Margaret Atwood on How to Save the World
July 27, 2015 11:42 AM   Subscribe

see also: The Culture of A World Without Oil by Barry Lord and “Hard Ceilings” Doomed Past Societies by Ian Morris. The Cimate Futures tag on Medium has some intriguing Cli-Fi.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:07 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

It's interesting to contrast Margaret Atwood's relative technological utopianism/capitalism-based optimism with the darker view of biologist and fellow Canadian David Suzuki, which directly criticizes the idea that we can treat biological systems like economic entities to be managed or, as Atwood says, "stewarded":

This emphasis of economy over environment, and indeed, the separation of the two, comes as humanity is undergoing dramatic changes. During the 20th century, our numbers increased fourfold to six billion (now up to seven billion), we moved from rural areas to cities, developed virtually all of the technology we take for granted today, and our consumptive appetite, fed by a global economy, exploded. We have become a new force that is altering the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale.

In creating dedicated departments, we made the environment another special interest, like education, health, and agriculture. The environment subsumes every aspect of our activities, but we failed to make the point that our lives, health, and livelihoods absolutely depend on the biosphere — air, water, soil, sunlight, and biodiversity. Without them, we sicken and die.

I'm not sure what capitalism will be replaced with, but maybe that will be done for us as a consequence of the changes happening and changes to come. Maybe we figure out some kind of new currency that is entirely energy-based, which somehow takes into account all costs we currently hide behind military and economic exploitation of resource-rich colonies, one that represents the true value of inputs and outputs in converting "free" solar energy to less-useful forms. Perhaps, in that sense, a movie like THX 1138 was an early demonstration of Atwood's "cli-fi", in that central control of society is maintained via a tightly-controlled "energy budget" that decides how best to manage the population.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:11 PM on July 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

I have an idea-- people get superpowers, and defend the earth with the super power of earth energy and LOVE!!!!!

People adopt a capacity to see all life as sacred and treat even plants and especially trees as innately worthwhile-- animal eating diminishes, jainist farming techniques become more popular-- the earth herself is seen to have a sacred presence.

Instead of seeing anything we don't understand as innately worthy of being destroyed, we see all things as worth preserving and the right to destroy would need to come with proof of necessity and attempts to find alternatives.

This means that sifting creek banks for gems and minerals instead of destructively mining the earth, it means rainwater collection and greywater as described as well as prohibiting pollution of the earth and rivers.

Earth mother power!! YAY! If I can prove I have super powers who is with me? Wait, even without super powers-- why don't we unite and fight to make this happen?

I also think maybe we revert to tribal communities in harmony with the land and stop permitting huge sickening growths of destructive beaurocracies/industrial wastelands to take over the lands of others. The thing is when things get big, people hurt those they can't see. We STOP that from being ok. The hard part is standing up to ourselves and our loved ones when we would rather ignore and make excuses. That REALLY IS hard and I've failed at that plenty of times. All you can do is keep trying to do better.

I don't how, I just want to join the active fight because I'm tired of being jaded, of making excuses for why people are apathetic or it's too hard-- yes we need smart plans and to work together and to build up communities from the ground up to fight this.

I watched two beautiful oak trees plowed over like nothing, it took SECONDS.

FOR WHAT. They destroy all this life and they don't have too, it's just for convenience. It's evil. And I could only stand and watch. I failed.
posted by xarnop at 12:28 PM on July 27, 2015 [8 favorites]

So hoard some dog food, because you may be needing it.

I think I'll go for canned tuna instead.
posted by sour cream at 12:58 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

Atwood is one of our rare Wise Elders and we should listen and learn.
posted by Agave at 1:08 PM on July 27, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think I'll go for canned tuna instead.

posted by kliuless at 2:02 PM on July 27, 2015

I fully expect Armageddon within the next three decades. None of the conservative climate change predictions have come true. All of the worst case scenarios have come true. The problems do not increase on a linear scale. They go exponential. The worst predictions for two hundred years out will come true within decades.

Massive crop failures are going to be the first and most pressing issue. There will be global famine and, with it, global citizen unrest. It will be ugly.

It goes downhill from there.

Have a nice day.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:13 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

I guess this means I shouldn't have cancelled my subscription to the Resurrection
posted by thelonius at 2:42 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what capitalism will be replaced with

A layer of ash, the howling wind.
posted by brennen at 2:50 PM on July 27, 2015 [29 favorites]

It's interesting to contrast Margaret Atwood's relative technological utopianism/capitalism-based optimism with the darker view of biologist and fellow Canadian David Suzuki, which directly criticizes the idea that we can treat biological systems like economic entities to be managed.

