Tom Pashby reviews Anna Trompetas’s OffSet, a dystopian climate fiction novel that explores questions of morality, motherhood and class inequality
OffSet centres around two women on opposite sides of the class divide in London in the 2040s. The climate emergency has forced the world to act, via the United Nations’ COP process, and personal carbon rationing has been implemented in the UK.
The rationing allows for people to choose to buy more carbon credits, or offsets, from randomly selected people within the UK who have chosen to sell their credits. To sell credits, they need to cut back on their emissions and environmental impacts.
Both of the main characters are mothers. Alice is an upper-middle-class, stay-at-home mum in suburbia, whereas Sam is a working-class, single mum living in the inner city. Sam sells her carbon credits and has to cut back on public transport and single-use packaging, whereas Alice buys credits to afford her luxurious, carbon-intensive lifestyle.
This is climate fiction, but I think the book places too much faith in the COP process as a tool for implementation of climate governance measures.
So far, the enforcement mechanisms available to the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are either weak or non-existent. Something very significant would have to happen for a COP to impose carbon rationing as described in the book.
Nevertheless, I was very excited to see COP mentioned at all. If you work in climate policy, COP is often at the back of your mind. I have read a few climate fiction books, but this was the first to mention it.
One aspect that worked very well was that the narrative isn’t completely obvious until you’re deep into the book. The characters aren’t allocated clear positions on climate action.
They are both dealing with their lives in self-centred ways, as most of us do. They aren’t necessarily appraising the climate-action policies being imposed on them in a coherent way.
This is what makes climate fiction so powerful. It allows us to consider how the policies that those of us in the environment and sustainability profession contend with on a regular basis might play out in future.
We are dealing with a mess of policies and implementation, which are being worked on and delivered by nation states, intergovernmental institutions, local authorities, corporations, billionaires, courts, non-governmental organisations, grassroots organisers and individuals, and this book does a good job of punching through and trying to make sense of one aspect of that nebulous mix.
The author mixes emotion and storytelling with what is quite a niche corner of climate policy in a way that is thought-provoking and impactful.
Tom Pashby AIEMA is a freelance journalist
Meet OffSet author Anna Trompetas
What inspired you to write the book?
Dystopian fiction has always been my favourite, but not too far down the science fiction end of the scale, because I prefer the people aspect. I really loved The Handmaid’s Tale.
I’ve done quite a lot of travelling and seen the impact of climate disaster in the developing world, but here we’re spun this narrative of ‘This is something that’s going to happen in the future’. Millions of people are already dying from climate change, but we don’t really count it, because they are not us. I think that’s just such a Western, first-world lens to put over things, and we do that all the time.
Why did you choose to focus on carbon offsetting?
I think carbon offsetting is very likely to be real. Basically, it’s going to become another mainstream currency and another tool for oppression. Like any big challenge that hits the world, it will affect people unequally, based on the cushion that they’re able to give themselves financially – we saw it with Covid-19. I saw a good quote recently, which said ‘We’re all in the same storm, but we’re in different boats’. You can change your experience of anything difficult if you have money.
I’m of the opinion that if we don't have big change from the top – either mandated change or scientific discovery – then we're not going to fix things anyway. I don't think putting the onus on individuals is going to achieve anything – a few conscientious people aren’t going to be able to reduce impact emissions enough.
Why did you choose to focus on class inequality?
As soon as you start thinking about any kind of commodity that can be bought and sold, wealth is inextricably linked.
Wealth breeds wealth. For example, I’ve been doing some volunteering and going into people’s houses. A really basic example is that we see people who are still on prepay meters. We see people who haven’t got phone contracts and are paying so much more, just because they can’t stump up the capital upfront. I think that’s a metaphor for how it plays out on a global scale.
The more money you have at the start, the more money you can make off it – it’s going to be the same with carbon. People who are already disadvantaged are going to be more disadvantaged, but it’s actually us, the aggressors, who are the culprits for climate change happening, and now it’s us demanding the fix – ie, emissions reductions – from the developing world.
We’re stigmatising the fact that the industrial revolution happened just a few generations later in countries like India and China. We say that it’s all their fault, but, actually, we just did it sooner. On a macro scale, that’s like an international class dynamic.
Why did you focus on motherhood?
I’m actually having a little bit of an existential crisis about the impending timeline of the fact that I probably should be having kids soon. I’m 31, and everything is telling me that I’m supposed to be having kids soon. And that’s kind of making me freak out, so I guess it’s on my mind quite a lot.
I thought having a similarly aged son would be a good way to relate the two characters to each other, and it helped to minimise the selfish aspect of it, having these characters doing things not necessarily purely for themselves. I also wanted to illustrate the perspective that some people have, especially in the West, where they think ‘I don’t care about the planet because I’m going to die before it gets that bad’. But they need to start thinking about their kids – they are going to live in the kind of climate-impacted world that people in other continents are already living in now.
Do you think personal carbon rationing has a chance of implementation in the UK?
A more likely first step is for us to buy carbon credits from abroad, because we have this horrible English Defence League mentality of protecting our own and ‘othering’ other people. But a cap could come in, although I don’t really think an internationally mandated cap would work. People choosing to limit their own expenditure isn’t going to work either. The best solution possible would be a scientific breakthrough that swallows carbon or delivers unlimited green energy.
Do I think it’s going to happen in the UK? Probably not. We won’t do anything until we see the impact of climate breakdown on ourselves. And then it will be too late.
Is the book aimed at climate activists or climate denialists?
I actually have had a few people who, rather than being climate deniers are conspiracy theorists against the government, and have said ‘I knew this was gonna happen. They’re just thinking another way to control us, blah, blah.’
That was not the intention of this book. It was meant to be fiction. I don't think it’s turned out to be climate fiction at all – I feel like the climate aspect has been a backdrop and it became more of a social criticism. But I am not a climate denier. I hope that has come across, at least in this interview.
How do you think governments should address the climate emergency without provoking a gilet jaunes-style reaction?
There are obvious things, like not drilling for more oil in the North Sea. I also think we have a massive responsibility to accept climate-displaced migrants. I’ve been reading a lot about global migration and the massive deficit of working-age people in developed countries, and then the massive surplus of working-age people in developing countries. For some people, their homes have been completely destroyed, yet we’re not letting them in. I just think that freedom of movement could solve a lot, along with looking beyond your own doorstep. Instead of us spending loads to do little patch repairs in the UK, we should see the world as one place, because, ultimately, as the temperature goes up, it’s going to go up across the whole world. Thinking about effective use of money and time on a global scale would be better than everyone just looking in their own backyard.
How established do you think climate fiction is as its own genre?
Given that climate disaster is actually happening now, it’s an inevitable backdrop to any art or literature. Even if it’s not explicitly referenced, it’s going to be in the psyche of the artist or author. Not alluding to it is an act of omission.