What if “The Handmaid’s Tales” warns us about global warming?

Extract from season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood – Elly Dassas / Hulu

  • The 4th season of the television series The Handmaid’s Tale is available on OCS.
  • Her story, based on the dystopian book by Margaret Atwood, traces the evolution of the totalitarian society of Gilead where, following a natural disaster, part of its inhabitants became sterile.
  • Become a symbol of the right of women to reproduction in our current society, The Handmaid’s Tales is also the embodiment of a form of ecological claim.

Based on the dystopian tale of Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (The Handmaid Scarlet) tells the story of an American society, called Gilead, in which an ecological disaster poisoned the planet to the point of rendering its inhabitants sterile. To increase its declining population, this society then forced fertile people to bear children for the wealthy ruling class.

The plot of the novel, and the series that follows from it, see the cis women forced into sexual servitude to repopulate this ultra-conservative religious society. Essentially reduced to their womb, these “maids” dressed in red dresses and white caps with blinders, have quickly become the symbol of the right of women to reproduction in our current society. Faced with recent repression of reproductive freedoms in Ireland and Argentina, this costume has become a protest uniform during “pro-choice” demonstrations around the world. In 2019, this garment even became one of the popular outfits to wear during protest movements.

The ecological crisis at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale

The threat to reproductive rights is not the only warning to be found in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale. The environmental crisis is also one of the main issues there. The Republic of Gilead was born out of an ecological disaster, notably caused by nuclear war. The waste that remains producing uncontrollable radiation and toxic pollution contributes to the collapse of the ecosystem of Gilead.

In this context, pollution infects nature, animals, but also the human body, seriously affecting the ability of people with a uterus to have children. For example, in Gilead, only one in four women is able to reproduce. To fight against a decline in the population, the government therefore has two choices: force procreation or let the population decline until the extinction of humanity. The reproductive servitude imagined by this government is then justified in the story as being a collateral damage to the attempt of this society to ensure the survival of humanity in the face of the ecological catastrophe.

Margaret Atwood, forerunner for her time?

Margaret Atwood calls most of her writing “speculative fiction,” which means that the Canadian author thinks and writes about things that may actually happen in the future or that have already happened. It is therefore difficult not to imagine a link between the dystopian story of The Handmaid’s Tale and the historical relationship between the environment and population control in our contemporary society. Because shortly before the release of Margaret Atwood’s book in 1985, the American biologist Paul R. Ehrlich already detailed in his pamphlet The Population Bomb (La Bombe P, 1968), his fear of a population explosion that would lead to global famine.

Margaret Atwood has worked for Amnesty International and supports the Green Party of Canada. It is therefore as a committed writer that she seizes the environmental concerns of her time – more focused on nuclear pollution and population growth – to put them at the heart of her story. But in the twenty-first century, these issues are more anchored than ever in our society and birth control as an ecological solution is still part of an argument defended by certain activists such as the GINKS (Green Inclination No Kids) or people Childfree who do not want children for ecological reasons.

Asked by the American magazine Variety, Bruce Miller, the producer of the series, assured that the message regarding climate change will be at the heart of the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale, available from April 28 on OCS. It remains to be seen whether the story imagined by Margaret Atwood will prove to be true or not in the years to come.

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