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.

Jessica Stites October 9, 2015

Margaret Atwood believes being a socialist in government today is like being a woman in medical school in the 1950s: You have to be better than everyone else. (MIKE CLARKE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES))

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.

There’s actually no point in saying, 'We’re doomed.'

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?

Stephen Harp­er.

And who on the oth­er hand doesn’t need a per­son­al groomer?

Trudeau.

And who wouldn’t know what a per­son­al groomer was if he fell over one?

Mul­cair.

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 Exec­u­tive Edi­tor 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.

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