Margaret Atwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years

Margaret Atwood
Thursday 30 July 2015 17:26 BST
Digging deeper: once the glaciers have melted there will be no more water to power the oil sands, such as those in Athabasca, Canada
Digging deeper: once the glaciers have melted there will be no more water to power the oil sands, such as those in Athabasca, Canada (Boden/Ledingham/Masterfile/Corbis)

Oil! Our secret god, our secret sharer, our magic wand, fulfiller of our every desire, our co-conspirator! Can't live with it, can't  –  right at this moment  –  live without it. But it's on everyone's mind. Back in 2009, as fracking and the mining of the oil/tar sands in Alberta ramped up  –  when people were talking about Peak Oil and the dangers of the supply giving out  –  I wrote a piece called "The Future Without Oil." It went like this...

The future without oil! For optimists, a pleasant picture: let's call it Picture One. There we are, driving around in our cars fuelled by hydrogen, or methane, or solar, or something else we have yet to dream up. Goods from afar come to us by solar-and-sail-driven ship, or else by new versions of the airship, which can lift and carry a huge amount of freight with minimal pollution and no ear-slitting noise. Trains have made a comeback. So have bicycles, when it isn't snowing (but maybe there won't be any more winter). We've gone back to small-scale hydropower, using fish-friendly dams. We're eating locally, and even growing organic vegetables on our erstwhile front lawns, watering them with grey-water and rainwater, and with the water saved from using low-flush toilets.

We're using low-draw lightbulbs and energy-efficient heating systems, including pellet stoves, radiant panels, and long underwear. "Heat yourself, not the room," is no longer a slogan for nutty eccentrics: it's the way we all live now.

What will we wear? A lot of hemp, I expect: hemp is a hardy fibre source with few pesticide requirements, and cotton will have proven too costly and destructive to grow. We might also be wearing a lot of recycled tin foil  –  keeps the heat in  –  and garments made from the recycled plastic we've harvested from the island of it twice the size of Texas currently floating in the Pacific Ocean.

What will we eat, besides our front-lawn vegetables? That may be a problem – we're coming to the end of cheap fish and there are other shortages looming. Abundant animal protein in large hunks may have had its day.

However, we're an inventive species. When push comes to shove we don't have a lot of fastidiousness: we'll eat anything as long as there's ketchup. And looking on the bright side: obesity due to over-eating will no longer be a crisis, and diet plans will not only be free, but mandatory.

That's Picture One. I like it. It's comforting. Under certain conditions, it might even come true. Sort of.

Then there's Picture Two. Suppose the future without oil arrives very quickly. Suppose a bad fairy waves his wand, and poof! Suddenly there's no oil, anywhere, at all. Everything would immediately come to a halt. No cars, no planes; a few trains still running on hydroelectric, and some bicycles, but that wouldn't take very many people very far. Food would cease to flow into the cities, water would cease to flow out of the taps. Within hours, panic would set in.

Choking the planet: Cars lined up near a toll station in France (AFP/Getty Images)
Choking the planet: Cars lined up near a toll station in France (AFP/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The first result would be the disappearance of the word "we": except in areas with exceptional organisation and leadership, the word "I" would replace it, as the war of all against all sets in. There would be a run on the supermarkets, followed immediately by food riots and looting. There would also be a run on the banks  –  people would want their money out for black market purchasing, although all currencies would quickly lose value, replaced by bartering. In any case the banks would close: their electronic systems would shut down, and they'd run out of cash.

Having looted and hoarded some food and filled their bathtubs with water, people would hunker down in their houses, creeping out into the backyards if they dared because their toilets would no longer flush. The lights would go out. Communication systems would break down. What next? Open a can of dog food, eat it, then eat the dog. Then wait for the authorities to restore order. But the authorities — lacking transport — would be unable to do this.

Other authorities would take over. These would at first be known as thugs and street gangs, then as warlords. They'd attack the barricaded houses, raping, pillaging and murdering. But soon even they would run out of stolen food. It wouldn't take long for pandemic disease to break out. It will quickly become apparent that the present world population of six and a half billion people is not only dependent on oil, but was created by it: humanity has expanded to fill the space made possible to it by oil, and without it would shrink with astounding rapidity. As for "the economy", there won't be one. Money will vanish: the only items of exchange will be food, water, and most likely  –  before everyone topples over  –  sex.

Atwood is a poet, novelist, and environmental activist (Getty)
Atwood is a poet, novelist, and environmental activist (Getty) (Getty Images)

Picture Two is extreme, and also unlikely, but it exposes the truth: we're hooked on oil, and without it we can't do much. And since it's bound to run out eventually, and since cheap oil is already a thing of the past, we ought to be investing a lot of time, effort and money in ways to replace it.

Unfortunately, like every other species on the planet, we don't change our ways unless necessity forces us. We're also self-interested: unless there are laws mandating conservation of energy, most won't do it, because why make sacrifices if others don't? In business, the laws of competition mean most corporations will extract maximum riches from available resources with not much thought to the consequences. Why expect any human being or institution to behave otherwise unless they can see clear benefits?

In addition to Pictures One and Two, there's Picture Three. In Picture Three, some countries plan for the future of diminished oil, some don't. Those planning now include  –  not strangely  –  those that don't have any, or don't need any. Iceland generates over half its power from abundant geothermal sources. Germany is rapidly converting, as are a number of other oil-poor European countries. They are preparing to weather the coming storm.

Then there are the oil-rich countries. Of these, those who were poor in the past, who got rich quick, and who have no resources other than oil are investing the oil wealth they know to be temporary in technologies they hope will work for them when the oil runs out. But in countries that have oil, but have other resources too, such foresight is lacking – though it does exist in one form. As a Pentagon report of 2003 put it, "Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves." (That's already happening: the walls grow higher and stronger every day.) Still, long-term planning is mostly lacking.

