Atwood Weighs in on Environmental Debate
Published in St. Lawrence Review 2019. Pages 62-74.
Margaret Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake, has often been described as an eco-dystopian novel, meaning that the novel critiques the way in which society approaches environmental issues by portraying a dystopian vision of a deteriorated planet. However, while many critics realize that Atwood is advocating for a better approach to caring for the environment, it is often overlooked that Oryx and Crake also critiques both the branches of traditional environmentalist thought: ecocentrism and anthropocentrism. By critiquing both ecocentrism and anthropocentrism through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is essentially critiquing specialization, even within the realm of environmental studies.
It has been proved that anthropocentrism promotes pro-environmental behaviors just as effectively as ecocentrism.
Ecocentrism and anthropocentrism are two conflicting and heavily debated theories within the field of environmental studies. While both ecocentric and anthropocentric theories have the goal of preserving the environment, the philosophies behind the two differ greatly. According to the Devall and Sessions’ Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, ecocentrism is “in sharp contrast with the dominant world-view of the technocratic-industrial societies which regard humans as isolated and fundamentally different from the rest of nature” (65). In contrast, as Devall and Sessions explain, anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are superior to and in charge of the natural world (65). The definitions given here illustrate the common occurrence of ecocentrics depicting anthropocentrism in a negative light; however, it has been proved that anthropocentrism promotes pro-environmental behaviors just as effectively as ecocentrism, it just differs in that it encourages environmentalism for the sake of sustaining human life (Naoko and Kaida 1225). To summarize the difference between these two contrasting environmental thoughts, ecocentrics believe “nature has intrinsic value independent of its direct value to human beings” and an anthropocentric perspective believes that the nonhuman environment should be used as a commodity to sustain the wellbeing of humans (Cocks and Simpson 220). Although neither branch of environmentalism is necessarily better or right, these two contrasting ways of perceiving the natural world are the root of many philosophical debates in the field of environmental studies.
Most modern environmentalists ascribe to ecocentrism, because anthropocentrism is usually interpreted as selfish. However, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake gives us a very different perspective by portraying an eerily ecocentric world in which the boundaries between animals and humans blur. However, before the ecocentric, apocalyptic future, Atwood presents us with a dystopian capitalist society in which anthropocentrism reigns. Atwood critiques anthropocentrism by showing a society in which capitalism fails to recognize or respect the boundary between humans and nature. In an article published in the Journal of Ecocriticism, Dunlap describes Atwood’s method of blurring the human and nature divide through the portrayal of capitalism; Dunlap writes, “human and non-human animal lives are bundled into a single category—all lives are objects whose purpose is to entertain” (5). An example of this is when Crake describes the “Student Services,” where students can essentially order a prostitute; Crake explains, “You can get any color, any age—well, almost. Any body type. They provide everything” (208). This is a particularly good example of the commodification of humans because as Crake says, “female students have equal access, of course” (208). By erasing the often-sexist capitalist practices, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that all human bodies can be commodified for human use, similarly to the way that anthropocentrics believe animals and nature should be. However, through her portrayal of capitalism, Atwood shows readers that the boundary between humans and animals is arbitrary.
Atwood levels the hierarchy of humans and animals in the novel, making a distinction between the two completely arbitrary.
Similarly, Atwood also critiques anthropocentrism by portraying the lack of distinction between humans and animals in science. According to Dunlap, the “leveling of hierarchical distinctions between animals and humans is even more evident within the scientific world, where all life forms are objects are study and experiment” (5). While an anthropocentric environmentalist might argue that it is ethical to use animals to experiment in order to improve human life, Atwood takes this idea further by portraying a society in which humans experiment on other humans. For example, Atwood describes the “NooSkins for Olds,” which is a scientific project attempting to create ageless skin (55). The experiments on these humans fail, showing the repercussions of perceiving human life, as well as animals and nature, as subjects to be tested on. Another example of Atwood’s depiction of diminished human-animal hierarchies is when Crake is describing his invention, the “BlyssPluss Pill,” and Jimmy asks, “Where do you get the subjects?” (296). Crake responds, “From the poorer countries. Pay them a few dollars, they don’t even know what they’re taking” (296). The society portrayed in Oryx and Crake uses humans as test subjects, similarly to the way in which our society today uses animals to experiment on. By commodifying and experimenting on humans as well as animals, Atwood levels the hierarchy of humans and animals in the novel, making a distinction between the two completely arbitrary.
