'Between the Walls of Archives and Horizons of Imagination: An Interview with Amitav Ghosh by Mahmood Kooria [Itinerario / Volume 36/ Issue 03 / December 2012]
'Climate change..., is the unintended consequence of the very existence of human beings as a species. Although different groups of people have contributed to it in vastly different measure, global warming is ultimately the product of the totality of human actions over time. Every human being who has ever lived has played a part in making us the dominant species on this planet, and in this sense every human being, past and present, has contributed to the present cycle of climate change.'
|Portrait of Amitav Ghosh by Ulf Andersen.|
Born in Calcutta, he was schooled in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and northern India. He studied both history and anthropology at two different learning institutions in Delhi. He got a scholarship in social anthropology at Oxford and did his field work in Alexandria, exploring the historic links between Egypt and India which inspired his book 'In An Antique Land'. Gosh knows five languages: Bengali, Hindi, French, Arabic, and English.
He has now written 'The Great Derangement', a non-fiction book based on four lectures he gave at the University of Chicago, an academic centre for the study of the Anthropocene. It may be one of the best books yet written on climate change. It is certainly scary. It divides into three sections simply titled: Stories, History, Politics. The sections are anything but simple, ranging as they do across very large canvases, drawing on information, ideas and metaphors from many fields of knowledge.
Ghosh's ancestors were ecological refugees from what is now Bangladesh, forced off their land by flooding. Ghosh based one of his novels on the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta, also subject to inundations. Thus he already had a better sense than many of what climate change actually means in reality
This was reinforced by a rare and unexpected event back in March 1978 when he was a student in Delhi. On this day a storm broke out and Ghosh decided to walk home by a route he rarely took. Turning a corner, he was confronted by a tornado heading down the street in his direction. Quickly seeking shelter, he survived the destructive winds which killed 30 people. He writes:
'This was, in effect, the first tornado to hit Delhi— and indeed the entire region— in recorded meteorological history. And somehow I, who almost never took that road, who rarely visited that part of the university, had found myself in its path. Only much later did I realize that the tornado’s eye had passed directly over me. It seemed to me that there was something eerily apt about that metaphor: what had happened at that moment was strangely like a species of visual contact, of beholding and being beheld. And in that instant of contact something was planted deep in my mind, something irreducibly mysterious, something quite apart from the danger that I had been in and the destruction that I had witnessed; something that was not a property of the thing itself but of the manner in which it had intersected with my life.'This improbable event might have offered Ghosh great material for fiction but he realised that events that are improbable will not be believed by the readers. This was not always the case. Earlier fictions like the Arabian Nights and The Decameron were full of unlikely events which at the time were the essence of storytelling.The modern novel, says Ghosh, was 'midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.' The novelistic universe was rationalised to form narratives that, says the literary theorist Franco Moretti, provided a pleasure 'compatible with the regularities of bourgeois life'.
The same process happened in many of the sciences including geology and paleontology. In the contest to explain the evolution of the planet and the life upon it there were two main narratives - catastrophism and gradualism. The latter won out for many years but it is now clear that the former had and has an equally important role to play. Ghosh writes:
'And it appears that we are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normalcy, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred- year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes, and, yes, freakish tornadoes.
He later continues: '... the age of global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense: the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability. Indeed, it has even been proposed that this era should be named the “catastrophozoic” ... It is certain ...that these are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.'
'....the freakish weather events of today, despite their radically nonhuman nature, are nonetheless animated by cumulative human actions. In that sense, the events set in motion by global warming have a more intimate connection with humans than did the climatic phenomena of the past— this is because we have all contributed in some measure, great or small, to their making. They are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.
If whole societies and polities are to adapt then the necessary decisions will need to be made collectively, within political institutions, as happens in wartime or national emergencies. After all, isn’t that what politics, in its most fundamental form, is about? Collective survival and the preservation of the body politic? Yet, to look around the world today is to recognize that with some notable exceptions, like Holland and China, there exist very few polities or public institutions that are capable of implementing, or even contemplating, a managed retreat from vulnerable locations.
These thoughts and quotes do not do justice to the full complexity of Ghosh's thinking in this 81-page section but it does give you some sense of where he is coming from and where he is taking us.
Asia’s centrality to global warming rests, in the first instance, upon numbers..., if we consider the location of those who are most at threat from the changes that are now under way across the planet... The great majority of potential victims are in Asia.
The Bengal Delta..formed by the confluence of two of the world’s mightiest rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra..is one of the most densely populated parts of the world, with more than 250 million people living in an area about a quarter the size of Nigeria.
Moreover, in Bengal, as in other Asian deltas, for example, those of the Irrawaddy, the Indus, and the Mekong, another factor has magnified the effects of sea- level rise: this is that delta regions across Asia (and elsewhere in the world) are subsiding much faster than the oceans are rising.
