Margaret Atwood on Climate Change, Her New Book and Why Socialists Are Better with Budgets
We asked the speculative fiction writer about this month’s Canadian elections and (relatedly?) whether humanity is doomed.
One might expect Margaret Atwood to have a dark take on humanity’s future. Over the course of a 50-year career, the Canadian novelist has penned a number of Orwellian scenarios: a fundamentalist Christian coup inThe Handmaid’s Tale, a genetic experiment run amok in Oryx and Crake, and, in her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, an economic crash that leaves most Americans living hand to mouth (unless they’re selected for a company town whose bylaws have some hellish fine print). Atwood has stressed that she writes not “sci-fi” with “pod people,” but rather “speculative fiction”: things that could happen, or have happened.
In a recent essay for Medium that might be termed “speculative journalism,” she lays out three energy futures. In Picture One, oil has run out, but we happily rely on solar cars, sailboats, trains and bicycles for transportation — and lots of long underwear for warmth. In Picture Two, the oil flow shuts off abruptly and panic erupts. Picture Three is a hybrid: Countries that planned ahead, like Iceland, transition smoothly into Picture One and close their borders; the rest of us descend into chaos.
In These Times reached Atwood by phone to ask who she’s supporting in the upcoming Canadian elections, what role fiction plays in sounding the alarm about climate change, and whether our species is doomed.
You’ve written about the emerging genre of “cli-fi.” Would it be fair to say that speculative fiction represents a possible future and cli-fi represents—
—the future? I’m always a bit wary of saying “the future,” because anything can happen between now and the future. Let us say that it is the yellow brick road we see before us, unless we change our wicked ways.
In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge looks at his future, which is horrible, and he says to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Is this unalterable? Can I change it?” And the ghost doesn’t answer him. But then Scrooge wakes up to find he can alter his future. The answer was actually “yes,” but he had to figure it out for himself.
Do you think we can avert the more terrifying climate-change scenarios — Pictures Two and Three?
I see us at a point of transition right now. The mere fact that you are doing this interview is an indication. Five years ago, you would not have been. I see a lot of signs of a transition away from oil. But the big questions are: Is it enough, and is it fast enough? Or are we all going to cook?
What do you think — are we?
There’s actually no point in saying, “We’re doomed.” In my book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, I cover the various responses to the Black Death. One was to run away very fast, but usually the plague caught up with people anyway. Some people secluded themselves in castles. Some people tried to help: They ministered to the sick and usually died themselves. Some people raped, pillaged and threw parties. And some of them kept records. We’re extremely indebted to them — they didn’t know why it was happening, but they wrote it down, allowing us to make an educated guess.
If you say, “You’re doomed and you’re gonna cook,” all those who might otherwise try to help are going to instead run away very fast, or rape, pillage, loot and party. Hope is what causes you to get up in the morning and make an effort. So I’m all for hope.
What do you think of Naomi Klein’s argument that we need to tackle capitalism to tackle climate change?
I’m always interested to know what people have in mind. What is your alternative? People say, “We have to stop using oil right now!”, and I say, “Then you’re going to get social chaos: warlords and complete breakdown and famine and murder.” We are hooked on it at the moment. It’s like any addiction: We have to transition. If we transition wisely, we can get off it.
There’s something in Canada called the Ecofiscal Commission. It believes that some of the solutions are market solutions. [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk, for example — what he’s doing makes me very hopeful. He’s very cleverly made his patents public so that nobody can take him over and shut him down.
If you ask any person, “If you can have a snazzy car at a comparable price, and it’s all electric and you can recharge with the sun, would you have one?” They say, “Yes.” And then if you say, “If you could have a battery in your house that you recharge with the sun, which will run all of your appliances and therefore you never have to get another electrical bill from a power company — and it’s all direct solar, so there’s no emissions — would you get one if it was the comparable price?” Doesn’t take an instant to say, “Yes.” Nobody says, “I want to stick with oil. I like it — I like the smell, I like the goo, I like everything about it.”
Does state intervention play a role?
No, it doesn’t. Oil has become uneconomical in that the cost of it down the line, people are beginning to realize, is too high. If you’re subsidizing the thing all the time, then it’s obviously not paying for itself, is it?
I think Naomi’s argument is that the state should be subsidizing fossil-fuel alternatives in order to even the playing field.
Yes, in that respect, we might need the kind of state intervention we are seeing now in the form of massive subsidies for oil. Even the playing field and supply an alternative. I’m no big fan of ginormous wind farms or ginormous solar farms. I’m much more a fan of smaller ones, more local. You’re not causing the electricity to travel very far, which is less wasteful.
The Holy Grail right now is a non-toxic battery. The other Holy Grail is non-toxic solar panels. People are working on those. There’s now a solar panel made of algae.
Where else do you see hope?
Preston Manning… used to be thought of as a very right-wing guy. But he has sat down with the ecologists and conservationists. That is a swing. And you’re seeing more of that amongst fundamentalist Christians now then you ever would have 15 years ago.
Is that coming out of theology?
You know, there’s a lot of scriptural support [for environmentalism] if you actually go and look. If you look at my book In the Year of the Flood, you will find some handy, scripturally-based sermons on those very themes. If you are supposed to love your neighbor as yourself, you have to love the air that they breathe, the water that they drink, and the food that they eat. Look at the sermon about Noah’s Ark. That’s a good one, because God says, “ ‘The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’ so therefore I’m not going to destroy them anymore.” I’m not sure what kind of non sequitur that was, but that’s what he said. The new covenant God makes — it’s repeated several times — is with all flesh. That means animals, too. You can’t make a covenant one-sidedly, so that implies animals are sentient. He says to the animals, “Okay, man’s got dominion, and you’re going to be very afraid of him.” Not the same as, “Man is a good person and therefore has dominion.” In fact, he said that man is evil.
