In a return to non-fiction, Amitav Ghosh writes about an imaginative failure to gauge the import of climate change, terming it the ‘great derangement’. In this excerpt, he writes how future generations will hold not only politicians, but writers and artists also responsible for failing to address the most urgent task of our times
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable
Allen Lane Penguin
THE PUBLIC politics of climate change is itself an illustration of the ways in which the moral-political can produce paralysis. Of late, many activists and concerned people have begun to frame climate change as a ‘moral issue’. This has become almost a plea of last resort, appeals of many other kinds having failed to produce concerted action on climate change. So, in an ironic twist, the individual conscience is now increasingly seen as the battleground of choice for a conflict that is self-evidently a problem of the global commons, requiring collective action: it is as if every other resource of democratic governance had been exhausted, leaving only this residue—the moral.
This framing of the issue certainly has one great virtue, in that it breaks decisively with the economistic, cost-benefit language that the international climate change bureaucracy has imposed on it. But, at the same time, this approach also invokes a ‘politics of sincerity’ that may ultimately work to the advantage of those on the opposite side. For if the crisis of climate change is to be principally seen in terms of the questions it poses to the individual conscience, then sincerity and consistency will inevitably become the touchstones by which political positions will be judged. This in turn will enable ‘deniers’ to accuse activists of personal hypocrisy by pointing to their individual lifestyle choices. When framed in this way, authenticity and sacrifice become central to the issue, which then comes to rest on matters like the number of lightbulbs in Al Gore’s home and the forms of transport that demonstrators use to get to a march.I saw a particularly telling example of this in a TV interview with a prominent activist after the New York climate change march of September 2014. The interviewer’s posture was like that of a priest interrogating a wayward parishioner; her questions were along the lines of ‘What have you given up for climate change? What are your sacrifices?’
The activist in question was quickly reduced to indignant incoherence. So paralysing is the effect of the fusion of the political and the moral that he could not bring himself to state the obvious: that the scale of climate change is such that individual choices will make little difference unless certain collective decisions are taken and acted upon. Sincerity has nothing to do with rationing water during a drought, as in today’s California: this is not a measure that can be left to the individual conscience. To think in those terms is to accept neo-liberal premises.Second, yardsticks of morality are not the same everywhere. In many parts of the world, and especially in English-speaking countries, canons of judgement on many issues still rest on that distinctive fusion of economic, religious and philosophical conceptions that was brought about by the Scottish Enlightenment. The central tenet of this set of ideas, as John Maynard Keynes once put it, is that ‘by the working of natural laws individuals pursuing their own interests with enlightenment, in condition of freedom, always tend to promote the general interest at the same time!’
The ‘everyday political philosophy of the nineteenth century’ (as Keynes described it) remains an immensely powerful force in the United States and elsewhere: for those on the right of the political spectrum, this set of ideas retains something of its millenarian character with individualism, free trade and God constituting parts of a whole. But by no means is it only the religiously minded whose ideas are shaped by this philosophy: it is worth noting that the dominant secular paradigms of ethics in the United States—for example, as in John Rawls’s theory of justice—are also founded upon assumptions about individual rationality that are borrowed from neoclassical economics.
It is instructive in this regard to look at an area of the humanities that has been unusually quick to respond to climate change: the subdiscipline of philosophy represented by climate ethicists. The dominant approach in this discipline is again posited on rational actors, freely pursuing their own interests. A philosopher of this tradition, in responding to the argument that the moral imperative of climate change comes from the need to save the millions of lives in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, might well quote David Hume: ‘’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.’ Climate activists’ appeals to morality will not necessarily find much support here.
Last, we already know, from the example of Mahatma Gandhi, that the industrial, carbon-intensive economy cannot be fought by a politics of sincerity. Gandhi invested himself, body and soul, in the effort to prevent India from adopting the Western, industrial model of economy. Drawing on many different traditions, he articulated and embodied a powerful vision of renunciatory politics; no reporter would have had the gall to ask him what he had sacrificed; his entire political career was based upon the idea of sacrifice. Gandhi was the very exemplar of a politics of moral sincerity.
Yet, while Gandhi may have succeeded in dislodging the British from India, he failed in this other endeavour, that of steering India along a different economic path. He was able, at best, to slightly delay a headlong rush towards an all-devouring, carbon-intensive economy. There is little reason to believe that a politics of this kind will succeed in relation to global warming today.
Climate change is often described as a ‘wicked problem’. One of its wickedest aspects is that it may require us to abandon some of our most treasured ideas about political virtue: for example, ‘be the change you want to see’. What we need instead is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped.
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 equally culpable—for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.
Excerpted with permission from Allen Lane Penguin