Are we deranged? The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? In his first major book of nonfiction since In an Antique Land, Ghosh examines our inabilityat the level of literature, history, and politicsto grasp the scale and violence of climate change.
The extreme nature of today’s climate events, Ghosh asserts, make them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining. This is particularly true of serious literary fiction: hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel; they are automatically consigned to other genres. In the writing of history, too, the climate crisis has sometimes led to gross simplifications; Ghosh shows that the history of the carbon economy is a tangled global story with many contradictory and counterintuitive elements.
Ghosh ends by suggesting that politics, much like literature, has become a matter of personal moral reckoning rather than an arena of collective action. But to limit fiction and politics to individual moral adventure comes at a great cost. The climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existencea task to which fiction, Ghosh argues, is the best suited of all cultural forms. His book serves as a great writer’s summons to confront the most urgent task of our time.
About the Author
Amitav Ghosh is an award-winning novelist and essayist whose books include The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and the Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire.
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The Great Derangement
Climate Change and the Unthinkable
By Amitav Ghosh
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 Amitav Ghosh
All rights reserved.
Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive? As, for example, when an arabesque in the pattern of a carpet is revealed to be a dog's tail, which, if stepped upon, could lead to a nipped ankle? Or when we reach for an innocent looking vine and find it to be a worm or a snake? When a harmlessly drifting log turns out to be a crocodile?
It was a shock of this kind, I imagine, that the makers of The Empire Strikes Back had in mind when they conceived of the scene in which Han Solo lands the Millennium Falcon on what he takes to be an asteroid — but only to discover that he has entered the gullet of a sleeping space monster.
To recall that memorable scene now, more than thirty-five years after the making of the film, is to recognize its impossibility. For if ever there were a Han Solo, in the near or distant future, his assumptions about interplanetary objects are certain to be very different from those that prevailed in California at the time when the film was made. The humans of the future will surely understand, knowing what they presumably will know about the history of their forebears on Earth, that only in one, very brief era, lasting less than three centuries, did a significant number of their kind believe that planets and asteroids are inert.
My ancestors were ecological refugees long before the term was invented.
They were from what is now Bangladesh, and their village was on the shore of the Padma River, one of the mightiest waterways in the land. The story, as my father told it, was this: one day in the mid-1850s the great river suddenly changed course, drowning the village; only a few of the inhabitants had managed to escape to higher ground. It was this catastrophe that had unmoored our forebears; in its wake they began to move westward and did not stop until the year 1856, when they settled once again on the banks of a river, the Ganges, in Bihar.
I first heard this story on a nostalgic family trip, as we were journeying down the Padma River in a steamboat. I was a child then, and as I looked into those swirling waters I imagined a great storm, with coconut palms bending over backward until their fronds lashed the ground; I envisioned women and children racing through howling winds as the waters rose behind them. I thought of my ancestors sitting huddled on an outcrop, looking on as their dwellings were washed away.
To this day, when I think of the circumstances that have shaped my life, I remember the elemental force that untethered my ancestors from their homeland and launched them on the series of journeys that preceded, and made possible, my own travels. When I look into my past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, Do you recognize me, wherever you are?
Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge. To recognize, then, is not the same as an initial introduction. Nor does recognition require an exchange of words: more often than not we recognize mutely. And to recognize is by no means to understand that which meets the eye; comprehension need play no part in a moment of recognition.
The most important element of the word recognition thus lies in its first syllable, which harks back to something prior, an already existing awareness that makes possible the passage from ignorance to knowledge: a moment of recognition occurs when a prior awareness flashes before us, effecting an instant change in our understanding of that which is beheld. Yet this flash cannot appear spontaneously; it cannot disclose itself except in the presence of its lost other. The knowledge that results from recognition, then, is not of the same kind as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.
This, I imagine, was what my forebears experienced on that day when the river rose up to claim their village: they awoke to the recognition of a presence that had molded their lives to the point where they had come to take it as much for granted as the air they breathed. But, of course, the air too can come to life with sudden and deadly violence — as it did in the Congo in 1988, when a great cloud of carbon dioxide burst forth from Lake Nyos and rolled into the surrounding villages, killing 1,700 people and an untold number of animals. But more often it does so with a quiet insistence — as the inhabitants of New Delhi and Beijing know all too well — when inflamed lungs and sinuses prove once again that there is no difference between the without and the within; between using and being used. These too are moments of recognition, in which it dawns on us that the energy that surrounds us, flowing under our feet and through wires in our walls, animating our vehicles and illuminating our rooms, is an all-encompassing presence that may have its own purposes about which we know nothing.
It was in this way that I too became aware of the urgent proximity of nonhuman presences, through instances of recognition that were forced upon me by my surroundings. I happened then to be writing about the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta, where the flow of water and silt is such that geological processes that usually unfold in deep time appear to occur at a speed where they can be followed from week to week and month to month. Overnight a stretch of riverbank will disappear, sometimes taking houses and people with it; but elsewhere a shallow mud bank will arise and within weeks the shore will have broadened by several feet. For the most part, these processes are of course cyclical. But even back then, in the first years of the twenty-first century, portents of accumulative and irreversible change could also be seen, in receding shorelines and a steady intrusion of salt water on lands that had previously been cultivated.
