Author Margaret Atwood on The Year of the Flood

TreeHugger: In "The Year of the Flood," the God's Gardeners have this pantheon of saints, but they're not saints that we're used to. Tell me about them.

Atwood: Well saints, for any religion, they're people that are specially honored for doing things that that religion considers to be ethically saintly. So there is some overlap. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi is of course in there. We know about him.

But the other ones, in the tradition of honoring people that they consider to have done something saintly, we have people who have been ecologically proactive through the ages and around the world. Some of them will be familiar names to you, like St. Al Gore and St. David Suzuki, who I noticed just got an award for being saintly in that way.

And some of them, such as Rachel Carson, will also be familiar, but there will be a lot of ones you won't be so familiar to you. You can, however, find them all on the web. That will tell you who they are if it's an unfamiliar name.

Once you start looking, the number of people who are working and have worked through the years in support of the natural world, the number is quite huge. And it's going on right now more and more. If there's somebody that you consider particularly saintly who has not been recognized you can get them enrolled in a saints scroll off the website. And that money goes to bird conservation.
You go to the enrollment site, you put in their name, you say what they're the saint of, say what they should get this recognition for, and you put in their birthday or some other saint's day that you want them to have. And then you pay for it through PayPal. You get a download which you can print out and send to them, or you can email it to them. And they can print it out and have on their wall, a proof of their saintliness.

TreeHugger: The God's Gardeners, they're a fringe group; they're religious, and in a lot of ways they represent sustainable, balanced living. But in other ways they're also a cult. They're not into individual freedom, they're not into individual expression.

Atwood: Well, any religion has its limits that it draws around itself. They pretty much all have special foods, the things that you eat and don't eat. They pretty much all have rules of behavior: we behave this way, we don't behave that way. And in the past, and in a certain extent in the present, they've got dress codes, as it were.

So they have a certain way that they dress. In the Old Testament there were a lot of things about what you could wear and what you couldn't wear, such as mixing linen and wool, and you had to have tassels at the corners, and all of those kinds of things. So I gave my religion things that other religions have. They've all got those as far as I can tell. They've all got prayers, they've all got songs, they've all got music of some kind or another. It seems to be part of the human toolkit, music.

And therefore my religion is no different, except of course the things that they consider right to do are a little bit different than other religions might consider right to do. But Brahmins in India, they don't eat meat. Many practicing Buddhists do not eat meat. Muslims have their rules, they don't eat pork. Neither do Orthodox Jews. So the idea of having food rules, it's not new. And even when you go way, way back, if you were a member of a totem clan, you could not eat your totem animal.

TreeHugger: But it's interesting to me the way the sustainability characters in the book, the people representing ecological sanity, are a religion. How much do you see the modern ecological movement as a form of religion?

Atwood: I don't think it's formal. I don't think it's been formalized yet. But you just try eating a big chunk of steak in front of a convinced vegan and see what happens. It's the same set of emotions, although it may not be called a religion. They're religion-like emotions. All this kind of boundary drawing that you get are in full operation right now. There are certain kinds of things you do that are good and that make you feel good. And there are other kind of things you do that are really quite... and I've experienced temptation, I can tell you.

In those airports that did not have organic coffee, temptation was there. I did resist it. I did resist it, but it was temptation. It felt exactly like temptation.

TreeHugger: Has writing "The Year of the Flood" changed the way you relate to the environment and your ecological footprint?

Atwood: I was already doing quite a bit of it. But it certainly caused me to do more. It makes you think twice, or possibly even three times, about what you're doing. For instance, we just got one of those plugs that tells you how much your appliance is using. And I know that there's something in development right now that you'll be able to plug into your entire house and it will tell your computer how much energy you're using.

I think once people have those tools, whereby they can actually measure their own consumption, then their behavior will change. Because even those little alert lights that are on everything, those little red and green lights, they're on all the time, and they burn up a lot more power than you think.

I also noticed that there's a plan to move Internet servers to Iceland, which would be very, very good. Anything using geothermal is a zero carbon footprint. So help is at hand, great minds are at work. But you do become very conscious of everything that you do.

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