The Unthinkable

June 6, 2019 at 9:37 am | Posted in Climate Change | 1 Comment
Tags: , , ,

Here’s my review of Bengali novelist Amitav Ghosh’s splendid book on climate change, The Great Derangement. The review appeared in a recent of issue of the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the US.

 

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Paper .164 pp.. $15.00.

Back in 2016, I went up to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan to hear the internationally recognized writer, Amitav Ghosh, speak about his new book. I was so impressed by his talk, I bought a copy. Now I’m going to tell you about it.

Ghosh is a Bengali-born writer, best known for his fiction, and holds a Ph.D. from Oxford. But as we learn in the opening pages of The Great Derangement, his father’s family was driven from Bangladesh to India by a massive flood, and he himself barely avoided serious harm when the first cyclone in recorded meteorological history hit Delhi in 1978. Since then, of course, many other climate-related disasters have followed. Yet these threatening events have been for the most part concealed from public awareness. This concealment is what Ghosh calls “the great derangement,” and his book explores the causes of that dangerous condition.

Ghosh divides The Great Derangementinto three parts.  In the first, “Stories,” he argues that modern fiction has been incapable of addressing climate change even as greenhouse gas emissions and climate transformations have grown steadily worse. At the heart of fiction’s failure to enable us to recognize the crisis facing us is its fixation on “individual moral adventure”—the story of the hero—and the expulsion of the collective from the literary imagination. Unlike ancient epics such as the story of Noah in Genesis, or Gilgamesh, modern writing that highlights the agency of nonhumans –whether storms or ghosts or zombies—has been dismissed as inferior. The partitioning of the earth into distinct divisions, whether nation-states or measurable commodities like gallons of gas, likewise underpins the ostensible divisions between the human and the non-human that blind us to the planetary feedback loop. But dire human impact on the Earth itself—the Anthropocene*—is a new, non-human critical voice forcing us to reconsider those partitions.

In the “History” section of The Great Derangement Ghosh argues that it wasn’t primarily the Western invention of fossil fuel technologies like the coal-powered steam engine or oil-powered vehicles that drove the Anthropocene. Asian peoples had already discovered coal and oil and had begun using them long before the invention of the steam engine. What drove the Anthropocene was imperial, military power, by which, in particular, the British empire was able to force Asian nations like India to switch from the development of fossil fuel industries to the production of food and raw materials essential to the industrialization of the West. Ironically, this imperial blockage of fossil fuel development in the East may actually have slowed down the Anthropocene.

Finally, in “Politics,” Ghosh asks what kind of human relations and governance are needed for us to move beyond “the great derangement.” As in the previous two sections, he is quite critical of modernity, arguing, for example, that the ideas of “history” as human agency, abstracted from the non-human world, and freedom as transcending material restraint, is fundamental to the crisis of Anthropocene. Based on this critique of the individualism of the modern era, Ghosh argues that individual actions will not solve the great derangement. Nor, he suggests, will newly forming climate change activist groups, since it takes too long for such groups to organize across boundaries and build up the necessary power.

Instead, Ghosh believes that the involvement of religious groups is one of the most promising developments in the crucial effort to incorporate the reality of the Anthropocene into the governance of the human/nonhuman world. This is so because religious groups are already organized and many of them possess a language of collective solidarity lacking in modern culture. To illustrate this argument, Ghosh compares Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’with the UN Paris Climate Accord, issued that same year. While the Paris Accord is shot through with corporate (capitalist) terminology, veiled militarism, and dense incomprehensible prose, the encyclical is lucidly written and direct in style, critiquing the modern “technocratic paradigm” and even the Christian teaching of “Man’s Dominion over Nature.” Ultimately, Laudato Si’ links together social and environmental justice in an integral ecology that the partitioning language of the Climate Accord makes virtually unimaginable.

In reading The Great Derangement, I was struck by the significant overlaps between Ghosh’s vision and the “web of life” argument made by the distinguished Marxist eco-theorist, Jason W. Moore. (Carol Barton spoke at the last US Grail General Assembly about Moore’s book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things).  Each sees the binary between nature and society, the human and the non-human, as fundamental to the current planetary crisis. Moore would object to Ghosh’s emphasis on imperial power rather than capitalism as the cause of the Anthropocene; Moore would instead argue that they are enfolded into one another. But the efforts of each writer to create a language to heal the modern fissure is striking.

The important distinction between the two books, however, is that because Ghosh is primarily a writer—a novelist—he formulates his remedy for the great derangement in a language that transcends the linguistic partitioning that characterizes the work of theorists like Moore.  Thus, when Ghosh tells us that “to think like a forest…is to think in images,” and that the Anthropocene itself is “thinking through us,” he is envisioning something that can really make a difference.

 

*The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, human-caused climate change.

Advertisements

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.