We know Amitav Ghosh as a novelist. One of the greatest contemporary Indian writers, he is also a journalist and a scholar; his background as a social anthropologist is clearly visible in the rigour of the documentation behind all his novels. Ghosh also wrote extraordinary reportages and many prose pieces.
His latest book is a long essay, The Great Derangement. Climate change and the unthinkable, where he explores how culture, and more specifically literature, react to the drastic changes undergoing our physical environment.
The underlying assumption is that climate change is bringing about a deep global transformation and this is already visible around us. The meteorological events on the last few months vividly illustrate this: a hot wave named Lucifer in Europe, drought in the Mediterranean, devastating floods in South Asia, a series of disastrous storm in the Gulf of Mexico (the global attention to these events was very unequal though: in late August, as the world media were following the path of the storm Harvey toward Texas, floods were killing over 1,500 people in Bangladesh and India – leaving little trace in the Italian media).
To say it with Ghosh’s words, “the natural forces that shape our environment” are sending us signals, asking for “recognition”. I met Amitav Ghosh during the recent festival Internazionale a Ferrara. Here are excerpts of the conversation.
You wrote that the climatic change is reshaping our physical world as well as defying our patterns of life. But we, the human beings, we grew blind to the reality of the climate change. Is this the “Great Derangement”?
True, we are seeing all kind of extreme weather phenomena across the world, and perhaps the most shocking to me was the recent flood in Livorno, Italy: one family goes to sleep without any warnings and wake up drowning in a flood. Not only we do not recognize the forces around us: we do not see the dangers we will be facing because of the climatic change.
But why are you questioning the writers? You write that the intellectuals, and specifically the writers risk being accomplice to the “Great Derangement”.
I am talking about writers because that is what I do, I am a writer. But this is a process of self criticism, I am not pointing fingers to the world. What is interesting for me is this collective failure: we, as intellectuals, writers, artists, are failing in relation to climate change. Irony is that this is happening at a time when so many intellectuals and writers across the world are engagés with all sort of issues – basically issues of identity, gender, race, nationality, or issues of inequality. Yet the environmental crisis somehow go unrecognised, although it is by far the greatest danger for the humanity. Bizarre that the enormous change happening around us does not come into our own self-awareness.
The task of the novelist, you wrote, in “to narrate the word in the conjunctive mood”, that is to imagine other possibilities. You argue that the climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existence, and that fiction is the best suited of all cultural forms. So, what would you expect from a writer today?
You see, if we look at the 19th century novel, Moby Dick is to me one of the most powerful stories ever written. It is so powerfully engaged with of the non-human world: in Moby Dick the whale is a thinking being, almost endowed of a demonic energy. Herman Melville is intensely aware of the environmental damage of hunting whales, which are almost driven into extinction, and through language he shows us the contradictions of the human history in relations to the natural world. I would also think of Zola, and the ways he was exploring the early stages of the fossil fuel economy: coal was a major theme of his work. If we come to the the 20th century, take John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: to me this is a climate change novel ante litteram. Steinbeck describes the human response to a catastrophic change in the weather, the drought, and the first four pages of that novel are probably the most powerful climate writing ever done. I mean that the human beings did possess the tools for talking about all this. But this is something we have lost in the last 50 years. Irony is that the same processes that put into play the greenhouse gases and suddenly accelerated climate change are the same processes that promoted consumerism and led us to forget about the nature around us.
The environmental transformations are reflected in your own fiction, after all. In The Hungry Tide, to make an example, the narration revolves around the Sundarban forest and a tropical cyclone. Now, The Great Derangement is full of narrative digressions and historical observations, which makes it a fascinating reading by the way. For instance you tell the story of how Burma developed a primitive oil industry, later taken over by the British colonialists. In facts, one of the many merits of this book is that you shift the focus away from our usual Euro-centric point of view. You write that Asia lies at the centre of the climatic crisis. What do you mean?
Asia is at the centre of all the issue of climate change because it has actually been the rapid economic development of parts of Asia in the last twenty years that has precipitated the global climatic crisis. The rapid economic development in China, India or Indonesia, to mention just the three largest countries in the world, has accelerated the global growth of greenhouse gas emissions. In facts, what Asia has demonstrated is that a certain resource-intensive, capital-intensive model of economy can only work as long as it is practised only by a small minority of the world population. And this has been historically the case: during the 19th century and up to the 1970s only the Western world could practise a fossil intensive economy. But once China, India, Indonesia started to get into the play even in a small way – because their carbon footprint is still very small compared to Europe’s – yet even this modest expansion has accelerated the climate breakdown. Asia has demonstrated that the fossil fuel economy simply cannot be adopted by the whole world. And this is extraordinary irony again: in the 1790’s you have the French revolution spreading the ideas of equality, fraternity, liberty, and at the same time you have the greatest inequalities – slavery, indenture, and the race to grab the natural resources found the the South of the world. Throughout the 20th century we have cultivated ideas of progress, of solving inequalities, but now we find that all this was just an illusion: we cannot be equally pursuing carbon consumption.
So climate change is putting on the table the issue of global justice.
Absolutely. The world we live today is more unequal than that of the 18th century. Disparities of power and wealth are greater today than it have ever been, and this apply to disparities among countries – for instance Asia compared to the West – as well as within countries, for instance in India or China. This widening of inequalities is an effect of neoliberalism.
Now, we use to discuss about “climate sceptics”, or “negationists”, but you argues that the power élites are quite aware of climate change: simply, they do not want to change the model of economy upon which the Western way of life (and their own power) is based.
