Novelist Amitav Ghosh examines the inability at the level of literature, history and politics to grasp the scale and violence of climate change in his new book, his first major book of nonfiction since "In an Antique Land" of 1992.
Novelist Amitav Ghosh examines the inability at the level of literature, history and politics to grasp the scale and violence of climate change in his new book, his first major book of nonfiction since “In an Antique Land” of 1992.
“The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable”, published by Penguin Books imprint Allen Lane, serves as Ghosh’s summons to confront the most urgent task of our time.
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, the author says, adding to see that this is so one needs to only glance through the pages of a few highly-regarded literary journals and book reviews.
“When the subject of climatic change appears in these publications, it is almost always in relation to non-fiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon,” he argues.
“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.”
Ghosh says he too had been preoccupied with climate change for a long time, but it is true of his own work as well, that this subject figures only obliquely in his 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.”
Are we deranged? Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so.
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 existence – a task to which fiction, Ghosh argues, is the best suited of all cultural forms.
According to the author, climate change also poses a powerful challenge to what is perhaps the single-most important political conception of the modern era: the idea of freedom, which is central not only to contemporary politics but also to the humanities, the arts and literature.
He says the lack of a transitive connection between political mobilisation, on the one hand, and global warming, on the other, is nowhere more evident than in countries of South Asia, all of which are extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change.
“In the last few decades, India has become very highly politicised; great numbers take to the streets to express indignation and outrage over a wide range of issues; on television channels and social media, people speak their minds ever more stridently. Yet climate change has not resulted in an outpouring of passion in the country,” he writes.
“This despite the fact that India has innumerable environmental organisations and grassroots movements. The voices of the country’s many eminent climate scientists, environmental activists and reporters do not appear to have made much of a mark either,” he adds.
Ghosh’s new book began as a set of four lectures, presented at the University of Chicago in the fall of 2015.