This is a landscape so dynamic that its very changeability leads to innumerable moments of recognition. I captured some of these in my notes from that time, as, for example, in these lines, written in May 2002: "I do believe it to be true that the land here is demonstrably alive; that it does not exist solely, or even incidentally, as a stage for the enactment of human history; that it is [itself] a protagonist." Elsewhere, in another note, I wrote, "Here even a child will begin a story about his grandmother with the words: 'in those days the river wasn't here and the village was not where it is ...'"
Yet, I would not be able to speak of these encounters as instances of recognition if some prior awareness of what I was witnessing had not already been implanted in me, perhaps by childhood experiences, like that of going to look for my family's ancestral village; or by memories like that of a cyclone, in Dhaka, when a small fishpond, behind our walls, suddenly turned into a lake and came rushing into our house; or by my grandmother's stories of growing up beside a mighty river; or simply by the insistence with which the landscape of Bengal forces itself on the artists, writers, and filmmakers of the region.
But when it came to translating these perceptions into the medium of my imaginative life — into fiction, that is — I found myself confronting challenges of a wholly different order from those that I had dealt with in my earlier work. Back then, those challenges seemed to be particular to the book I was then writing, The Hungry Tide; but now, many years later, at a moment when the accelerating impacts of global warming have begun to threaten the very existence of low-lying areas like the Sundarbans, it seems to me that those problems have far wider implications. I have come to recognize that the challenges that climate change poses for the contemporary writer, although specific in some respects, are also products of something broader and older; that they derive ultimately from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.
That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish. To see that this is so, we need only glance through the pages of a few highly regarded literary journals and book reviews, for example, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Literary Journal, and the New York Times Review of Books. When the subject of climate change occurs in these publications, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.
There is something confounding about this peculiar feedback loop. It is very difficult, surely, to imagine a conception of seriousness that is blind to potentially life-changing threats. And if the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over — and this, I think, is very far from being the case.
But why? Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed — and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.
Clearly the problem does not arise out of a lack of information: there are surely very few writers today who are oblivious to the current disturbances in climate systems the world over. Yet, it is a striking fact that when novelists do choose to write about climate change it is almost always outside of fiction. A case in point is the work of Arundhati Roy: not only is she one of the finest prose stylists of our time, she is passionate and deeply informed about climate change. Yet all her writings on these subjects are in various forms of nonfiction.
Or consider the even more striking case of Paul Kingsnorth, author of The Wake, a much-admired historical novel set in eleventh-century England. Kingsnorth dedicated several years of his life to climate change activism before founding the influential Dark Mountain Project, "a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself." Although Kingsnorth has written a powerful nonfiction account of global resistance movements, as of the time of writing he has yet to publish a novel in which climate change plays a major part.
I too have been preoccupied with climate change for a long time, but it is true of my own work as well, that this subject figures only obliquely in my fiction. In thinking about the mismatch between my personal concerns and the content of my published work, I have come to be convinced that the discrepancy is not the result of personal predilections: it arises out of the peculiar forms of resistance that climate change presents to what is now regarded as serious fiction.
In his seminal essay "The Climate of History," Dipesh Chakrabarty observes that historians will have to revise many of their fundamental assumptions and procedures in this era of the Anthropocene, in which "humans have become geological agents, changing the most basic physical processes of the earth." I would go further and add that the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our commonsense understandings and beyond that to contemporary culture in general.
There can be no doubt, of course, that this challenge arises in part from the complexities of the technical language that serves as our primary window on climate change. But neither can there be any doubt that the challenge derives also from the practices and assumptions that guide the arts and humanities. To identify how this happens is, I think, a task of the utmost urgency: it may well be the key to understanding why contemporary culture finds it so hard to deal with climate change. Indeed, this is perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense — for let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.
Culture generates desires — for vehicles and appliances, for certain kinds of gardens and dwellings — that are among the principal drivers of the carbon economy. A speedy convertible excites us neither because of any love for metal and chrome, nor because of an abstract understanding of its engineering. It excites us because it evokes an image of a road arrowing through a pristine landscape; we think of freedom and the wind in our hair; we envision James Dean and Peter Fonda racing toward the horizon; we think also of Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov. When we see an advertisement that links a picture of a tropical island to the word paradise, the longings that are kindled in us have a chain of transmission that stretches back to Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the flight that will transport us to the island is merely an ember in that fire. When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water, in Abu Dhabi or Southern California or some other environment where people had once been content to spend their water thriftily in nurturing a single vine or shrub, we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been midwifed by the novels of Jane Austen. The artifacts and commodities that are conjured up by these desires are, in a sense, at once expressions and concealments of the cultural matrix that brought them into being.
This culture is, of course, intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world. But to know this is still to know very little about the specific ways in which the matrix interacts with different modes of cultural activity: poetry, art, architecture, theater, prose fiction, and so on. Throughout history these branches of culture have responded to war, ecological calamity, and crises of many sorts: why, then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to their practices?
From this perspective, the questions that confront writers and artists today are not just those of the politics of the carbon economy; many of them have to do also with our own practices and the ways in which they make us complicit in the concealments of the broader culture. For instance: if contemporary trends in architecture, even in this period of accelerating carbon emissions, favor shiny, glass-and-metal-plated towers, do we not have to ask, What are the patterns of desire that are fed by these gestures? If I, as a novelist, choose to use brand names as elements in the depiction of character, do I not need to ask myself about the degree to which this makes me complicit in the manipulations of the marketplace?
In the same spirit, I think it also needs to be asked, What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?
In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museumgoers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they — what can they — do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.
Excerpted from The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh. Copyright © 2016 Amitav Ghosh. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
I. Stories II. History III. Politics Acknowledgments Notes