Margaret Atwood's Keynote Speech - March 24, 2011 at the Global Greenbelts Conference


March  24  2011 - 

I’m honoured to be here with you today. You’ve had the comic act and the music – I’m the pep talk.


This Global Greenbelt Conference signals one of the most important movements of the twenty-first century. I won’t call it “the movement to save Nature,” since no matter what we human beings do to it, some of what we call “Nature” is likely to survive our worst efforts. Microbes at the bottom of the ocean will likely make it through. So it’s not Nature this movement aims to save – it’s us. It’s a movement to save the human race, through preserving and improving the conditions that we ourselves need in order to remain alive and healthy within functioning societies. As such, the Greenbelt initiative is part of a huge group of other conservation organizations – everything from international ones like World Wildlife to Nature Conservancy to Birdlife International, to national and provincial ones like Nature Canada and Ontario Nature, all the way to very local ones.

I’ve been asked to speak about the connection between the Greenbelt effort – which is a sort of antithesis to the 1970 Joni Mitchell song line, “They paved Paradise to put up a parking lot” – and something we call “sustainability,” which I take to mean – in the short term – the ability to keep on doing what you’re doing without having everything fall apart completely, and -- in the long term -- the viability of human beings as a mid-sized but unusual mammalian species on this planet.

In other words, how much Nature does human nature require in order to just keep breathing -- and what sort of Nature?  Now that we ourselves can rearrange the earth in major ways, -- something we often do without much thought for the consequences -- that is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Indeed it may be the most pressing one. If we don’t get this equation right, we may be looking down a dark and ever-narrowing tunnel, with human oblivion at the far end.

Things were once more cheerful. On the Internet – that latest version of the smoke signal, the talking drum, the telephone, and the newspaper, it being part of our human nature to communicate with others of our kind – you can find a Wiki game called FrontierVille.  Most games of this kind on the Net mimic things we believe we’d like to do, and many are exercises in nostalgia and/or wishful thinking – two things we human beings seem to particularly crave --- and FrontierVille is no exception.

In this game, you pretend to be a Pioneer, and are given a plot of land called a Homestead, which is covered with something called “debris.”  The forms of “debris” are six in number: grass, cacti, rocks, thorns, wildflowers, and skulls.  (The skulls appear to be the skulls of animals, you will be happy to know.) The aim of the game is to clear the Homestead of this debris in order to build buildings, care for domestic animals such as chickens, cows and so forth, plants trees and crops, and “place decorations.” I don’t see why you can’t just leave the skulls around for the decorations – they’re picturesque – but that’s not one of the rules of this game. 

One of the “decorations” is a whiskey still, which I hope is functional rather than merely decorative – a Pioneer’s  life is a hard one, what with all the debris, which just keeps piling up, and a good stiff drink at the end of the day might be in order. You can also acquire a spouse and a kid, buy things at the “market” using pretend money, visit your neighbours and help them with their own buildings, debris clearing, and decoration-placing, and then together you can build a town. And put up – presumably – a parking lot. 

Oh, and you also get to kill a class of animals called “varmints.” It is not called “killing” in this game, it is called “clobbering.”  The varmints are as follows: bear, groundhog, snake, fox, and coyote. They are surrounded with a glowing red aura so you are sure not to miss them. (Where – I ask – are the rats and mice? And the squirrels? And the ants? And the potato beetles? Possibly less fun to clobber them.)  And lest you think I’m going to go mushy over this -- no, I wouldn’t want those varmints on my homestead either, messing up my crops and decorations, and yes, I have done a fair whack of potato-beetle clobbering in my time.

So there you have it – most of human life, in peacetime anyway, since the advent of agriculture. Clearing away botanical bioforms you’ve assigned to the category of debris, clobbering zoological specimens you’ve decided are “varmints” while tending others you can later eat -- in my FrontierVille you’d eat the varmints too, removing their scent glands first, but never mind, this is a cleaned-up version -- constructing buildings in which you and your “spouse” and “kid” can live, adding “decorations” – I guess those would include “the arts” -- and hooking up with other Pioneers to build towns and extend the human domain.

