Book Reviews November 2019

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

The Great Derangement is a frightening, albeit a realistic discourse on the current climate change crisis and its effects, especially on the peoples of Asia.

In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh explores our inability (and perhaps even our failure) – in the spheres of literature, arts and politics – to grasp the severity and the impact of climate change, and articulate where the future of our planet is headed. 

“Anthropogenic climate change, as Chakrabarty and others have pointed out, is the unintended consequence of the very existence of human beings as a species.”

The question that Ghosh asks through this book is – where is the fiction about climate change? But more importantly, he is asking us, why are the writers and artists of this world not more imaginative and vocal about the possibilities of catastrophic climate events that the world is sure to witness?

Ghosh’s narrative is rich in imagination and references

Ghosh paints a vivid scene of a disaster, based on his own experience of an unprecedented typhoon in Delhi. What would happen to a city like Mumbai in the case of an equally unusual climatic event like a severe cyclone, albeit on a much larger scale? The possibilities are nothing short of frightening (even more so, because this city is my home). 

“Because of the density of its population and the importance of its institutions and industries, Mumbai represents an extraordinary, possibly unique, “concentration of risk.” For this teeming metropolis, this great hub of economic, financial, and cultural activity, sits upon a wedge of cobbled-together land that is totally exposed to the ocean”

If the past is any indication, the city does not have sufficient disaster preparedness to battle something epic. The floods of Mumbai in 2005 exposed the city’s vulnerabilities – thousands remained stranded in streets and stranger’s homes, lives were lost to electrocution, and many motorists simply died because they were unable to get out of their locked cars. 

“Moreover, here, “as in most megacities, disaster management is focused on post-disaster response.””

This year, the Arabian Sea, which bounds the city from the west, experienced four cyclones, for the first time since 1902. Does this portend something major? Can the rising sea levels wipe out most of the city by 2050? Is this doomsday picture one born of insanity or one born of consciousness and caution? How can our political and public welfare institutions prepare for such an event?

“But in order to succeed, such an evacuation would require years of planning and preparation; people in at-risk areas would also need to be educated about the dangers to which they might be exposed.”

“Property values would almost certainly decline if residents were to be warned of possible risks—which is why builders and developers are sure to resist efforts to disseminate disaster-related information.”

Where imagination isn’t sufficient, Ghosh provides us with a trove of books as references, both fictional and non-fictional, that have been inspired by, or talk about climate change. It is through the analyses of modern literature and historical examples that Ghosh seeks to understand why climate change has so long desisted fiction.

Why are stories on climate change labeled as science fiction?

Nothing is more real to our times than the changing weather patterns, melting glaciers, warmer temperatures, floods, droughts, cyclones – these are just some of the hostile ways in which nature beats us. We are not unfamiliar with their effects – the loss of lives and property, shattered economies, lost livelihoods, and mass migrations – make for news stories every single day. 

“There was never a time, of course, when the forces of weather and geology did not have a bearing on our lives—but neither has there ever been a time when they have pressed themselves on us with such relentless directness.”

And yet, climate change hasn’t found the right place in the literary imagination. At best, whatever little has been written on the subject, has been relegated to the genre of science fiction. Why doesn’t climate change have a more serious place under literary fiction? Why do catastrophic events feel too improbable for the literary novel? 

“Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?”

“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.”

Premodern storytelling, like the Bible and the Quran, differs from the modern novel in one significant way – these older texts are the stories of whole societies. Novels, on the other hand, are more obsessed with the individual lives of characters, their moral adventures, and their quest for transformation and freedom – in which case individual morality clearly wins over collective needs. 

“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.”

“Thus was the novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.”

Discussions, debates, and discourses on climate change call for collective action. The form of the novel being what it is, can it handle a global view that environmental vulnerability demands? 

Are the future generations going to think of us as deranged?

The book raises poignant points throughout. In the context of climate change, there is a Eurocentrism in which the West is somehow the main protagonist. But what this perspective fails to see is that Asians are the co-creators of modernity and that they have played a real role in creating the crisis we now witness. 

“The brute fact is that no strategy can work globally unless it works in Asia and is adopted by a large numbers of Asians. Yet, in this matter too, the conditions that are peculiar to mainland Asia are often absent from the discussion.”

The history of the carbon economy and the rise of the oil economy is a tangled one that rests on the shoulders of capitalism and imperialism. 

