Thursday, July 16, 2009

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, by Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood is not the first name you think of when coming to a book written about ‘Debt and the shadow side of wealth’. As everyone knows she’s a super famous novelist, poet and essayist. In my simple mindedness, I assumed that any book about debt must really concern itself with such technical issues as banking, national economies, regulation etc.

Atwood, however, tackles this subject from a different angle. She investigates rather the psychological, religious and literary aspects of debt. She has tried to uncover the very human essence of what it means to be in debt. Hence Atwood starts in antiquity, in ancient Egypt, and moves through the major religions. As ever happens, study religious texts and you find yourself discussing literature and philosophy.

A lot of time is spent discussing Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge. In the final chapter the author creates her own version of Scrooge, called Nouveau Scrooge, a kind of young financial whiz kid from our own time. He is reluctantly taken on a tour of two possible worlds. One of environmental degradation, and one of harmony based on our current green ethos, turned into a virtual green utopia.

The moral lesson is: we have taken on loan so much from nature, indeed our whole economy is based on what we can squeeze out of the environment, that it is now time to ‘payback’ . We’re all in debt to nature, and must now settle accounts.

I really enjoyed this book, which was originally broadcast as part of the Massey Lectures, on Canada’s public radio service. Atwood employs a lot of humour and keeps the tone quite conversational and informal. It’s nice to feel like you’re sharing a chuckle when reading such an esteemed author.

I also liked Atwood’s unique thinking on the topic. She made me think about debt in an entirely new way. This is one of those books that leaves you ruminating on the questions it has raised for days and weeks to come.

Thanks to Mr Chris Hubbard for bringing this book to my attention.

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