Margaret Atwood

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Canadian Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has worn many literary hats — novelist, poet, essayist, critic, historian — but now she has added another one: orator. Her latest book, Payback: Debt as Metaphor and the Shadow Side of Wealth, isn't just her first nonfiction book not about literature; it's also a series of speeches. Atwood has turned Payback into a Canadian Broadcast Corporation Massey Lecture Series, in which she explores debt as a cultural construct, from favor-trading in chimpanzee societies to, well, favor-trading among the Corleone clan in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. This is not a book about how to get out of financial debt or how to manage your accounts. In fact, the last third of the book focuses on humanity's indebtedness to nature, as told through a parody of A Christmas Carol and the stark, postapocalyptic reality that awaits Scrooge if he does not change his ways and listen to the Ghost of Earth Day Past. TIME talks to Atwood about Payback, the environment and what happens when we run out of oil.

What inspired you to write a book about debt?
We put it together about 3 years ago when none of this meltdown was happening yet, and what interested me in the subject was several things. Debt is a motif in 19th century literature, with which I'm quite familiar. The second thing was all the debt ads that were suddenly on the subway. They suddenly were appearing everywhere. They hadn't been there before, so it inspires one to wonder why there are suddenly so many organizations that are making their living by helping people get out of debt. That leads one to realize that there must be a lot of debt around. Then, when you start looking, there it is. What is this system that we have, and what are its founding principles?

The book reads very stream of consciousness, like you are simply talking to the reader.
Its style is oral. It's like talking to people because it is also a lecture series. You have to orally connect the bits because somebody is listening to it. It's not like a textbook; it's actually a voice. The people who are reading it are going to be hearing it more than reading it.

In the book, you mention the idea that everything in life is either taken or traded, that nothing exists outside of those two categories. You said you were fascinated with this topic and tried to find something that didn't fit in either category. Did you ever find anything?
That's an idea from [Canadian writer and activist] Jane Jacobs. The one that I propose that doesn't [fit] is a pawnshop, because you can pledge an item and then redeem it later. Sometimes it's taking, and sometimes it's trading. It's the shifting, ambiguous nature of pawnshoppery. You can't put it into either of those boxes and make it stay there.

You describe two possible futures: one with a healthy earth but no skyscrapers or plastic bags, and one where we have ruined the world to make a profit. Which way do you currently see humanity leaning?
Oh, I think it's entirely what it says in the book — it's a matter of choice. We've got two possible futures: a really horrible one and a really good one. We're going to run out of oil. It's not a renewable resource. So that will happen. Meanwhile, we are very busy in creating all kinds of new tech that might save us. What will win the race? What will save us? Will it be the wonderful new tech, or will it be the collapse of oil, or will it be the bad environmental conditions that we cause? That's anybody's guess. There is some great new tech, but will it come fast enough?

Do you think people are able to make a big enough change by being forced into it?
They don't usually. It's not enough to say you have to be good; everybody does that for about a week and then runs back to their old habits. Eventually necessity forces a change. That will happen when oil is so expensive that you can no longer afford to use it to make plastic bags out of it. And instead of that, we will use it for things we really need.

Are we just lazy?
We do what's easy for us. We're evolutionarily wired to behave like that because we're supposed to save our energy for when the lion attacks and we have to run very, very fast. We will conserve our own energy if we can. We're so good that we now have this ridiculous spectacle of people going out specifically to exercise. We never had to do that until recently.

People exercise all the time, but somehow we've still grown larger.
Yes, well, once upon a time people worked physically a lot harder, unless they were kings and princesses. Even schoolkids used to use their bodies a lot more. There was a time once when kids walked to school. That never happens anymore, because the parents are so freaked out by potential child snatchers that they won't let them.

Do you think we should try to change that?
It will change back on its own if oil runs out or gets scarce. People will not drive their kids to school anymore. They may bike them to school, or maybe we'll have some other vehicle; maybe we'll have electric cars. But people will not use oil-driven cars to drive children to school because it will be expensive to do that.

Or will we just find another source?
Maybe someone's going to develop clean coal. That's very possible. They're certainly going to be doing more wave power, more wind power, better solar-generation materials. That's on the way, and who knows what else is out there? But it's not going to forever be oil.