The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (New York: Doubleday, 2009) ISBN 978-0-385-528774 $26
The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood
Doubleday, NY, NY, 2009
N/App. Trade, $26.95
Reviewed by George Gessert
For decades scientists have been warning that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere and causing a wave of extinctions. The longer we take to address these problems, the more extreme their effects are likely to be––yet collectively we dither. So far all attempts to stop global warming have failed even to slow it. This is not because money or technology are lacking. Resources have always existed. Nor is procrastination due only to our common tendency to downplay or ignore what seems distant in time and space. The incubation phase for major climate change will soon be over. As time runs out, political and cultural inertia maintains business more or less as usual, especially in the United States, China, and India, but elsewhere as well, even in much of the European Union.
In response, James Lovelock in The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2009) makes one of the most startling recommendations ever made by a scientist. He calls for a new Earth-centered religion that affirms the value of the biosphere over humankind. He does not say how such a religion could be established, but stresses need for a belief system that validates irrationality without invalidating science and reason. A Gaian faith, Lovelock says, would provide the foundation for a new culture and ethic appropriate to our situation today, as well as in the largely desert world to come.
So respected is Lovelock as a scientist that he can propose the establishment of a new religion without being laughed out of serious discussions. Absence of laughter, however, does not mean that his recommendations are heard. Lovelock’s reputation for fierce independence lends credibility to some of his insights, but simultaneously makes others easy to dismiss as excesses of an exceptional mind. A blend of condescension, wariness, and respect characterize most reviews of Lovelock’s books. Typically reviewers analyze his predictions about climate and ignore his call for radical cultural change. It is a sign of our times that the deaths of millions or even billions of people (Lovelock predicts that our numbers will be “culled” - his word - from the current six and three quarter billion to less than a billion over the next century) are easier to contemplate than proposals to significantly change our economic and cultural arrangements, or how we understand ourselves.
Lovelock’s call for a new religion makes a certain sense. Religion is a powerful force in contemporary life, with effects on everything from the Manhattan skyline to boarding procedures on flights out of Dar es Salaam. The influence of religion extends to literature. From T.S. Eliot to Cormac McCarthy, Christianity or nostalgia for its certainties has played a not insignificant role in Anglophone literature. Judiasm, Buddhism, and traditional Native American beliefs are important as well. However, few contemporary writers affirm religion in the way that Lovelock does, as an emergent social force of ecological significance.
Margaret Atwood is one of the few. For much of the last decade she has been writing about the conflicting emotions and ideas aroused by global warming, environmental destruction, and new technologies. In Oryx and Crake (2003) she explored a terrifying possibility implicit in Lovelock’s sense of Gaia: If life as an interconnected whole represents a higher value than Homo sapiens, then our extinction might be a positive thing. It might even appeal to the finest minds - and the most deeply flawed. Atwood’s character Crake is a gifted biotechnologist driven by terrible disappointments to craft a plague that can rid Earth of its biggest mistake, us. The narrator of the novel, Crake’s friend Jimmy witnesses humankind’s destruction with bewilderment and moral outrage, but his anguish seems almost beside the point. Oryx and Crake is a demonic book, lit by the cold flames of nihilism that flicker through much of contemporary culture.
The novel was the first of a planned trilogy. The second volume, The Year of the Flood, is a foray into the psychology of survival under conditions in which not even the recovery of religion means that Homo sapiens can be restored to its old status as God’s überspecies. The book follows the lives of three women, Ren, Toby, and Amanda. Ren is a child of privilege who rebels and eventually becomes a dancer in a sex club called Tails and Scales. Ren’s best friend, Amanda, is a street-smart bio artist. Toby seems fated to be alone, a nun by circumstance. Each woman navigates the final stages and collapse of a global civilization much like our own, one dominated by corporations that destroy the physical and biological underpinnings of life.
The chief beneficiaries of this destruction live in luxurious gated compounds, but even there not everyone is willing to shop their way to oblivion. On all levels the system breeds rebellion, along with violence, waste, and pathology. The system also breeds religion. The Year of the Flood centers on one of the new religions, God’s Gardeners. Members, who at times include Ren, Toby, and Amanda live in urban communes sustained by gardening, recycling, and selling organic vegetables. The Gardeners revere James Lovelock and Rachel Carson as saints, sleep on futons stuffed with husks, eat turnips, sing songs about holy weeds, and name days for podocarps and moles. Gardeners’ children learn upbeat, moralistic rhymes: The No Cup is bitter, the Yes Cup is yummy/Now, which one would you rather have in your tummy?
Such cuteness would be instantly alienating were Atwood a less skilful writer. She portrays the Gardeners as ridiculous but simultaneously as brilliant, generous, resourceful, and tough. They live simply but well, and against the odds have forged a community that unsentimentally embraces the nonhuman world. Bit by bit God’s Gardeners have built an alternative to the corporate order that is destroying Earth.
They resemble the early Christians and borrow from Christian religious practices and texts but do not nurture anthropocentrism. They do not see themselves or humans as God’s favorites. The only life after death of concern to the faithful is bacteria. Atwood is no Canadian Flannery O’Connor, judging the contemporary world from the vantage point of traditional religion. By making the Gardeners objects of humor, Atwood honors the skepticism that many of her readers undoubtedly feel about religion, as well as about campaigns to save the planet as we know it. She extends respect even to the shiny, hard-won certainties of cynicism, but finds its fissures, and leaves the reader reconsidering, beginning with little things. What, for example, is a podocarp? I googled and learned that it is a family of evergreens descended from the conifers of Gondwanaland. Is the American flag really more deserving of having its own day (June 14) than the great green survivors of an ancient continent? What does our capacity to invent a word like podocarp tell us about ourselves? One of the most devote Gardeners believes that naming life is a way of saying welcome to plants and animals. Do we already live in the company of Gaian saints?
The biggest question that The Year of the Flood raises is: Can a social order be built on a sense of the sacredness of life as a whole, not just humankind? Many such social orders have existed in the past and some survive today, but could a new one emerge from the contradictions of consumer culture? Atwood’s fictional religion is built on the wonder and gratitude that most people, given the opportunity, feel for nonhuman beings. This may be our most important spiritual capacity as creatures who evolved on the African savannas. Atwood encourages hope that we might reclaim something of our hunter-gatherer spiritual heritage without abandoning what we have learned from urban life, science, and passage through corporate capitalism. The Year of the Flood allows even a non-believer like myself to temporarily suspend disbelief about possible benefits of religious innovation. I have no desire to eat turnips or sleep on husks. But I can’t wait for volume three.