Margaret Atwood on Climate Change

“I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change because when people think climate change, they think maybe it’s going to rain more or something like that. It’s much more extensive a change than that because when you change patterns of where it rains and how much and where it doesn’t rain, you’re also affecting just about everything. You’re affecting what you can grow in those places. You’re affecting whether you can live there. You’re affecting all of the species that are currently there because we are very water dependent. We’re water dependent and oxygen dependent.”

Margaret Atwood, in an interview with Slate

“Everything change” is a better phrase than “climate change.” Yes, Margaret Atwood. Yes. Words are so important.

I want to gush for a moment about Margaret Atwood. If you haven’t read her work, start anywhere. Really.

Because I’m a poetry nerd, I read her collected poems before anything else. Now I’m slowly making my way through her fiction. I started The Handmaid’s Tale on the plane from Tuvalu to Fiji and stayed up all night finishing it when I got back to Suva. Warning: The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that you will not be able to stop reading. This is a good thing.

Here’s a poem of Atwood’s I love.

Variation on the Word Sleep

I would like to watch you sleeping, 
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you, 
sleeping. I would like to sleep 
with you, to enter 
your sleep as its smooth dark wave 
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent 
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves 
with its watery sun & three moons 
towards the cave where you must descend, 
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver 
branch, the small white flower, the one 
word that will protect you 
from the grief at the center 
of your dream, from the grief 
at the center. I would like to follow 
you up the long stairway 
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands 
to where your body lies 
beside me, and you enter 
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.


In April 2014, Margaret Atwood was honored with the Harvard Arts Medal. I was lucky enough to be among a group of artists on campus selected to have dinner with the Canadian goddess herself. You can imagine how over the moon I was to get this invitation.

2014 Arts Medal Invitation_2During a public Q&A in Sanders Theater, the moderator asked Atwood about different genres––how she manages to balance writing poetry and prose (and weave environmental activism in between).

She responded with characteristic wit and pithiness: “No one ever told me that I couldn’t.”


After her talk, I gathered with the invited group of professors and students for drinks and dinner and dessert with the guest of honor. I spoke at length with Margaret Atwood’s daughter (they have the same eyes) during the chat-with-wine portion of the evening and told her about my upcoming trip to collect stories about water and climate change. When Margaret Atwood finished an adjacent conversation with a professor, her daughter pulled her over to talk to me. I don’t remember much of our exchange except the intensity of her gaze, the way she nodded when I mentioned my trip and wished me well.

I floated through the rest of the evening.

On the way out the door I lingered until there were just a few people in the room. I put on my coat and walked up to President Drew Faust.

“Hi. My name is Devi, and we met twice before. Once at Freshman opening days [I didn’t know who she was then, and awkwardly said hello over a bowl of vanilla ice cream––my roommates filled me in after] and once during your open office hours about HEI. Please divest from fossil fuels.”

I was hoping to catch her off guard.

President Faust was visibly angry. She huffed up her shoulders (I should mention that she is already a good foot taller than I am) and told me, “You students don’t understand investments.” Then she stormed out of the room.

Good lord.

I worry that the very funding I received from Harvard for this trip to collect stories about water and climate change could be supported by Harvard’s investments in the oil and gas industry.

The Divest Movement has been going on at universities across the United States for years. Stanford divested. Brown divested. Harvard is still holding onto its $79.5 million direct holdings which are spread across the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies.

Art and protest go hand in hand. When I get back to the states I will find a way to weave this project into a performance piece at Harvard. Something small. With puppets. It worked last time.

HEII care where my university invests its money.


3 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood on Climate Change

  1. Maybe one way of looking at all this for the oil industry is the reality:

    bike tires for more sustainable transportation…the rubber nowadays doesn’t come from trees. It is made from petroleum products. Same for many plastics in components of our homes, everyday objects, bike parts, etc.

    What I do protest is full-out exploitation of oil resources at break neck speed which results in pollution, worker exploitation (Canada and U.S. are bringing in foreign workers and pay them less.), gas flaring in the oil fields. I don’t agree with shale oil nor tar sands oil extraction which is very expensive and requires a lot of water and other resources in the extraction with leftover toxic waste material. Nor do I agree with the practice of fracking ..which is extreme extraction method and used in our province.

    I would suggest speaking directly with engineers in the oil and gas industry to find out directly what their issues and concerns are… You might be amazed what they will tell you if..they are retired, at a BBQ, etc.

    My partner has been a civil engineer, manager with an oil company for whole of his career.
    He also became a cycling advocate and long time cyclist for last 25 yrs.

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