Margaret Atwood: Good Intentions, Bad Results

Yesterday Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood released a multimedia essay titled “It’s not climate change- it’s everything change”. The piece consists of two parts: the first is an article written by Atwood in 2009 in the wake of the proliferation of fracking and tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada, the second is her reflections on where we sit 5 years on and our hopes for the future.

On analysis, “It’s not climate change- it’s everything change” is incredibly inconsistent. In several cases it provides insightful analysis and opinion whilst in other instances it appears alarmist, unsubstantiated and frankly counter-productive.

The opening section, the “Future without Oil” article is home to the vast majority of my criticisms. Much of it reads like the science or speculative fiction that she is most reknowned for. Her “Picture One” of a sustainable planet appears to be based on little more than a positive imagination, conjecture with a scattering of recent technological development thrown in. Atwood’s prediction that “we might also be wearing a lot of recycled tinfoil — keeps the heat in” seems more of a sci-fi vision than a sustainable one whilst welcoming “mandatory” diet plans will do nothing to quell the big government cries that come from a certain cross-section of deniers and skeptics.

Furthermore her visions of a society in which “suddenly there’s no oil, anywhere, at all” are so hyperbolic one is forced to question their relevance. It is entirely unforeseeable that we will without warning completely run out of all oil supplies and whilst Atwood claims to use this scenario to highlight our reliance on oil it is so preposterous that it diminishes the credibility of her argument.

Could this be a "cli-fi" scene? Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Could this be a “cli-fi” scene? Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

However Atwood’s more recent reflections provide her with some saving grace. Her analysis of the construction of climate silence is incredibly insightful. She reveals, drawing upon examples from changes in the mapping of Canadian Arctic ice  and the reported banning of the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in local government documents by the governor of Florida, how silence around climate change can be generated.

Furthermore, her analysis of the role of “cli-fi” (climate fiction) also brings some interesting questions about the use of new media to educate and generate discussion around climate change. I am a strong advocate of the importance of the messenger  in talking about climate change and welcome new (even non-conventional) voices on climate.

Yet the use of fiction as a messenger is rather complex. Atwood discusses whether climate-fiction could become “a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them” however there is an inherent danger in combining climate change and fiction. If we create an association between these forecasted changes to the planet and fiction we run the risk of further reducing the credibility of the science that underpins the need for change and transforming climate change into an object of fantasy.

Towards the close of the essay Atwood outlines historical examples of what she claims give us hope that we can overcome the issues at hand. She cites the eradication of the use of DDT pesticides and the international cooperation on ending the use of CFCs and protection of the ozone layers as signs that we can overcome climate change. However, in doing so Atwood incorrectly frames climate change as a solely scientific issue. The problems surrounding CFCs and DDT were solved by simply replacing their use with alternative chemicals and technologies yet climate change poses a much more complex issue and responding to it requires substantial shifts in our consumption patterns and infrastructure. By using this solely scientific narrative Atwood fails to address the bigger issues at hand.

What this essay does make clear however, is that we have to become much more considerate when we talk about climate change; good intentions and fanciful predictions are not enough to inspire and engage people. We need to think carefully about using connotation-loaded imagery and alarmist rhetoric if we are to see widespread involvement in acting upon climate change.