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Saturday, November 12, 2022

Ideas to change the world: Margaret Atwood talks to seven visionaries fighting for a brighter future | Margaret Atwood

What do you get when you bring together some of the most revered thinkers, most progressive-minded activists and one of the most celebrated novelists writing today to discuss the immense challenges we face? A debate about the Spice Girls, of course! For the Guardian’s Saturday magazine, Margaret Atwood wanted to gather some of her favourite experts from around the globe, to ask how they see the world we live in – and what they believe is key to creating the future they want to see.

The lineup included bestselling author Raj Patel, dubbed the “rock star of social justice writing”; Senator Yvonne Boyer, the first Indigenous person appointed to the Canadian senate from Ontario; Akala, a writer, musician and poet; the excellently named Merlin Sheldrake, an expert on fungi; Kate Fletcher, whose speciality is sustainable fashion; Jessie Housty, a young Indigenous activist with a focus on decolonisation and community; and Yasmeen Hassan of Equality Now, which works to combat gender discrimination. The panel, hand-picked by Atwood, reflects the many disparate subjects the author is passionate about, and she was as keen to hear from them as they were to understand her vision and ideas.

Everyone was in different countries, pretty much no one knew anyone else, and the “round table” was actually on video, so it should have been a disaster, but the conversation flowed. In fact, it nearly was a disaster, because my recorder died five minutes from the end and, as Atwood said, “Everyone was saying such good stuff!” And they were. (Fortunately, my recorder recovered.) We talked about the power of music, the magic of mushrooms, and zombies. But first, the small question of how the world should be …
HADLEY FREEMAN


Margaret Atwood illustration
Illustrations by Delphine Lee

Margaret Atwood My big overarching question is, what do we want the future to look like?

Illustration of Yvonne Boyer, the first Indigenous person appointed to the Canadian senate from Ontario
Yvonne Boyer, the first Indigenous person appointed to the Canadian senate from Ontario

Yvonne Boyer Generally, I would like to see a kinder, healthier, fairer future where everybody is on an equal footing. The area I’m focusing on is Indigenous people; I’ve seen some atrocities in my life and I’d like to see them remedied, and people healthy and healing, and living the way their [Indigenous] ancestors taught them to live. We’ve seen so much destruction of the Earth and the people, and we need to start working together to solve these problems.

Hadley Freeman Yasmeen, you’ve been taking lots of practical steps towards improving the future. I wondered if you could share some of those, and what further steps you think we need to be taking?

Illustration of Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now and author of The Haven Becomes Hell
Yasmeen Hassan, global director of Equality Now and author of The Haven Becomes Hell

Yasmeen Hassan We’ve been very focused on the equality of women and girls. I come from Pakistan, and a lot of people are deceived into thinking we have achieved gender equality, but when I grew up it was very clear to me that the world was not equal. Then I started delving into what that means for the world. I realised that most of our problems – including wars and conflicts, inequality of income and distribution, and the climate crisis, which I think is one of the biggest threats that we face – are rooted in gender inequality. Conflicts happen in societies which are unequal and treat one half of their population – women and girls, but also Indigenous people and racial minorities – differently. That commands conflict. In a nutshell, if our work is successful then we will have a better world.

Illustration of Raj Patel, academic, food activist and co‑author of Inflamed
Raj Patel, academic, food activist and co‑author of Inflamed

Raj Patel The good news is that there are lots of peasant movements around the world that are taking the kinds of things that Yasmeen is saying very seriously. There are food systems that are agroecological, which means you grow in a way that builds on the synergies in the soil – and we’ll talk about mushrooms later on, I imagine – but also think about equality as a cornerstone of how we’re going to eat better in the future. While governments have been generally rubbish at supporting this kind of agricultural transformation, the international peasant movement La Via Campesina has 200 million members who are doing practical research every day, and are calling for agroecology and gender equality. So what we eat in the future will depend on where you find yourself, but ideally will come through social relations that are post-capitalist and are grounded in gender equality.

MA Woo!

HF Seeing as Raj mentioned mushrooms – Merlin, are mushrooms the way of the future?

Illustration of Merlin Sheldrake, biologist, mycologist and author of Entangled Life
Merlin Sheldrake, biologist, mycologist and author of Entangled Life

Merlin Sheldrake [Laughs] Well, mushrooms are the reproductive structures of fungi, and fungi are a kingdom of life. The history of life is, in large part, the history of fungi. And given that that’s been going on for more than a billion years, far longer than a lot of plant life, I’d wager that the future would also be a story in part of fungi and fungal relationships, and in part fungal relationships with humans.

