If the Paris Agreement represents humanity’s best plan to fight climate change, then Amitav Ghosh’s book is a meditation on what this actually entails. Published in 2016, the same year the Paris Agreement went into force, “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” analyzes climate change from a cultural, historic and politics lens.
While Ghosh divides his non-fiction book into three sections – stories, history and politics -- the common theme woven throughout is an attempt to answer this question: Why has it been so challenging for modern society to truly gasp the significance of climate change?
Born in Calcutta, Ghosh describes his ancestors as “ecological refugees long before the term was invented.’’ His family lived on the shores of the mighty Padma River, in a village in what is now Bangladesh; yet they were forced to move from the mid-1850s onwards when the great river changed course, drowning their home.
In the first section, “Stories,” Ghosh reflects on the challenges of writing about climate change within the current literary forms and conventions of the novel, particularly in the realms of serious fiction.
The setting of the realist novel is bound by a limited sense of place and time, in contrast to global warming, which transcends nation states, and is “ultimately the product of the totality of human actions over time.” There is no space for the improbable, as Ghosh finds out after experiencing a freak weather event in Delhi in 1978, where 30 people were killed and a further 700 injured, and he is yet to find a way to include it in his fictional works
This omission is what Ghosh describes as the “Great Derangement,” when future generations look back at the art and literature of our time for signs of the altered world that they have inherited, they will find in its place a culture of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight.
A deeper reading reveals Ghosh’s criticism of colonialism, and he suggests that the rise of realism in fiction in the 18th century coincides with the accumulation of anthropogenic carbon emissions in the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution.
What emerges is an almost arrogant or insular literary form, a dichotomy between the novel’s perceived role as an individual moral adventure versus “men in the aggregate,” that is, the individual versus the collective, isolation versus multilateralism, winners versus losers, culture versus nature; where the social concern, or the environment, in its nonhuman form, has no place in serious fiction, but is relegated to science fiction (and climate fiction, or cli-fi) and fantasies about an imagined future, but not the recent past, or more importantly, the present.
While the modern novel emancipates the protagonist, it adds fuel to the fire of climate deniers and oil and coal companies by serving to divide, rather than unite us. In a world signed up to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the novel, by Ghosh’s reasoning, leaves the majority of people behind.
In “History,” Ghosh takes to task the Eurocentric promotion of a singular modernity, and focuses on the case for Asia’s centrality to the climate crisis.
Given the current humanitarian crisis on Bangladesh’s doorstep, it is intriguing to reflect that the history of Burma’s oil industry goes back possibly a millennium or more, and was quite likely the largest in the world, until the British took control in 1885, and ran the mega-corporation known as Burmah-Shell until the 1960s.
China and India, which jointly represent approximately 37% of the world’s population, similarly have a long history of using fossil fuels, although most historians indicate 1859 Pennsylvania as the start of the modern oil industry.
Both these Asian nations are now often blamed for exacerbating the climate crisis, but Ghosh argues that the “empirical test,” for example
Britain preventing its colony India in the 19th century from developing its own coal-based energy system, revealed that not everyone on our finite planet can adopt a modern or developed lifestyle: “Every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator -- not because of technical or economical limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.” To believe otherwise, Ghosh posits, is the essence of humanity’s present derangement.
Ghosh’s final essay, “Politics”, circles back to the first, highlighting that climate change poses a serious threat to “the idea of freedom,” which is key to contemporary politics, and also the humanities, arts, and literature.
Similar to “Stories”, we see that politics has become less about collective decision making, and more about questions of identity -- religion, caste, ethnicity, language, gender rights, and so on. The essay is rich in its ideas and examples, and merits further reading, and in it we come to the crux of Ghosh’s position, that, “The distribution of power in the world [therefore] lies at the core of the climate crisis.” Ghosh goes beyond those that view capitalism as the main challenge to alternative economic pathways, to emphasizing the influence of empire and its disparities, and the importance of political and military dominance by those in power in maintaining the status quo.
While Ghosh does well to lay out in detail the cultural challenges of climate change, he does little to offer solutions to this “wicked problem.” One glimmer of hope he provides is the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of global warming, arguing that a large number of people can be mobilized, and that religion transcends national boundaries. However, this conclusion seems hasty and ill-thought through, as it plays into the identity politics that Ghosh has so far accused literature and politics of being blind sighted by. Furthermore, if climate change is seen as the biggest long-term threat to the powers that be, and the surveillance of environmentalists and climate activists is a top priority by intelligence services, in a post-9/11 world, protestors with a religious affiliation will be doubly targeted.
By highlighting the emergence of multiple modernities in “History” and essentially implicating us all, Ghosh seems to throw off kilter the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which in climate negotiations has allowed many developing countries to argue that their lack of historical responsibility for climate change means that they should have different obligations with respect to responding to the crisis than those of developed countries.
This principle remains fully enshrined within the Paris Agreement, albeit adjusted by the addition of “in the light of different national circumstances,” which now implies larger developing countries such as India and China.
On the other hand, small, low-lying developing countries, such as Bangladesh, depend on this principle to remain intact, and the financial flows, new technology and enhanced capacity building frameworks it brings, in order to adapt to rising sea levels.
At the close of “Stories”, Ghosh very briefly indicates how the shift from print technology, which served to block images from readers for text only, to the internet, where we are back to more visual forms of communication, could lead to new hybrid forms of storytelling that are taken seriously. The essay seems to end on a positive note, proposing that this will allow the act of reading to change again, as it has many times before.
Nonetheless, like his conclusion in “Politics,” this is abrupt and does not consider how these new hybrid forms might avoid being judged in the same way as science or climate fiction that have tried to raise the alarm on global warming for a number of years in the post-colonial, Great Acceleration period.
Ghosh knows well that time is not on our side; however, the urgency of the unthinkable means that leaders and politicians will not be the only ones to blame for failing to address the climate crisis. Artists and writers might be equally culpable, as Ghosh makes clear that increasingly, they -- himself included -- have the important task for the survival of our common home, which is, “the imagining of possibilities.”
Jebi Rahman is an international and sustainable development consultant, currently based in the mega-city of Dhaka. For the past decade, she has worked on issues of poverty alleviation, quality education, climate change, gender equality, and leadership.