Community & Current Events

Margaret Atwood on the future

Margaret Atwood on the future

Photo courtesy of Random House Image by: Photo courtesy of Random House Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Margaret Atwood on the future

More floods, more forest fires, more heat waves, more and worse tornadoes and hurricanes. Permafrost melting, Arctic ice disappearing, tree lines creeping northward, invasive species on the move, and other species – many of them our familiar backyard birds – threatened with decline or even extinction.

Whatever you think of the causes – man-made (through CO2 levels created by the burning of fossil fuels), natural (as part of a solar cycle) or divine (as a plan to destroy the world) – Canada's climate is changing. And Canada isn't alone: Conditions around the world are being altered much faster than was formerly predicted. The cost of the resulting destruction to homeowners, taxpayers and governments is slated to go through the roof, not to mention the lives that will be lost.

One of the predictable results is famine, as crop yields decrease due to heat or flooding, water sources are polluted, new pests and diseases attack, and arable land undergoes desertification. And famines are often accompanied by social unrest, even war. This is why the Pentagon – along with other government agencies – has been paying so much attention to climate modelling.

Novelists, filmmakers and other creators have been registering these changes for some time. There's a new term, cli-fi (for climate fiction, a play on sci-fi), that's being used to describe books in which an altered climate is part of the plot. Dystopic novels used to concentrate only on hideous political regimes, as in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Now, however, they're more likely to take place in a challenging landscape that no longer resembles the hospitable planet we've taken for granted.

Whether fictional or factual, the coming decades don't sound like a picnic. It's a scary scenario, and we're largely unprepared. It's not that we weren't warned, but it was easier to think of such things as happening elsewhere: As long as we're not affected personally, we don't like to dwell on bad news. That's simply human nature. Even recently, people have said they "don't believe" in climate change, as if it is akin to Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. But chemistry and physics are not beliefs; they are ways of measuring the physical world. They don't negotiate, and they don't hand out second chances.

What are we to do? Canada will be among the luckier locations, we're told, but everything's relative. Among other measures, we should stop building houses on floodplains and cutting trees off hillsides. Buffer zones of plant life – along seashores and riverbanks – will break the force of waves and allow the soil to absorb excess rainfall. In cities, depaving could help. Reforesting, especially in tropical countries, is said to be the cheapest, quickest way of sequestering CO2 and thus cutting emissions. Reducing speed rates on highways and reskinning old buildings to keep them from leaking heat would help a bit.
But unless governments – federal, provincial and municipal – acknowledge that there's a problem, little will happen. That's where citizens should play a part. It's no longer a question of green versus commerce: We really are all in it together when it comes to air, water, earth and fire. We're in the soup. It's a shared soup and we'll have to work together to get out of it.

Air, water, earth and fire were once known as the four elements, and they're still the things whose extreme fluctuations stand to affect us most – and not in a good way.

Mad, mad world
The coming decades paint a scary scenario. Margaret Atwood tells us that, though we're largely unprepared for climate change, we were in fact warned. The Can Lit icon herself has been warning us for decades. Clearly we've been reading, but have we been listening?

Surfacing (1972)
Setting: Quebec wilderness.
Themes: Feminism and national identity are front and centre in this book. However, the heroine, Anna (who may be a little ahead of her time), also confronts conservation and preservation issues. Woman suffers.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
Setting: Futuristic dystopian world rocked by AIDS and nuclear meltdown.
Themes: Distinctions of class and caste seep through every page, and ecological degradation echoes throughout. Women suffer.

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)
Setting: The real world.
Themes: Part lecture, part whack over the head (in case you didn't absorb Atwood's environmental messages in her novels), this nonfiction release examines borrowing and lending (and the subsequent treatment of our planet) from various perspectives – financial, psychological, theological, literary and ecological. Society suffers.

The Year of the Flood (2009)
Setting: It's year 25, Year of the Flood (a dry flood).
Themes: The lower classes in the pleeblands, also known as God's gardeners, are desperately trying to protect plant and animal life. Yet again, Atwood sounds the alarm of biological disaster. Men and women suffer.
– Doug O'Neill

We've been long time fans of Margaret Atwood, check out our past interviews with the Canadian literary icon

This story was originally titled "The Changing Landscape of Our Nation" in the October 2013 issue.

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Margaret Atwood on the future