Margaret Atwood is one of the world’s foremost writers of dystopian literature, having imagined such worst-case horrors as a theocracy that forces fertile women to bear children for the rich (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and a bioengineered virus capable of eradicating humankind (“Oryx and Crake”).
But she is also a profound optimist and pragmatist. Despite real-life calamities like the worsening climate crisis and social inequality, Ms. Atwood often dreams of better futures. Shortly before she turned 83 last month, she taught an eight-week course, “Practical Utopias,” on Disco, an online learning platform in Canada.
About 190 students from 40 countries imagined how to rebuild society after a cataclysmic event — say, a pandemic or rising sea levels. Proposals for “real, better living plans that could actually work” (and “not sci-fi epics or fantasies,” the syllabus stated) included amphibious houses built on stilts, high-end cuisine from food waste, and lowering the voting age to 14 to bolster democracy.
Ms. Atwood, who taught the class from her home office in Toronto, surprised students by submitting her own vision for a post-apocalyptic community, called Virgule (“after the French word for comma, indicating a pause for breath,” she said).
In the interview below, which was conducted over Zoom and email, and has been edited, the professor of Utopia gave more details on Virgule and on her class.
Where is Virgule?
Virgule is situated in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, Canada, where my grandfather, a country doctor in the early part of the 20th century, once had an apple farm. So I know what you can grow there and I know about the weather. Blizzards in the winter, with a lot of snow, though it doesn’t get ultracold.
How many people would live there?
Virgule is a planned community for 20 families. I moved into a planned community when I was 8, though the contractor had vanished with what remained of the money and my dad had to finish the inside of the house himself.
What types of homes would be built there?
I chose Dome Homes, made by inflating giant balloons and spraying the outside with a liquid compound that hardens, because they are cheap to build and also fast; and because they provide superior insulation, making them cheap to heat. Although earlier ones used concrete and polystyrene, they can now benefit from a new carbon neutral-to-negative kind of cement made from algae.
What would Virgulians eat?
Virgulians don’t eat meat, but they will have a flock of sheep or goats, for the milk and cheese, and a flock of free-range hens. Cooking would be mostly by induction, keeping costs low. Virgulians will have allotment gardens for basic vegetables and fruit, which will have geothermically heated greenhouses. They will have access to fish and shellfish from the Bay of Fundy — locally fished, as large commercial fishing will be limited and marine parks will increase fish populations.
What would people wear?
I have high hopes for clothing exchanges, making garments over and Japanese artistic mending — also for mushroom leather and algae fabrics. Hemp is very durable and so is linen; a plus is that you can eat the seeds of both.
Tell us more about mushroom leather.
Mushrooms are of great interest to a lot of people right now because, as it turns out, you can make building blocks out of them, you can make coffins out of them, you can make packaging out of them, you can make clothing out of them, you can make shoes out of them. An interesting book is called “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake.
How about basic needs like sanitation and health care?
Just as former villages housed their preachers, Virgule will house a plumber and an electrician, who will be worshiped like gods. This is a figure of speech, but it’s not such a joke if you think about it. Virgule will also have a doctor and a nurse practitioner. Everyone will take a first-aid course and, starting at the public school level, everyone will learn conflict resolution, anger management and elementary carpenter skills.
What happens if someone gets sick?
For more serious conditions, major surgical operations and the like, a trip to a larger metropolis will be necessary. Old folks, when able, will reside in their own Granny Domes within the community. Corpse disposal will be via a respectful composting process.
What kind of government do you envision?
Virgule is a community, so I expect they will vote. To prevent tyrants, the community is divided in two. Each half rules for a year. So they will have to enact laws while they are the rulers that will benefit them when they are the rules. Is this looking like the Quakers, or possibly the Oneida Community? Sort of.
How will gender roles be treated?
Gender preferences will be respected, but not fetishized. Will there be marriages? Open question, but I expect so, in one form or another.
The class featured diverse guest speakers including Dave Eggers and the Canadian senator Yvonne Boyer.
I’m very much not the sage on the stage who knows everything. When you have a mix of people who have been out in the world and know different stuff that is out in the world, you come into learning with a different slant. I’m a person with the same questions everyone else has, so everybody is learning from everybody else. It’s not a one-way street. It’s about a 17-way street.
And the students came from different backgrounds.
One of the most amazing things about the group we gathered is that their ages are all the way from 18 to 80. You wouldn’t find that in an ordinary academic institution. But that is actually the way our species worked for a long time — young people learning from older people, and from other kids. I learned from our fellows and participants because they actually know more than me.
Anything you wish the class had covered in more detail?
Nobody really wanted to delve into prisons and law enforcement. Why? Those are unpleasant topics. We like to think that in our practical utopia, things will go so well that criminality will be beside the point. But if the Disco team decides to do the program again, we might request a bit more planning around that because there would be transgressions of some kind, or we wouldn’t be human.
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