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Prophetic author Atwood’s new book is about debt

In the timely philosophical treatise "Payback: Debt as Metaphor and the Shadow Side of Wealth", author Margaret Atwood warns of a ‘debt hole’ just as credit crunch wreaks economic havoc.
/ Source: Reuters

BUENOS AIRES — Canadian author Margaret Atwood has always had an uncanny knack for predicting tomorrow's headlines.

Her first novel, "The Edible Woman", was published in 1969 and touched on the central themes of feminism but was written years earlier, before an organized women's movement even existed.

With her usual gift for timing, her new book, a philosophical treatise on debt, hit stores as major players in world finance picked through the rubble of credit default.

Atwood, 68, has often had to dismiss charges of clairvoyance and prophecy, and with the timely publication of "Payback: Debt as Metaphor and the Shadow Side of Wealth", she has found herself doing it again.

"It's not prophecy. It's paying attention to the details," the Booker Prize-winning author told Reuters in an interview in Buenos Aires, adding the book was slated to be published two years ago.

"It was obvious looking at the United States and the kind of debt hole it was digging, really since (former U.S. President Bill) Clinton went out of office, that something was going to fall into that hole sooner or later," she added.

Atwood, a keen conservationist, was in Argentina to speak at a conference organized by BirdLife International focusing on the decline of the world's bird populations.

Along with her long-time partner and fellow-writer Graeme Gibson, Atwood is the co-president of BirdLife's Rare Bird Club and does fundraising for the group.

The daughter of a forest entomologist, she spent the early years of her life in the wilds of northern Canada where she developed an intense connection with nature.

She is an avid bird watcher and carries an urgent message about the effects of intensive farming, pollution and urban sprawl on birds, an indicator species used by biologists to gauge the health of ecosystems.

For Atwood, debt goes far beyond the ephemeral sphere of finance to the physical world we live in.

"It's not just money debt it's also debt to nature. A simple fact is you cannot keep taking out and taking out without sometime putting back in," she said.

Atwood cited statistics showing 97 percent of charitable donations go to human causes such as hospitals, schools, and the arts, and another one-and-a-half percent goes to pets — leaving very little for the environment.

"People must realize that if there's no air for them to breath, all the hospitals in the world can't fix that," she said.

Writing speculative fiction, Atwood has always been at the juncture of science and art, and she now sees art as playing a key role in getting funding channeled into conservation.

"Science can tell you how big the beetle is. Art can tell you why you should care. These two things need to be there," she said.