53 pages • 1 hour read
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The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is a nonfiction book written by Amitav Ghosh, a prominent Indian author, essayist, and scholar. Published in 2016, the book explores the complex relationship between literature, history, and the pressing global issue of climate change. Throughout the book, Ghosh raises questions about the nature of modernity, consumerism, and the human relationship with the environment. He reflects on how culture and literature could play a more significant role in addressing the climate crisis and inspiring people to act.
This guide uses the 2016 University of Chicago Press edition of the book.
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Ghosh argues that modern fiction and literary criticism tend to ignore the threat of climate change, relegating texts that do address the topic to subgenres like fantasy or science fiction. He suggests that art produces cultural currents that create desires (such as a vacation in Hawaii or a fast car) that have a concrete impact on climate change. As a result of this tangible impact, Ghosh argues that for artists to ignore climate change is a symptom of a “great derangement” (11).
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The form of the novel emerged in the 19th century as a response to traditional storytelling modes, which consisted primarily of depictions of dramatic events connected by transitional tags or phrases. Novels, on the other hand, relied on realistic details to move readers gradually through a story. Ghosh shows that this evolution of form mirrors 19th-century arguments about the pace of geological change: Authorities debated whether geological structures were the result of sudden, catastrophic events or slow, gradual change.
Ghosh points out that we live in a world defined by improbably dangerous events like once-in-a-century storms, droughts, and heatwaves. He points to the tendency to build homes near water as evidence of the modern reliance on predictability and probability in assessing threat. Ghosh speculates about the possibility of a Category 4 or 5 storm hitting Mumbai and the destruction such an event might cause. The folly of building dense human settlements in ecologically precarious locations is not just a matter of hindsight; in many instances, developers are warned against specific sites and choose to build anyway. Ghosh suggests that these unstable landscapes are constructed in much the same way a novelist builds a sense of place in their work. He argues that the novel’s characteristic focus on the local and regional is incompatible with the challenges of the climate crisis, which unfold on a global scale.
Ghosh suggests that humans have always been aware of the consciousness and intelligence of nonhuman beings, especially animals. Ghosh suggests that literary culture may have had a hand in suppressing this awareness in the modern world. He points to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—which began as a ghost story written to stave off boredom during an extreme climate event—as both the first science fiction novel and an early example of fiction driven by the climate. He attributes the division of science fiction and mainstream literary culture to the modernist desire to separate nature from culture by relegating it to the field of science. Ghosh challenges the widespread notion that science fiction is better suited to address climate change given its focus on other worlds.
Ghosh notes that petroleum refining rarely appears in modern fiction. One exception is Abdel Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt; Ghosh quotes at length from a review of the novel by American writer John Updike, who criticized the novel’s lack of a single protagonist. Ghosh argues that modern novels shun the collective in favor of the individual and that this attitude is precisely what has led to the current climate crisis. Part 1 concludes with a description of the town of Mrauk-U, in Burma, which Ghosh describes as a symphony between built objects and natural landscape. He suggests that humans are always in communication with nonhuman beings, like when we listen to the wind or shoo off a crow. He suggests that much important communication in the Anthropocene will be nonverbal and that literature may have to evolve in order to fully address the challenges of the climate crisis.
In Part 2, Ghosh argues that empire and imperialism are central to the climate crisis. He outlines the severity of the climate crisis in Asia, which is exacerbated by numbers: Half a billion people in South and Southeast Asia are at risk of climate-induced disaster. However, he acknowledges that Asia has played a role in driving the climate crisis: The continent’s massive population means that even a small increase in carbon output by individuals has a massive collective impact. He makes a connection between Asia’s steady period of economic expansion in the 1980s and the continent’s increasing contribution to the climate crisis.
Ghosh challenges the Eurocentric notion that modernity spread from the West outward, showing that ideas and technologies circulated globally throughout the early modern era. Fossil fuels including coal, oil, and natural gas were used in China long before the industrial revolution, he says—signs of modernity in a supposedly premodern time and place. Burma offers another example: The collection and use of oil was a major source of revenue for the Burmese kingdom throughout its history. The intervention of British colonialists took control of the industry out of Burmese hands in the 19th century. Similarly, Ghosh demonstrates that Indian industrialists quickly understood the potential of British steam technologies and made use of those technologies in their own business ventures. He argues that it was precisely this efficiency that caused the British to view them as competitors. Ghosh argues that the Industrial Revolution could just as easily have taken place in Asia as in Europe, had Europe not colonized Asia and Africa by the time these technological advances occurred. Ghosh ultimately concludes that imperialism delayed the onset of the climate crisis.
Ghosh concedes that imperialism was not the only obstacle blocking Asian industrialization, and he cites examples of Asian resistance to industrialization, including Mahatma Gandhi and Zhang Shizaho. Noting that these critics opposed industrialization before the climate crisis became a common topic, he suggests that arguments for climate reparations for Asian countries have ethical and historical weight. Ghosh ends by acknowledging the difficulty of such arguments, however, given the interconnectedness of human societies in the climate crisis.
In Part 3, Ghosh argues that the concept of freedom is essential to modern philosophy and that this freedom includes freedom from responsibility to nature and the nonhuman. Ghosh argues that politicization of populations globally has not resulted in increased awareness of climate change. He explains that because modern political ethics focus on an individual’s moral journey rather than national interests, a politics of climate change cannot exist. He describes modern politics as a series of spectacles and suggests that the West is a “post-political” region (131). Ghosh suggests that framing the climate crisis as a moral issue is problematic for three reasons. First, it frames a global problem as the product of individual choice; second, morality is relative; and finally, the example of Mahatma Gandhi shows that even the most dedicated individuals can’t stop the crisis.
Despite the debate about climate change in the Anglosphere (English-speaking countries), the governments and militaries of the United States and Britain have demonstrated a firm belief in the threats posed by the climate crisis. He argues that it would be impossible for these governments to ignore the climate crisis, which has the power to drastically reorder global power and economic structures. For powerful, carbon-emitting nations like the United States, the maintenance of the status quo is the best outcome; Ghosh predicts these countries will take drastic measures to prevent immigration from climate refugees. Ghosh argues that millions of people from Asia and Africa will die as a result of these policies.
Ghosh argues that the modern world has been shaped by empire and the disparities it causes and that maintaining the status quo will exacerbate those disparities. He suggests that poor countries may be better suited to absorb the shocks and stresses of the climate crisis than Western nations but that it would be unethical to expect disempowered people to sacrifice in order to maintain the status quo.
Ghosh compares the rhetoric of two important documents related to the climate crisis, both released in 2015: the text of Paris Climate Agreement, an international treaty on climate change, and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, an essay criticizing consumerism and calling for ecological protection. He argues that the Paris Agreement obscures the causes of the climate crisis, while Laudato Si’ insists on the connection between social and ecological justice. Ghosh celebrates the fact that religious groups are actively engaging with climate activism, and he suggests that these groups may provide momentum for the movement. He ends the book by sharing hope in a future where global citizens transcend the great derangement and rediscover their connection with the nonhuman, resulting in new art and literature.
By Amitav Ghosh