Margaret Atwood’s Climate Fiction Is Now Our Reality
I first encountered Margaret Atwood aged 16, during English Literature A Level. The book was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was taught through the perspective of feminist literary theory, as a commentary on the oppression of women in society. That, it certainly is. It’s also much more than that.
Margaret Atwood may be best known as a feminist writer (even though she’s never personally identified with this definition), but she’s also an environmental activist, and has been for several decades. One glance at her Twitter feed makes this abundantly clear. Much of her feed is her sharing environmental news and projects:
Of course, there is an undeniable connection between women’s rights and climate action. Although I completely missed this connection in my A Level classes, it’s thread which runs firmly through The Handmaid’s Tale itself.
The Handmaid’s Tale tells of a world in the midst of a fertility crisis, where the global birth rate is in sharp decline. The ‘handmaids’ are those women who are still fertile, who are assigned to men with the sole task of conceiving a child. The theme of female oppression is overt. But throughout the novel there are hints at environmental issues being the cause of the fertility crisis.
There are regular references to ‘the colonies’ at the edge of Gilead. These are uninhabitable, toxic wastelands. Those who are sent there die quickly from the pollution and radioactive waste. When a Mexican delegation visits Gilead to negotiate a trade deal, we also hear of confused weather patterns which are disrupting natural crop cycles and causing food insecurity. Gilead also has environmental policies in place, and we are told that they have cut carbon emissions by 78% in the past three years.
Environmental degradation then, caused by human activity and neglect, is the underlying root cause of infertility in Gilead. And this seems to be the underlying message of Atwood’s writing too. Not that environmental degradation will necessarily lead to infertility. But that the future of the environment and the future of people are inextricably intertwined.
So what is Margaret Atwood trying to convey about climate change through her writing? And is her climate fiction now becoming our climate reality?
Humanity and nature, intertwined
Human activity has an inevitable impact on the environment around us. At the same time, changes to this environment will also inevitably impact humanity. Humanity and nature are intertwined in a two-way street, living together and reliant on one another.
We humans tend to forget this, though. Instead, we think we stand above nature. We have created our own urban landscapes of skyscraper mountains and fountain waterfalls. We have mastered the environment; we own it.
Margaret Atwood’s poem (yes, she writes incredibly skillfully in all literary forms) The Moment speaks to this disconnect between the relationship between humanity and nature that we perceive, and the reality:
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
Nature ‘never belonged’ to us, it simply allows us to exist within it as a ‘visitor’. For Atwood, this is something we should endeavor to remember. And when it comes to climate change, it seems that we forget. Despite the warning signs, we have collectively allowed the powerful oil industry to pull the wool over our eyes, and convince us that we could continue to take, take, take from earth’s resources, without consequence.
We don’t always foresee the consequences of our own reality. Even now, with the world’s climate scientists yelling their evidence at the top of their lungs, we’re failing to address climate change quickly enough.
That is the writer’s art: to explore all the potential consequences and possibilities. What will happen if we continue down this road, separated from nature? This is the question which Atwood seeks to answer.
In The Moment the consequence is clear, as nature begins to take back those things we saw as ours, leaving us bereft and even unable to breathe. And it’s becoming clear in our own reality too, as nature begins to take back control, threatening human existence with lessening habitable land and increasing extreme weather.
Climate change is people change too
So, if it’s the case that humanity and nature are inextricably linked, then why is the human narrative so often left out of the climate change story?
In 2017 Atwood wrote an essay entitled ‘It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change’ for the Medium publication Matter. In the essay she focuses on the impact on people and lives, something which is not spoken about often enough:
“There will be a bill: the cost will be high, not only in money but in human lives. The laws of chemistry and physics are unrelenting, and they don’t give second chances. In fact, that bill is already coming due.”
When we hear about the impacts of climate change, we tend to hear of factors like sea level rise, desertification, or increased extreme weather events. All of these things seem abstract and distant from us as people. Yet as we’ve seen, humanity and nature are inextricably connected.
In reality, sea level rise means flooding on land, which means entire communities which will be displaced from their homes. Desertification means the loss of livelihood for areas which rely on agriculture and farming. It also means that our food supply worldwide will be at risk. Increased extreme weather translates directly into the loss of thousands of lives — researchers have predicted that 150,000 people will die every year from extreme weather events by 2100.
I think we can agree that this is a pretty bleak looking future. And it’s the future we’re currently on track to reach.
Writing potential futures
“Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood is commonly described as a science fiction writer, or a writer of dystopian fiction. When asked about this, though, she often denies being part of the sci-fi genre. Instead, she identifies as someone who write about possibilities, who writes ‘speculative fiction’.
Her stories are based on existing realities, and what could become of them.
