When The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s hotly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, hits bookstores in the fall of 2019, the average global temperature will have risen at least one full degree from what it was in 1985, when Atwood’s original apocalyptic tale appeared.
We don’t know yet what The Testaments is about, or what new insight it may give into the workings or inhabitants of Gilead, Atwood’s name for a fictional future America created by systematically stripping women of their property and rights. But an educated Atwood reader (or, ahem, superfan) doesn’t have to read between too many lines to guess what her next work will comment on.
As some critics have observed, we’re rapidly approaching a point at which any work of fiction set in the contemporary world, much less an imagined future Earth, will de facto be climate change fiction, regardless of what the plot might actually be about. That said, there’s reason to believe that Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments may lead the charge in a new wave of feminist fiction that directly addresses the impact of climate change on women.
For one thing, Atwood is already a voluble signal-booster for news of the Anthropocene, the term that’s been coined for the current geological era in which mankind is the driving engine of environmental change. A glance at Atwood’s so-very-worth-the-follow Twitter feed on any given day reveals that about a quarter of it is climate-related news. Another 20% or so is human-rights related, and a significant percentage is both. (With the remainder, quite understandably, going to posts about her actual works—respect the game.)
Both Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the Hulu series it inspired depict a future in which political change—catalyzed by climate change—creates a world particularly hostile to women. In the novel and in the series, unspecified toxins in the environment generate an infertility crisis that paves the way for the reproductive enslavement of those few women who might still be able to bear children.
The Hulu series, which returns for its third season June 5, takes the climate link a step farther, referencing political instability caused by ongoing crop failures and weather patterns, which in turn helped bring about Gilead. One character explicitly links these events to climate change, boasting that Gilead has “cut its carbon emissions by 78 percent” (after all, by law, half of its population can no longer drive a car). In the second season, the series even shows the contaminated “Colonies” where “Unwomen” are banished. It’s a landscape in full collapse, where women dig through mountains of radioactive sludge under the gunpoints of male guards in protective gear.
But as Atwood has pointed out herself many times, she didn’t put anything into The Handmaid’s Tale that hadn’t already happened somewhere in the real world. If her works feel prophetic, and they do, it is because she’s recording what’s happening over her shoulder, not what she sees in a crystal ball. The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the first novels to predict a major characteristic of the Anthropocene: As studies have shown, women worldwide are the most vulnerable to the economic and geopolitical disasters caused by climate change. And those man-made disasters aren’t just coming soon to a bookstore near you. They’re here, and they’re happening right now, to women and children first — and worst.
Atwood herself addressed the connection between climate-related disasters and women’s disempowerment last June at “Under Her Eye,” a conference about climate change and women. Climate change, she argues, is a feminist issue, because in economic and political terms, ecological disaster hits women the hardest.
Sadly, the numbers back her up. While climate change is a problem that affects us all, as a 2017 report on Women and Climate Change points out, it does not affect everyone equally. The world in which we currently live is one in which climate change has a wide and dangerous downstream for people already living in poverty. And because 70% of the world’s poor are women, women are disproportionately among the most vulnerable to climate change around the world.
For example, women make up the majority of the global agricultural workforce—in some countries, up to 80% of agriculture workers are women—and as a result, women are among the first to face the consequences of increasing flood, drought, and desertification. The Central American “migrant caravans” arriving at the U.S. border in search of asylum—only to have their children forcibly and illegally separated from them—are fleeing an economic and political collapse brought on by drought that has been linked to climate change.
Water scarcity and lack of access to clean water also disproportionately affect women worldwide. As the 2017 Women and Climate Change report noted, women and children collectively spend 140 million hours per day fetching water, and the farther women and girls have to travel to bring water back home, the more at risk they are to violence, abduction, rape, and sexual assault, particularly in countries marked by conflict.
And finally, income inequality—poverty itself—is one of the biggest and earliest-felt consequences of climate change. As environmental disasters become more frequent and intense, and as populations shift in response, populations who are already economically vulnerable are the most at risk.
Basically, the more stuff starts falling apart, the more we see people who have resources start to guard over them—while those who lack resources are more desperately impacted.
This isn’t a phenomenon that’s taking place on the other side of the world (although it’s happening there, too). Here in America, where women comprise a higher percentage of the non-elderly poor than men in 49 out of 50 states, climate-related events impact regional economies in a very real way. The struggling Midwestern farm families whose towns were inundated in the early spring of 2019, the families left homeless by the California wildfires in the fall of 2018, and the farming and ranching families of the Southwest plains surviving the 2017-2018 droughts and prairie fires, are all part of the story of lasting income inequality created or worsened by climate change, right here where we live.
How exactly will Atwood’s The Testaments address climate change? While Gilead itself is a creation of climate change, all Atwood has said so far is that the new novel is “inspired by the world we’ve been living in,” and will reveal more about Gilead’s “inner workings.” Last year saw the publication of a wave of feminist dystopian novels, each one indebted to The Handmaid’s Tale in some way. With The Testaments, the feminist dystopian fiction trend that owes so much to Atwood’s influence will finally cross paths with the emerging wave of climate change fiction — another genre that Atwood helped shape, in The Handmaid’s Tale and her MaddAddam trilogy. (Full disclosure: As a woman, an Atwood super-fan, an anxious reader of not-fake climate news, and the author of a feminist dystopian novel about climate change, I could not be more personally invested in this hypothesis being true.)
If I’m right and The Testaments is a feminist dystopian climate change novel that stands to change the way people think about climate change in general, Atwood’s novel won’t really have been the first — although now that The Handmaid’s Tale is back at the forefront of cultural conversation after over 20 years, it may well be the biggest. Fiction about what happens to women in a world changed by environmental collapse has a lineage that goes as far back as Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sowers and its 1998 sequel Parable of the Talents, as well as more recent books like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (soon to be an HBO series), Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From.
Right now, these works are shelved in the “speculative fiction” section of the bookstore. They might not be for long.
Image credit Kvlakshmisree.
Siobhan Adcock is the author of two novels, The Completionist and The Barter. Her essays have appeared in McSweeneys, Ms., Slate, Daily Beast, Salon, LitHub, and HuffPo, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.