HF I want to discuss how culture improves the present and the future. Akala, I know you work so much with music …

Illustration of Akala, Mobo award-winning rapper, activist and poet
Akala, Mobo award-winning rapper, activist and poet

Akala I was originally a musician, but a lot of the stuff I’ve done is around education and culture. I wrote a couple of books: a social history of the British empire called Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, and a young adult novel called The Dark Lady. So a lot of my work is around getting young people to see how important school is. There can be serious consequences – particularly coming from certain types of backgrounds – of not doing well in school, in terms of future rates of incarceration, limited job prospects, limited economic prospects and even life expectancy. So it’s about trying to make education something that is cool and aspirational and interesting.

MA Do you put on shows with kids?

A Yeah, we put on shows and do all sorts of outreach projects. I do a lot of talks at youth clubs, prisons. So, a range of things. Arts education is the cornerstone of trying to get people who are struggling back on track in school, or for people who are doing well, to give them that extra boost.

MA Sounds like a lot of work.

A Yeah, it’s tough, but it’s good.

HF Kate, I wonder what you see as the biggest opportunity in terms of improving the future?

Illustration of Kate Fletcher, professor of sustainability, design and fashion, and co-author of Earth Logic
Kate Fletcher, professor of sustainability, design and fashion, and co-author of Earth Logic

Kate Fletcher The biggest opportunity for fashion is recognising that the future can’t in any way be aligned to an economic growth logic. We have to recognise that we’re on a finite planet and we have to work within planetary limits. Where the work needs to happen is to try to find new ideas about what fashion can be – beyond just buying more stuff and then styling yourself on Instagram.

MA In terms of new materials and fabrics?

KF Ultimately it’s a question of culture, not materials and technology. Materials are never going to solve the problems we’re facing. At the moment, the fashion sector is growing at something like 6% each year, and no material, however efficient, however regenerative, however useful for soil health, will ever undo the negative effect of that sort of growth. So what we’re facing is a fashion industry that’s going to radically reduce in scale and become way more localised; and also be much more plural – so have much more diverse representation, drawing upon all of the traditions that we know of in Indigenous groups.

Illustration of Jessie Housty, Heiltsuk activist and educator, focusing on community and homeland
Jessie Housty, Heiltsuk activist and educator, focusing on community and homeland

Jessie Housty I feel blessed to do a lot of land-based healing and education work with Indigenous youths and families, and I see the biggest threat to the future as being continued disconnection. We have faced generations, since first European contact, of Indigenous peoples being regulated away from our territories, our families being broken, relationships to place and territory and resources being fractured. And to be able to participate in the work of rebuilding those connections, building kinship, a sense of cultural identity that connects people to place, so that they feel inspired to protect it and love it, that feels like such important work. I think connectivity is the antidote to all of the social and environmental problems I see my community and neighbouring communities facing.

HF I wondered if each of you could tell me if there was a book, a film, or a moment that woke you up to the problems facing the future?

YB The one book that really woke me up was when I became a senator and started reading the Hansards [records of Parliamentary debates], which go back to confederation. And I realised that Jean Chrétien, who was the Indian affairs minister in the 1970s, was denouncing the forced sterilisation of Indigenous women. In the 1970s. And in 2022 we still have women being sterilised? It made me see how appalling the whole history of colonisation has been. And exactly what Jessie is saying, I hope there is hope for the future because we certainly haven’t learned much from the past.

HF Jessie, I’d love to hear how you got inspired into your work?

JH Through oral storytelling culture. It was a privilege to grow in my community surrounded by elders and generations of knowledge-holders who led me into the work I’m doing. More broadly, if I was going to recommend one thing to lead people into a beautiful, active, revolutionary life, I would tell people to read more poetry.

HF Margaret, what was it that woke you up to how you want to change the future?

MA I grew up with biologist environmentalist parents at a time when that was considered rather weird – we’re talking about the 40s and 50s. So I understood from a very early age that things are connected, that we are connected to the natural world, things within the natural world are connected to one another. I would be with Jessie – oral storytelling, but of a different kind. More about beetles!

HF Raj, you are known as the rock star of social writing, what led you into that?

RP I’m an activist around hunger, and I write because it’s something I can do for the movement. Again, it’s certainly about storytelling. Eating meals with people can be incredibly transformative, where you didn’t know that you could eat that, you didn’t know that you could cook things this way. And the sort of conviviality and political transformation that’s possible around the table is something I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few times. And that blows my mind, to be able to be sensual in new ways that feel like they’ve been taken off the table by capitalism and modern colonial relations. To experience food, in community, as a decolonising exercise is something I’m very grateful for.

HF Akala, you work with young people. What is it that you recommend to them to awaken their social conscience, to alert them to what they want to do for the future?

