THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE WITH AMITAV GHOSH: A Review of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and The Unthinkable

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and The Unthinkable Amitav Ghosh sets out to comprehend our collective failure to deal with climate change. A surpassingly urgent question if the climate-stable Holocene that has cradled our civilized existence is truly at an end - and a turbulent human-driven geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, is now at hand.  Ghosh takes as given that this newly proposed epoch is settled science, and while it remains contested, its markers are already real enough. They include radioactive debris and other forms of human pollution, species invasion and mass extinction, shifting weather patterns and accelerating planetary warming at a rate unlike anything observed in the previous 12,000-year geologic interval.  We would add to this list the human elements that are the stuff of today’s headlines: climate refugees disrupting the world’s political orders, sparing no nation, including the USA, as caravans of the dispossessed head north.


Granted contemplating the unthinkable can inflict a psychological toll, and avoiding the subject for fear of being overwhelmed is understandable even when we recognize that climate change is a major threat, but might our apparent paralysis be explained by our biological design ?[1] Wired as we have been by evolution for the short term, the normal brain may simply be too focused on today and tomorrow. Even warnings like those in the recent International Panel on Climate Change report, which measures in only decades the time frame for avoiding catastrophe, may be too much for our primate being. Or, as the renowned Brooklyn and Goa-based Bengali author argues in this book, might the explanation be not in our genes but in our culture, broadly understood as our philosophic, scientific and literary modes of thought? 


Ghosh finds in his own métier – the novel – a lens for analyzing how the apocalyptic came to be leeched out of modern consciousness.  His non-fiction book opens with a weather event in 1978.  At the time Ghosh is a student at Delhi University.  One day worsening weather had sent him back to campus on an unaccustomed route when suddenly he witnessed a whirlwind coming directly at him. He took cover and, on emerging from his refuge, found himself in a devastated scene.  The tornado - an unprecedented meteorological event - took 30 lives, injuring 700. Yet years later, even after having plundered much personal history for source material, he would ask himself why “then did I fail, despite my best efforts, to send a character down a road that is imminently to be struck by a tornado?” What was so unbelievable about his real life encounter with a non-human event, which made it off limits for a serious novelist?


The journey begins by zeroing in on the modern novel imaginary whose origins coincide - most significantly for Ghosh - with the birth of the carbon economy.  Formerly story telling – for example the 14th century Decameron or 16th century Chinese novel The Journey To The West - had been woven from wildly improbable events. Come the modern age, the focus changes. The exceptional recedes, and, the everyday patterns of bourgeois existence, mirroring influential scientists whose focus is on gradualism rather than cataclysm and catastrophe, loom ever larger in literature.


“… it was exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.”


By the time we get to the modern novel - think Madame Bovary and avant-garde literature of the Anglosphere - the voices of the highly improbable and non-human disappear from the literary novel as does the “environmental”.  His list of notable exceptions includes the likes of J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, and the magical realists.  Furthermore, where no fixed borderline had existed for 19th century writers between literary and scientific subjects [think the study of marine life in Moby Dick, mathematics in War and Peace, chemistry in Alice In Wonderland], nature became increasingly off-limits to culture in the present. “[T]he zeitgeist of late modernity,” writes Ghosh, “could not tolerate Nature-Culture hybrids.”


Nor is this pattern likely to change soon. I think it can be safely predicted that as the waters rise around us, the mansion of serious fiction, like the doomed waterfront properties of Mumbai and Miami Beach, will double down on its current sense of itself building ever higher barricades to keep the waves at bay.”


Layered over his indictment of much contemporary literary fiction as too self-limiting to encompass global warming and “the Oil encounter”, Ghosh speculates that the viscous reality of oil - in contrast to coal – has conspired to make the subject all the more elusive.  Being more dependent on larger and more isolated pools of labor than does the widely-dispersed extraction, processing, transport and distribution of oil, coal mining communities possessed a certain autonomy through which to struggle for union rights and, by extension, its victories were exported to society as a whole.  Oil world is far too globally dispersed and without the multitude of choke points that favored working-class militancy.


A John Updike review penned from the Olympian perch of his literary reputation illustrates for Ghosh the ever more inward-looking literary mindset. He regards Cities of Salt, translated into English from a five-part magnum opus by the Jordanian author Abdel Rahman Munif, not only to be a wonderful work of fiction, but, most crucially, a rare engagement with petroleum’s all-enveloping grip on every aspect of life on Earth.  Updike, however, dismissed Munif as being “insufficiently Westernized” to produce “what we call a novel.” He was “a campfire explainer,” who portrayed  “men in the aggregate,” without any central character to be the vehicle of an “individual moral adventure.”  While many novelists, from Tolstoy and Dickens to Steinbeck and Chinua Achebe, portray aggregated humanity, Ghosh admits that Updike has a valid point.  When it comes to late 20th century literary fiction, a period that coincides with an accelerating human imprint on planetary systems, the collective has, especially in countries driving this so-called Great Acceleration, receded in favor of the trials of the individual psyche.


