- “The Earth Forgives”Environmental Imagination, Adaptation, and Resilience in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood
William Cronon disparaged the improbability and impracticality of pure biocentrism when he noted, “If wilderness dies when we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.”1 A little over a decade later, it seems the increasingly popular genre of speculative fiction has called his bluff. One such work, Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood (2009), has been the object of lively scholarly discussion and interpretation, emblematic of the genre’s both radical potential and daunting moral and ontological stakes. Atwood’s novel responds to an increasingly obvious failure of environmental imagination,2 taking the unimaginable process of human eradication as the basis for the epistemological and imaginative evolution that plays out across the three-novel MaddAddam series. The reader’s vicarious experience of a near extinction of the human species in these novels can be understood as the starting point for reorienting the epistemology of environmental imagination, a response to the increasingly obvious work of changing how environment is imagined, mediated, and given value.
The second book in the series, Year of the Flood depicts a dramatic reorientation of environmental imagination corresponding to a world radically altered by climate change and an engineered plague and explores the ways that humanity adapts to a world shaped by man-made environmental and social apocalypse. Unlike most speculative fiction, which restricts itself to more didactic models of prophecy, Flood works to satirize the limits of contemporary environmental consciousness as it models a more radical environmental imagination found in the [End Page 22] insurgent group God’s Gardeners and especially in one of their surviving members, Toby.3 The significant role Toby plays as an allegory for contemporary ecological epistemology and the ways she both embodies and overcomes its limitations suggests that even amid an admittedly dark satire, Atwood leaves the possibility of epistemological adaptation as an alternative to extinction. Here I examine the ways in which Atwood’s novel works to reorient our contemporary environmental imagination through the construction of a fictive imaginary based in adaptive practice and uniquely suited to a climate change apocalypse. Recognizing the variety of interpretations of her work, my argument is that Atwood’s novel must be viewed for what it is—a dystopic jeremiad,4 a scathing satire—but that this function also contains valuable epistemological and ideological models visible in how the novel’s characters go about the work of ecological and epistemological adaptation. I suggest that the epistemological development of the novel’s characters lends insight to Atwood’s environmental imagination, as I evaluate the implications of these models for the work of ecocriticism in light of global climate change.
Cultural Feedback: Environmental Imagination and the Speculative
Flood is not unlike many works of speculative fiction in its subject matter or tropes, but it does stand out for its more radically imaginative vision of how the legacy of degradation may be overcome. Atwood created the MaddAddam series in the tension between the very real scientific and ecological developments that inspire her work and the profoundly unreal and unsettling. She has remarked that her “dystopias aren’t fanciful” but are “based on logical progressions from places we find ourselves in now.”5 In this sense, Atwood serves as a counterpart to the more conventional modes of ecological thinking that Byron Williston has described as “thick cultural materials”—those attachments to cultural continuity and normalcy that can limit our capacity to imagine environmental futures beyond disaster or status quo.6 Much of contemporary speculative fiction remains embedded in these thick materials. Even otherwise-notable examples of recent speculative fiction—such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) or the similarly jaded Gold, Citrus, Fame (2015), by Claire V. Watkins—seem [End Page 23] to operate in extremes, either reproducing expectations of cultural and political continuity bound to fail or else so severely obliterating those expectations as to seem to invalidate the possibility of any alternatives. The former tendency is obviously unproductive in light of changing circumstances, while the later tends, as James Berger notes, only to produce uncertainty or...