Maclean’s Interview: Margaret Atwood

In an interview with Maclean’s Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Whyte, and in an exclusive excerpt from her new book, Margaret Atwood tackles debt, decay, credit cards and retribution of apocalyptic proportions
Kenneth Whyte

Q: Your new book is called Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Of all the things you could be writing about—at this point in your career, the whole world’s open to you—you chose to write about money.

A: No, I chose to write about debt. It’s a different thing. Debt is not just a money thing. It’s about owing and being owed. Money is just one thing you can exchange. You can exchange good deeds, you can exchange revenge, you can exchange murders. I said to some guy today, “Okay, the simplest form of it is you open the door for somebody and they don’t say thank you. How do you feel?” He said, “That happened to me this morning. I was mad.” I said, “Right, because you knew you had not been repaid. You had done something for that person and they had not reciprocated with the social stroke that should have been coming to you.”

Q: Clearly, these are primitive feelings. You write at length in the book about how our fellow primates respond to experiments testing their sense of fairness and indebtedness.

A: Is it fair that one monkey gets a grape for handing over the very same pebble for which another monkey only gets a cucumber? And obviously it’s not fair because the monkey with the cucumber gets mad. And with a troop of chimpanzees it’s favour-trading. You know, I help you against her and then I ask for your help in return and if you don’t give it, I get very angry, because the scale is out of balance. You owe me and you’re not paying. You blew me off!

Q: Monkeys only co-operate with other monkeys who are playing fair?

A: Yes. But in the animal world individuals cheat, as do we.

Q: This is more or less universal.

A: It’s universal.

Q: And generally cheaters don’t prosper.

A: Well, they often do.

Q: But you also argue what goes around comes around, that the concept of payback is a real and pervasive one.

A: Yes. We like to believe that, and that’s what these afterlifes do such a good job of, you know? Somebody has been a complete ratbag all their life and they’ve gotten away with it, and they die happy and rich, we so much want to believe that they’re going off to the halls of judgment, that their heart will be weighed against the feather of truth, that it will be heavy with sin and it will be eaten by a crocodile. It’s almost essential to our well-being to have a fallback position like that. It may appear as if you’ve gotten away with it, but you’ll pay for it later.

Q: You seem concerned about whether we as a society are as aware as we should be of our indebtedness.

A: We’re aware of it right now, oh boy! You can pretty much trace when the big individual indebtedness kicked in, and it was when the credit card became generally available.

Q: Suddenly debt’s not stigmatized anymore, or it’s readily available.

A: And suddenly it’s a problem. Under the old system—which is now so archaic that a lot of people can’t remember it—if you wanted money you had to go to the bank and take the money out in cash form, and you couldn’t take out money that you didn’t have. But with the credit card you can spend money you don’t have, and that is just so tempting. You think you have the amount of money that is your credit limit. We’re just wired to think that, you know? Until the bill arrives—a sobering moment—you think you’re richer than you are. So it just encouraged people to live that way, always over the edge, always paying back.

Q: You talk about students in debt.

A: A lot. It’s very hard for them not to be unless they’ve got big scholarships or rich parents. And it’s called investing in your future, but like any investment it’s risky because your future is an unknown quantity. However, if you don’t invest in your future, you may be flipping hamburgers for the rest of your life. So it’s a real dilemma.

Q: Discussions of debt often lead to discussions of usury and interest, and many sources you cite are against the practice.

A: Yeah, that’s a very interesting subject. Do you know this book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift? It’s got a whole chapter on usury in it and how people got around that prohibition. There’s a ton of stuff in the Bible concerning debt, debt law. There’s a very funny thing that I didn’t put in the book. In Deuteronomy there’s a whole section on fairness, like, you shouldn’t have two sets of scales in your house, meaning you shouldn’t double-weigh, you know, one for you, one for them, you shouldn’t do two sets of books, in effect. And in the middle of this rather dry stuff it says if two men are having a fight and the wife of one of them rushes into the fight and twists the genitalia of her husband’s enemy, her hand shall be cut off. And I thought, “What’s this doing in here?” And then I thought, “Okay, it’s about fairness, you know, it shall be a fair fight, there shall not be an extra genital-twisting element suddenly.”

Q: So what is our biggest debt?

A: The biggest debt is always the government debt; it’s always debt that government has run up on your behalf.

Q: That’s our biggest financial debt. What’s our biggest moral debt?