The ongoing changes in climate pose a dire threat also to the interior of the continent where millions of lives and livelihoods are already in jeopardy because of droughts, periodic flooding, and extreme weather events. No less than 24 percent of India’s arable land is slowly turning into desert,
Fearsome as these risks are, they are dwarfed by Asia’s accelerating water crisis...In terms of numbers, the consequences are beyond imagining: the lives and livelihoods of half a billion people in South and Southeast Asia are at risk. Needless to add, the burden of these impacts will be borne largely by the region’s poorest people, and among them disproportionately by women.
The brute fact is that no strategy can work globally unless it works in Asia and is adopted by large numbers of Asians.... it was the rapid and expanding industrialization of Asia’s most populous nations, beginning in the 1980s, that brought the climate crisis to a head.
The West’s largest contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases came about through the continuous expansion of the carbon footprint of what was about 30 percent of the world’s population at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Asia’s contribution, on the other hand, came about through a sudden but very small expansion in the footprint of a much larger number of people, perhaps as much as half of a greatly expanded global population, late in the twentieth century.
Ghosh concludes: '... the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every human being. Every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator— not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.
Ghosh quotes two eminent figures who recognised this many years ago. Ghandi said in 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."
The other was the Burmese statesman U Thant, who served as the secretary- general of the United Nations from 1962 to 1971 and was instrumental in establishing the United Nations Environment Programme. In 1971, he issued a warning that seems strangely prescient today:
“As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: ‘With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,’ or, ‘They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.’”
Ghosh then proceeds to lead us through a complete rewrite of the whole western perspective on the history of energy, technology and ideas. He talks of the early modern period being from the 16th to early 19th century, during which there was a rapid and parallel change across the Eurasian landscape and much of the rest of the world. The new carbon economy began in England with the steam engine and the spinning jenny and radiated out. This was happening during a period of climatic disruption.
He describes the early use of natural gas for heating and lighting in China, using a network of bamboo tubes. He also makes a good historical case that Burma's oil industry was, at one time, the largest in the world, and represented the first step towards the modern oil industry.
He says we've embraced the idea that writers and artists are 'able to look ahead, not just in aesthetic matters but also in regard to public affairs' and, as a result, they have been at the 'forefront of every political movement around the world'. The big BUT is, he says, that very few literary minds have been 'alive to the archaic voice of the earth and the atmosphere'. He names some of those few, Ballard, Atwood, McEwan, Vonnegut, Lessing, McCarthy and TC Boyle.
'...the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be.'
On another front he says that today everybody with a computer and a web connection is an activist but that this politicisation 'has not translated into a wider engagement with the crisis of climate change' particularly in many Asian countries where climate change is not a significant issue.
Ghosh believes that the realm of actual government is controlled by 'largely invisible establishments that are guided by imperatives of their own'. Later he refers to the 'interlocking complex of companies and institutions of government' which has come to be known as the 'deep state'. He names companies like Exxon and 'energy billionaires' as being the main funders of climate change denial. The industrial economy cannot be fought, he believes, by the 'politics of sincerity'.
He writes that, in the Amglosphere - US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - are some of the most vigorous environmental movements in the world. Those same countries are all members of the Five Eyes alliance, sharing intelligence and surveillance structures. In the US climate change activists are now among the prime targets for what he sees as 'a rapidly growing surveillance industrial complex'. Climate change, he believes, 'will provide an alibi for ever greater military intrusion into every kind of geographic and military space.'
Paradoxically, the one arm of government that has 'clearly and completely seized the idea that climate change is real is the US Department of Defense'. He claims that the UK and US governments have directed their militaries to rapidly prepare for climate change and its impacts in order to try maintain the status quo.
'The climate crisis', writes Ghosh 'holds the potential of drastically reordering the global distribution of power as well as wealth.' It is also a "threat multiplier".
He hails 2015 as a momentous year due to the Paris Agreement and the publication of Pope Francis encyclical letter 'Laudato Si'; the latter insists that we '...must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.' Both documents are a vindication of the findings of climate scientists.
Ghosh sees the most promising development as being the increasing involvement of religious groups anmd leaders in the politics of climate chance but warns that the time horizon for taking action is very narrow.
If religious groupings around the world can join hands with popular movements, they may well be able to provide the momentum that is needed for the world to move forward on drastically reducing emissions without sacrificing considerations of equity. That many climate activists are already proceeding in this direction is, to me, yet another sign of hope.Ghosh concludes: 'The struggle for action will no doubt be difficult and hard-fought, and no matter what it achieves, it is already too late to avoid some serious disruptions of the global climate...
'I would like to believe that out of this struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes than those that preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped in the time of its derangement; that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature.'This is a brave, outspoken and heartfelt book of great value. We need to absorb many of these thoughts and ideas and get together as a force for global change and face the challenge of the Great Derangement.
Be the change that you want to see.