The Great Derangement: On fiction and climate change

February 15, 2017
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From Lawrence Lenhart’s  recent review of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, at the Rumpus:

The largest section of The Great Derangement examines “Story” (the consignment and suppression of literary forms), but Ghosh also looks at the impact of alternate histories and global politics on climate change discourse. He wags his finger at those who would blame Indian and Chinese modernization for bringing us to the tipping point; instead he points to western idealism and technophilia that created the myth that everyone can have two cars, a washing machine, and refrigerator, when in fact “modernity can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population… not because of technical or economic limitations but because the earth would asphyxiate in the process.” What’s more, Ghosh directs our attention to the irony that “the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins,” Tuvaluans and southern Bangladeshis for example, “are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us.”

Elsewhere Ghosh takes exception to John Updike’s description of the novel as an “individual moral adventure.” This conception makes us more likely to tell stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Twin Towers—not the calving of the Larsen B ice shelf. The notion of an individual moral adventure primes us to ask questions like “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” Ghosh writes, “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm [parts per million]?’” The answer resonates throughout the book: Not until we revitalize the technology of fiction to entertain the longue durée. Not until we recalibrate and globalize our conception of history. Not until we allow “democratic emotion” (Roy Scranton’s phrase) to have a foothold in “actual governance.”

While bouncing among ideas as interconnected as biopolitics, the Syrian War, carbon equity, DOD security interests, natural disasters in Indochina, misanthropic statecraft, capitalism, empire, the Global South, and the technological singularity—not to mention a fascinating comparative analysis of the rhetoric of the “Paris Agreement” versus Pope Francis’s Laudato si’—Ghosh is demonstrating how “the events of today’s changing climate, in that they represent the totality of human actions over time, represent also the terminus of history.”

In her New York Times review of Sea of Poppies, Gaiutra Bahadur called Amitav Ghosh (the novelist) an “archaeologist of the powerless.” Here, in The Great Derangement, Ghosh continues to gravitate toward power vacuums—this time in the literature, history, and politics of climate change. Rather than promulgate doom and gloom or point the finger unidirectionally at X (these have been the dominant modes of climate critics to date), Ghosh’s book burnishes genres like sci-fi, exposes the ellipses of history, and pressures the political present, all while illuminating Culture’s way back to rafts of rational thought.

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To read more about The Great Derangement, click here.

To read the Rumpus review in full, click here.

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