Book Review: The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

Psst! Understandably, everyone from the moon and back has already run a review for this book. I didn’t realise it of course until I sent the review to The Wire and got a response saying they’d already covered it four months ago. I was refusing to look at reviews so as to leave my opinions unclouded — also ill-researched, I suppose. Well, I’m glad the book has had such impact. Here’s my tuppence on it. 

India has ratified the Paris Agreement, signed in October 2015, this week. The official grand unveiling shall be on the 2nd of October, assimilated with Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday celebrations- appropriately honourable, and adequately forgettable.
New research has found that not only are we way past restorable levels of atmospheric carbon in ppm, we had also so far been underestimating the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per area of reservoirs by as much as 25%.1 The BBC affiliated ScienceAlert piece which reports this ends with asking if this potentially earth-shattering news shall ‘mean hydroelectric power is no longer a viable option?’ ‘Not necessarily,’ is the article’s comforting response; we just need to make better estimates while figuring out how to “‘decarbonise’ the global economy”. Refreshingly, or terrifyingly, Amitav Ghosh in his recent non-fiction, The Great Derangement, has not sugarcoated the risks inevitable from the free pursuit of individual interests. He has unflinchingly dived into the turbid waters of climate change, connecting strands of apparently disparate narratives: literary fiction, the history of the Carbon Economy and the politics of Empire building, to say that life as inhabiters of the First World know it is not a viable option. Acting like a prism, the Great Derangement focuses the climate change narratives on Asia and its role in the crisis, to weave together a scathing critique of our predominant, technocratic, Malthusian worldview.

Ghosh builds up a complex argument based on a fairly straightforward premise: why isn’t art and culture deluged by work regarding climate change? He turns the spotlight on to literary fiction, his own backyard, where one need only glance through the pages of a few highly regarded literary journals and book reviews to realise that climate change casts a ‘disproportionately small shadow’ within the cultural landscape. He wonders why fiction built around climate change is placed under the category of science fiction, rather than be categorised as literary fiction. Ghosh posits that our understanding of the ‘modern’ novel is that of an “individual moral adventure”, as opposed to being a story about “men in the aggregate”. He asks, “what is the place of the non-human in the modern novel? How did science fiction come to be demarcated and banished to the outhouses of literary fiction? What is the nature of modernity that has lead to this separation?”

Ghosh laments that while usually on the vanguard of revolutions and catclysms, serious literary fiction seems to have uncharacteristically ignored and neglected to adequately address the spectre of climate change. He contends that this is not due to a lack of awareness of the non-human interface in human narratives, but due to a suppression of this awareness/ consciousness: which is the ‘derangement’ he refers to in the title. He suggests this suppression of awareness is a direct consequence of the gradualist views that have emerged synchronous with modernity. To write about an unanticipated flood caused by a ten foot wall of sea waves would be stranger than fiction in the current conception of the novel, since the modern novel rests on the idea of probability. The climate change phenomenon has nature responding in uncontrollable, unpredictable ways, which conflict with the imagination of man’s triumph over nature: one of the tenets of the modern industrial civilisation. Some of the other ideas of modernity of course are those of freedom, secularism, a free- market economy, and an emphasis on the rights of individuals.

In this way, Ghosh ties up the idea of freedom with the existing paradigm of development. Modernity hinges on the idea of independence, including independence from the vagaries of nature. It is no coincidence, he says, that the acceleration in carbon emissions coincides with the turn away from the collective. He also frames the idea of time in this paradigm as being an irreversible arrow, not just linear but a vector. Being ahead has a great value in today’s world, — continuous irreversible forward motion—, and “backwardness” is a curse. This causes one to imagine the world as a zero sum game, in which realist writing has become ‘backward’ and individualist writing has won. To this he attributes the absence of stories featuring the impact of climate change, as such stories must by nature go beyond an individual moral adventure, and instead animate several non- human interlopers in an individual’s journey. Perhaps these “absurd” stories were better told as fables. But, at least, there was a time when they were widely told.

