Using fiction to save the planet: ‘Habitat Man’ and the Green Stories Project

Academics write articles about sustainability, but how many people read them? We commonly look to science to address the climate change crisis, but it is the arts and stories that fire imaginations and reach a wider audience that may never choose to watch a climate change documentary.

Frustrated by the limited readership of academic articles, and worried also about always preaching to the converted, I turned to fiction as a fun way to promote green solutions to a mainstream audience. Inspired by a real-life green garden consultancy, run by the Transition Network, Habitat Man is an eco-themed rom-com that combines comedy, fiction and science to foster green solutions. Tim – the unlikely hero – is fifty, single and trapped in a job he despises. In a desperate quest to find love and meaning, Tim transforms himself into Habitat Man, an eco-friendly twenty-first century superhero who endeavours to rescue the planet through a combination of wildlife gardening, composting toilets, bird psychology and green funerals. When Tim accidentally digs up the body of the fabled guerrilla knitter in a back garden, his struggle for a better future becomes threatened by secrets from his past. Tim’s crises mirror those faced by the planet, and his sharing-economy, costing-for-nature policies offer hope for us all.

Many activists believe that hope will lead to complacency but my research in the field of constructive vs traditional journalism, positive vs negative role models in business school education and green themes in story telling indicate the reverse. For example, in a recent study, readers were exposed to short stories with a green theme that had either a catastrophic focus or solution focus. While both raised awareness, findings indicated that solution-focused stories with a positive tone were more likely to inspire greener behaviours and a proactive mind-set to address sustainability issues than stories with a catastrophic focus. This seemed to be because negatively framed stories can either make people avoid the subject and switch off, or leave them feeling helpless to make a difference.

This is an issue as almost all stories set in the future are dystopian. To help redress the balance, three years ago I set up a series of free Green Stories writing competitions to encourage positive visions of what a sustainable society might look like. We ask writers to check out transformative solutions on and integrate them into their story. A rom-com, for example, could be set in a sharing economy that replaces ownership with borrowing; the hero in a crime drama could use a carbon-credit card; a family drama could be set in a society where people have gardens on their roofs, use green technologies, eat insect burgers and generate energy from their own waste, and so on.

We’ve run 12 competitions so far which have given rise to one novel ‘Blind Eye’ and an anthology of short stories called ‘Resurrection Trust’, with a foreword by Caroline Lucas MP and review by Jonathon Porritt. Stories in various ways showcased green solutions, for example one describes a Library of Things where the librarian match-makes based on member’s borrowing histories. We need to be consuming about a fifth of what we consume currently to stay within ecological limits, so switching from an ownership model to a sharing model is a great way to do this without affecting our standard of living. Such stories raise awareness without being preachy or appealing only to green readers.

We now have sponsorship from Orna Ross who set up the Alliance of Independent Authors. This means that we can offer £1500 of prizes and help towards publication for the winning entries of the upcoming Orna Ross Green Stories Novel Prize (deadline 30 Dec 2021). We also have short story competitions coming up in 2022 with a category for adults and a prize for under 18s. Competitions are free to enter and open to all, as long as they are in English and unpublished, so feel free to enter or share details with any aspiring writers who may be interested. You can follow on @greenstoriesUK

I’m doing quite a few workshops on writing for a cause, and how to move beyond preaching to the converted. If you’d be interested to have me speak, do let me know see