By portraying a society in which humans and animals are equal in the hierarchy of life in both commodification as well as science experiments, Atwood is critiquing anthropocentric environmental thought. Atwood’s critique of anthropocentrism forces the reader to ask: if we use animals and the natural world to improve human lives, what is to stop us from using human lives in the same way? Also, what qualifies as improvement in human life? Where do we draw the line in our use of the natural environment to improve human life quality? Clearly, in Atwood’s perspective, an anthropocentric environmental perspective is not sustainable.
While Atwood critiques anthropocentrism, she also critiques ecocentrism throughout Oryx and Crake. One way in which Atwood critiques an ecocentric perspective is that she questions the practicality of such a worldview. In a society in which the rich exploit the poor and the men exploit the women, how can humans recognize the intrinsic value of life to animals and plants if they cannot even do so for their fellow human beings? Crake, a character with the goal of enacting his ecocentric vision, decides that the only viable way to make ecocentrism a reality is to execute a mass genocide. Dunlap describes Atwood’s portrayal of the practicality of ecocentrism through the character of Crake:
However, in order to fulfill his ectopian vision—one in which the human reproductive habits responsible for psychological suffering and human-drive power struggles are eliminated and in which human-over-nature hierarchies are collapsed—Crake must first destroy humanity (3).
This is because according to Crake, what defines humanity is its continuous need to dominate. For example, the domination of people due to issues such as race, class, and gender, the consumption of animals, and the territoriality of land (Atwood 305). By getting rid of these “destructive features,” Crake creates a species of humans in which “Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it” (Atwood 305). Because Crake wants to destroy the tendency of humans to think in hierarchical terms, even extending to animals; Crake’s genetically modified humans, the “Crakers,” are forbidden to eat meat. Therefore, by leveling humans and animals in the hierarchy of life, Crake is inherently an ecocentric environmentalist. However, the Crakers, who Crake engineered to not have the “faults” of humans, still show the aspects of humanity that Crake sought to get rid of. In the end, the Crakers start becoming more and more human, showing the genocide Crake executed was for nothing. Oryx and Crake shows that while Crake wanted to get rid of the faults of humanity, these aspects of life are portrayed as intrinsically related to the beautiful aspects of human life: religion, art, curiosity, and love. While Atwood’s Oryx and Crake critiques the practicality of ecocentrism, it also criticizes the ethics behind it: readers are not supposed to be okay with Crake’s decision to murder the entire human race, and living in a world with no personal expression or feeling is clearly not the answer.
Crake’s ecocentric philosophy, as well as Atwood’s critique of ecocentrism, can also be seen in the ways in which Crake describes animals and humans in mechanical terms. Often criticized by ecocentrics, a key feature of anthropocentrism is the literary device of anthropomorphism, which is “attributing or recognizing human characteristics in animals” (Warkentin 86). Anthropomorphism is an aspect of anthropocentrism in which ecocentrics strongly reject. Edward Abbey, a famously recognized ecocentric environmentalist, describes his rejection of anthropomorphism:
The personification of the natural is exactly the tendency I wish to suppress in myself…I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities (6).
Abbey’s quote illustrates the fact that ecocentrics reject anthropomorphism because they believe it is selfish to ascribe human qualities to nature because it is done for the benefit of humans, not nature. Anthropocentrism is also seen as problematic because it is anthropocentric to believe that nature has human feelings, as well as the fact that humans only seem to care about nature if it is described in human terms. In Atwood’s novel, the character of Crake in Atwood’s novel rejects anthropomorphism, showing his ecocentric perspective, while the character of Jimmy continuously anthropomorphizes animals, revealing his anthropocentric worldview.
Atwood is exemplifying the fact that while ecocentrism is often seen as being a philosophy that elevates animals and plants to humans on the hierarchy of life, it can also be the opposite, which is the devaluation of all life.