In FrontierVille you never go as far as constructing cities, the population never outgrows the carrying capacity of the land, no environmentalists yell at you when you clobber varmints, you don’t have a water-shortage problem – you just acquire a decorative fountain -- several esthetically pleasing models are available at the “market”, all with great-tasting water -- and there seems to be no FrontierVille cemetery on offer.

But in real life things are a bit different.

In fact, in real life Frontierville just kept growing, and then it became TownVille and AgribusinessVille and CommuterVille and UrbanSprawlVille, and BigBox Mega-MallVille, and along with this growth came varmints and locations of a different kind:  Water PollutionVarmint, Air PollutionVarmint, Pesticide SideEffectsVarmint, Cancerville, WorriesAboutGoodFoodVille, and Things Going Wrong with the Kids. Ville.

FrontierVille got a lot right: it accurately graphs some of the conditions we need to maintain human life.  Drinkable water, whether from an esthetically-pleasing fountain or not; food, of course – and FrontierVille recognizes that this food, whether animal or vegetable, ultimately comes from the land, and involves work. FrontierVille is not by the sea, so you can’t get saltwater fish and shellfish, though you can obtain a small, dubious-looking “fishing hole,” which you can place on your land as a “decoration,” so the importance of fish to humanity  is at least given a nod. Through its neighbour-helping function, FrontierVille also recognizes our social nature – the necessity of other people to our mental health. One colonial ant is not an ant – such ants can exist only within a society of other ants – and we are similar, which is why an isolation cell over long periods of time is extreme punishment.

But FrontierVille does not address itself to our most pressing concern today – the solving of the nature/human nature equation --because it doesn’t have to.  The pretend Pioneers of FrontierVille don’t need to worry about preserving nature, saving endangered species, or setting aside areas where no Homesteads shall be cleared. They have more than enough nature. In fact, like most human beings since the advent of agriculture, they have too much nature, of kinds they don’t like. Those agriculturalists, early and late, could not afford to feel warm and fuzzy towards Nature as a whole because they were up against it every day, in the form of pests, predators, crop diseases, weeds, hailstorms, drought, floods, frosts, and, as they say in advertisements, “and more.” 

I know this life, because for ten years in the 1970s I lived on and helped to run a farm. We kept a large vegetable garden, harvested our wheat and alfalfa, pickled, froze, dried, and cold-stored our food, and had the following animals: chickens, cows, horses, geese, ducks, sheep, cats, dogs, and peacocks. The peacocks and dogs were a frill. I can’t say we ever made any money at our farming – like many small farmers, we supported our farm with outside sources of income, in our case the writing of film scripts – but we sure learned a lot. The farmers in our area – who have since been replaced almost entirely by weekenders – would have thought you were crazy if you’d said, “Don’t kill that snake” or “Don’t shoot that hawk.” If it moved, and if it wasn’t a domestic animal or a songbird, you clobbered it, no questions asked. As for paving paradise and putting in a parking lot, parking lots were the ideal shape for a farm field: flat, with no bumps or steep grades that might cause your tractor to overturn on top of you. And you wanted nothing on those fields except what you yourself had planted there. That was the appeal of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically-engineered crops: they were less work, and increased productivity. At least at the beginning. Unfortunately some of those things gave you cancer and others killed essential pollinating insects, but who knew?

What happens when the chemicalization and flattening and outright elimination of Nature goes too far? We think we’ve been worrying about these things only since the hippies of the 70s or the green movement of the past few decades, or possibly since the Romantic decades of the early 19th Century, when, as Wordsworth famously said, “Nothing we see in Nature that is ours.” But in fact it’s a very old conversation we’ve been having with ourselves – this conversation about our proper relationship with Nature, and how much we can or should exploit its resources. It’s as old as our nature-altering tools, and those are very old indeed.  Fire use goes back, it is estimated, at least 400,000 years, and probably longer. Studies on human clothing lice place the advent of clothing somewhere between 540,000 years ago and 170,000 years ago  (maybe it depends what you mean by “clothing”). By contrast, agriculture – as opposed to pastoralism – dates back a mere 10,000 years. So, any way you count it, most of our prehistory was spent as nomadic hunter-gatherers – an existence that is as far away from FrontierVille as FrontierVille is from UrbanSprawlVille and Big Box MegaMallVille.

