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

About Amitav Ghosh:

Amitav Ghosh is an Indian writer and the winner of the 54th Jnanpith award, India’s highest literary honor, best known for his work in English fiction. Ghosh’s ambitious novels use complex narrative strategies to probe the nature of national and personal identity, particularly of the people of India and Southeast Asia. In 2007 he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest honors, by the President of India. In 2010 he was a joint winner, along with Margaret Atwood of a Dan David prize, and in 2011 he was awarded the Grand Prix of the Blue Metropolis festival in Montreal. He was the first English-language writer to receive the award. In 2019 Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the most important global thinkers of the preceding decade. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Great Derangement – A Summary

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable was published in 2016. The book is divided in three sections titled: Stories, History, and Politics.

Part 1, Stories, opens with the question: ‘Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?’ Tracing his ancestral history of having come from a family of ecological refugees to his own unique experience of having survived a tornado in Delhi in 1978, Ghosh points to how climate change is a re-awakening to the ‘urgent proximity of non-human presences (…) the recognition of a presence that has moulded their lives to the point where they had come to take it as much for granted as the air they breathed’.

In this section Ghosh goes on to breakdown why in his opinion the modern novel struggles as an art form to engage with the subject of climate change, especially at a time when we need new stories to guide us into the uncertain future. The ‘derangement’ Ghosh points to is the surprising fact that ‘climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena’. He adds that: ‘The truth, as is not widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed – and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.’ The question he attempts to address is: ‘what is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction?’

To understand this disturbing shortcoming, Ghosh pulls together multiple threads of arguments that highlight the role of modernity and points to its ‘original impulses’ being ‘the project of ‘partitioning’, or deepening the imaginary gulf between nature and culture’. Through several examples including that of modern city design, he argues how human beings who were once ‘generally catastrophists at heart’ allowed ‘their instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability’ to be ‘gradually transplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism’. Nature was considered tamed and relegated to the background and a period of the ‘deification of the humans’ within cultures began, ‘that gave it (nature) an illusory apartness from ourselves’. He highlights how now the only way we are able to make sense of this is through the term ‘uncanny’ – ‘no other word comes close to expressing the strangeness of what is unfolding around us. (…) their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognise something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of non-human interlocutors’. He also points to how the modern novel took on these proclivities and tended to focus on such ideas embedded within modernity – highlighting individual effort, reducing the role of collective engagement etc which lead to any mention of the ‘uncanny’ being relegated to the genres of science fiction. He ends by emphasising the urgent need to change this, ‘Because to treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling – which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time’.

In the second section, History, Ghosh argues that we must go beyond capitalism to the period of colonialism to trace the roots of the climate crisis. He points out that, ‘To look at the climate crisis through the prism of empire is to recognise, first, that the continent of Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming: its causes, its philosophical and historical implications, and the possibility of a global response to it’. Due to the eurocentricity of the climate crisis conversation so far, Ghosh feels the need to elaborate this point within this section.

He begins by pointing out that the relevance of Asia in the climate crisis conversation is emphasised firstly just by the fact that it houses the largest number of people (‘the lives and livelihoods of half a billion people are at risk’) and that this population is highly vulnerable, both from the perspective of historical marginalisation and from the fact that climate research data suggests that these regions will be hit hard. He says, ‘Brute fact is that no strategy can work globally unless it works in Asia and is adopted by large numbers of Asians’. He then moves into his more complex argument which suggests how ‘Asia has also played a pivotal role in setting in motion the chain of consequences that is driving the present cycle of climatic change’. Through an outlining of historic events he suggests how Asia, were it not for imperialism, would have found its own early epath to industrialisation and modernity, both of which precipitated the conditions for the climate crisis. Imperialism, he argues, delayed the entry of the continent to such actions. ‘It is surely no coincidence that ‘the acceleration of mainland Asian economies (…) is precisely the period of great decolonisation’, he writes. He also outlines how Asia’s entry into adopting the patterns of life that modernity engenders, unwittingly brought clarity to the fact that this lifestyle could ‘only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. (…) Asia has torn the mask from the phantom that lured it on to 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. (…) through its own silence it has laid bare the silences more plainly evident at the heart of global systems of governance’.