This is a rather superficial representation of Atwood's views. For example, a review of Oryx and Crake entitled "Capitalism and the 'Environmental Dystopia'" states that, "Atwood makes explicit the connection between the commodification of scientific knowledge and the destruction of the natural and human environment." Atwood and Suzuki are on the same page, with Atwood perhaps more willing to point a finger at the complicity of scientists in the current system.
posted by No Robots at 3:02 PM on July 27, 2015

I was lucky enough to attend this conference, wherein Atwood totally smacked down Steven Pinker's utopianism about how great biotechnology is and it will fix all our problems if only we will shut up and not make rules about its use. They both gave two speeches (maybe 15 minutes each) plus argued with each other plus served on other panels with other folks. Atwood's content throughout the conference was along these lines: we will find a way to survive, hopefully, but it is going to suck--having rules about not doing things whose risks we don't understand can make it suck less.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:32 PM on July 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

I fully expect Armageddon within the next three decades.

meet me about thirty years ago, though I didn't put a date on things -- it just seemed obvious, inevitable that something massive and catastrophic was coming, and soon. Maybe it still is. I guess I just got distracted at some point, lost track of all that dark and seductive inevitability, ended up coming around to viewing things much like Ms. Atwood does here, allowing for at least the possibility of TOTAL CHANGE (which, it turns out, is a very Buckminster Fuller way of viewing things).

As of 1970, keeping track of all the environment controlling, all the logistics of thinking about total planet--for Spaceship Earth, in 1970, we passed a threshold where it could be demonstrated, engineering-wise, that if we took all the metals going into armaments and put them into what you call livingry, instead of killingry, that within a design revolution of only ten years we could have all humanity living at a higher standard of living than anybody had ever known, on a completely sustainable basis, while phasing out forever all further use of fossil fuels and atomic energy. We could live entirely on our energy income.

Earthians Critical Moment
posted by philip-random at 3:39 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Related: 40 percent of adults on Earth have never heard of climate change, which is going to be an important factor continuing to impede change.

Me, I learned it early on; being a fan of James "Connections" Burke, I hung on every word of his "After the Warming" in 1989, but following the issue further, I realized how much more complicated and chaotic Climate Change would be... and how that would almost guarantee Humanity would not make the needed changes until it was "too late"... maybe not too late to prevent Human Extinction, but certainly to prevent making the world of the year 2050 very unpleasant - bad enough for me to be relieved my current personal life expectation is 5-15 years. (Although a recent kottke post on sea level rise allowed me to learn that the results that will put most of New York City underwater would leave my area, the Central California Coast, still mostly high and dry... love those beach-side bluffs.)
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:57 PM on July 27, 2015 [6 favorites]

The $400 Fish

That's a really good read, thanks.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 5:13 PM on July 27, 2015

Here in the year 2015, I feel like we are so close to being able to live within the global carbon budget from a technological standpoint, but so far away from an economic, social, and political standpoint.

On the one hand, things look so good: solar panels are incredibly cheap, we have huge wind turbines all over the place, and lots of hydro. Electric cars are here and they are pretty good. High speed electric rail is awesome and is expanding incredibly quickly (mostly in China, but that's a huge part of the world population). Insulation is cheap and we can build net-zero houses for not a whole lot more than regular ones. It really doesn't look like much of a leap to Atwood's happy outcome.

But even though a sustainable future seems within reach, not even the richest countries on Earth can seem to make that leap (though some are better than others, obviously). It seems like we just aren't willing to spend that little extra to not trash our planet.

Is it a tragedy of the commons? Sure. But I think it's more than that. Why aren't people voting for effective action on climate change? I don't think it is all deniers and the constant drumbeat of jobs, jobs, jobs. Why aren't any mainstream political parties putting forward real climate plans? I think the people who care and are informed don't think we'll be able to avert this disaster. Yeah, we're angry, but there's the kind of anger that can drive change and there's the other kind. I think despair has taken hold - and I have no idea how we get out of this.

The solutions are there, but somehow we just don't seem to be able to make those leaps. I look around at NGOs, at passionate people, at politicians who really do care, and yet none of them really seem to know what the way forward is. I certainly don't.

How do you energize a movement when the way forward is so uncertain?
posted by ssg at 5:40 PM on July 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

Related: 40 percent of adults on Earth have never heard of climate change, which is going to be an important factor continuing to impede change.

I don't think it is a big factor. If you look at the data about which countries have lower awareness of climate change, they are generally poorer countries. These countries actually have sustainable carbon emissions on a per capita basis. It really isn't the people of Bangladesh who are impeding change.

It's the richer countries that have much higher than sustainable per capita emissions - and people in those countries are aware of climate change. It's us.