Hunter-gatherers were relatively nomadic: you followed the food, rather than raising it in one place. Therefore you did not build heavy structures or heavy furniture. You needed to know a great deal about the bioforms that surrounded you, some of which were poisonous and some of which were edible; it was essential to know which were which. You lived in a constant dialogue with animals, some of which you hunted and some of which hunted you. This took a great deal of alertness, concentration, and skill. People then did not go into Nature for a weekend of relaxation: they were in Nature, and Nature was in them. And they placed limits on how much they could kill, and what, and where, and when, because they knew that once a food source is perfectly and completely exploited it will not regenerate, and then you’ll starve.

This deep history is probably, as the neurologists say, hard-wired into us. The dreams of children under five are, overwhelmingly, about large animals. Many—E.O. Wilson among them – have argued that we have evolved with an innate tendency to be interested in other forms of life, and that we suffer if isolated from them. This is not to say that we should fall into the Wordsworthian fallacy of believing that Nature is always a walk in the park – that “Nature never did betray/ The heart that loved her.” Respect for the power of powerful animals and of smaller but powerfully venomous organisms must have been part of the ancestral toolkit – those who hugged poison-dart frogs or tried to pat rhinos didn’t do much propagating of the species – and it is one of the ironies of our times that the fear of such species remains in many people, though the species themselves aren’t much threat to us any more, whereas we are not at all afraid of real dangers. The average house contains enough bottled toxins to polish off a city block. You are very much more likely to die in a car crash or by slipping on the bathroom floor than you are by a bear attack, yet we are not terrified of our cleaning products and cars and bathrooms – they’re so recent we haven’t had time to develop such ingrained responses.

Thus we’ve translated the early human respect for Nature into irrational fear, while shedding the desire to understand and interact. We see Nature as “out there”, making a mess; whereas we are in here, sealed behind glass, where it’s tidier and more controllable. The latest edition of the Oxford University Press dictionary for schoolchildren is symptomatic: it has cut nature terms such as heron, magpie, otter, acorn, clover, ivy, sycamore, willow and blackberry, while inserting instead a number of tech terms. “Blackberry,” it seems, is now only a phone, not something you pick and eat. We no longer experience wild animals much in places we might be: they’ve become fixtures of “nature” programmes on television shows – shows that feature a lot of chase scenes and killings, because that’s what grabs our attention. It’s an experience of nature that’s both safely removed from us and highly edited—a sort of Roman Circus attitude towards nature. Capture wild animals –in our case, on the camera -- bring them to where we are, then kill them for our entertainment. Or watch them kill one another.

As the artist Robert Bateman has noted, “… most children are not playing by themselves out in Nature.” Their parents are afraid to let them out, not just because of the lions and tigers and bears and bugs, but because of the pedophiles that are in fact no thicker on the ground than they have ever been. As Bateman says, “Over 95% of harm done to kids by an adult is someone the family knows… It is highly unlikely that a dirty old man will be lurking behind a bush in a bit of nature for months waiting for a luckless victim to pass by.”  But we fear, so we confine our kids. We give them a man-made Emperor’s Nightingale to play with, instead of showing them a real nightingale. They may be excused for thinking that nature is a video game, just as they think that food is spontaneously generated by supermarkets.

But the price for our increasingly artificial existence is steep. This is how Bateman puts it, citing Richard Louv’s book,”Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder”: “The findings are that if children play in nature … they have less obesity, less attention deficit disorder, less depression, less suicide, less alcohol and drug abuse and less bullying and higher marks.,, Just think about that list of issues and how expensive they are to society in medical costs, policing, the justice system and jails. Society would save money if schools and families put greatly-increased resources into the nature-child connection.”

