Atwood vs. Unregulated Capitalism

Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill

Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill

I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, the third novel in her post-apocalyptic trilogy. In the future that she envisions, unregulated high-tech capitalism has led to extreme class inequality and wholesale environmental devastation. The upper classes live in gated communities and everyone else lives in a blighted urban wasteland. Manhattan is underwater.

In other words, it’s a good warning for us today. As Ursula LeGuin once wrote, in science fiction the future is a metaphor for the present. Science fiction hasn’t always been good at predicting the future, but the best works come up with powerful plots and situations that symbolically express and explore present day problems.

In Atwood’s trilogy, the brilliant scientist Crake, working for an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company (it engages in irresponsible genetic engineering and also deliberately gives people diseases so they will have to buy its high priced drugs), becomes an environmental anarchist and deliberately unleashes a toxic pleasure/death drug on humankind. His reason for reenacting a waterless version of Noah’s flood is so that he can save the environment. The only survivors are a few survivalist gardeners, some very scary cage match killers, and a new race of genetically engineered and environmentally correct humans (the Crakers).

The first two books in the trilogy (Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) give us the background of the “flood” and how people respond to it. MaddAddam shows us the survivors struggling with the cage match killers to make the world safe for themselves and the Crakers.

In Atwood’s other post-apocalyptic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, the author warns about the rise of religious fundamentalism as well as environmental devastation. The novel was written in 1985, which is to say when feminism was experiencing a backlash and religious fundamentalism was on the rise in both the Middle East and America. The current trilogy is less focused on gender issues than it is on economic and technological ones.

As I read Atwood’s fiction, I keep on thinking of an essay that the Canadian author wrote in 1972 about “survival,” which she identifies as the unifying trope of Canadian literature. (America’s unifying trope, she says, is the frontier.) Unlike American novels, which feature miraculous escapes and bright futures (or endings in which bright hopes are dashed), Canadian novels are about just hanging in there. Atwood’s works don’t feature high hopes and when come to a close, we’re just relieved if her characters are still alive.

Given all the challenges that we’re facing from growing income inequality, unbridled capitalism, unfettered technology, environmental devastation, and crazed politics, mere survival doesn’t sound so bad. Here’s a representative passage indicating how the politics of oil and evangelical Christianity have become entwined. Think of the Koch brothers as you read it:

By the time Zeb came along, the Rev [his father] had a megachurch, all glass slabbery and pretend oak pews and faux granite, out on the rolling plains. The Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists. They were riding high for a while, about the time accessible oil became scarce and the price shot up and desperation among the plebes set in. A lot of top Corps guys would turn up at the church as guest speakers. They’d thank the Almighty for blessing the world with fumes and toxins, cast their eyes upwards as if gasoline came from heaven, look pious as hell…

The Rev had nailed together a theology to help him rake in the cash. Naturally he had a scriptural foundation for it. Matthew, Chapter 16 Verse 18: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

Zeb continues his account to his friend Toby:

“It didn’t take a rocket-science genius, the Rev, would say, to figure out that Peter is the Latin word for rock, and therefore the real, true meaning of ‘Peter’ refers to petroleum, or oil that comes from rock. ‘So this verse, dear friends, is not only about Saint Peter: it is a prophecy, a vision of the Age of Oil, and the proof, dear friends, is right before your eyes because look! What is more valued by us today than oil?’”

“He really preached that?” says Toby. Is she supposed to laugh or not? From Zeb’s tone she can’t tell.

“Don’t forget the Oleum part. It was even more important than the Peter half. The Rev could rave on about the Oleum for hours. ‘My friends, as we all know, oleum is the Latin word for oil. And indeed, friends, as we all know, oil is holy throughout the Bible! What else is used for the anointing of priests and prophets and kings? Oil! It’s the sign of special election, the consecrated chrism! What more proof do we need of the holiness of our very own oil, put in the earth by God for the special use of the faithful to multiply His works? His Oleum-extraction devices abound on this planet of our Dominion, and he spreads his Oleum bounty among us! Does it not say in the Bible that you should forbear to hide your light under a bushel? And what else can so reliably make the lights go on as oil? That’s right! Oil, my friends! The Holy Oleum must not be hidden under a bushel—in other words, left underneath the rocks—for to do so is to flout the Word! Lift up your voices in song, and let the Oleum gush forth in ever stronger and all-blessed streams!’”

The moral? Be very suspicious of libertarian snake oil salesmen who tell you that regulation is tyranny and only the unfettered free market is freedom.

Added note: It so happens that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addresses libertarian orthodoxy in today’s column. Here’s his explanation for why climate change denialists are so heated:

[T]hink about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.

And the natural reaction is denial — angry denial. Read or watch any extended debate over climate policy and you’ll be struck by the venom, the sheer rage, of the denialists.

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