Climate change is a topic that is becoming of this theme. That bleak-sounding future of the human fallout of climate change, which we’ve just explored, is the reality of what our current usage of fossil fuels will lead to. And this is something that Atwood explores within her writing. It isn’t an invented future, but a possible future.
Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy is set in a future where climate change has firmly set in. It is a world of droughts, deserts, high radiation, dead zones in the oceans, a lifeless Great Barrier Reef, raised sea levels and lost lands. These things aren’t invented. They’re reality, and they’re already happening.
In The Year Of The Flood, the second in the trilogy, focuses on the civil unrest which would ensue — that human aspect of environmental degradation. States have collapsed and corporations are in charge. The very wealthy live in gated communities. Everyone else lives in slums, eating burgers made from mouse parts. Gangs are rife, as are religious cults, and it feels like ‘the end of the world’ is nigh.
For Atwood this is not true science fiction, because it is born out of the reality she sees around her. In the Acknowledgements she writes:
“The Year of the Flood is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact.”
Atwood isn’t just writing about the impact of environmental breakdown on hypothetical, fictional characters of the future. She’s writing about the impact of environmental breakdown on society now, on you and I.
This is highlighted in her non-fiction writing, which she often mirrors the same themes of her fiction. I earlier mentioned Atwood’s 2017 Medium essay ‘It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change’. The essay begins with her writing the future without oil, with three different interpretations:
- Picture 1: we adapt to a life without oil, switching to 100% renewable energies and using hemp to make clothes.
- Picture 2: the oil industry collapses overnight and there is no time to adapt, leading to no energy and no food, causing panic, rising self-interest, unrest, and violence.
- Picture 3: some countries have been able to plan and move away from a reliance on oil, but some haven’t and lose their economic engine overnight, causing major global inequality.
That second picture, of societal collapse and civil unrest, mirrors the narrative focus of her novel The Year Of The Flood. Here’s an extract from her description of this future:
“Other authorities would take over. These would at first be known as thugs and street gangs, then as warlords. They’d attack the barricaded houses, raping, pillaging and murdering. But soon even they would run out of stolen food. It wouldn’t take long — given starvation, festering garbage, multiplying rats, and putrefying corpses — for pandemic disease to break out.”
This image, of course, is ‘extreme, and also unlikely’ (her words, not mine). But it is possible, and it’s Atwood’s role as an author to explore that possibility.
Writing hopeful futures
So is it all doom and gloom when it comes to our climate future?
The first picture from the ‘It’s Everything Change’ is much more rosy, depicting the future if we were to deal with those consequences and move to a low carbon society. In this way, the potential futures which Atwood writes are not all doom and gloom. She’s actually very hopeful.
This hopefulness translates into how she thinks about the future. It may seem from her post-apocalyptic, dystopian writing, that she feels we are condemned to a nightmarish future. That isn’t the full picture. To her, the future can always be changed:
“Let us say that it is the yellow brick road we see before us, unless we change our wicked ways.”
She said this in an interview with In These Times about climate change. In the same interview she discusses the fact that focusing on negativity and the doom and gloom narrative is no way to make change when it comes to global warming. Ultimately, this won’t cause people to go out and make change.
“ 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.”
Instead, we need to find viable alternatives for what our consumption and our society could look like. This brings us back to that first picture of the future from the ‘It’s Everything Change’ essay, which looks at our society without the reliance on oil. If we can crack rechargeable batteries and solar power becomes more cost effective than fossil fuels, for instance, people will swap their energy supplier and their car manufacturer in an instant.
Atwood also wrote an essay in 2015 imagining ‘The Carbonivore Fund’, a fund which invests only in companies which take carbon dioxide out of the air. She goes on to list the companies which were already taking action on this.
Those ‘speculative’ and possible futures which she explores, includes the positives. And her interest and hope for the future is epitomised in her involvement with the Future Library, a project by artist Katie Paterson in Norway. Katie has planted 1000 seedlings which will grow for 100 years into trees. Every year during those 100 years she will put the manuscript of one author into a locked box, to be opened at the end of the 100 years. And guess which author was the very first to contribute? Margaret Atwood. She said: ‘It’s a very hopeful project.’
What can we learn from Margaret Atwood’s writing on climate change?
As I see it, there are three key themes and takeaways which arise from this exploration of Margaret Atwood and climate change.
These themes are:
- We don’t always see the consequences of the reality we live in, and writing is one way to look them in the eye.
- The future is not static but dynamic and is always capable of changing. The path we’re currently on is just one possibility of a future, and there are several others. These possibilities or ‘speculative’ futures are what Atwood explores in her writing.
- It isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to the future of climate change; there is hope for a positive future. But, to make this happen, we need to see viable, attractive alternatives to our existing reality.