On that note, who do you support in Canada’s upcoming election?
I support whoever, in their riding, can defeat a Conservative. It can be a Liberal; it can be the NDP. We have three main political parties, so we’re very conscious of vote-splitting. Last time, the incumbent [Conservative] government got voted in by 39 percent of the vote.
We’re excited a socialist party might actually have a chance on our continent.
If you look at the NDP’s actual policies, this is not your granddad’s socialism by any means. We’ve had NDP provincial governments in this country for quite some time. They’re usually better at budgets than the Conservatives. The Conservatives go out and say, “We’re for fiscal responsibility, blahdy-blah-blah,” and then people think, “Oh, good, they’re for fiscal responsibility,” which allows them to be very irresponsible. It’s sort of like being a girl in the 1950s and going into medical school: You just had to be better. For a long time in the 1960s and 1970s, I would only have women doctors and women dentists, because I knew they were going to be better.
What do you think about how the NDP has conducted itself in this campaign?
[NDP leader Tom] Mulcair is very smart. Nobody disputes that.
You recently were censored for an article about the prime minister’s grooming. Tell me about Hairgate.
The National Post pulled my article off the website, rumor has it in response to a call from you-know-who. It was kind of a silly piece. I know we take our hair seriously, and so do I — God knows, I’ve had it critiqued often enough in book reviews — but it wasn’t about hair. It was in response to an attack ad the Conservatives did on Justin Trudeau’s hair. The point of my piece was that maybe they shouldn’t be bringing it up, because who’s got the personal groomer that the taxpayer’s paying for?
And who on the other hand doesn’t need a personal groomer?
And who wouldn’t know what a personal groomer was if he fell over one?
But Trudeau came back with quite a snappy ad about hair, saying, “Stephen Harper wants to talk about Justin Trudeau’s hair. Justin Trudeau wants to talk about issues.
Let’s talk about your new novel, The Heart Goes Last. It’s speculative fiction set in the near future, but what struck me is how much the opening chapters — in which a couple is living out of their car after an economic crash — echo the recent financial crisis, or even the decline of the Rust Belt.
Oh yeah. Remember 2008? A lot of people lost their houses, particularly in the northeast and around Detroit. It was not an isolated experience. Every horrible thing that I’ve put in a book has usually already been done by somebody.
I really recognize Stan: this out-of-work guy who’s done everything right and has had his role as breadwinner undermined. And his wife, Charmaine, is trying to cope.
Anything that affects one partner in a relationship, of course it’s going to affect the other. The question is how. Do you become mommy, or do you get fed up?
And then they end up in a prison-like corporate town.
Every horrible thing that I’ve put in a book has usually already been done by somebody. This explores the intricacies and possible outcomes of for-profit prison schemes, among other things. You don’t have to go back very far in time to find parallels in history. You end up in 19th-century Australia. The penal colonies, they kept needing new recruits. To be a male transported to the penal colonies, you had to be a housebreaker or something like that. But there wasn’t a lot of female housebreakers, so they lowered the bar for women. They wanted them there to settle the men down, as it were. So a woman could get transported for basically sneezing. They handled it a lot like the way they used to handle recruitment for the army: They got some guy drunk and put a sovereign in his beer glass, and off he went into the navy.
To what extent do you think speculative fiction should play a role in warning people about possible futures?
You cannot tell writers what to do. Rule number one. The only kinds of cultures that tell writers what to do are totalitarian ones.
You don’t see a distinction between the state telling writers what to do and the public doing so?
I think it’s the same thing. Critique what they’ve done, but don’t tell them what to do.
Tell me about the Future Library.
An artist named Katie Paterson decided to do a slow time project called Future Library with the Oslo Public Library in Norway. She planted a forest of 1,000 seedlings that will grow for 100 years. Each year, a different author — any language, any country — will be asked to put a manuscript in a box. The rules are these. Number one: words only, no pictures. Number two: any form — poem, short story, memoir, letter, novel, screenplay, play, whatever. The third rule is you can’t tell anybody what’s in the box. Year 100, the box gets opened, and the trees will be cut to make the paper to print an anthology of the works.
You were the first writer to contribute, in 2014. Without breaking rule three, can you tell me how you approached writing for people 100 years from now?
It’s a short in the dark, but a bigger shot in the dark than the one you usually take, because you never know who’s going to read your book anyway. The only thing that readers have in common is that they’re readers. They can be from anywhere, any age, any gender, any race, any language group. Once it’s translated into languages you don’t know, you actually have no idea what it says. In a way, you’re already putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the sea. In this case, the sea is just bigger.
So do you think people will be around in 100 years to read this?
It’s a very hopeful project, because think about all of the things it assumes. It assumes, number one, there will be people. Nubmer two, they will be still reading. Number three, they’ll be interested in reading. Number four, there will be a Norway. Number five, the trees will have grown. Those are all big ‘ifs.’
Anything else you want to say about The Heart Goes Last?
It’s got a nice cover, don’t you think?
Yes! I remember you saying somewhere that the paperbacks of your very early books were packaged to look like—
—romance novels. I think there were probably some quite disappointed readers.
Right now the U.S. translations of Elena Ferrante, the Italian novelist, have that problem. One has a wedding dress on the cover. I can’t talk my friends into opening them.
One of mine, The Edible Woman, has a woman in a wedding dress on the cover—but she’s looking very disconsolate and is holding a pair of scissors.
I think that sends a different message. [Laughter] I would open that.
Jessica Stites is Editorial Director of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and edits stories on labor, neoliberalism, Wall Street, immigration, mass incarceration and racial justice, among other topics. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet. She is board secretary of the Chicago Reader and a former Chicago Sun-Times board member.