Margaret Atwood’s “dystopian,” “futuristic” fantasies: coming true?

A long essay about our current planetary predicament from one of our premier “sci-fi” authors. I excerpt from its conclusion, which concerns “cli-fi” and, amazingly enough, ends on a (possibly) encouraging note.

It’s Not Climate change — It’s Everything Change

July 30, 2015

by Margaret Atwood



“Cli‐fi” is a term coined by blogger Dan Bloom to describe fiction dealing with the current and projected effects of climate change. … Cli-fi as a new genre has taken off in a big way and is now being studied by universities all over the world. But don’t make the mistake of confusing it with sci-fi. If you think stories showing the effects of climate change are still only futuristic fantasies, think again. For example, I would argue that the only truly fantastical element in my books is that the animals talk. To one boy. Other cli‐fi elements of my story that are often described as fantastical or dystopian, include the death of nearly all the animals in the world. That’s just me painting an extreme picture, right, to make a good story? I wish.

The recent 2014 WWF Living Planet Report revealed that the entire animal population of the planet had in fact halved over the last 40 years. 52% of our wildlife, gone, just like that. Whether through the effects of climate change to the growth in human population to the depredation of natural habitats, the children reading my books now might well find themselves experiencing middle‐age in a world without the biodiversity we once took for granted. A world of humans and just a few pigeons, rats and cockroaches scratching around… So, how about the futuristic vision of a planet where previously inhabited areas become too hot and dry to sustain human life? That’s standard dystopian world-building fare, surely?

Yes, except that right now, as you read this, super developed and technological California — the eighth largest economy in the world, bigger than Russia — is suffering a record breaking drought. The lowest rainfall since 1885 and enforced water restrictions of up to 25%. They can track every mouse click ever made from Palo Alto apparently, but they can’t figure out how to keep the taps running. That’s just California — never mind Africa or Australia.

Every effect of climate change in the books — from the rising sea levels of The Dark Wild to the acidic and jelly‐fish filled oceans in The Wild Beyond, is happening right now, albeit on a lesser level.

(photos: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum; Gadtan Rossier/Getty Images; Nichole Sobecki/Getty Images)

(photos: Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum; Gadtan Rossier/Getty Images; Nichole Sobecki/Getty Images)

Could cli-fi be a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them, and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions? Or will it become just another part of the “entertainment business”? Time will tell. But if Barry Lord is right, the outbreak of such fictions is in part a response to the transition now taking place — from the consumer values of oil to the stewardship values of renewables. The material world should no longer be treated as a bottomless cornucopia of use-and-toss endlessly replaceable mounds of “stuff”: supplies are limited, and must be conserved and treasured.

Can we change our energy system? Can we change it fast enough to avoid being destroyed by it? Are we clever enough to come up with some viable plans? Do we have the political will to carry out such plans? Are we capable of thinking about longer-term issues, or, like the lobster in a pot full of water that’s being brought slowly to the boil, will we fail to realize the danger we’re in until it’s too late?

Not that the lobster can do anything about it, once in the pot. But we might. We’re supposed to be smarter than lobsters. We’ve committed some very stupid acts over the course of our history, but our stupidity isn’t inevitable. Here are three smart things we’ve managed to do:

First, despite all those fallout shelters built in suburban backyards during the Cold War, we haven’t yet blown ourselves up with nuclear bombs. Second, thanks to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on pesticides, Silent Spring, not all the birds were killed by DDT in the ’50s and ’60s. And, third, we managed to stop the lethal hole in the protective ozone layer that was being caused by the chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants and spray cans, thus keeping ourselves from being radiated to death. As we head towards the third decade of the 21st century, it’s hopeful to bear in mind that we don’t always act in our own worst interests.

“For everything to stay the same, everything has to change,” says a character in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1963 novel, The Leopard. What do we need to change to keep our world stable? How do we solve for X+Y+Z — X being our civilization’s need for energy, without which it will fall swiftly into anarchy; Y being the finite nature of the earth’s atmosphere, incapable of absorbing infinite amounts of CO2 without destroying us; and Z being our understandable wish to live full and happy lives on a healthy planet, followed by future human generations doing the same. One way of solving this equation is to devise more efficient ways of turning sunlight into electrical energy. Another way is to make oil itself — and the CO2 it emits — part of a cyclical process rather than a linear one. Oil, it seems, does not have to come out of the ground, and it doesn’t have to have pollution as its end product.

There are many smart people applying themselves to these problems, and many new technologies emerging. On my desk right now is a list of 15 of them. Some take carbon directly out of the air and turn it into other materials, such as cement. Others capture carbon by regenerating degraded tropical rainforests — a fast and cheap method — or sequestering carbon in the soil by means of biochar, which has the added benefit of increasing soil fertility. Some use algae, which can also be used to make biofuel. One makes a carbon-sequestering asphalt. Carbon has been recycled ever since plant life emerged on earth; these technologies and enterprises are enhancing that process.

Meanwhile, courage: homo sapiens sapiens sometimes deserves his double plus for intelligence. Let’s hope we are about to start living in one of those times.


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