Environmental Literature

May 18, 2003

By Michael Jessen

My dictionary defines literature as a written work of enduring importance, exhibiting creative imagination and artistic skill.

While the environment -- and what humans are doing to it -- is seldom the crux of literature, three of Canada's best-known writers have imagined a near future of frightening proportions in their latest works.

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake sits atop the Globe and Mail's best-seller list for its third consecutive week. While not sharing the popularity of Atwood's book, Luanne Armstrong's The Bone House and Dennis Lee's Un share a vision of an apocalyptic future.

Hailed by Maclean's magazine as "an extraordinary work of art," Oryx and Crake (www.oryxandcrake.ca) may be the novel that secures a Nobel Prize for Margaret Atwood.

Imagining a world of environmental collapse and bioengineering run amok was not difficult for Atwood. Review copies of the book were accompanied by a thick stack of press clippings about the race to create transgenic pigs, epidemics, disappearing animal species, and burgeoning child slavery.

Reality has become the stuff of fiction.

Asked why her 11th novel imagined such a horrific vision of the future, Atwood replied: "Matters have become more acute."

"Take a simple biological premise: when things run out, there isn't any more," Atwood told a Maclean's interviewer. "For all six billion humans to live like us would take the resources of four more earths."

One of her book's characters sees the planet as "one vast uncontrolled experiment."

Luanne Armstrong is a Kootenay writer, born and raised on a farm in Boswell on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake.

The Bone House (www.newstarbooks.com/BH.htm) is set in a near-future British Columbia that is both shockingly changed and disturbingly familiar.

Globally, the weather has become extreme and unpredictable, and giant corporations rule. They are the chief beneficiaries of a regime of environmental laws imposed too late to stem the damage, but which can be used to control and impoverish the population.

Armstrong is the author of several books for both adults and children, including the award-winning novel Annie. She is also the managing editor of Hodgepog Books, a children's book publisher, and has taught creative writing at the College of the Rockies in Cranbrook.

Dennis Lee is a poet known to many children and their parents for the book Alligator Pie.

In Un, Lee surveys the catastrophic new reality we have made of our planet. The book's publisher -- House of Anansi -- describes the volume as "a lament for our squandered earth, a wake-up call, a dramatic poetic departure, and a song of despair, streaked with craggy hope" and a reminder of why poetry still matters.

Lee himself describes the genesis of the book this way (www.anansi.ca/dennis_lee.cfm): "Like other thinking people, I was feeling anxious about what we're doing to the planet - the possibility that we'll make it uninhabitable by our own species, and many others.

"I didn't believe that poetry could change that. But there was one thing I thought a poet could contribute. It sometimes seems to me that we get so distracted by all the welter of crises and panic attacks that we can avoid looking at the terrible fact: that we may be destroying our own home. And if that happens, there's very little chance that we'll make calm, steady choices about our real priorities.

"So my project was to see if I could write a book that did imagine the worst. Not by writing editorials or scientific reports; and certainly not in order to wallow in despair. What I wanted was a book that enacted the movements of the moral imagination, as it wrestled with our contemporary fate, and tried to look directly into the heart of darkness."

We all know the environment is important, but it is seldom newsworthy enough to reach a level of prominence in the average person's consciousness. These three writers of literature may be able to raise our level of awareness and concern more than all the scientific books and newspaper columns of the past decade.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based consultant who helps companies and communities achieve a sustainable future. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His company -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

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