A: No question, our biggest moral debt is to the environment. Take-take-take, nothing given back.

Q: And you find that we not only have a debt to the environment, to the earth, but that it’s coming due rather quickly.

A: It’s coming due. It was very interesting to me that when Louisiana was destroyed in that flood the fundamentalists were very quick to say, it’s the punishment of God on a sinful city. Now that the oil industry has been so hard hit in Galveston, are they up on their pulpits saying, God is punishing the oil industry? No, no, no! The interesting thing about the religious component, for me, is that Jesus hardly mentions sex at all. He’s pretty interested in the poor, he’s pretty interested in selling your worldly goods and storing up riches in heaven. However, religious fundamentalists have made it all about sex, and that’s like saying, “Look at the sex and we’re just not going to talk about what you may be doing in a financial way that is sinful.”

Q: A lot of people are concerned about the environment. We’ve come a long way in the last decade or two in terms of environmental awareness.

A: Well, it was all there in 1972 in a report put out by [global think tank] the Club of Rome. My mother stored away an article from the paper about the report that said unless we do something about it, within our children’s lifetime the following will happen, and then they spelled out environmental catastrophe, overpopulation, starvation, drought. Of course, whenever you have scarcities of resources you’re also going to have war over things like water supplies, just as in the Old Testament.

Q: So according to the Club of Rome projections, we’re only a generation away from it?

A: We’re in it now.

Q: But you also sketch the possibility of a less dire outcome in the book.

A: Yes, where Mr. Scrooge puts on his hemp suit and writes a cheque. That is when everybody starts behaving in beneficial, positive ways, and they all get together and—or even separately—they make those moves that will preserve forests, bring down the heat, restore the ocean, get rid of that big island of plastic that’s floating around in the Pacific.

Q: You’re seriously concerned about the apocalyptic scenario?

A: Yes, but as William Gibson says, the future is already here but it’s lumpy. It’s unevenly distributed. Some people are already living this, the ones on low-lying islands off the coast of India are being swept away, you know, it’s already happening to some people. We happen to be very lucky so far.

Q: In response to the temporary spike in oil prices, we’ve started buying different cars and slowing down. Doesn’t that give you some faith that people are adapting?

A: No, as I said, I’m with the spirit of Earth-Day-yet-to-come. Nobody can really predict the future, all you can do is look at trends, and that could change at any moment. Everybody was going along thinking that it was a day like any other day, and bang, down went the Twin Towers. Changed everything. So you can’t really predict the future, but you can say, “Boy, are those glaciers ever melting.” You can measure that, and you can say, “When they’re all melted there won’t be any Athabasca River,” and you can say, “What will happen to the oil sands then?” because you need a lot of water to make that oil. “Where’s that going to come from?” You can say things like that.

Q: What’s the solution?

A: Why aren’t we investing more in alternate tech? The Saudi Arabians are, Scottish Power is. I was just there. Could it be that we’re counting on the oil going on forever and ever and ever and us having all of it and getting very rich?

Q: Well, we make a lot of money on it.

A: So far.

Q: Demand is strong.

A: Right now. Wait a bit.

Q: How long?

A: We actually don’t know how long. There are a lot of variables. But I would say it’s a rickety house if that’s all you’re depending on. We should take a lesson from the Irish potato famine: monocultures are vulnerable. Monocultures of any kind are very vulnerable, because one change and you’re cooked. So we should be diversifying, wouldn’t you say?

Q: I think we are.

A: You think we are? Not enough. I read a piece by a guy out in Alberta that said Canadians are lazy because they’re not patenting enough new inventions. I disagree. Canadians invent a lot of stuff. Actually patenting them is expensive.

Q: More expensive here than anywhere else?

A: It’s not money that the ordinary inventor has. Northrop Frye said, “Americans like to make money, Canadians like to count it.” It works in our favour at moments like this, we haven’t plunged into subprime-mortgage-empty packages. But in other times it works against us because we’re too cautious.

Q: We’re in the midst of an election campaign and the environment is fairly central.

A: Right now the economy has trumped it. But the two are related, that’s what people forget, they think it’s one or the other.

Q: Do you support the Green party?

A: I support Elizabeth May being in Parliament.

Q: Why that distinction?

A: It’s not that I don’t support her. I haven’t made up my mind, to tell you the truth, I really haven’t.