The ecocentric Crake goes beyond simply rejecting the anthropomorphism to the point where he continuously illustrates “mechanomorphism.” Mechanomorphism is a phrase coined by Warkentin in the article “Dis/Integrating Animals: Ethical Dimensions of the Genetic Engineering of Animals for Human Consumption.” Warkentin defines mechanomorphism as “labeling animal bodies, and describing behavior, in mechanical terms” (86). Interestingly enough, an ecocentric character, Crake, often describes animals through mechanical terms, yet this method of mechanomorphizing animals often displayed by people who support very non-ecocentric practices, such as genetically engineering animals for human consumption, as exemplified through Warkentin’s article. By portraying the ecocentric Crake as caring less about and demeaning the lives of other animals, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that while ecocentrism is often seen as being a philosophy that elevates animals and plants to humans on the hierarchy of life, it can also be the opposite, which is the devaluation of all life.
Mechanomorphism is a term used to describe an author’s description of animals, but Atwood takes mechanomorphism a step further: Crake mechanomorphizes humans. This can be seen in the way in which Crake attributes every aspect of humanity to biology. Describing heartbreak, Crake asks: “how much needless despair has been caused by a series of biological mismatches, a misalignment of the hormones and pheromones?” (166). Similarly, Crake describes love mechanically: “Falling in love, although it resulted in altered body chemistry and was therefore real, was a hormonally induced delusional state” (193). Crake also describes the creation of art in mechanical terms by claiming that it serves a “biological purpose,” because by making art, a man is amplifying himself, which is “a stab at getting laid” (168). When Jimmy asks about female artists, Crake says that they are “biologically confused” (168). Crake’s continuous method of describing humanity in mechanical terms is supposed to leave the reader feeling uneasy, therefore Atwood’s critique of ecocentrism is clear.
Atwood is showing that although ecocentrism is problematic in ways, there are also positives associated with viewing the world in such a way.
Atwood also critiques ecocentrism by showing how unsettling an ecocentrism is through her portrayal of Crake’s creation of a world in which humans are like animals and animals are like humans. For example, the Crakers challenge the constructions of the human versus the animal (Dunlap 9). Dunlap describes this animal-like human species in Oryx and Crake: “like cats, the Crakers purr; like the rabbits of this world, they glow with the green from a jellyfish gene; like ‘the canids and mustelids,’ they mark their territory; and like various hares and rabbits, the Crakers eat leaves and grass” (9). The Crakers also are similar to animals in the way that they have sex solely to reproduce: “Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that once every three years per female was more than enough” (164). However, while the absence of love is meant to unnerve the reader, Jimmy reflects on the effect of Crake’s creation of humans reproduce like animals: “No more prostitution, no sexual abuse of children, no haggling over the price, no pimps, no sex slaves. No more rape” (165). Clearly, Atwood is showing that although ecocentrism is problematic in ways, there are also positives associated with viewing the world in such a way.
Similarly to the animal-like humans, Atwood also portrays human-like animals, such as the pigoons, a genetically modified pig. Atwood describes, “A brainy and omnivorous animal, the pigoon. Some of them may even have human neocortex tissue growing in their crafty, wicked heads” (235). Similarly, Atwood writes of pigoons, “if they’d had fingers they’d have ruled the world” (267). Atwood explicitly conveys this absence of a distinction between human and non-human in her post-apocalyptic world through Jimmy’s decision to name himself after the Abominable Snowman, the “apelike man or manlike ape” (8). Through Atwood’s depiction of a world in which the human and the non-human are more alike than different, her critique of ecocentrism is clear in that these aspects of the novel are meant to unnerve the reader.
Atwood is exemplifying the fact that sometimes perceiving the world in the way that characterizes anthropocentrism can help humans care more about the natural world.