Grapes of Wrath is for Ghosh an exception that proves the rule. It is a visionary “climate novel” that opens with, in his words, “such a powerful rendition of climate reality, an extraordinary reality … it is … one of the most powerful things ever written in America.”  Yet despite being among the 20th century’s most influential novelists, Steinbeck’s influence is mostly felt beyond the Anglosphere.  Ghosh offers the dismaying experience of Andre Gide as evidence for how looked down on Steinbeck was by the avant-garde and the American literary establishment.  Gide was, according to Ghosh,  “hated, derided, [and] faced incredible hostility” for “ a laudatory review of Grapes of Wrath [that] earned him so many poisonous letters from his friends in America that he gave up reviewing books altogether.”  [2]  Whereas when he asked two great Asian novel writing peers - the Burmese Mya Than Tint and Indonesian Pramoedya Ananta Toer - to name their most important literary influences both cited Gogol --- and Steinbeck.


No surprise, therefore, that Ghosh regards the best selling literary star Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle that has been translated into 22 languages as the logical end point of literary fiction as journey of self-discovery. Knausgaard, who acknowledges “being sick of fiction” composes his works exclusively out of the minutiae of his existence.  This is the whirling merry-go-round that blinds writers and readers to the looming presence of the freakish and improbable. 


If literature is conceived of as the expression of authentic experience, then fiction will inevitably come to be seen as ‘false.’ But to reproduce the world as it exists need not be the project of fiction; what fiction – and by this I mean not only the novel but the epic and myth – makes possible is … to conceive of [the world] as if it were other than it is: in short, the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.”


So long as storytellers are deflected from what Ghosh sees as the most urgent challenge of fiction writing today in the belief that serious literature’s raison d’etre is the individual moral adventure, the possibility of imagining alternative forms of human existence is lost.  Otherwise put, the literature Ghosh is calling for would situate characters in a different frame. Rather than being asked where they were when the Berlin Wall fell or on 9/11, the questions would be where were you at 400 parts per million or when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?


Having set out his indictment for much of contemporary fiction’s misguided direction, Ghosh widens his focus, arguing the “modern novel represents, I think, a special case of a broader cultural phenomenon.”  Here he finds that our imaginations have become encased in philosophic and religious systems of thought peculiar to the West and that go a long way to explaining why climate denial is strongest in the English-speaking world. 


Philosophers, from the Enlightenment forward, have prioritized individual freedom as the sine qua non of human aspiration. And freedom is variously defined as every thing from being free from slavery to being free of nature.  “Only those peoples who had thrown off the shackles of their environment were thought to be endowed with historical agency,” writes Ghosh. “[T]hey alone were believed to merit the attention of historians – other peoples might have had a past but they were thought to lack history, which realizes itself through human agency.”


Many Asian systems of thought did not divorce nature and the human, and Gandhi, long before Rachel Carson, the Club of Rome, Greenpeace and Bill McGibben, foresaw the perils of unfettered industrialism. He foresaw as early as 1928 the price for ignoring limits:  “God forbid India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”  He also forecast early on that a rapidly ascending capitalist Asia would spell crisis and decline in the West.


Be that as it may, Asia’s catch-up with the West, taking off as China and India hit the capitalist road in the 1980s, spells frightening consequences for the Bengal and other Asian deltas, as Himalayan glaciers melt.  What, for instance, is to become of the 25 million Indians and Bangla Deshis projected to be displaced under a “business as usual” scenario by rising sea levels? And what of the 47 percent of the world’s population relying on water from the Himalayas.  Will the invisible hand of the free market find them Uber and Lyft jobs in the West? “It goes without saying,” Ghosh observes, “that if the world’s most powerful nations adopt the ‘politics of the armed lifeboat’ explicitly or otherwise, then millions of people in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere will face doom.”   


But these politics already are being adopted as voters throw their support to fear mongering leaders who vow to arm the lifeboats. As I write President Trump is deploying troops to the southern border to halt the advance of Central American migrant caravans fleeing food insecurity caused in part by changing weather patterns.  [3]


Decarbonizing the planet and restoring it as a safe operating space within planetary boundaries[4] by equitable means would require a radical reduction of per capita Western energy consumption, and Ghosh cites a geologist David Archer who reckons “that to reach a genuinely fair solution to the problem of emissions would ‘require cuts in the developed world of about 80 percent.’”  Ghosh attributes the resistance to such measures among voters in the rich nations  – at some level of consciousness – to the recognition such a redistribution of power and resources “may have the effect of changing their country’s standing in the world’s hierarchies of power as well as wealth.”  However, given the accelerating domestic inequities within the biggest carbon footprint countries, and what Ghosh recognizes as the powerlessness of the majority to effect real change, we have to be more specific about the identity of the resistors.  Our petro-financial elites and their rabid right wing media allies controlled by the likes of Rupert Murdoch who are the most critical obstacle to transformation.  After all, there is abundant historical evidence as far back as the Sumerians that the eternally recurring imposition of the status quo by elites - today numbering globally in the many millions – is what pushes civilizations over the edge.


As Ghosh moves towards identifying possible vehicles of our salvation from disaster, he reaches beyond the usual cast of culprits in the dock of climate denial to fix on the northern European mindset.  He portrays its belief system as a major source of climate paralysis. In his view, English-speaking peoples, long marinated in Protestantism, have adapted their direct individual relationship to the Deity to secular politics. 


