Margaret Atwood's 'Year of the Flood'. Meanings of Climate Change

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2012 15 Pages

English - Literature, Works


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Climate Change in Literature

3. Meanings of Climate Change in Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood
3.1. Climate Change – the Physical Effects
3.2. Climate Change and Society
3.2.1. The question of responsibility
3.2.2. The question of ethics and moral
3.2.3. Climate change and women
3.3. Climate Change and the Waterless Flood

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In her book The Year of the Flood (YOF) the Canadian author Margaret Atwood gives us an insight in how our future might look like and this foresight is not so unthinkable at all. The novel is placed in what is today the United States of America, probably somewhere on the East Coast. The time it is set in a not so far away future where the Apocalypse had already occurred. The plot is situated around the two main characters Toby and Ren who give us insights into the pre-apocalyptic time throughout the book. The environment which is portrayed is disturbed in many ways: the effects of a global climate change are apparent; society has split up into different groups. YOF is centered in the pleeblands where the lower social classes are situated. The picture of the society we get is that it is in an ‘unhealthy condition’. It has mainly lost its ethics and moral and there is an increased willingness of violence not only by individuals but also by the leading CorpSeCorps forces, a private security firm. Eventually, the whole human race is extinguished by a pandemic and only a few survive. Next to Toby and Ren, the survivors mainly consist of the members of eco-activist groups. Now, they have to face the question of survival and have to deal with a new species of ‘man’ – the Crakers.

Atwood wrote in the acknowledgements of her book that “The Year of the Flood is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact” (YOF 433). Hence, one might see her book as a mirror for our society today. For her it is a matter of fact that in today’s world it is the responsibility of an author that he or she points out the dangers which are included in the damage of our ecosystem (Bandyopadhyay 1). The problem of today and in the future is that society and nature do not appear separate from each other. In his book Why We Disagree about Climate Change, Mike Hulme argues that climate change is no longer just a physical phenomenon but that it is also a social one (iv). He furthermore says it “is an environmental, cultural and political phenomenon which is reshaping the way we think about ourselves, our societies and humanity’s place on Earth” (iv). In YOF we can see one scenario of how these changes could look like. So, the major question in this essay is going to be what role climate change played and what effects climate change had on different aspects of society in the novel. It is all about the meanings climate change can have.

2. Climate change in literature

Before looking at climate change in Year of the Flood, it is necessary to have a look at climate change in literature in general. First of all, it is not commonly approved that there is actually something like climate change; even though experts mostly agree that there is. However, “climate change now occupies a primary position not just on political and scientific agendas but in the wider cultural imagination” (Trexler, Johns-Putra 185). The topic of climate change emerged in literature as an own genre. YOF belongs to the one of climate change fiction novels, mainly because its plot takes place in the future and it also contains fictional elements and of course climate change has an important meaning in the novel. The book itself is part of a trilogy, with Orynx and Crake as the first book, YOF as the second and the third part not released yet. However, YOF is one of those books “that do more than employ climate change in terms of setting” (Trexler, Johns-Putra 196). The phenomenon of climate change is very complex and this “provokes and inspires authors to invent and innovate, in order that they can adequately imagine, depict, and convey it” (Texler, Johns-Putra 185). Unfortunatelly, “most of [the] scholarship[s] [mention] climate chagne as imporatant to the novel’s setting, but [do] not deal explicitly with the question of how Atwood engages it” (Texler, Johns-Putra 189).

3. Meanings of climate change in Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood

In the following chapters I have a look on the various impacts climate change has on different aspects of life in YOF – what meanings climate change have. First of all, I deal with the question if climate change had actually occurred in the novel and give evidence for that. Then I deal with what influence climate change had on different facets of society in YOF. These features of society include the question of responsibility, ethics and the connection between climate change and women.

3.1. Climate Change – the Physical Effects

First of all, it is necessary to prove that there was a change in climate in YOF. Without any evidence there would be no argumentation on the different meanings of climate change. Another reason to have a closer look at specific features of climate in the book is that the effects of climate change are not always obvious in YOF; often the references are subtle. Additionally, as Hulme said: “We cannot detach the stories we tell about climate from the stories we tell about societies” (33). Vice versa, we need to examine climate, before we look at the effects it had on society.

However, before starting to look at the different aspects of climate change in YOF, it is helpful to define what climate change means – as a little reminder. According to the website of the IPCC “climate change refers to a statistically significant variation in either the mean state of the climate or in its variability, persisting for an extended period (typically decades or longer). Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use“. In the novel there are different effects visible of how climate has changed. Compared to today, climate change in the book is also (to some extend) based on the influences humankind had on the environment. One can even say that it is a prospect of how our climate might look like in the future and that what we fear today as the potential outcomes of climate change has there already occurred. Consequently, YOF is situated in a post-climate change world. So, this foresight of how the world might look like if climate change happens, if society does keep on going in this unsustainable way is already one of the meanings climate change has in the novel. The concrete meaning behind it is that it acts as a warning for us today.

For the purpose of a better lucidity, I use bullet points for the different aspects of climate change.

- One of the major changes in climate is that there is a much higher radiation. One always has to protect the skin whether it is through covering the whole body with clothes, enough sun block or wearing a sunhat (YOF 215, 11). Furthermore it is wise to stay out of the sun when it is noon (YOF 15). Also the risk of skin cancer is increased. There is an episode where Shakie and Croze, two boys of the eco-activist God’s Gardeners, hope to go down to the beach with their group because “there might be girls in bikinis lying in the sun, and [they] might say, skin cancer to them” (YOF 149). If we compare this to today this sounds familiar to us. Already today we need to protect us from radiation but in the world of YOF it is fatal not to.
- Due to this higher radiation there is an increased evaporation which results in droughts and desertification. There was a big drought in the South of America and now “Wisconsin’s covered with cow bones, ever since the big drought ten years ago” (YOF 56). Amanda, the best friend of Ren, was personally affected by these changes in climate. There were major droughts in Texas and “her parents had lost their Happicuppa coffee franchise […] and they’d ended up in a refugee camp with old trailers […]. Then their trailer was demolished in one of the hurricanes” (YOF 84). But the desertification was not only restricted to rather arid regions but also the “Mediterranean – once fruitful farmland, now a desert” (90). This is even more dramatic if one thinks of the consequences. The people in YOF have destroyed their own living space. The world becomes ‘smaller‘. This can be compared to some issues we already hav e today like the expanding Sahara.
- Again due to the higher radiation there was a warming of the seas and oceans. This had even led to the point “that the world’s Oceans are being laid waste!” (YOF 196). One has just to think of the drying out of the Aral Sea today. Even though there is still a living space for underwater animals they suffer under the warming (YOF 196). Next to the “Great Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico; and the Great Dead Zone in Lake Erie; and the Great Death Zone in the Black Sea; and the desolate Brand Banks of Newfoundland, where the Cod once abounded; and the Great Barrier Reef, now dying and bleaching white and breaking apart”; there is also a rise in the sea levels and what was land before is now flooded (YOF 197, 412). Again, we already see the beginnings of this today: the melting of the ice caps and therefore a rise in sea level.



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Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood Atwood Climate Change Fiction Climate Change Literature YOF Canadian author Fiction




Title: Margaret Atwood's 'Year of the Flood'. Meanings of Climate Change