While Crake is the epitome of an ecocentric environmentalist, the character of Jimmy is Atwood’s representation of anthropocentrism. A quote that illustrates this relationship between these two characters is when Crake tells Jimmy, “Don’t be so fucking sentimental” (344). The character of Jimmy often anthropomorphizes the animals throughout the novel, for example, Atwood writes of Jimmy’s interpretation of the pigoons, “They glanced up at him as if they saw him, really saw him, and might have plans for him later” (26). When Jimmy’s dad tells him the pigoons might eat him, Jimmy says: “No they won’t,” and he thinks, “Because I’m their friend” (26). Another example of Jimmy anthropomorphizing animals is when Crake and his coworker describe the “ChickieNobs,” which are essentially pieces of chicken meat, genetically engineered to have a brain with no function besides “digestion, assimilation, and brain growth” (203). Jimmy’s anthropomorphism of even animals that have been degraded to pieces of meat is clear when he asks, “But what’s it thinking?” (202). Through the character of Jimmy, Atwood is exemplifying the fact that sometimes perceiving the world in the way that characterizes anthropocentrism can help humans care more about the natural world.
Similarly to his anthropomorphism of animals, Jimmy also thinks of humans in a much more humanistic sense, as opposed to Crake’s mechanic way of perceiving humans. Atwood exemplifies this when Jimmy tells Crake, “In your plan we’d just be a bunch of hormone robots” (166). Crake responds, “we’re hormone robots anyways, just faulty ones” (166). We see Crake’s theory that humans are “hormone robots” disproven even through his own creation of the species of the Crakers: they kill fish for Jimmy even when they were told it is morally wrong to do so, they create art, they are curious and ask Jimmy many questions, leaders emerge in their species, and they idolize of Oryx and Crake in a religious way, which are all aspects of humanity that Crake attempted to destroy.
By critiquing both ecocentric and anthropocentric branches of environmental thought through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is critiquing specialization.
Although readers are supposed to be weary of the ecocentric thought process that drove Crake to perform a mass genocide, Atwood also conveys that anthropocentrism can also be problematic at times. Jimmy’s character, the most anthropocentric character in the novel, has his own issues, even within his yearning for the continuation of humanity in an ecocentric world. For example, Jimmy looks at the Craker women and realizes that they don’t arouse him in “even the faintest stirrings of lust” (100). Atwood continues, “It was the thumbprint of human imperfection that used to move him” (100). However, while these might seem romantic at first, Atwood changes the reader’s perception Jimmy when she continues, “he’d preferred sad women, delicate and breakable, women who’d been messed up and needed him” (100). This is because Jimmy perceives a “payoff” in making sad women happier: “A grateful women would go the extra mile” (100). It’s clear that the “extra mile” is means that Jimmy would receive sexual favors from pretending he cared about these sad women. Similarly, Jimmy also shows his selfish use of women when he reflects on the fact that he’s told too many women he loves them: “he shouldn’t have used it up so much earlier in his life, he shouldn’t have treated it like a tool, a wedge, a key to open women” (114). Using women for sex is an extension of anthropocentrism, and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake critiques this branch of environmental thought by begging the reader to question the use of other lives for satisfaction, even if the character of Jimmy does seem more empathetic and personable than Crake.
By critiquing both ecocentric and anthropocentric branches of environmental thought through the characters of Crake and Jimmy, Atwood is critiquing specialization, another common critique of the world in environmental studies. Specialization is when a person is an expert in one field of study but fails to perceive the world in general terms. Even Crake, a very specialized character in the field of science, explains to Jimmy:
These people are specialists…They wouldn’t have the empathy to deal with the Paradice models, they wouldn’t be any good at it, they’d get impatient. Even I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t begin to get onto their wavelength. But you’re more of a generalist (321).
Atwood is explicitly illustrating her critique of specialization throughout this quote, but specialization can go even further than only being in one field of study; for example, an environmentalist can be specialized in either ecocentrism or anthropocentrism. By portraying both the ecocentric Crake and the anthropocentric Jimmy as problematic characters, Atwood is critiquing specialization within the branch of environmental studies. Although this novel is often recognized for criticizing the way in which our society degrades the environment, environmentalists who pride themselves on being in the minority who care about the natural world would never suspect that they too are being criticized in Oryx and Crake. Atwood’s novel reminds us that no one has all the answers, and that we should all question our own beliefs and keep an open mind when it comes to attempting to understand the world.
How to Cite this Publication in MLA
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