Three passages from Payback

There are three further elements of Margaret Atwood’s Payback that seem in keeping with the themes of this blog, and the current conversations here. I am not going to comment on them excessively, since I think they provoke enough thinking in themselves.

The first is her list of possible responses to major crises. You can “Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life.” In the context of climate change, it seems like we are all engaging in a particular combination of these behaviours. It is worth contemplating if it is the right one. She doesn’t really discuss how there is a prisoner’s dilemma at work here. If nobody else addresses problems, protecting yourself or partying are your best options. If you can convince others to cooperate, you can help others and get on with your life.

The second is her description of an international approach to climate change mitigation:

[G]lobal warming has been dealt with at a global summit during which world leaders gave up paranoia, envy, rivalry, power-hunger, greed, and debate over who should start cutting down the carbon footprint first and rolled up their sleeves and got with it.

While that is a very appealing vision for how developed and rapidly developing states might behave, it does seem appropriate to recall that, in many places, the reduction of extreme poverty and insecurity is a more urgent task. Let Canada, China, and the United States learn how to run a zero carbon society, before calling on Sudan or Afghanistan to do so.

The third is a hypothetical response the American president could have given to the September 11th attacks:

We have suffered a grievous loss – a blow has been struck at us that was motivated by an obsessive desire to harm us. We realize that this was the work of a small group of fanatics. Other nations might bomb the stuffing out of the civilian population where those fanatics are at present located, but we recognize the futility of such an action. Nor will we accuse any bystander nation of having been involved. We realize that acts of vengeance recoil upon the heads of the inventors, and we do not wish to perpetuate a chain reaction of revenge. Therefore we will forgive.

The quote is an interesting one. For me, the last sentence somewhat clashes with the rest. It is one thing to say: “We will not take this fight to those who did not start it.” It is quite another to say that we will not respond directly to those who did, while being careful to spare the innocent. While it is on the fringe of what is imaginable that the United States might have responded to Al Qaeda through international cooperation and the vigorous efforts of law enforcement and the courts, it doesn’t seem either moral or believable that they would not respond in some way to those who were directly involved.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Three passages from Payback

  1. Therefore we will forgive.

    I agree. Saying “we won’t kill random civilians around you” is very different from saying “we are ok with what you did.”

  2. Probably, the best way to “fight terrorism” is (a) stop participating in it and (b) stop retaliating against those that commit it against you.

  3. The best way to fight terrorism is probably to treat it like crime.

    ‘Forgiving’ criminals is not likely to be an effective approach, though neither is taking excessive revenge against them.

  4. It’s not just the very poorest states that make Atwood’s ‘global warming dealt with’ comment problematic.

    The global situation with emissions is a bit like this: a group of states arrived at a restaurant early, then spent a few hours eating expensive food. Then, some other states arrived near the end and began eating. Fairly shortly after that, the bill arrives. The states that have been eating since the beginning tell everyone to “give up paranoia, envy, rivalry, power-hunger, greed, and debate over who should” pay the bill and “roll up their sleeves and do it.”

    While ignoring historical responsibility might make some negotiations easier, it would almost certainly make the outcome less just.

  5. Another interesting feature is the six options Atwood says we all have in the face of catastrophe:

    1. Protect Yourself,
    2. Give Up and Party,
    3. Help Others,
    4. Blame,
    5. Bear Witness,
    6. and Go About Your Life

    Climate activists think of themselves as focusing on #3, but are certainly (and legitimately) involved in #4 and #5.

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