Literature helps us in the project of cultural imagination, helping us understand moral choices different from ours, and generating a collective consciousness, a zeitgiest, if you will. To create a new design, a novel architecture, a novel structure of organisation, one needs imagination, and imagination is the subtile of literary fiction. Without the aid of it, we are stunted in our world- shaping abilities. Extrapolating from the work of anthropologist Eduardo Kohn2, Ghosh also suggests that perhaps there is something about the nature of written language which prevents us from talking about climate change. Films and photographs have managed much greater success in featuring nature based apocalypses and cataclysms. It is our logocentricity which prevents us from being able to voice the angst of the voiceless and the anger of nature. The same logo centricity which makes us believe that only what can be captured in language is valid. And thereby comes the inability of the verbal age to capture the validity of the non-human. That which cannot verbally communicate is voiceless and subaltern. I will return to this idea later.

As mentioned before, the Great Derangement’s biggest contribution is the unflinching honesty with which Ghosh makes Asians party to the climate change crisis. He points out that had India not been a colony of the British Empire, India too have participated in the Carbon Economy at the turn of the previous century with equal gusto. In fact, he argues that the Colonisers embargoes against carbon and fuel intensive manufacturing in colonies may have staved off global warming by several decades. Had Asia’s attempts to find a foothold in the Carbon Economy been supported or encouraged by the West, not only would we have been competitive manufacturers, the massive population in our continent would have ascertained a much more rapid collapse of the biosphere as we knew it.

In the book’s third section on Politics, I heartily concur with his commendation of Pope Francis’s encyclical ‘Laudato si’ which speaks plainly, sincerely and with unbelievable nuance about the futility of expecting justice and equity in a carbon economy. Ghosh interestingly contrasts the achievements of the encyclical with those of the Paris Agreement. He recognises from the manner of the Agreement that it is against the interests of the Empire to change the status quo, and climate change activism from the grassroots cannot make much of a dent or a difference in the economy. He simultaneously recognises that it is only through a tide of social movements that there is any hope of overwhelming and changing the status quo. Ghosh suggests that the required momentum for ‘the world to move forward on drastically reducing emissions without sacrificing considerations of equity’ in the short term may be found by popular movements joining hands with religious groupings around the world. Admirable though his sentiments are, he is clearly struggling to provide a novel alternative to the existing paradigm and may have embraced with inadequate thought the dangers of turning to the ecclesiastical order of society for help. It is also possible that I am too embedded within the vectorial framing of time and the whole package of modernity to fully appreciate the genius of his suggestion.

In my view, though, the real missed opportunity is not the above surprising solution. In each section of his book, Ghosh got close to but forewent addressing the single most important technology (or fiction) of modernity: law. Despite making brief appearances in each section of the book, law was only tangentially addressed by Ghosh, though it could have been the fulcrum on which his entire thesis would have cohered. Law, which is based on language; Language which determines validity; Which governs evidence; So that which can be coded/captured in language has evidentiary value; The rest is myth: unobserved, unobservable. In a Eurocentric colonial society, the only valid language was the language of the colonisers. Those who could not communicate in it were subaltern. Law acts like a shibboleth for differentiating between valid and invalid lives, experiences and phenomena.

Ghosh’s exposition would have benefitted greatly from incorporating the concept of Lawfare3 which refers to the effort to control and conquer indigenous people by the coercive use of legal means. Law as a tool of political control relies upon the written word for legitimacy, shaping and obliterating lives and destinies and any understanding of the collective in favour of a free-market economy. Colonial law is the thread that binds together capital, economy and culture. It is law which makes a post-colony, sustains the devastation wrought upon it by setting up in permanence and for perpetuity the structures that control authority, evidence and validity.

Ghosh has overlaid his project of anthropomorphising nature (he talks of Nature lulling us into a false sense of security with decreasing global average temperatures, only to unleash an unprecedented hike subsequently) with the deconstruction of the phenomenon of the absence of political will to combat climate change (and its conspicuous upon observation sparseness on the cultural scene). It is also my estimation that he has irreversibly changed the cultural landscape of literary fiction as well as the Global South’s understanding of its role in climate change.

Endnotes 

1 BBC Crew, Scientists just discovered a major new source of greenhouse gases, 30th September, 2016.

2 Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Towards an anthropology beyond Human, UC Press, August (2013): “forms enable our surroundings to think through us.”

3 John L. Comaroff, Colonialism, Culture and the Law, A Foreword, pg 306, Law and Social Inquiry, Vol 26, No. 2, (Spring, 2001).

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