This interview took place on Thursday 24th March 2022. The wonderful Margaret Atwood was in London for an event at the Royal Festival Hall, promoting Burning Questions, her new book of essays and occasional pieces. She spoke with Toby Litt, editor of the Writers Rebel website.
TL: Thank you for talking to us. You’ve been a fantastic supporter of Extinction Rebellion, and particularly Writers Rebel, right from the start. I think we should probably start by talking about Ukraine. Do you think that’s made things more urgent in terms of the climate crisis – partly because it’s covering it up, but partly because it’s exaggerating the effects?
MA: Okay, so there’s a plus and a minus. The plus is that many countries are saying, although not necessarily doing – they are saying they’re going to have to get off fossil fuels. Especially countries that don’t have fossil fuels. Because it makes them too dependent on other countries that do have fossil fuels. With the results that we have seen. You can get held up, as in, ‘This is a stickup.’ And you can be manipulated, through your dependence on fossil fuels. So, the plus is, that people have realized that. The minus is that they don’t know what to do about it. As everyone knows, if you turned off fossil fuels tomorrow, you would have widespread social chaos, and probably also a lot of famine and political coups, and then you would be right back on the fossil fuels. So the problem for everybody is, how do you transition? How do you transition with the least pain, chaos, social disruption – and extreme factions taking over, and totalitarianisms being established? That’s where we are. This has thrown everything into stark relief. It is a horrible political and humanitarian situation. But it is also a potential pivot.
TL: You’re very clear on that, and that’s definitely Extinction Rebellion’s main message and rallying point this year. But if there are all those difficulties and dangers, isn’t that where the opposition is going to come together? And doesn’t it get harder to make the case for ditching fossil fuels when there’s the possibility of the kind of chaos you’re describing?
MA: I don’t think it makes it harder to make the case; it makes it harder to do the thing.
TL: One of your pieces of advice to the young – given in your new book Burning Questions – is, ‘Sometimes the only way out is through.’ Which I think is a pretty wise piece of advice. But don’t we face the potential of there being no way through? I think that’s what scares a lot of people.
MA: There is a way through. It’s a question of political will and practicalities on the ground. We are doing a program, beginning in September, called Practical Utopias which will bring people together on an online platform called Disco. (I wouldn’t have called it that myself, but the people doing it are, I guess, too young to remember disco.) Anyway, it’ll be an online grouping of people, a bit like Lego or Minecraft, where you build things from building blocks. So, the question is, ‘How do you put together a better way to live using things that we already know about?’ And there’s a lot of information. There’s a lot of invention going on. Practical Utopias is dedicated to the idea that there are better ways of doing things that are much less carbon-producing and less expensive. I’ll give you one example from an outfit called ‘Women in Clean Tech Challenge’ which was funded by an outfit called MaRS, a think tank in Toronto. Their challenge was, ‘Show us your invention, and your invention should be greener, cheaper and more attractive.’ Which is what we want for Practical Utopias. And one thing that really struck me – because I was for some unknown reason the judge on this – was their solution for air-conditioning. Air-conditioning will be a very big carbon producer, as energy costs go up. How do you make it better? Saying ‘Thou shalt not have air conditioning’ is not an answer, because people will not accept that. You have to have things that people will accept. So Women in Clean Tech invented a filter, because the heat you take out of the air in air-conditioning is carried by water vapour. They invented a filter that will take the water vapour out before the air hits the cooling system. And it’s inert, it takes no energy – it’s a filter. So that reduces the carbon and the cost by 80%. You can see how it tracks.
MA: I would like one tomorrow, please. So how you test these things out is you say to people, ‘If you could have an electric car that was the same price or cheaper than a petrol car, and that you could run off the home electrical system at your house, and that went a reasonable number of miles, and if there were recharging stations, would you have one?’ Everybody says yes, yes, they would have this if it were available. They would have it immediately. You can take a sample of people, and nobody says, ‘Oh no, that sucks. I really want to have an energy consumptive and expensive house that pumps out carbon.’ Nobody says that. And they’re not just lying for the sake of the interviewer (which people sometimes do).
TL: Perish the thought. Tell me a bit about one of the people who figures largely in Burning Questions, Rachel Carson. You see Silent Spring as a really significant pivot for humanity, but it isn’t that pivot too slow?
MA: Well, too slow for what? Us? Are we talking about no more people? Are we talking about no more biological life on earth? Exactly what? I don’t think we’re yet talking about no more biological life on earth, because biological life has already endured some very extreme crises – albeit in a cellular form, at times. So I think it would be quite hard, unless the sun explodes, to wipe out all of it. But for us as mid-sized, oxygen-requiring, land-based mammals… I think we’d better start paying attention, or more attention than we have been paying, very soon… I think the big problem – that would be the end of us – is if we managed to kill the oceans and kill marine algae that make 60 to 80% of the oxygen in the air. Land-based plants make the rest of it, and we’re doing away with those at a great rate as well. We almost bought it during the Ice Age – we almost bought it, meaning tapped out, meaning becoming extinct ourselves, during the Vietnam War. Because huge vats of Agent Orange were being shipped across the Pacific, and should one of those ships have gone down, we would be in trouble right now. So ocean’s a big part of it. Things like sea level rise are going to be catastrophic for coastal cities. But that’s not the Big One. The Big One is poisoning the oceans or heating them past this sustainability point for marine algae – and that’s the end of us. Not to be negative but ah…
TL: No, do be negative. I sometimes think you pull your punches on this, in some of the earlier things you’ve written. What’s the most radical thing you’d say about it?
MA: Well, I think, ‘End of oceans, end of us.’
TL: You’ve been involved with things to do with books and trees, linking the two, including writing a book for The Future Library. Do you think it’s important that writers are aware of that relationship, and are there things they can do to bring it forwards?
MA: Yeah, I don’t know of any writers who aren’t aware of it – ever since the 70s, when people used to think it was a cutting review to say a book as so bad it was a waste of trees. We’re all aware – and we’re aware, for instance, that me talking to you is using electricity. It’s a question of how much? and to what end? and where is it coming from? We have something called Bullfrog Power that you can sign up to, to get your electricity, which guarantees that no fossil fuels will be consumed in the making of your electricity. It’s coming from hydroelectrics and wind and other forms of generation. And that can make you feel quite virtuous. But on the other hand, not everybody can have this, plus it costs more. So how are you going to solve that? How are you going to solve the fact that paper is made from trees? Are you gonna use bamboo? Are you going to use hemp? A lot of paper used to be made out of hemp. Are you going to use quickly growing willow and harvest it at an early stage? There are other solutions. It’s just that the industry is geared to that one solution, so you have to change a lot of things to make it so that you’re going to be getting your paper from things other than old growth forests and plantations – monocultures of trees. And nature hates monocultures, by the way. And people are a monoculture, by the way.
TL: One last question then. What is it that you wish people asked you, that they don’t? And what is it that you’d like to say that you don’t get a chance to?
MA: Well, I don’t think there’s an answer to that… but we could get creative and say, ‘Are you really a wicked old witch or are you a wise old woman?’
TL: And the answer would be?