Margaret Atwood’s Climate Fiction Is Now Our Reality

Nature, climate change, humanity & hope with Margaret Atwood

Humanity and nature, intertwined

Photo by Mika Matin on Unsplash

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.

Climate change is people change too

Fighting forest wildfires. Credit: US Department of Agriculture / Climate Visuals

“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.

Writing potential futures

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

“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’.

“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.

  • 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.

“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

Photo by Karsten Würth (@karsten.wuerth) on Unsplash

“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.

What can we learn from Margaret Atwood’s writing on climate change?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

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