The moral-political … is essentially Protestantism without a God: it commits its votaries to believing in perfectibility, individual redemption, and a never-ending journey to a shining city on a hill – constructed, in this instance, not by a deity, but by democracy. This is a vision of the world as a secular church, where all the congregants offer testimony about their journeys of self-discovery.”


Looping back to Karl Ove Knausgaard, his renunciation of fiction is seen by Ghosh as a kind of “diary keeping and spiritual soul searching [that] … was a central aspect of Puritan religiosity.” Such religiosity when transferred - via the Scottish Enlightenment - into the economic sphere sets modernity on its path to today’s neoliberalism, loosely defined as let the [rigged] markets rule. Herein lies the forbidding ideological trap from which Ghosh seeks an escape route. For it is a snare and delusion in his view to believe that we can individually have the agency to be the change we want to see. Or, put another way:


 “[t]he fact laissez-faire ideas are still dominant with the Anglosphere is therefore itself central to the climate crisis. In that global warming poses a powerful challenge to the idea … the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good, it also challenges a set of beliefs that underlies a deeply rooted cultural identity, one that has enjoyed unparalleled success over the last two centuries. Much of the resistance to climate science comes exactly from this, which is probably why the rates of climate change denial tend to be unusually high throughout the Anglosphere.”


His diagnosis complete, Ghosh’s conclusion is certain to confound many secular progressives. Unlike his equally erudite climate commentator, Iraq war vet and philosopher Roy Scranton whose climate crisis book We Are Doomed, What Now? challenges us to muster philosophic serenity in the face of the death of our civilization, Ghosh isn’t prepared to accept as inevitable a new dark age. 


His close reading of key climate crisis documents – the Paris Agreement, signed by 194 states and the EU as of September 2018, and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ – leads him to see a path forward. But the escape route he divines is not via the arid complexities of the diplomatic treaty that ironically strikes him as much more of an act of faith than the Pope’s encyclical.   The former, with diction “borrowed directly from the free trade agreements of the neo-liberal era,” lacks binding enforcement agreements or any critique of the carbon system carrying us towards the brink, fully committed as it is to the growth-without-end paradigm. Adding insult to injury, it expressly rejects any basis for liability or compensation for those on the losing end of the climate adaptation stick.  


Laudato Si, on the other hand, crucially repudiates Catholicism’s dogma of man’s dominion over nature, abjures miraculous intervention and, ever so forthrightly addresses socio-economic fundamentals. There can be no zero sum game ecological approach that leaves the world more divided than ever into winners and losers.  Simply put, it explicitly defines ecological transformation to include a social approach that encompasses those who pay the price of change. In other words, you don’t regulate coal out of existence while abandoning coal miners to their own fate. 


Ghosh concludes that fundamental change is beyond the nation-state. Countries are far too internally divided, locked into geo-political rivalries and incapable of acting long term. Yet the planet has already overshot the Paris climate deal target limiting future temperature rise to 3.6 degrees F above pre-industrial temperature levels. And one recent study warns that even 3.6 degrees F “may not be enough to ‘park’ the planet’s climate at a stable temperature.”[5]  Additionally, secular protest movements are increasingly subject to state surveillance and disruption. Given all this, we can’t be surprised [though many will fervently object] that no mention is to be found here of such commonly proposed individual behavioral remedies as converting from beef to veganism. They smack of Protestant morality and are futile given the scale of the challenge.


            So on this bleak horizon bereft of institutions geared for long-term thinking the value of Ghosh’s study should not be measured by its dearth of specifics. In the final pages no mention is to be found of policies and technologies that will be required to decarbonize the planetary economy. What he puts forward as his most promising sign of hope for avoiding a ruined future is that religious groups and affiliated organizations – Catholics, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist – are now addressing climate change. Their worldviews, unlike governments, transcend national self-interest, have eternal time horizons and, unlike modern literary novelists, imagine the unthinkable, the uncanny and catastrophic. Whether the world’s religious institutions will ever be free enough of their patriarchic origins and worldly corruptions or sufficiently ecumenical to be the change required is debatable. Yet this is the terminus Ghosh arrives at in plumbing our paralysis and denial.  His effort is worthy of our deep contemplation. Among its rewards is how it unsettles the illusion of modernity, if by modernity we have been lulled by the belief that to be human is to be free of nature and our archaic past.  

[1] In completing this piece I came across Vandana Singh’s fascinating reflection on the book which argues that Ghosh underestimates speculative fiction’s potential to engage readers with the climate emergency in the here and now. But she does bring data in the form of a Yale Program on Climate Communication report [“Is There a Climate Spiral of Silence in America?”] to support  Ghosh’s core contention of widespread avoidance of the subject. The Yale study explores “whymore than half of those who are interested in global warming or think the issue is important ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ talk about it with family and friends (57% and 54% respectively).”

[2] The quotes in this paragraph come from a conversation with Amitav Ghosh at the Institute of Humanities and Global Culture, April 27, 2017.