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

Nathan Jandl

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 196 pages. $22.00.

Thinking the “unthinkable” would seem to present an impossible task, particularly when that unthinkable thing is the unfolding environmental disaster of climate change. In The Great Derangement, however, Amitav Ghosh—acclaimed Indian novelist and sometime professor at institutions like Queens College and Harvard—has generated an illuminating, occasionally startling method of pursuing this task: by reading climate change through the lens of fiction itself. If novelists have largely failed to treat climate change as a central figure in their books, Ghosh wonders, what characteristics of this unprecedented crisis—and its deep roots in industrialization, colonialism, and globalization—are to blame?

Ghosh divides The Great Derangement into three parts: “Stories,” “History,” and “Politics.” Spanning fully half of the text, “Stories” employs historical anecdotes and scenes from Ghosh’s own novels to situate us in the affective and geographical spaces of the “Anthropocene.” A central challenge of the Anthropocene, Ghosh rightly points out, pivots on the riddle of recognition: how can we learn to recognize that different forms of disaster (from a freak tornado in Delhi to an especially deep drought in the Sierra Nevada) are manifestations of our deranged relationship with the natural environment? In a novel, such recognition is especially difficult to animate because it too easily looks credulous and fantastical—climate change, in short, requires an imposition of improbable events on an otherwise realistic narrative. Daringly, Ghosh tethers the two issues, suggesting that mainstream Western fiction has been constitutionally incapable of addressing climate change precisely as the Great Acceleration gained momentum. As literary tastes and scientific understanding shifted toward singular, “modern” narratives; as the agency of nonhumans became less apparent on the page; and as genre fiction (science fiction, horror, fantasy) was relegated to the seedy edges of the fictional world, the Anthropocene began to present weather events of such improbability that mainstream novelists were not equipped to write them. Even the new genre of “cli-fi” persistently situates itself in a disastrous future—and the Anthropocene, Ghosh insists, “also includes the recent past, and, most significantly, the present.” Perhaps, he suggests, only “new, hybrid forms” that change “the act of reading itself” will be equal to the challenges of our new age.

While Ghosh has a lively touch with the collusions and conspiracies of culture, politics, and imagination that have forged the ongoing path into the Anthropocene, stretches of The Great Derangement (primarily in “Stories”) recall a slalom course with missing gates. Recognition sets the stage for discussions of probability and regularity; theories of geological gradualism versus catastrophism; narratives of the everyday; the (non)aesthetics of oil versus coal; and more. And though Ghosh swerves confidently from concept to concept, he’s navigating a route that’s not entirely visible to the reader. On one page, an abstract term is explained in the endnotes; on another, a jargony phrase like “bare life” is left to shiver nakedly in its air quotes—awkward evidence of theoretical endowment. Mightn’t it be useful to name Giorgio Agamben, if not fully gloss his idea, for those who manage to pick up on this allusion to Homo Sacer? In another instance, Ghosh references Timothy Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects” to explain weather’s “ever-firmer adherence to our lives.” But what is a hyperobject? (Hint: Styrofoam counts as one.) We’re never told, and there’s no elaboration in the endnotes.

The inconsistencies in Ghosh’s otherwise important incorporation of critical theory serve to point up the dilemma of audience. Whom does Ghosh wish to address: his illustrious blurbers—Elizabeth Kolbert, Naomi Klein, Naomi Oreskes, Roy Scranton, Agamben himself? Perhaps, in homage to the book’s origin as a series of lectures, he’s writing for a virtual conference hall of scholars in the environmental humanities and sciences. Or perhaps he’s after a cross section of the highly educated public, who might come for Ghosh’s narrative eloquence and stay for the mental can-opener effect of his theoretical claims. Ultimately, I would wager he’s attempting to do all three, and it’s a task he doesn’t quite pull off. Academics are apt to leave hungry, while nonspecialists may feel glutted with the peculiar indigestibility of scholarly lingo.

Despite its flaws, The Great Derangement sparkles with insight­­. In “Histories,” Ghosh develops a fascinating “genealogy of the carbon economy” that extends research in postcolonialism, environmental justice, and modernity while swerving smartly from accepted wisdom. Distinguishing his approach from Klein—author of the widely acclaimed This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate—Ghosh argues that it is not capitalism per se but rather the unequal operations of empire that have driven our global dysfunction. Contrary to conventional histories of fossil fuel development that locate its birthplace in nineteenth-century Pennsylvania, Ghosh finds coal use in China in the eleventh century and oil development in Burma as early as the eighteenth century. He then traces the uptake of carbon-based technology into the British colonial economy, where it became—as an effect of history being written by the conquerors—a “Western” commodity. While steam power initially thrived in the Bombay shipyards, for example, it simply “could not take hold in India,” since the “appetites of the British economy needed to be fed by large quantities of raw materials, produced by solar-based methods of agriculture. . . . In other words, the emerging fossil-fuel economies of the West required that people elsewhere be prevented from developing coal-based energy systems of their own.”

That “carbon emissions were, from very early on, closely co-related to power” is not necessarily “unacknowledged” in contemporary environmental thought. But Ghosh’s brilliance is in his clear-eyed reappraisal of this basic equation. Sketching Asia’s role as a “horror-struck simpleton” that was duped into believing the sales pitch for a carbon-centric modernity—e.g., that all would benefit, rather than the wealthy and powerful minority—Ghosh poses an arresting proposition. “Could it be the case that imperialism actually delayed the onset of climate crisis by retarding the expansion of Asian and African economies?” Ah, the painful efficacy of what-ifs! Which is morally superior—an equal pace of economic development for all countries or the long-term retardation of carbon emissions? Rather than pick a side, Ghosh suggests that treating the problem as a simple binary is already a sign of our “derangement”: it reinforces how “our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but toward our self-annihilation.”

How, then, can we escape this pattern? In his final section, “Politics,” Ghosh parallels the enduring ideology of capitalist growth with the unsettlingly similar literary impulse to pursue the next avant-garde. These cultural trends, Ghosh suggests—which are compounded by the “politics of sincerity” and the “politics of self-definition,” both individualizing impulses susceptible to co-optation by climate change deniers—have snarled our capacity for collectivity. Put simply, we have lost the language of authentic solidarity. In a compelling, teacherly move, Ghosh concludes by comparing the text of the 2015 Paris Agreement with Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter. Where the Paris Agreement is mired in corporate terminology, veiled militarism, and rhetorical half measures, Laudato Si’ highlights, simply and lucidly, the connection between social and environmental justice. The Pope’s words, moreover, reflect an “acceptance of limits and limitations,” a posture that is “intimately related to the idea of the sacred” and thus veers defiantly from the violent thrust of empire and capitalism. For Ghosh, it is not the language of politics but the language of religion that reveals a way toward thinking the unthinkable. In this sense, perhaps his “new forms” of fiction may also be forms of moral storytelling: retrograde writing that takes the grim present as seriously—and as compassionately—as the frightening future.

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