I'll also be willing to bet that within many countries with high disparity of emissions per capita between different parts of the population, awareness of climate change is pretty closely correlated with emissions.
posted by ssg at 5:57 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Here in the year 2015, I feel like we are so close to being able to live within the global carbon budget from a technological standpoint, but so far away from an economic, social, and political standpoint.

this brings to mind richard alpert (ram dass) on buckminster fuller [1,2] and 'switching costs': "about whether it is possible to reboot modern civilization without using fossil fuels."

i was kind of intrigued by the article where atwood goes "Biofuel is largely delusional..." to "There are many smart people applying themselves to these problems, and many new technologies emerging... Some use algae, which can also be used to make biofuel."

i'm aware that church and venter are both pursuing biofuels; from ramez naam's infinite resource:
In the last few years, two of the pioneers of modern gene sequencing have proposed another route. George Church is one of the scientists who originally proposed sequencing the human genome and one of the most respected researchers in genomics. Craig Venter is the researcher and entrepreneur who led the private team that finished the first human genome sequence, faster and at lower cost than the public, government-run approach. Both are working on heavily modifying single-celled organisms so that they produce desired fuels directly, without the need for any further processing or refinement.

The company George Church is involved with, Joule Unlimited, has genetically engineered cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) to produce fuels directly, without the need for a refinery. Instead of periodically harvesting the organisms, processing them, and refining the output, Joule slowly siphons fuel out of the algae tanks and replaces it with water. That saves them the energy and time it takes to regrow the algae population. Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, which received $600 million from ExxonMobil in 2009, goes even further, starting with a synthetic, single-celled creature with the smallest possible genome, and then adding in genes to produce fuels. The logic, Venter says, is that their synthetic organism has no unnecessary functions that could draw energy off from its primary task. It's a stripped down biological factory whose only purpose is to produce fuel.

Joule has stated that their process can directly, without any external refineries or processing, produce 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel per acre or 25,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, with a projected cost as low as $0.60 per gallon. In a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Photosynthesis Research, Church and others showed that it was feasible to achieve more than 7 percent efficiency in photosynthesis—turning 7 percent of the sun's energy that strikes their cyanobacteria into fuel. That's still well below the 13 percent efficiency that biologists have determined is the theoretical maximum for photosynthesis, but it's close to 100 times the efficiency of corn ethanol. Capturing just 7 percent of the solar energy striking a biofuel tank would give us the ability to capture more than enough fuel in the world's deserts to meet the planet's energy needs, even if every person on Earth burned twice as much fuel as the average American.
oh and he has a great section on mining landfills :P

re: denial and despair; john baez says: "denying there's a problem and despairing that there's a solution have similar consequences: namely, inaction... I think it's crucial, when we tell someone about a big problem, that we also tell them something they can do about it. Maybe not something that will solve it, but something that will ameliorate it. Otherwise they may lapse into denial or despair. Purely individual goals are not enough to be satisfying. National goals are a bit too big for most of us. Maybe a city is the right size. Residents of Copenhagen are trying to make their city go carbon-neutral by 2025."
posted by kliuless at 2:02 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

also btw, re: The $400 Fish, i was struck by this section: "But isn't there something wrong with putting a price on nature?"

thinking about the 'price' of emotional labor, of a kindergarten teacher, and education, health care, security, etc. in general is really topical right now wrt cultural convention, convenience, 'true' costs, value systems and how they're all accounted for, or not, as the case may be, and what happens when they collide?

i think we're all mostly under the proverbial street light looking for our keys and won't venture out unless forced to or the light goes out... so i guess the best that you can do (for those worried about it) is to try and prepare or figure out how to make our way in the dark? or at least listen to ideas and promote policies and people with the knowledge and knowhow to light the way :P at least that's what i'm trying to do anyway!
posted by kliuless at 2:50 PM on July 30, 2015

fwiw, near the end of the article atwood provides an 'equation':
“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.
and it just reminded me of another section in naam's 'infinite resource' :P
In the 1970s, Paul Ehrlich and others introduced the concept of IPAT, or I = P x A x T. The equation stands for Impact (on the environment) equals Population times Affluence times Technology. As population grows, the world has more people consuming resources. As their affluence grows, the resources used by each person increase, clearly a multiplier. And as technology develops, it enables each person to consume more. If this equation holds for our current world, it bodes ill for us... given that our population, affluence, and technology are all at all-time highs.

Our population is higher. Our affluence is higher. Our technology is higher. And that is the key. The "technology" term in the IPAT equation is working in a direction opposite the one expected by Ehrlich and others. Better agricultural technology is working to reduce the land-use impact of each person. Innovation and the accumulation of knowledge are substituting for land, a physical resource.
that is all!
posted by kliuless at 4:09 PM on August 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

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