Margaret Atwood: Do you want to belong to a species that lives on the planet


I am often asked when I first became aware of an impending environmental crisis and species death. Yes, this was not in the early 40s; I was born two months after the outbreak of World War II and when the war was over, people definitely had other things to think about. But my parent, who was a biologist and insect researcher, was very aware that here on earth life is dependent on other lives, and that a large number of species have been extinct over time because they have lost habitat and opportunities to find Food either on due to diseases or because they evolved into other species. He was also very aware that man, a medium-sized terrestrial mammal that breathes oxygen, is not free from the laws that prevail in nature.

Those deprived of what they need to survive die. This is confirmed by the tadpoles and larvae that we children have kept in glass jars and sometimes forgot to feed. This is confirmed by mammoths and mastodons. This can very well be confirmed by us.

To read as a 12-year-old HG Wells’ “time machine” only clarified something I already knew: human life on earth is not given forever. It was temporary. And to some extent a choice. We humans could do things that improved our opportunities. We could also do things that drastically degraded them.

Human life on earth is not given forever. It was temporary. And to some extent a choice

In 1988, I published a novel called “Cat’s Eye”. It was about growing up in the 40s and 50s. The father in the novel had a certain resemblance to my own father, and the cheerfully performed but ominous monologues at the dinner table were his:

“… my father explained why humanity is doomed. This time it is because we discovered insulin. Not all diabetics die as before, they live long enough to give the diabetes to their children. In accordance with the law of geometric progression, We will all be diabetics, and since insulin is made from komagar, the whole world will be covered by insulin-producing cows / … / The cows burp methane gas.There is already far too much methane gas in the atmosphere, it will Choking the oxygen and maybe making the whole earth a huge greenhouse.The polar ice will melt and New York will be under six feet of water /…/ In addition, we must worry about deserts and erosion.If we are not killed by the “Ki, we will end up like the Sahara desert,” said the father cheerfully, “eating the last of the minced meat.”

The species death is also Something he was thinking about. In one of his scenarios, cockroaches, dandelions and grass were all that remained of life on dry land. It was 1955. The miraculous pesticide DDT was sprayed everywhere at that time; We children used to spray ourselves with the FLIT pistol, a means of killing pests. Rachel Carson has yet to release “Silent Spring,” which added another possible disaster to the list: no birds, no insects, no pollination, a severely shrunken humanity.

Rachel Carson has yet to release “Silent Spring,” which added another possible disaster to the list: no birds, no insects, no pollination, a severely shrunken humanity.

The list also included, obviously, the doom of the earth in a nuclear war. Children who were a decade or so younger than me, had learned to duck and take cover, “duck and cover”, if they would be bombed, as if there would be no use to hide under a school desk. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the Soviets decided to place nuclear missiles on Cuba, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 13 surreal days we feared that we would be blown to pieces in tiny, tiny pieces at any moment . How close was it? Who knows?

Without knowing about Mankind barely escaped being hit by a bullet during the Vietnam War, when huge containers of the Agent Orange were shipped across the Pacific Ocean. If some of them had ended up in the ocean and started leaking and dying on the seaweed that gives us 60-80 percent of our oxygen, I would not have written this today. Then we have the acid rain which now has to decline somewhat, but still poses a problem in many parts of the world. And because the air is agile and does not respect any boundaries, the problem will sooner or later everyone’s.

And then the dreaded hole in the ozone layer, which threatened to emit carcinogenic ultraviolet light. The chlorofluorocarbons, the freons are the culprits – so useful in refrigerators and spray cans, so deadly in the stratosphere. The ozone hole has begun to heal, it is said, thanks to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which banned the use of dangerous chemical products and created a streak of hope: perhaps man is still not helplessly stupid.

But then came the climate crisis And his sidekick, the plastic tidal wave. Will we be smart enough to avoid the two bullets? Or will we pour for breath and suffocate to death due to lack of oxygen when we transform the planet oceans into giant dead zones and the methane stored in the Arctic permafrost is released?

Obviously, we can be wiped out by other effects of the climate crisis: our habitat can be destroyed by huge hurricanes or massive forest fires, we can be baked to death in very high temperatures. To this, we can add the inevitable consequences: social unrest, war for resources, collapsing social order, uncontrollable outbreak of disease. We become tadpoles in a shabby and too hot glass jar.

We can be baked to death in very high temperatures, the supply of food can decrease due to shrinking harvests. We become tadpoles in a shabby and too hot glass jar

2003, when it did 48 years have passed since the scene in “Cat’s Eye” occurred, where the speculations of the father are presented as an example of the eccentricity of the story of the book. I published a novel called “Orix and Krake”. It is about the future rather than the past. Scientist Krake came to the conclusion that the planet could no longer be entrusted to humans. They must be eliminated with the help of a fast-acting artificial plague and replaced with genetically improved versions of themselves. (Yes, we can do that. We have the tools. Basically. At least the ones needed to make the plague.)

Since “Orix and Krake” appeared, the climate crisis has moved from margins to headlines. In this novel, there is a game called ExtinctionTathon. It is now played on a massive scale all over the world, it is no longer a fantasy creation. The question for humanity is simple: Do you want to be a species on the planet? Or do you prefer to be just another item on the long list of extinct life forms?

Time to choose. And if your life is your choice, time to act.

Or not.

You decide.

English translation: Per Svensson

The quote is taken from Maria Ekman’s translation of “Kattöga” (Norstedts 2018).

Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood.

Photo: Bernd Thissen / Alamy

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