Biofuel is largely delusional: the amount of oil required to make it is larger than the payout. Some oil companies are exploring other energy sources, but by and large they're simply lobbying against anything and anyone that might cause a decrease in consumption and thus their profits. It's gold-rush time, and oil is the gold, and short-term gain outweighs long-term pain, and madness is afoot.

My own country, Canada, is rich in oil, a lot of it in the Athabasca oil sands, where mining licences are sold to anyone with the cash, and CO2 is poured into the atmosphere, not only from the end product but in the course of its manufacture. Also used in its manufacture is an enormous amount of water – mostly from the Athabasca River, which is fed by a glacier. But due to global warming, glaciers are melting fast. When they're gone, no more water, and thus no more oil from oil sands.

Maybe we'll be saved – partially –  by our own ineptness. But we'll leave much destruction in our wake. First stop, the oil sands. Next stop, the planet. If we don't start aiming for Picture One, we'll end up with some version of Picture Two. So hoard some dog food, because you may be needing it.

It's interesting to look back on what I wrote about oil in 2009, and to reflect on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years. Much of what most people took for granted back then is no longer universally accepted, including the idea that we could just go on and on the way we were living then, with no consequences. There was already some alarm, but those voicing it were seen as extreme. Now their concerns have moved to the centre of the conversation. Here are some of the main worries. Planet Earth  –  the Goldilocks planet we've taken for granted, neither too hot or too cold, neither too wet or too dry, with fertile soils that accumulated for millennia before we started to farm them – is altering. The shift towards the warmer end of the thermometer – once predicted to happen much later, when the generations now alive had had lots of fun, made lots of money, gobbled up lots of resources, burned lots of fossil fuels and then died – are happening much sooner than anticipated. In fact, now – and here are three top warning signs.

Rising panic: cars submerged in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (Getty)
Rising panic: cars submerged in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (Getty) (Getty Images)

First, the transformation of the oceans. Not only are these harmed by the warming of their waters, there is also increased acidification due to CO2 absorption; the ever-increasing amount of oil-based plastic trash and toxic pollutants pouring in; and the overfishing and destruction of marine ecosystems and spawning grounds by bottom-dragging trawlers. Most lethal to us  –  and affected by all of these  –  would be the destruction of the blue-green marine algae that created our present oxygen-rich atmosphere 2.45 billion years ago, and that continue to make the majority of the oxygen we breathe. If the algae die, that would put an end to us, as we would gasp to death like fish out of water.

A second sign is the drought in California, said to be the worst for 1,200 years. This is now in its fourth year and mirrored by droughts in other western US states, such as Utah and Idaho. The snowpack in the mountains that usually feeds the water supplies in these states was only three per cent of the norm this winter. It's going to be a long, hot, dry summer. The knock-on effect on such things as the price of fruit and vegetables has yet to be calculated, but it will be extensive. As drought conditions spread elsewhere, we may expect water wars as the world's fresh supply is exhausted.

A third sign is the rise in ocean levels. There have already been some noteworthy flooding events, the most expensive in North America being Hurricane Katrina, and the inundation of lower Manhattan at the time of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Should the predicted rise of one to two feet take place, Florida stands to lose most of its beaches, and the city of Miami will be wading. Many other low lying cities around the world will be affected. This result, however, is not accepted by some of the politicians who are supposed to be alert to the welfare of their constituents. The present governor of Florida, Rick Scott, is said to have issued a memo to all state employees forbidding them to use the terms "climate change" and "global warming," because he doesn't believe in them (though Scott has denied this to the press). I myself would like to disbelieve in gravitational forces, because then I could fly. Makes sense: you can't see gravity, seeing is believing – and when you've got your head stuck in the sand, you can't see a thing, right?

Ablaze: Forest fires threaten homes near Camarillo, California in 2013 (Getty)
Ablaze: Forest fires threaten homes near Camarillo, California in 2013 (Getty) (Getty Images)

This trick originates in worries about the future, and the bad things that may happen in that future; also the desire to deny these things or sweep them under the carpet so business can go on as usual, leaving the young folks and future generations to deal with the mess and chaos that will result, and then pay the bill. Because there will be a bill: in money and human lives. The laws of science are unrelenting, and they don't give second chances. In fact, that bill is already coming due.

There are many other effects, from species extinction to the spread of diseases to a decline in overall food production, but the main point is that these effects are not happening in some dim, distant future. They are happening now. And in response to our growing awareness, there have been some changes in public and political attitudes (though not universal). Some acknowledge the situation, but shrug and go about their lives taking a "What can I do?" position. Some merely despair. But only those with their heads stuck so firmly into the sand that they're talking through their nether ends are still denying that reality has changed.

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? One way is to devise more efficient ways of turning sunlight into electrical energy. Another is to make oil itself  –  and the CO2 it emits  –  part of a cyclical process rather than a linear one. Oil, it seems, does not have to come out of the ground, or to have pollution as its end product. There are many smart people applying themselves to these problems, and many new technologies emerging.

On my desk right now is a list of 15 of them. Some take carbon directly out of the air and turn it into other materials, such as cement. Others capture carbon by regenerating degraded tropical rainforests  –  a fast and cheap method  – or sequestering carbon in the soil by means of biochar, which has the added benefit of increasing soil fertility. Some use algae, which can also be used to make biofuel. One makes a carbon-sequestering asphalt. Carbon has been recycled ever since plant life emerged on earth; these technologies and enterprises are enhancing that process. And meanwhile, courage! Homo sapiens sapiens sometimes deserves his double plus for intelligence. Let's hope we are about to start living in one of those times...

This is an edited version of an article originally published in English in Matter, a publication on Medium

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