“We have set in motion chains of causality whose ends we cannot see”
[First published in The Hindu Books page dated July 17, 2016]
It was happening. We knew that at the back of our minds, yet we continued to ignore it, until one fine day it came to claim our lives… Climate change — the upsetting of weather patterns across the world — forms the core concern of Amitav Ghosh’s latest work of non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. It is dealt with a touch of Márquezian magical realism as Ghosh speaks about the inevitability of the very real ecological disaster unfolding in our midst, so familiar yet unfathomably fantastic in its proportions. The book, parts of which were delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015, not only raises crucial questions about our lack of intellectual engagement with this natural phenomenon but also calls for a radical dismantling of the Enlightenment-era hubris possessed by mankind, which sees “nature” as something outside of man.
In a freewheeling conversation in New Delhi, where he is a writer-in-Residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Ghosh acknowledges that within Western academia, and particularly at the University of Chicago where he delivered the lectures, there is a strong awareness and interest in climate change and the Anthropocene, the current era in which human activity has dominated the planet. How human-induced climate change affects our history, thought and consciousness are major questions they are grappling with. But this cannot make up for the conspicuous absence of discussions on climate change in works of literature and art, he points out.
End of imagination
“It could be said that fiction that deals with climate change is not always taken seriously by serious journals,” Ghosh notes in his book. “In the literary imagination, climate change is relegated to the realm of extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.”
Was this probably the reason why he chose to convey his own ideas on the subject in a non-fiction format, coming as it does after his highly acclaimed Ibis trilogy? “Yes, but I have included climate and weather events such as storms in my earlier works like The Hungry Tide,” he notes. But he also admits to the challenges of incorporating real-world natural phenomena such as storm surges and unusually heavy rain within the canvas of a novel. Both language and the trappings of the literary form serve as barriers. “While writing The Hungry Tide, the subject revolved around forests and geology,” he says. “But the constraints I felt in building them into the narrative was very strong. Because in novels, people don’t just talk of that sort of deep background.”
Also, when human narratives involving “nature” or the “wild” are constructed, they are invariably about Man overcoming a natural disaster or asserting his superiority over the wild. I ask Ghosh what he thinks about the latest animated Disney movie The Jungle Book in which Shere Khan, the tiger, is framed as the wounded, revenge-seeking beast that the man-cub Mowgli must conquer. He hasn’t seen the movie but points out that the greater trouble is with the very use of the words “nature” or “wild” to characterise non-human environmental subjects, a problem bestowed to us by eighteenth-century Enlightenment-era intellectuals.
It is a continuation of such a habit of thought perhaps that explains why we haven’t integrated nature into our literary consciousness yet. “The 2005 floods in Mumbai are a case in point,” he says. “How is it that a great cultural centre, where much of Bollywood films are made, did not produce any movie or recognisable work of art on the flood disaster? For nearly two weeks the city was paralysed. The unprecedented disaster witnessed record-high rains, which was extensively covered in the media. But how is it that we have an event of this magnitude, yet this doesn’t figure in our imaginative worlds at all?”
Ghosh draws a contrast between the films of today and those directed by Satyajit Ray, for instance, in which climate and weather events often formed recurrent motifs: “In Pather Panchali, the rains and the storms become a part of the narrative. In Ashani Sanket, it is the 1943 famine which became the subject of discussion. But today, our filmmakers and writers view their work as being more about human feelings and interiority. Our placement within a natural world has increasingly receded in our consciousness.”
Not that there are no writers who have attempted to integrate ecological concerns into their works. Ghosh referred to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, featuring a white whale, as one example of a novel that showed how man and animal were on a par with each other. “Captain Ahab and Moby Dick are mirror images of each other in the novel,” Ghosh says, pointing to how Melville was perhaps ahead of his times when it came to how he portrayed “the wild”.
The 2004 tsunami
In fact, Ghosh had written a series of articles in The Hindu about the impact of the tsunami on the Andaman and Nicobar islands in 2004. Reminded of his writings about the tribes that lived inland being left virtually untouched by the disaster, while those living by the sea had died, he recalls: “What was striking in this island called Malacca that had been devastated by the tsunami is that all the people who were hit were from outside the island.”
It shows how our patterns of civilisation have made us completely unprepared to face such disasters.” He points to the increasing development activities taking place along the coast, rendering inhabitants more vulnerable to such calamities.
The Paris Agreement
As for the present, specifically inter-government efforts to address the climate crisis, in The Great Derangement, Ghosh is fairly dismissive of the 2015 Paris agreement as an impossible goal that merely facilitates a neoliberal world order to enrich itself via business opportunities in renewables. “The language and wording of the agreement make no reference at all to whether the current economic model is working or to the fact that something has gone profoundly wrong,” he says. “It is an achievement in certain respects in that nobody can now credibly deny that climate change is human-induced, but the [Paris] agreement does nothing to change our current patterns of consumption. Rather, it is only about how we could continue to fuel our current consumption levels with the use of solar or other sustainable forms of energy.” The fact of the matter is everyone has collectively woken up to the reality that things were once under our control but at this point it seems too late even to intervene. “We have set in motion chains of causality whose ends we cannot see,” Ghosh concludes poignantly, on where humanity’s collective greed is going to lead us to.
As the conversation ends, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude comes to mind. It is a reminder of what Aureliano (II) feels when he finally translates the scrolls of Melquíades, the prophetic gypsy. The gypsy had foreseen the whole history of the man’s family, including that one day he would have a baby with a pig’s tail, something his great-grandmother had once feared. As Aureliano (II) finishes reading the scrolls, the house and the rest of the town he lives in is wiped away by a hurricane; he deciphers the prophecy concerning his future when it is too late to do anything about it.