown tech; green tech; lifeboats; earth steward. These are stark classifications that do not fit neatly into the complexity of the world. When we look around we see the reality that several of these scenarios exist simultaneously in the one place. Currently, we live in a hybrid reality of a brown tech world out of which green tech is struggling to emerge and transform it. The saying goes that the future can be seen in microcosm in the present. That explains the limited presence in today’s world of earth steward model amid the others, the preferred model for many in permaculture that some attempt to implement, piece by piece.
Where does Linda’s book fit this classification system? It, too, has its feet in different scenarios. While there are green tech elements, the ecovillage fits more the lifeboat scenario in which people go into survival mode amid a worsening climate crisis. At the same time the food production and other systems in the ecovillage and the growing local economy in town hint at an earth steward model emerging, though that is far from the dominant model operating.
The Dark Ages that Sophie mentions followed the collapse of Imperial Rome. The result was a massive loss of knowledge as the empire disintegrated, fracturing Roman Europe. The knowledge that was salvaged was housed by monasteries and Islamic scholars. Europe didn’t start to recovered until the start of The Enlightenment hundreds of years later. The loss of knowledge could happen again were our present civilisation to collapse.
Is this the way the world would go in a crisis? Astrobiology researcher and professor at the University of Westminster, Lewis Dartnell, thinks differently. Following a catastrophe, he writes on his 2014 book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, we could reboot technological civilisation if we have a way of retaining the necessary knowledge. How to do that is the theme of his book. He suggests the development of ‘appropriate technology’ (and here) because it sits between traditional technology and hi-tech in terms of manufacture, maintainability and skill demand. It is a means of avoiding a return to the Neolithic and of recovering from Zanna, Kat and Sophie’s world.
470 ends unexpectedly. We are reading about life in the ecovillage and then the story stops. It works, however I finished my reading expecting more. The final chapter read like the ending of just another chapter. I clicked the page expending the next. It wasn’t there. There was no winding down of the story. What follows is an epilogue outlining the climate crisis as it unfolded. That winds up 470.
The ending would make the beginning of a sequel. What happens over the years in which the two children grow up? How does the ecovillage fare through the collapse? And the main characters? And Doobie, would he have a role in a sequel? How does the town and the region evolve? Does an alternative economy and culture develop? And what of the nation? Does the climate start to show signs of resetting at a new level, as systems do after major disturbance, and is it one in which humans can live in the Anthropocene?
What was 470 like to read? In the best tradition of fiction writing, it was easy. Is it bedtime reading? Yes, but your curiosity about what happens next might make for a sleepless night.
One of the reasons behind 470s readability is its short chapters structured around the main characters. Linda backgrounds the characters and we learn about how they think and their internal conflicts. Conflict, both internal and with something happening in the world is an important component of fiction writing. It generates the tension through which characters are developed and the story carried. Usually, main characters are goal driven. They want something. In the book that was the security of life in the ecovillage although it didn't come through strongly.
How does Linda context the characters and their stories within the larger, climate-change-induced disaster going on in the world? Not with long and technical exposition to explain them. Instead, she explains the big changes through the experience of the characters and with brief descriptions. That makes for easier reading.
Are the characters credible? They are. Before I lived in Byron Bay I lived a hybrid life split between working in Sydney as editor of an environmental industry publication and in what I can best describe as a decentralised sharehouse in the littoral rainforest on top of the headland at Broken Head, a few kilometres south of Byron. Some of the people who lived in the shacks scattered around the community house were similar in appearance, attitude and manner to those in Linda’s novel. This made her characters real to me. They fit the stereotypical yoga practitioner/organic food eater/spiritually-inclined type that lead character Zanna initially comes across as.
Is the story credible, as much as speculative fiction can be? To answer that we need to look at a couple things.
The first is about the story’s setting in the Byron Bay-Mullumbimby region of the NSW North Coast. I have to admit to a little bias here because some time after my Broken Head days I lived in Byron, so the places in Linda’s story are familiar. I can read her words and see mental images of the locations at the same time. This region is home territory to Linda and that lends her story a geographic authenticity, as does her living on an intentional community.
Is the storyline credible? Yes. Thanks to its grounding in place and people and in extrapolating climatic trends into the fictional near-future of the 2030s.
Speculative fiction offers a means to think about the future because we can take present-day trends and extrapolate them along different trajectories to see where they go. It is a way of imagining the futures we don’t want and those that we do, and of how we can get there. That is why the books of Kim Stanley Robinson and David Brin work. They talk to us about what could be. They ask that important question: what if?
470 is not a book about permaculture although it comes from an author familiar with the design system. Speculative fiction is not a literary path taken by writers associated with the permaculture design system even though permaculture gets mention in the works of Kim Stanley Robinson. Permaculture’s literature to date has been that of manuals, of instructional and descriptive texts. In the best permaculture tradition, 470 steps across boundaries in appealing to readers of permaculture literature as well as science fiction and its newly-born subgenre,cli-fi. If 470 does only one thing, it opens the door to a role for speculative fiction in taking the design system to new audiences.
470; 2020 Linda Woodrow; Melliodora Publishing, Hepburn.
ISBN (print) 9780 6483 44247
ISBN (digital edition) 9780 6483 44254
Linda is author of The Permaculture Home Garden (1996, Penguin Books).
Buy a hard copy of 470
Buy a digital edition of 470. ePub or .mobi (Kindle) format.
Melliodora Publishing, publishers of 470
Permaculture Principles, Australian selling agent for 470.
Future scenarios : how communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change
2009, David Holmgren; Chelsea Green UK. ISBN-10: 1900322501
This book is out of print and no digital edition is available. See a precis: https://www.futurescenarios.org/4-descent-scenarios/4-3-four-descent-scenarios/
The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch; 2014, Lewis Dartnell; Vintage Books UK. ISBN: 9781448137381