Book: The Great Derangement
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 279
In his latest book, The Great Derangement, author Amitav Ghosh poses a deeply philosophical question: why has modern literature shied away from confronting perhaps the most elemental challenge of our times, climate change? He explores the various dimensions of this philosophical conundrum in three parts — Stories, History and Politics — to expound his thesis of the collective denial of the roots of climate change, even when its consequences are acknowledged. The stark truth is that current patterns of production and consumption which are resource intensive, generate enormous waste and ravage the environment, are incompatible with ecological sustainability and the survival of our planet. The Great Derangement lies in mankind’s refusal to acknowledge and deal with this incompatibility.
The challenge of climate change is usually missing from a modern novelist’s repertoire, and to Ghosh, this is because in the industrial age, “the literary imagination became radically centred on the human. Inasmuch as the non-human was written about at all, it was not within the mansions of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.” As a non-human force, climate change was consigned to the “outhouse” — and there it remains.
In the section on History, Ghosh rightly dwells upon the centrality of Asia to the climate change crisis, given the sheer numbers of people living in its densely populated countries. In pursuing Western strategies for development and aspirations, Asian countries, in particular, India and China, have generated an acceleration in greenhouse gas emissions, which has brought the climate crisis nearer and in a more acute form. What is now glaringly obvious in the recent Asian experience is “that patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population.” And yet, it is the Western concept of modernity that drives India and other Asian countries. As Ghosh points out, Asia has bought into this “Great Derangement” and is unable to extricate itself. Hence “the silences that are now ever more plainly evident at the heart of global systems of governance.”
The final section looks at the politics of climate change. Climate change challenges the deeply-held principles of modern and enlightened societies, for example, putting humankind at the centre of the notion of progress, of achieving freedom and control over one’s own destiny. The conquest of Nature and the harnessing of natural forces and the notion of linear progression, have been implicit in this modern quest. The reason for resistance to treating climate change as a collective challenge which demands collaborative responses, is the continuing tyranny of the laissez faire orthodoxy , based on the idea “that the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good.”
This ideological tyranny is nowhere more entrenched than in what Ghosh refers to as the “Anglosphere” (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand or the so-called Five Eyes alliance). It is this dominant coalition which shapes the global narrative on climate change in a manner designed to prevent any “drastic reordering” of the global distribution of power as well as wealth.
Though Ghosh does not spell it out, this is where climate change and energy security intersect. The objective of dominant powers is to retain control over energy resources, limit access to them from emerging and developing economies and resist structural changes in the institutions of global governance which may erode their dominance. However, this cannot be sustained because climate change itself will render this strategy irrelevant. Neither will it be possible to insulate national and regional boundaries from the effects of global climate change. There will be no escape from their inevitably planetary dimension.
One is also sceptical about Ghosh’s proposition that the nature of the capitalist system can be delinked from geopolitical ascendancy. Capitalism is integrally intertwined with the production and consumption processes that created Western dominance in the first place and which lie at the root of the climate change dilemma.
Ghosh’s observations on the Paris Agreement deeply resonated with me, reviving memories of bitter debates during multilateral negotiations leading up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. The agreement commits parties to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade and to endeavour to aim at a limit even less at 1.5 degrees. And yet, the commitments made at Paris fall well short of what is required. The single reference to “justice” is qualified by associating it with the sentiments held by only “some parties” and the agreement explicitly excludes any possibility of mandatory compensation or redress to victims of climate change. This is another telling example of the culture of denial that Ghosh has elaborated upon with unusual intellectual depth and insight.
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