Floods, global warming and overpopulation

What do you want me to do?
Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)

An article by Meehan Crist, ‘Is it OK to have a child?’, in the London Review of Books[i] triggered my thinking on environmental issues and their connection with Margaret Atwood’s work. The danger of possible overpopulation, which might bring a scarcity of food and water, is deeply affecting our future life on earth. Adding to this, higher standards of living make people have fewer children, and pollution and pesticide seem to contribute to a decrease in fertility.

In Crist’s article there are echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale’s polluted environment that causes a drop in fertility rates and of the new technologies in Oryx and Crake that allow scientists to create new species artificially. Crist reports that in Sweden a baby was born after growing in a transplanted uterus, and in Pennsylvania premature lambs are brought to term in artificial bags (biobags). How long will it take to do the same for human foetuses? In the not-so-distant future, it might not be necessary to procreate in the traditional way. This means that the reproduction of human beings might be controlled both in its quantity and in its quality.

The scenario looks like those in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and her MaddAddam trilogy, and is especially close to what is delineated in Oryx and Crake. In The Handmaid’s Tale, pollution and environmental issues cause scarcity of food and low birth rates and there is an increase in the number of babies born with defects, who are called unbabies or shredders. In the oppressive theocratic Republic of Gilead, handmaids are forced to procreate in a disturbing dystopian, or anti-utopic, society which emerged from a utopic religious experiment. Atwood kept files of newspaper cuttings of articles testifying to abuses and tortures of oppressive regimes that are reflected in what happens in the novel.[ii] For this reason, Atwood speaks of ‘speculative fiction [as] … a logical extension of where we are’.[iii] She claims that she is not completely inventing events and that what is narrated has already happened and still happens in some countries.[iv]

In Oryx and Crake the human race is substituted by the genetically engineered Crakers. In the novel, animals are engineered as well; ChickieNobs are created to make more food and hybrid species are produced, such as pigoons, wolfogs and rakunks. Therefore, bioengineering pervades all aspects of life with the aim of producing a better version of the human race. The solution is the Crakers, childlike creatures created by Glenn-Crake, a cross between Dr Moreau and Steve Jobs. They do not age, can survive harsh conditions and are polygamous and vegetarian. Crake himself unleashed the disease that wiped out humanity so that he could substitute it with the unflawed post-humanity of the Crakers. This is a dystopic vision of the consequences of ill-used scientific progress that has utopic intents, similar to what happens in The Handmaid’s Tale. According to Atwood:

Science and fiction both begin with similar questions: What if? Why? How does it all work? But they focus on different areas of life on earth. The experiments of science should be replicable, and those of literature should not be (why write the same book twice)? Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that Oryx and Crake is anti-science. Science is a way of knowing, and a tool. Like all ways of knowing and tools, it can be turned to bad uses. And it can be bought and sold, and it often is. But it is not in itself bad. Like electricity, it’s neutral.[v]

It is how we use our imagination, opportunities and ‘tools’ that matters rather than what we actually do. According to Howells, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake ‘are an imaginative writer’s response to contemporary situations and cultural crisis’,[vi] which emphasises the importance of art and language in a global perspective of survival. Creativity needs to be shared by scientists in an encompassing vision that shapes what it means to be human. The question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ seems to be at the root of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction. But there is also the suggestion that as readers we are invited to question our opinions and envisage possible answers, and, as citizens, make our choices and take a stand. ‘What do you want me to do?’ is the final question in Oryx and Crake. The ending is left open to the reader, as often happens in Atwood’s novels. The Year of the Flood is not a sequel to Oryx and Crake but it tells the same events from a different point of view – from the marginal view of women living in poor suburbs. The flood does not refer to water but to the pandemic catastrophe provoked by Crake, a situation that reminds us of what we are currently experiencing with COVID-19.

The novels suggest that it is time to be aware of possible dangers in our future and to make the right choices. It is a dystopic and utopic vision at the same time – one contains the other, as Margaret Atwood remarks. She calls it ‘Ustopia’, a made-up word to describe a concept she developed in these novels.[vii] It is also ‘a state of mind’ and a landscape positioned in a specific time and space in the world of literature. While utopia is a ‘no place’ or a ‘good place’, dystopia is notoriously a ‘bad place’. They seem to be opposite but, according to Atwood, they mirror each other and refer to our world. She claims that ‘I would not put into this book [The Handmaid’s Tale] anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools.’[viii] The same can be said of Oryx and Crake as well as The Year of the Flood. They present a utopic vision that might turn into a nightmare, in the same way that perfection conceals hell. She claims that we can ‘make things better’, but ‘we should probably not try to make things perfect’. People who wish to wait for a utopic world before having children will certainly be disappointed, because although we might gradually improve, perfection cannot be reached and, as Atwood claims, eventually everything might end in disaster.

In her article, Crist proposes multiple visions and challenges common thoughts about a doomed future. Is it OK to have a child while the earth is collapsing? Floods, fires and the melting icecaps confirm the global warming theories. So what will the future of our children be like in such a perspective? Having fewer children seems to be the solution to our anxieties as well as a responsible choice. But how bad are things actually?

In ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ (1798), Malthus claimed that an uncontrolled growth in population leads to a lack of food and consequently starvation and disease that reduces the growth in numbers. This line of thinking led to forced sterilisation and birth control in countries such as China and India. However, the use of advanced technologies in agriculture proves that food production can grow too. The problem is that food is distributed unequally around the globe. In Western countries, a high percentage of food is wasted, while in less-developed countries people starve. This is a global issue as it is estimated that 1.3 billion tonnes of food are lost or wasted in the world each year. This would be more than enough to feed millions of people who are starving in poor countries.[ix] In 2011 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that about one third of the world’s food was lost or wasted every year in both high- and low-income countries.[x] This is because in low-income countries, loss of food occurs in earlier stages during harvesting, transportation or storage, while in high-income countries, food is mostly wasted by consumers. There is an abundance of food in European and American supermarkets that invites customers to buy more than they can consume and therefore they throw away the leftovers. Furthermore, ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates are sometimes confused.[xi]Consumers should be aware that the ‘use by’ date indicates the latest date when the food may be safely consumed and the ‘best before’ date concerns the quality of the food, which should influence when and whether we throw food away. There is an increasing awareness of the food loss and waste problem around the world and some improvements in the transportation and storage of food have been implemented in low-income countries. Donating unsold food and educating people about food safety are widespread practices in high-income countries as well. This issue also influences global warming, because the food that is thrown away ends up in landfill, where it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas.[xii]

Rather issues relating to food, water supplies might be a future issue as water scarcity is increasing, especially in big cities, while, on the other hand, floods affect coastal regions. Seventy per cent of water is used for agriculture, which includes drinking water for livestock, but the most important issue is poor water management and the scarcity of clean water in some countries.[xiii]

Regarding problems that concern childbearing and the environmental, Crist explains the consequences of fossil fuel emissions for air pollution as well as chemicals’ and pesticides’ influence on hormones. These effects might be subtle but persistent, especially if there is high exposure, as is the case for workers producing or working with pesticide who do not wear protective equipment. Pesticide can be toxic; it can change our body from within by affecting our blood and cells – possibly causing low birth rates like in The Handmaid’s Tale – and might affect future generations, maybe dramatically.[xiv]

Nevertheless, the article contains multiple views on the argument. The author remarks that not everything is predictable and that it is not ‘the total number of humans that matter, but the way humans organise to use the available resources’. People are living longer but birth rates are falling in the US, Japan, European countries, the Americas and part of India. She explains that this also means that there is a demand for immigrant workers, who are vital to the growth and survival of some countries, but that their immigration to countries that need them is often prevented by short-sighted policies.

Avoiding having children because of concerns about the future of our planet seems to be a rather fatalistic view. The future is in part unpredictable both because of the possible but as yet unknown future technological and scientific developments and because of the consequences of our present choices. The future depends on what we are doing today. The situation cannot be reversed but can be improved and, in time, can change for the better. As Margaret Atwood claims and the young people of Extinction Rebellion manifest, there is still hope if we make the right choices now. In this perspective, trust in humanity and in the human capacity to adapt and survive is fundamental. We have survived ice, fire and wars, and we can survive global warming as long as we turn in the right direction.

[i] Meehan Crist ‘Is it OK to have a child?’, in London Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 5, 5 March 2020, pp. 9-14.

[ii] Coral Ann Howells, The Handmaid’s Tale: York Notes Advanced (London: York Press, 2003), p. 7.

[iii] Margaret Atwood, ‘Writing Utopia’, in Margaret Atwood, Writing with Intent, (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), pp. 92-93.

[iv] Atwood, ‘Writing Utopia’, p. 92-93.

[v] Readers Read, ‘An Interview with Margaret Atwood’, 2003, available at https://www.readersread.com/features/interview-with-margaret-atwood-50120031 [accessed 1 April 2020].

[vi] Coral Ann Howells, ‘Margaret Atwood’s dystopian visions: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake’, in Coral Ann Howells, The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 161-175 (p. 161).

[vii] Margaret Atwood, ‘Dire Cartographies: The Roads to Ustopia’, in In Other Worlds: SF and the human imagination (London: Virago Press, 2011), pp. 66-96. 

[viii] Ibid., p. 88.

[ix] Laura Depta, ‘Global Food Waste and its Environmental Impact’, Reset Digital for Good, 2018, available at https://en.reset.org/knowledge/global-food-waste-and-its-environmental-impact-09122018 [accessed 1 April 2020].

[x] Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, ‘Food Loss and Food Waste’, available at http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/ [accessed 1 April 2020]. 

[xi] See Publications Office of the EU, ‘Market study on date marking and other information provided on food labels and food waste prevention’, 2018, available at https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/e7be006f-0d55-11e8-966a-01aa75ed71a1/language-en [accessed 1 April 2020]; and European Commission, ‘Date marking and food waste’, available at https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/food_waste/eu_actions/date_marking_en [accessed 1 April 2020].

[xii] See Laura Depta and Climate Central, Food Waste, ‘Methane and Climate Change’, 2016, available at https://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/food-waste-methane-and-climate-change [accessed 1 April 2020].

[xiii] Laura Depta. See also United Nations, ‘Water Scarcity’, available at https://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/ [accessed 1 April 2020]; and Stephen Leahy, ‘From Not Enough to Too Much, the World’s Water Crisis Explained’, National Geographic, 2018, available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/03/world-water-day-water-crisis-explained/ [accessed 1 April 2020].

[xiv] YvesCombarnous, ‘Endocrine Disruptor Compounds (EDCs) and agriculture: The case of pesticides’, Comptes Rendus Biologies, Volume 340, Issues 9–10, September–October 2017, pp. 406-409, available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1631069117301300 [accessed 1 April 2020].

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