dead and decrepit planet

“Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” Margaret Atwood, Environmentalism

By Maddy Goslee


Atwood, Margaret. “ Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet.”

Norgaard, Richard B. “Beyond Materialism: A Coevolutionary Reinterpretation of the Environmental Crisis.”

Murphy, Patrick D. “The Procession of Identity and Ecology in Contemporary Literature.”

MORRIS, DAVID COPLAND. “Inhumanism, Environmental Crisis, and the Canon of American Literature.”


The short story describes the rise, thrive, and fall of a planet through a letter found within a time capsule on the dead planet itself. The author launches herself into the future, having the story appear as though someone has landed on this planet and is reading about it’s horrific past and means of extinction. 

The short story is written in four ages, each of which explains either the rise or fall of the planet. Within the first age, the author illustrates the gods that humans once believed in. This appears to be the beginning of time, where gods were worshipped above all else. The gods were considered All-Knowing, and were able to place harm or comfort upon the people. In this stage, the gods were seen as occasionally cruel and drank human blood, but also kind in offering good harvest and sunshine.

The second and third age follows the creation of money. These stages begin the fall of the planet. The money  was all that was left of the gods at this point in time, and eventually took place of them altogether. The money was seen as magical due to its ability to be exchanged for food or clothing. Money became such a glorified object that a story was created; the story went that if you had enough money, you could fly. With this view, money became increasingly powerful. As money became more powerful, so did an individual’s hunger and greed for it. This caused wars to begin, people to die, and the world to see great destruction.

In the fourth age deserts were created. These deserts were an aftermath of the wars people fought over money. At this stage, people are wreaking the consequences of losing sight of the importance of the gods and the land. As the story comes to a close, the letter asks for someone to pray for those who fell victim to materialism. This letter also serves as a warning by sharing the fate of this dead planet.

Within these various ages of the short story, Atwood seeks to shed light on the potential consequences of misplacing one’s values. In the story, the world thrives when the gods and land are of focus, and dies once money enters the picture. In this sense, the story proposes that humans should prioritize the environment and spiritual world over a materialistic one.

Literary Analysis:

This story uses a first person point of view to directly tell the history of the dead planet to readers. This choice to write in first person helps strengthen the wise-tale style that Atwood aims to bring in this piece. “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet” falls under environmental literature and appears to hold dystopian elements in the text as well. It remains environmental because it moves through time to show the deterioration of a planet, and dystopian because of how the land is taken over by monetary values and maintains an ominous undertone throughout most of the story. The point of view, undertone and genre all serve to illustrate the warning message that Atwood aims to share. Along with these elements, she uses literary devices such as personification, hyperbole, flashback, imagery, and tone to further her message. Atwood personifies the money to appear human, causing mass destruction to all those around it. The money both created and ate things. This personification serves as a way to show the power money had over humanity. This personification also works as hyperboles as well. Even if money was alive, it is clearly unlikely that it could eat “whole croplands, forests, and the lives of children” (Atwood 3). Atwood uses exaggeration in this way though to once again express how powerful money became in the human world. This entire story is written as a flashback which allows readers to feel as if they are listening to a story told by their own friend, making the story resonate with more people. Lastly, imagery is used to illustrate the extent of the destruction on the planet. It explains the deserts as being of several kinds, “some were made of cement, some were made of various poisons, some of baked earth” (Atwood 3). Using these literary devices with other aspects of the novel, Atwood makes her warning message bold. Her advice to readers is to not fall victim to materialism as the inhabitants of her story, but rather to remain faithful to spirituality and the environment that stands before us.

This image serves as a visual for a time capsule.

Annotated Bibliography:

Norgaard, Richard B. “Beyond Materialism: A Coevolutionary Reinterpretation of the Environmental Crisis.” Review of Social Economy, vol. 53, no. 4, 1995, pp. 475–492. JSTOR, Accessed 5 Aug. 2021.

This article discusses materialism and how it drives humanity’s environmental crisis. It goes into detail about how materialism creates our environmental problems and limits our vision of the good life. The authors find that becoming knowledgeable on this concept is a step in the right direction towards a better future. These ideas come with the environmental movements aim to slow materialism so that it does not take over every aspect of our lives


Murphy, Patrick D. “The Procession of Identity and Ecology in Contemporary Literature.” SubStance, vol. 41, no. 1, 2012, pp. 77–91., Accessed 14 Aug. 2021.

This author looks at how contemporary environmental novels question human perception, preconception, and misconceptions about the nature of nature. He attempts to get reading thinking about what inhabiting earth truly means, rather than just living on it. He challenges how humans generate their perceptions of the realities unfolding around them. He especially focuses on what prevents humans from thinking in an ecological manner regarding planetary events happening around them.


MORRIS, DAVID COPLAND. “Inhumanism, Environmental Crisis, and the Canon of American Literature.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 4, no. 2, 1997, pp. 1–16. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Aug. 2021.

This article examines in detail various literary figures and what they have contributed to environmental literature. The author looks at individuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and various inhumanist writers, such as Robinson Jeffers. The author David Morris especially looks at the term inhumanism and how this new stance towards nature may be necessary to have in order to resolve the environmental crisis we are in. This perspective asks humans to shift focus onto the external world and to acknowledge its significance. It emphasizes how humans are not meant to dominate nature, but rather work towards living within nature and coinciding with it peacefully. Morris uses the findings of these authors as well as this broad term to express the importance of altering our mindsets to be more aware of nature and how we affect it.

Discussion Questions:

  • The story states midway through that if humans had enough money, “you would be able to fly.” By the end of the novel, we learn that this is in fact not true. What did Atwood mean by this statement and what undertones did she use to convey that message? Can you think of any other stories that involved humans flying and ended similarly? 
  • Atwood writes this story in ages, creating a timeline which pinpoints important aspects of the history of the planet. Why do you believe she does this and what does it do for the text as a whole? Does it change the tone, offer specific emotion for readers, or make the text resonate more in any way? Consider these possibilities and more.
  • The story stems from a time capsule that inhabitants of the dead planet left for someone in the future to find. As we read, we learn that it is a sad tale. If you had to create a time capsule for our world today, what would you include in it and why? What would you want future humans to know about our world? 

 #materialism #enviromentalism #dystopian #spirituality #greed