The positive effects of contact with the natural world don’t stop with children.  For some years now the Japanese have been doing research on the effects of “forest bathing” – walking in the woods – on human health, specifically stress-related factors such as heart rate and blood pressure, and also the killer T-cells of the human immune system. Here’s a snippet:

“The purpose of forest therapy is to provide preventive medical effects by relieving stress and recovering the immune system [diminished] by stress,” Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University explained. As Japan's leading scholar on forest medicine, he's carried out studies across the country. The results show forest bathing can significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, along with blood pressure and heart rate. Other research points out that walking in the woods can boost the body's immune system by increasing anti-cancer proteins and enhancing the so-called natural killer activity of certain cells. In this case, it's believed humans benefit from breathing in phytocides, the chemicals plants emit to protect themselves from rotting and insects. “This proves that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy,” says Mizayaki.  “From a preventive medicine perspective, we can also expect a reduction in national health-care expenditure.”

There are similar results coming in from studies in other countries. It’s pretty clear: cutting ourselves off from contact with nature makes us sicker, both mentally and physically, and reconnecting makes us healthier. For bottom-liners:  illness and crime are expensive. Nature is free.

But you can’t go for a walk in the woods if there aren’t any woods.

Which is where the Greenbelt Foundation comes in. Providing an opportunity for children and adults to reconnect with their own natures by connecting with Nature is just one of its benefits. I’ve dwelt on that one because it’s least likely to be stressed in reports, but those trying to convince businessmen, governments, and even the general public are more likely to emphasize the economic benefits.  For the Ontario Greenbelt, these are: through farming,  $35 billion in output, more than $7 billion in labour income, 212,000 jobs; in ‘natural capital,’ including the ability of forests and wetlands to filter water and help control flooding, 2.6 billion in economic value every year. The efforts of the Greenbelt Foundation itself include – but are not limited to, as they say in legal contracts – helping farmers reduce costs while also reducing waste and carbon emissions, and growing a local food system, some of it organic, and thus part of the global return to more resilient living soils as opposed to the dead-soil chemical model. Local foods also travel shorter distances and reach consumers sooner, with carbon-reduction and nutrition benefits.

So why wouldn’t we want to preserve and improve such a life-enhancing and beneficial feature or our world? Why would we want to pave it all over?  I can think of some reasons for doing that if you’re in a hit-and-run construction business, with no long-term interest in the area you’re paving; but not if you’re anyone else.

Those of us who live in this part of the world – southern Ontario -- are really very lucky. Our surface water isn’t drying up, not yet. Our summer temperatures are not soaring to 50%. Our forests are not shriveling. Our groundwater is for the most part not contaminated, or not beyond remedy.

Perhaps most importantly, we are coming to understand the crucial connection between ourselves and the rest of Nature.  It’s not the sort of connection we once had. We can’t go back to FrontierVille, to clear homesteads, set up family farms, and clobber varmints – there isn’t enough frontier, there are too many of us on the planet, and there aren’t even enough varmints to go around. We certainly can’t go back to hunting and gathering – just one day of that, if indulged in successfully by all 7 billion of us, would clean up most of the edible living organisms left on earth. We’re increasingly urban – scared of mice, at a loss when the lights go off.  We’re stuck with the society we’ve created, which is built on our almost total dependence on intricate digitized technologies we don’t understand and can’t fix if they break, and which includes also an increasing gap between ourselves and the rest of the living world. The larger that gap becomes, the more likely is the possibility that we will pave over way too much of Paradise, because we will have forgotten about it.

There’s an old saying from India that goes: “Forests precede civilization. Deserts follow it.”  The Green Belt movement is a hopeful hint that maybe- just maybe – we will have the wisdom to preserve the forests in the midst of our civilization, and thus avoid the deserts.

I wish you the greatest success in your efforts. 

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