Amitav Ghosh’s lyrical novel The Hungry Tide, published in 2004, transported us to the magical world of the Sundarbans in Bengal, where nature is the chief protagonist, where the “non-human” elements of life must be recognised because they overwhelm you. Anyone who has read that book will not be surprised to witness the evolution of Ghosh’s reflections on the environment in The Great Derangement,.
In this latest work, Ghosh forces us to confront the realities of environmental degradation not through the prism of statistics and factual evidence but by examining a question: “How did this come about”? He attributes our failure to “…an aspect of the uncanny in our relations with our environment.” Recounting some cataclysmic events in his childhood, Ghosh feels that there are “…moments of recognition, in which it dawns on us that the energy that surrounds us, flowing under our feet and through wires in our walls, animating our vehicles and illuminating our rooms, is an all-encompassing presence that may have its own purposes about which we know nothing.”
He goes on to state: “An awareness of the precariousness of human existence is to be found in every culture; it is reflected in Biblical and Quranic images of the Apocalypse, ….in tales of pralaya in Sanskrit literature and so on.”
Literary imagination, in the great epics of the past, was informed by an awareness of nature, its power, and its often fearsome presence in our lives. “Why then did these intuitions withdraw?” from the forefront of the literary imagination, the author asks. Ghosh attributes this to “a habit of mind that proceeded by creating discontinuities; that is to say, they were trained to break problems into smaller and smaller puzzles until a solution presented itself. This is a way of thinking that deliberately excludes things and forces (externalities) that lie beyond the horizon of the matter at hand: it is a perspective that renders the interconnectedness of Gaia unthinkable.”
The book is divided into three sections. The first covers the fact of climate change and our inability to think about it. The other two are about the way climate change is dealt with in fiction and in politics.
Ghosh argues that contemporary culture has largely failed to confront climate change, partly because of the acceptance of one monolithic paradigm of European modernity, which has become the only standard of development. Ghosh warns us that ordinary life today is “…not guided by reason; it is ruled, rather, by the inertia of habitual motion.” If society is to change, then decisions will have to be made collectively, within political institutions, as happens in war-time or during national emergencies.
But we have divided our planet into nation states, cities, clusters of forests, and designated protected areas. Our rivers are divided into sections of dams, our towns into gated communities. Collective thinking and collective responsibility is difficult in these circumstances.
Modern fiction too has failed to incorporate and reflect issues of climate change because in the period when human activity was causing climate change, the literary imagination was centred on the human. Unlike the realm of ancient epics, the non-human today, if written about at all, is in the sphere of science fiction and fantasy.
Why does literature in our times ignore climate change? Ghosh posits that an increasing emphasis in 20th century literature was placed on observation—of everyday details, traits of character, nuances of emotion—essentially, of mundane life. The focus has been on the personal life, on chronicles of the self.
The world has failed to rise up and take responsibility for climate change, which is the “mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.” But an obsession with the narrow, the personal, the continued absorption with the self has prevented us from integrating climate change into the literature of our time. Magic realism, Ghosh shows, also fails in this context.
Usually, books on climate change are full of facts, numbers, and figures, which are impressive, but oddly deadening. Ghosh’s book is different—even though The Great Derangement is informed by research in the area, he never succumbs to academic jargon. Instead, he approaches the topic with the devise human beings have always used to think with most naturally and powerfully: stories. This does not just make the book immensely readable, it also sustains Ghosh’s main axis of argument.
Ghosh traces the complex ways that globalisation, empire, and the bourgeois novel are entangled with the history of carbon and our contemporary climate crisis. Talking about the never-ending hustle between the West and the developing nations over the very hot topic of reducing the global carbon footprint, Ghosh believes that nature simply does not care. “When that monster cyclone comes towards Chennai or Mumbai, what are you going to say to it? ‘No you’re coming for the wrong person. You should go and attack the US’.”
Ghosh warns us that when future generations turn to the art and literature of our time, they will look at the altered world of their inheritance. And they will conclude that we failed to recognise the enormity of this problem in our art and literature, and dealt with it peripherally in our politics. Quite possibly then this era will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh (Allen Lane/Penguin Books)
Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’
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