Margaret Atwood says the future depends on what we do now
In a prescient conversation recorded before the pandemic, the writer reviews the lessons of history
Margaret Atwood has thought through her fair share of doomsday scenarios.
And a lot of those have been inspired by real-life events, from the totalitarian regimes abroad which shaped her world as a child, to the suspension of civil liberties at home in Canada under the War Measures Act.
Along the way, she has lost loved ones — including most recently her life partner and fellow writer, Graeme Gibson, who suffered from dementia. But in the face of all that, Margaret Atwood is still standing strong. With a crackling sense of humour and endless curiosity ("it gets me in so much trouble") the internationally renowned writer seamlessly weaves between realities she's lived in the last 80 years and possibilities yet to come in this conversation with Anna Maria Tremonti.
And while she won't make official predictions in the face of many possible futures, she will (almost gleefully) read palms. Just wait until you hear what she sees in Anna Maria's.
The following excerpt from their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity. Find the full interview here or on your favourite podcast app.
How much did your sensibilities of the world play into the kinds of books you chose to write?
That is a question for somebody writing an academic thesis. So what do we know about my sensibility of the world? Let us say that I was born in 1939, went through World War II as a child, became pretty interested in totalitarianisms. Because that was what you were inheriting. Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were the big three.
There isn't "the future" that we're doomed to enact. There are all kinds of possible futures. And which one we're going to get is going to depend on what we do now.- Margaret Atwood
But they were followed in the 20th century by some smaller ones — pretty brutal. So Cambodia Pol Pot, the Argentinean generals, the Chilean coup. A lot of people were killed in those things. So reading Amnesty reports certainly kept you up to date on who was doing what to whom in what hideous fashion. So that kind of sensibility as a Victorianist, which I was for a period of time.
That was my field of study as a graduate student at a time when it was not fashionable. You were supposed to be studying John Donne. But I was interested in the Victorian novel. Those were very political. And quite frequently given over to the uncovering of abuses.
So I don't know whether that was my sensibility or whether it was just my idea of what it was that the literature was for. It was also of course for making beautiful objects. The two are not mutually exclusive.
And so when it came to The Handmaid's Tale I know you were looking at what had already happened.
My idea was not to put anything into it that was just a fabrication by me. It would have to have a referent in history or in present day society. It was not a prediction because I don't believe that predictions of that kind are possible. I think the future is multiple.
There isn't "the future" that we're doomed to enact. There are all kinds of possible futures. And which one we're going to get is going to depend on what we do now.
And that is particularly pertinent for the environmental crisis that we are now facing. If we had made that choice back in 1972, when the Club of Rome published its report, things would be different today.
Let's talk about that — especially when it comes to climate change, do you believe...
Let's say climate crisis. Let's say environmental crisis because that's what it is. Not just a change.
Okay fair enough. Do you think that the notion that generations — our generation, the generations before us — are handing the younger generation literally this world of problem?
How old are you?
Well it's going to affect you too.
It's gonna affect the people coming up behind me even more though.
That's true but it's also going to affect you. So as soon as you say you know "younger generations" a lot of people your age say "who cares?" [Chuckles] They don't care unless it's going to affect them.
And so who are the rebellious ones supposed to be? Are they supposed to be the ones coming up? Or the ones who...
Who is deciding supposed to — where is the "supposed to" coming from?
I don't know I guess we can all be rebellious, couldn't we?
There is an idea.
Oh look at the look on your face. [Laughs]
It's not a question of rebellious. It's a question of sensible. So the rebellious ones are the ones with their heads in the sand. You know nothing's happening. There's nothing to see here. The people who think they're going to go off and live in a silo insulated from all of this, they're the fantasists.
Even some of them are popping awake and saying well actually who's going to run the electricity? How are we going to get to the silo? Who's going to supply the food? And the truth is that if you're the rich person with the silo and a freezer full of food and you've got help, your freezer full of food is gonna be a lot more attractive to the help than you are.
This is very true.
Because as soon as money ceases to be worth anything and it ceases to be worth anything when there's nothing you can really buy with it that's of any use to you — off with your head. They'll have the freezer full of food, thank you very much.
The people who think they're going to go off and live in a silo insulated from all of this, they're the fantasists.- Margaret Atwood
We used to have discussions as far back as the '70s — which would you rather be: the defender of an enclave of settled people or a nomad invading them?
And what was your answer?
I rather be the nomad.
More survival skills, unless you got hit by a plague which has certainly happened.
You like these dark deep thoughts. They challenge you.
I also like a lot of frivolous fluff so you will find me at both.
Want to hear the full conversation — including the results of the palm-reading?