Monday, October 17, 2011

Can Margaret Atwood's environmental message reach a broad public?

By Kurt Cross
Resource Insights
Sunday, October 16, 2011

Okay. So you want to reach the broad public about the multiple, intertwining, galloping climate, resource, and environmental disasters facing every living creature on Earth. Do you write up a detailed, compact analysis of the problem and make it available on the Internet? Should you put it all into a documentary film to make it more accessible? Maybe you should write a companion book as well for the few remaining readers willing to pay for an actual physical copy of something.

All of that has been done, of course. And, it would be unfair to say that it has had no effect. There is now a markedly larger group of people in the world who are conversant about all the major climate, resource and environmental problems we face. There are even many more politicians and policymakers who've been educated in this way. But instead of the swift, decisive action one might expect to address these onrushing catastrophes-in-the-making, the response--when there has been any at all--has been rather tepid.

One reason is that politicians by their very nature are inclined to do only what the public will let them do. (Naturally, they'll often do things which are not in the interest of the broad public if that public is unaware of what the politicians are doing.) But when it comes to complex, knotty issues such as climate change and peak oil, there is no wealthy constituency which can arrange midnight deals out of view of public scrutiny. That means there must be public pressure intense enough to motivate politicians to act. It has to be so intense that they think they might lose an election over such issues.

Perhaps there is another avenue of public persuasion that is up to this task. We need a compelling narrative, I often hear. So true. But what makes a narrative compelling? Certainly, it must be simple enough to be understood by a broad group of people. Check. And, it must play on values that people already hold dear. Check. Finally, it must be in a form that is readily acceptable and easily obtained by the target audience. Check.

Now, the problem, of course, in that a compelling narrative about our climate, resource and environmental challenges would be hard to make simple. The whole point would be to make it clear that these are complex problems with no easy solutions. And, the whole point would be make it clear that these problems arise from the totality of the way we live, making it difficult to appeal to existing values. And, the whole point would be to startle people into a mode of awareness that goes beyond their current way of seeing.

In The Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood attempts such a narrative in an almost fairytale fashion. The clever thing about the novel is that it appears to be a typical post-apocalyptic story, taking us to an indeterminate locale in the future in which two young female characters find themselves caught in the great "waterless" flood, a plague that is devastating the population. But we quickly move back in time. We follow these characters as they work and wander in this pre-plague futuristic world, one that seems dysfunctional and violent in ways that are familiar to us today. So far, it's pretty standard science fiction stuff.

But then the two women end up joining the friendly Gardeners' cult whose members are so gentle and wise that one is lulled into thinking that Fred Rogers might suddenly appear at the edge of their rooftop garden, eager to take his television viewers on a tour. The impression that some of the Gardeners might have been descended from the Amish seems well-founded. How quaint they are in this world of advanced genetic technology.

Gradually readers are pulled into a sinister world controlled by private security firms which now run the police force and the prisons and which also guard corporation employees who live in isolated compounds. The corporations have become ascendant and their technological vision of the world knows no constraints. This is because a badly run authoritarian, corporation-dominated state has replaced all other civil authority. Everyone must have a state-sanctioned identity, and deviations from the corporate line, i.e., all technology is good for us and corporate control brings prosperity and health, can mean loss of a job and even prison time.

The science fiction fantasy elements of the story actually comport well with the expectations of modern readers. So, in this respect Atwood has managed to overcome possible resistance to her narrative. The religious views of the Gardeners' cult are summarized in occasional addresses by the leader of the group, Adam One. (Only in a society completely hooked on genetically engineered food would people who grow food in a garden be considered a cult.) The religious discussion makes it possible in some ways to bypass the modern industrial mind and reinitiate contact with the natural world using religious metaphors from agriculture and nature. And, this makes it possible to explore values that readers might harbor apart from the industrial corporate world.

For all these reasons I believe Atwood has produced a master work of environmental awareness. This novel, which appears to be merely the fantasy of a talented Canadian author is, in fact, meticulously researched. Its references to genetic engineering are not merely fanciful but anchored in actual ongoing scientific work. The story exaggerates for effect, of course. But its dissection of the food system (one main character works briefly for a fast food chain called SecretBurgers) is clearly drawn from a keen understanding of our current system. The privatization of every public function seems overblown, but suggests the logical extreme of our current trajectory.

A well-designed narrative enters the mind at both the conscious and unconscious levels. I am reminded of the film Avatar which, though a piece of science fiction, is essentially a story about the displacement of indigenous people by a ruthless corporation to enable the mining of a valuable mineral. Right-wing pundits decried the film as an attack on American foreign policy which they said has historically helped to spread democracy and prosperity. No matter. Moviegoers liked the film as much in Alabama and Mississippi as they did in California and New York. Whether the film changed mindsets is unknowable. But it had no trouble gaining acceptance.

Atwood's novel is not a movie, not yet anyway. And, so even its well-founded success will still result in only limited influence. After all, one must buy it. For most people that will cost quite a bit more than a movie ticket. And, then one must devote many hours to reading its 400 plus pages. But The Year of the Flood does offer an interesting blueprint for the successful environmental/resource/climate-change story. And, for that reason it would behoove all those who are searching for ways to reach the broader public about these important issues to read this remarkable work.

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