He uses the above arguments to point out how the current position of Asian countries on the climate crisis, that of continuing with the current economic system in line with the idea of distributive justice, is flawed and part of the Great Derangement. He writes, ‘our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but towards our self-annihilation’. This said, he also outlines how simultaneously there were strong voices in Asia like Gandhi and Zhang Shizhao and others that saw the dangers of pursuing infinite growth with finite resources. He argues that while ‘the case for climate reparations is founded on unshakeable grounds’ and yet it cannot be ‘thought of as a problem created by an utter distant ‘other’’.

The third and final section of the book, Politics, pulls together the various threads of argument within the previous sections and asks: ‘Now that the stirrings of the earth have forced us to recognise that we have never been free of non-human constraints, how are we to rethink those conceptions of history and agency?‘ He outlines how there has been a change in the nature of politics that can be experienced by the ‘divergence between the common interest and the preoccupations of the public sphere’. ‘The political’, he writes, ‘is no longer about the commonwealth or the ‘body politic’ and the making of collective decisions’ creating a paralysis of intent and action.

The only arm of the government that is bereft of this paralysis, he tells us, are the military and the intelligence communities who identify global warming as the biggest threat to the nation state. From their perspective, if the ideas around climate justice were to materialise it would imply a redistribution of wealth and a recaliberation of global power, a scenario most disagreeable to the security establishment, hence ‘the continuance of the status quo is the most desirable of outcomes’. In this world view, ‘humanity has not only declared a war against itself, but is also locked into mortal combat with the earth’. The approach they then take is of the ‘armed lifeboat’: ‘a posture that combines preparations for open-ended counter insurgency, militarised borders, aggressive anti-immigrant policing’. He says that, ‘in short, even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action’. To this he adds the other deeply disturbing viewpoint held by the rich (both nations and classes) which he terms the ‘a politics of attrition’: ‘the assumption (…) that the populations of poor nations, because they are accustomed to hardship, possess the capacity to absorb, even if at great cost, certain shocks and stresses that might cripple rich nations’.

He ends with a summary and contrast of two important documents that came out in 2015: the Paris Agreement; and, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (Praise be you): On Care for our Common Home – one written by a multitude of diplomats and delegates and the other by a former literature teacher. While they are both founded on acceptance of the research produced by climate science, through multiple excerpts from the two documents Ghosh highlights how they differ in spirit, depth of perception, openness, honesty etc. For example, he contrasts how: ‘In much the same measure that Laudato Si’ strives for openness, the Agreement moves in the opposite direction: towards confinement and occlusion’; while Laudato Si’ attempts to address the excluded, the Agreement hints at the opposite intention: ‘its rhetoric is like a shimmering screen, set up to conceal implicit bargains, unspoken agreements and loopholes visible only to those in the know’. Ghosh ends by confessing that ‘the struggle for action will no doubt be difficult and hard-fought (…) but I would like to believe that out of this struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes than those that preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped in the time of its derangement; that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings’.

Further Readings

Brutes: Meditations on the myth of the voiceless. An excerpt from Amitav Ghosh’s upcoming book ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’ showcased in The Orion magazine.

Discussion Themes and Questions

– Do you agree with the core idea of ‘the great derangement’ that the author is pointing us to?
– What is your response to the author’s argument that the cultural story-telling around the climate crisis through the use of novels has been poor?
– Do you concur with his analysis of the shortcomings of modernity and its problematic framing of the idea of nature and our embeddedness within it?
– What do you think Ghosh is attempting to address through this book?
– What are your thoughts on how we can challenge the cultural and political derangement the author is referring to?