A There’s a book called How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, who was a Guyanese historian. That was quite seminal for me. It’s not necessarily one I recommend to teenagers, just because it’s very dense, but people in their early 20s, certainly. Music was also a big eye-opener for me – I grew up on Public Enemy and things like that. That’s one of the reasons we see music being used to sell so much vacuous celebrity culture – because music is so powerful. It can be driven in either direction. And a lot of the social consciousness that was in hip-hop, in particular, has evaporated.

HF So what I’m hearing is you’re not a massive Spice Girls fan?

A No, I love the Spice Girls. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for everything! It’s important to have fun and listen to music that does allow escape and fantasy, and explores all these other realms of human possibility. I just think within that there needs to be some music or some art that also challenges us.

HF Yasmeen, you work so much with women and girls, are there certain things you recommend to them to see, in terms of thinking about their future?

YH The book that really impacted me – and Margaret, shut your ears – was The Handmaid’s Tale. Growing up in Pakistan, I was like, “Ooh, this is our reality, this is how we live.” And then I went to college in the US and studied feminist movements, and saw that everything Margaret had written about was true in some part of the world. That was my wake-up call – if we don’t get this thing right, this is where we are heading, this is where we’ve been and this is where we’re heading again, because in the last five years women’s rights have gone backwards.

Another important book for me was Sex and World Peace, by Valerie Hudson, which really does deep-dive studies in linking the level of gender equality in a society with the level of peacefulness of that society. And I really wanted to bring this to the UN security council, because we are working on all these ways to prevent conflicts, but none focus on, “Let’s work on equality of women and more opportunities for women in a society as a way of preventing conflict.”

YB I have a question, Yasmeen. Have you delved into matriarchal societies?

YH We have. This is something Gloria Steinem, who’s on our board, is very into. We found some in south India, some Native American, and life was much better. This is why I come back to: our economic model’s not the right one, because those societies did not have what is now considered the capitalist model of growth. It was not about maximisation of profit, it was maximisation of happiness and fairness.

MA There’s nothing built-in that says, as a species, we have to have hierarchical societies. We have had many different models of societies throughout history and pre-history. It does not have to be dog-eat-dog all the time. There’s a book called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, it’s by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I liked it because it suggests that we have many more possibilities to choose from than we have been traditionally told we have.

YB I want to mention the Haudenosaunee society. It’s a matriarchal society, and they’re very much alive and well. I also want Jessie to comment, because she will have learned about communities where women were the anchors and made the decisions.

JH I come from a matriarchal society, a matrilineal culture, and it is still very functional in my community. In our governance systems, men are permitted to wield a certain amount of political power and authority, but the moral authority rests with women and with matriarchs in the community. I certainly faced my share of barriers growing up, but my gender was never one of them. And that remains a core source of strength for youth in my community.

HF Merlin, I wonder if you see the future differently now than you did 10 years ago?

MS When I was younger, I tended to imagine the future as some kind of version of the present. But now I think of the future as a cloud of possibility, that is made up of a numberless quantity of past decisions. I reached this view from thinking about plants and fungi. Both plants and fungi grow from the tips of their shoots or cells, and they leave behind them these networks, like bodies, which are, if you like, maps of their past. And so they helped me to think about the present as being this place of choice-making, and the future as this place of opportunity.

HF Margaret, who has contributed most to your vision of the future?

MA There isn’t one future – as Merlin will tell us. So I try not to say “the future” because we have some choices about the kind of future we will end up in. Unfortunately, the further we go along the road of climate crisis, the fewer choices we have. But we still have some choices, and we really need to start making them.

HF Would any of you want to live for ever to see how the future turns out?

MA No. We’ve read the books about vampires and zombies, who live for a long time but end up being this heap of wreckage. Reading the myths, you don’t ask for long life unless you also ask for eternal youth.

A If I was eternally fit and healthy, then sure. But without that, no.

MS It’s a definite no from me. If someone told me I was going to die tomorrow, then my experience would take on a very vibrant quality. And if someone told me that I would never die, then I think the opposite might happen.

MA What we would all like is not necessarily living for ever in our bodily forms, which could actually get quite boring, but the ability to pop in from time to time to see how things are coming along.

HF Could you each nominate someone you think is contributing to improving the future?

YB I think my daughters. My succession plan is for my two daughters to carry on the work I started, because they’re both lawyers and they’re both passionate about the work they’re doing. I’m comforted in that.

MA The Greta Thunberg generation. The young people who are interested in these issues and understand these connections, those are the people who are going to carry it on. And we should be giving them help to the best of our ability.

JH I work with youth every day, I see their power and resilience, I see them make tremendous change that I never would have thought possible. But rather than singling out any one of them, I really hope that we see the potential in every single one of them to make that kind of change.

MA Thank you very much everyone for the informative and thoughtful conversation. Little sparks of hope are very welcome in these ominous times.

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