This is an important point. It is a mistake of thinking that those who speak against taking action on climate do not know about climate change. The Trump administration, president Donald Trump himself, Rex Tillerson, even Steve Bannon – they all are well informed. They do know. And we shouldn’t think that they do not have a plan: this is their plan. The status quo is their plan. They are counting on apocalypse: a climate apocalypse that will kill a large number of human beings. And this is because they know well that the extractive economy upon which the Western way of life is built can only work for smaller numbers. In a sense they are Malthusian catastrophists. They believe a Malthusian catastrophe is coming and they are preparing for it.
You called this the “politics of the armed lifeboat”.
Exactly. The “politics of the armed lifeboat” (the phrase is Christian Parenti’s) is keeping out the immigrants at all cost, militarise borders, arm yourself to the teeth, protect your own access to natural resources, and make all this a security issue.
In fact, in the last decade many institutions researching on strategic affairs have started to describe the impact of climate change as a security threat. This is including the Pentagon, that is the ministry of defence of the first superpower…
Yes, and this is interesting. Today the single largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world is precisely the Pentagon. In one year of military operations it uses a fantastic amount of energy. Now, every single military is currently expanding: Russia, China, India… All of them signed the Paris Accord on climate, but all of them expand their military at a rapid rate because since the beginning of the Industrial revolution power and fossil fuels have been inextricable. It was coal that allowed Britain to start the Industrial revolution as well as to create industrial weapons of war – they defeated the Chinese navy with a single, coal fueled war ship, the Nemesis. Since then, every country has known that the use of fossil fuel has a direct relation with power – and every country is surreptitiously expanding its military usage of fossil fuel.
Now, can you see anyone telling the Pentagon ‘you have to cut it back’? Not realistic. And this is also because as climate change accelerates its impact is growing, and we see more insecurity. We already witness water and resources clashes in many parts of the world. So there again we see a perfect storm of intensifying resources conflicts and intensifying fossil fuel usage that will bring more climate change.
You mean the risk is that a small élite will monopolise the natural resources, water, energy.
Right. Climate change is fundamentally an issue of power: there won’t be any realistic approach unless we discuss the global distribution of power.
One of the impact of climate change could be mass of people displaced by extreme events like drought, floods that will undermine their livelihood. That is, new waves of human migrations. Now, in your fiction we have always seen human beings moving all over – Egyptian peasants travelling all the Middle East, Bengalis workers in the Arabic peninsula, last century Indian traders in China. You suggest that crossing both geographical and cultural borders is part of the human experience, and certainly part of the modernity. Yet in Europe the arrival of some hundred thousand migrants in the last few years has sparkled hostile reactions.
The migrant crisis is very interesting to me, perhaps because of my family history. I am a Bengali. My ancestors were from what is now Bangladesh, but they had to move in the 1850s because a river changed course and drowned our village. This is why I have always been interested to stories of displacement and migrations. In the last many months I spent time visiting migration centres in Italy – in Sicily, around Milan, near Venice. I can speak Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, and it turns out that these are the idioms of the global poor: so I can have a direct communication with the migrants I met. What did I gather from these visits? First of all, that most of these migrants have indeed been driven out of their countries by the effects of climate change. This is true of the Sahel and Sub Saharian Africa but also of Bangladesh, which is the second largest contributor to the flow of migrants in Italy. But the relation is not a simple one. Take a rural family in Bangladesh. One year the land they work is flooded. This has always happened, people has ways to cope with it. But the next year the land is flooded again, and the next year again. Now they can’t cope any more. Usually the first response is to send their son, a 16 or 17 years old, to look for job in the town, most probably Dhaka. As the young man do not find any job, he set off and so he ends up in one of these boats crossing the Mediterranean. But if you ask him ‘are you a climate migrant’, he would say no! An aspect the European reporters are missing out is that none of those disembarking here see themselves as victims. They are protagonists. They have an agency. Indeed, to set off for such dangerous journey you must have courage and agency.
Another aspect too often overlooked is the impact of the new communication technologies. Cellphones and the internet are fundamental to migrants. A cellphone allows you to see pictures and know what is happening in Europe, to keep update on the routes, to do all the transfer of money that makes the journey possible. Probably the most important service that many NGOs can offer to migrants is providing the charging stations.
I see this as another of the ironies of the climate change: precisely the forms of consumerism that lead to the climate crisis is also what lead to a bigger dependence on those instruments that are radically severing our historical connection to the land. Imagine you are in a village in Bangladesh and see tv series made in Kolkata, showing a life with cars, fridges and all sort of objects: so this is what you will want.
I mean that this is a crisis at multiple levels. It is a matter of impact of the climatic change ad well as a matter of desires: but this aspect is seldom discussed. Perhaps the only person that understands the peculiarly ambiguous nature of the issue is Pope Francis in his Laudato Si. As the one who head the Catholic Church, with its vast network of outlets among the poor, he certainly can see that the desire to migrate is not only about poverty.
Amitav Ghosh was born in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1956; he studied in Oxford where he took a Phd in social anthropology and currently lives between India and New York City. His novels includes The Circle of Reason; The Shadow Lines; The Calcutta Chromosome; The Glass Palace; The Hungry Tide; and the The Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of fire. Among the non-fiction, The Great Derangement is his major title after In An Antique Land. He published reportages as Countdown (on the Indian nuclear tests in 1998), and Dancing in Cambodia. Ghosh’s essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times. A collection of his prose pieces was published by Penguin India under the title The Imam and the Indian (and by Houghton Mifflin USA as Incendiary Circumstances).