“Although different groups of people have contributed to it in vastly different measure, global warming is ultimately the product of the totality of human actions over time.” 

Contrary to popular belief, the East would have modernized at about the same time as the West, had there been no colonialism. The modern oil industry had its beginnings in Burma just as much as it did in Pennsylvania. Had imperialism not found itself reaching out for Asian and African colonies, the climate crisis may very well have arrived much earlier than it did. It was perhaps because the political power of Asians had been taken over by the Western nations, that it slowed the pace of modernization; as soon as imperialism ended, Asia industrialized. 

“It is Asia, then that has torn the mask from the phantom that lured it onto the stage of the Great Derangement, but only to recoil in horror at its own handiwork; its shock is such that it dare not even name what it has beheld – for having entered this stage, it is trapped, like everyone else. All it can say to the chorus that is waiting to receive it is “But you promise… and we believed you!””

What is perhaps a great worry in the present times is the nature of climate denial. The activists, the environmentalists, and even the conscious citizens of the world exercise no real power in mitigating the risks because we only consume and do not produce. 

“”No matter how many people take to the streets in massive marches,” write Roy Scranton, “they cannot put their hands on the real flows of power because they do not help to produce it. They only consume.””

A case in point is the coal industry – the political movements and resistances of the 19th and 20th century started with the coal workers. Coal mining and distribution were labor-intensive, which means they controlled the production of a vital commodity and could dictate terms. The shift to oil was partly political – oil is not highly dependent on labor. It needs no workers for its transportation and distribution – so the leverage that workers had was taken away from them. The power then rests in the hands of the great institutions of our countries – the political, bureaucratic, and military. 

Climate change is a threat multiplier – it not only threatens to change the shape of our land and sever people’s lives – it poses a threat to world peace and security. It amplifies poverty, diseases, hunger, and several other conflicts. 

“Seen in this light, climate change is not a danger in itself; it is envisaged rather as a “threat multiplier” that will deepen already existing divisions and lead to the intensification of a range of conflicts.”

Ghosh also points out the gross simplification in the way world leaders deal with the climate crisis. An example is the paper on the Paris Agreement – it lacks criticism of any current practices that have exacerbated the climate crisis, is tepid in its remedial approach, and is, if anything, directed towards concealment and withdrawal. 

“One of the reasons why climate change is a “wicked” as opposed to a “normal” problem is that the time horizon in which effective action can be taken is very narrow: every year that passes without a drastic reduction in global emissions makes catastrophe more certain.” 

Addressing climate change in terms of preparedness and policy is a matter of collective action and not individual moral reckoning. And yet, there is no dearth of people, who, when made aware and asked to observe and invest in austerity measures, will rise up in defiance and ask of you – what sacrifices have you made in the name of climate preservation?

“Under these circumstances, a march or a demonstration of popular feeling amounts to “little more than an orgy of democratic emotion, an activist-themes street fair, a real-world analogue to Twitter hashtag campaigns: something that gives you a nice feeling, says you belong in a certain group, and is completely divorced from actual legislation and governance.”” 

And it is here that the role of writers is critical – for they alone have the capacity for the imagination it will take, to take an unimaginable, unprecedented scene and show us the way ahead – to saving what’s left of our planet. For surviving in a world we have had no training for. Otherwise, we are all just living in an Age of the Great Derangement. 

“When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable – for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.”

Books mentioned within this book

  • The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
  • The Arabian Nights
  • The Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en 
  • The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  • Rajmohan’s Wife by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle by Stephen Jay Gould
  • Sacred Theory of the Earth by Thomas Burnet
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • The Miracles of Bon Bibi
  • Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
  • Storm Surge by Adam Sobel
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
  • Waterland by Graham Swift
  • A River Called Titash by Adwaita Mallabarman
  • Odyssey by Homer
  • Ramayana
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Solar by Ian McEwan
  • Iliad by Homer
  • The Vampyre by John William Polidori
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Paul et Virgine by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
  • The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace
  • Rapture by Liz Jensen
  • Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Germinal by Emile Zola
  • The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh
  • Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif
  • The Trench by Abdul Rahman Munif 
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  • How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn
  • Hortus Malabaricus by Hendrik van Rheede
  • The Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvin
  • The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
  • Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh
  • The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
  • Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis

This post is part of our November 2019 Issue

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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