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

Sometime back I had read this book – The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh – and written a blog on it. Seeing the floods that are taking place in different parts of the world (America, India and now Japan where an island saw a devastating flood) triggering displacement and devastation on a scale unimaginable, I think this book has something interesting to offer – it looks at various such climactic events from across time and from different parts of the world which together indicate that, thanks to modern development, nature has had enough and it’s hitting us back.

It raises important questions about our taste, preferences and lifestyle and explains how they have been shaped by forces of history that were responsible for setting the climatic disaster ball rolling, which slowly has rolled too far and if not stopped immediately will go over the edge. Read this review and enjoy the book.

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There are very few books that fill you with a sense of urgency to write something on them before it’s too late. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which marks the author’s return to nonfiction after a long while, is one such book. The Great Derangement…delves into history (literary and political), analyses contemporary practices, our choices and preferences…and tells us how they are collectively responsible for forcing the nature to unleash destructive forces – like earth swallowing floods, monstrous earth quakes, gales with never-heard-of speed and ferocity – and have brought us to the edge from where a return journey is not possible unless we immediately stop the ‘march of modernity’.

The book blames several things for the climate challenges we are faced with – one is history, another is indifference of serious fiction towards climactic matters, another is the apathy of governments to climactic concerns, still another is our lack of awareness about the havoc climate change can wreak in our lives although there is no dearth of evidence around us.

Ghosh is most morbid about the middle class when it comes to suffering from impact of climate change. He says the rich will fly away in airplanes, the poor will go away to their villages, but where will the middle class go given the fact that they have built their lives in cities? In other words, Ghosh says cities are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

And particularly those that are close to sea or other forms of water bodies, like Mumbai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Calcutta. Most of these cities were built in colonial period to act as good trade and commerce centers because of their proximity to water. And somehow this preference for proximity with water has crept into the elites of these cities, who tend to build their settlements close to water. The richer the closer.

This love of the rich for staying close to water makes the sea-facing locations most coveted real estate pieces. And, Ghosh observes, this desirability of these locations as real estate properties, anywhere around the world, makes it difficult for governments (or municipal bodies) to create awareness about the perils of staying close to water bodies, thanks to the political clout the real estate practitioners enjoy everywhere.

For Ghosh the peril of this proximity was best exemplified when he travelled to Andaman and Nicobar islands to report on the impact of tsunami.  He visited an army settlement located close to the sea. He noticed two things: a) the higher the rank of the occupant, the closer his dwelling was to the sea leading to the highest rank holder staying closest to the sea (and vice versa); b) those closest to the sea were affected the most by tsunami.

Ghosh observes that in the pre-colonial period people lived away from water, but with the city-building projects the colonial masters took up, the preference slowly reversed.

One of the most original points Ghosh makes in Derangement is the indifference of literary fiction to the concerns of climate change. According to Ghosh, some of the practitioners of serious fiction in the 19th century consciously moved away from using fantastical elements – like flying carpets or a rising sea gulping a landscape – as a means to tell stories, in order to focus on more prosaic day-to-day affairs of life. This prosaic-ity fulfilled the requirements of serious fiction. So describing minor details of landscape and how people lived their lives became fashionable. Amitav Ghosh says this shift from writing about fantastical occurrences to more mundane motions of life had to do with the emphasis of the Industrial Revolution on betterment of human lives.

This shift made the fury of nature, like floods, cyclones etc., an untouchable terrain for serous fiction – because, as Ghosh observes, the gigantic scale of these furies of nature lends them a fantasy-like incredulity not to be dealt with in the type of fiction which swears by credulity.

Writing on furies of nature fell to less-respected a form of fiction, genre fiction. And, Ghosh rues, it continues to this day. That is why thrillers and science fiction have addressed climactic concerns; but sadly, the author says, because genre fictions hardly receive any serious literary award, the issues they address don’t receive the attention they deserve.

One of the things responsible for pushing us to the brink is replacement of coal with petrol as a fuel. Petrol is a more versatile fuel than coal but that is not the only thing which explains why petrol usurped coal’s position as a primary fuel: the reason is petrol is a politically safer fuel than coal – and what makes coal a politically volatile fuel is the highly visible mining process involved in it unlike the refinement process of petrol which is very opaque.

Remember the blackened face of the 20th century coal miner melancholically looking at you from a black and white photo? This visibility of the plight of coal miners is responsible for the revolutions that coal mining has led to unlike the plight of petroleum refinery workers which suffers in obscurity. And the political elite of the Anglosphere the Churchills and Roosevelts of this world knew about this disadvantage of coal mining, Europe having experienced many of the coal-triggered revolutions, and ensured that coal was replaced by petroleum as a primary fuel.

But as always Ghosh’s favorite whipping horse is once again colonialism. He says Britain made sure that the benefits of the industrial revolution were denied to its colonies – and that’s the kind of development that took place in the Western world didn’t take start in Asia until the 1950s when the colonies started getting independence. But, according to the author, the earth can’t withstand the rigor of another round of Western-style development.

That’s why, in climate negotiations taking place among nations, the Western nations insist the poorer nations to take a different route to development.

Ghosh says governments across the world, particularly the democratic ones, come to power on the promise of fulfilling people’s aspirations – and therefore are ill-placed to ask their citizenry to view their actions in the light of their moral responsibility towards saving the earth from going over the edge. It’s only religious groups that can do that. And Ghosh praises the book Laudato Si written by pope Francis in this regard and does a comparative study between the papal book on climate and another important treatise concerning the same subject, The Paris Agreement – and concludes that Laudato Si is much more lucid and readable of the two.

You can take The Great Derangement in many ways – as a book which preaches, prophesises, disparages – by asking us to happily forgo the type of modern development the Western nations have taken for granted. And I am afraid seeing the book in any of these ways will obscure you to its merit as a well-researched book which forcefully holds a brief for climate and makes some unique points along the way. But it does so not without occasionally sliding into ideological slots avoiding which would have ensured a wider acceptability of its views which are certainly worthy of attention.

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