Have we lost it?

Amitav Ghosh signing copies of his book at the launch event. Photo: The Hindu

[First published in The Hindu dated July 29, 2016]

The Ballroom of Chennai’s Taj Coromandel hotel, resplendent under the amber glow of 20-something chandeliers, seemed like an unlikely setting for a discussion on climate change. After all, the brightly-lit room was, if anything, a painful reminder of our conspicuous consumption of electricity, and everything else that has led to dangerous levels of carbon dioxide piling up in the atmosphere, now rendering our weather systems increasingly unpredictable. But here he was, renowned author Amitav Ghosh, who most recently penned The Great Derangement on climate change, in conversation with former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, addressing an elite gathering on Thursday.

Amidst the clinking of wine glasses, Gandhi summed up the core question of Ghosh’s book in a manner that would have confounded most of those who are yet to read his non-fiction treatise: “Have we lost it?” The question set the ball rolling on the discussion. The convincingly-argued book aims to tell the conspicuously consuming middle and upper-class citizens of the world that they are no longer insulated from the whimsicalities of the weather, a sample of which the city itself witnessed in December last year.

We must have lost our minds to continue living the way we do despite the imminent threat of a climate catastrophe, was the message Ghosh wanted to convey through his work. The grey-haired writer invoked Gandhian wisdom on how, if all of us were to live like people in the West, we would end up devouring the world like a swarm of locusts. Gopalkrishna Gandhi recalled the words that J. Robert Oppenheimer had uttered regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” While the line was originally uttered in the context of the terrible impact of the misuse of nuclear science, the same lines acquired a new meaning in the light of human economic activities that are presently sending us hurtling towards doom.

But why would the unpleasant truths about climate change matter to the elite gathering Ghosh was addressing? Most people seemed to have arrived only to catch a glimpse of the famous author or get their collection of his books autographed. I too was guilty of carrying with me a copy of The Great Derangement to be signed by the writer. It is perhaps to puncture our middle-class complacency that Ghosh declared that the next cyclone that hits us may not bother with asking whether we are rich or poor. Climate change is a great leveller, for it affects one and all.

Taking from the earlier reference to Mahatma Gandhi’s quote about excess consumption, Gandhi asked, “So in the end, this is about choices, right? But does India, with its abject poverty, have any choice but to increase the utilisation of its natural resources?”

To this question, Ghosh reminded the gathering of the rain-bomb events, such as the one in Mumbai in 2005, Chennai in 2015, and other instances of intensified cyclones, which are an indication that we can no longer afford to live lavishly. Referring to an earlier book launch event in Bangalore, where the author was joined by Professor J. Srinivasan of Divecha Centre for Climate Change in IISc, he said that our cities are now experiencing micro-climates where they create their own weather patterns, and our rapid consumption of natural resources is reflected in the weather.

Ghosh went on to say that it would be foolhardy to think that we are somehow insulated from these events. “We are more vulnerable actually. I recently saw what happened in Houston, U.S., which experienced a rain bomb. The people were completely incapable of responding to it.” Life came to a standstill in the sprawling Texas metropolis after the incident.

Gandhi veered the discussion towards the power of incredibly strong construction lobbies and plastic industries that are behind the environmental destruction we are witnessing today. The deluge of Chennai in 2015 was very much a real estate disaster, with water bodies in the city encroached to create prime property. “Look at the giant piles of concrete rising in our cities. It is the single most destructive environmental substance today. That is exactly the derangement we are calling to attention,” he said.

Ghosh was critical of the role of literature in raising awareness about these issues. Both Gandhi and Ghosh mourned the passing away of Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, who was vocal about the environment-versus-development debate. Gandhi recalled her play Aranyer Adhikar (Rights of the Forest) in which she celebrates the Adivasis, who fight to retain access to the forests against exploitation of the resource under the British. Ghosh moaned that writers like Devi, or Karnataka writer K. Shivarama Karanth, or Oriya novelist Gopinath Mohanty were hard to come by these days, as most contemporary writers focussed only on urbanity and modernity. The elements of Nature no longer figured prominently in contemporary writing as much as it did earlier, Ghosh observed.

N. Ram, chairman of Kasturi and Sons, intervened with a question on whether Ghosh had pinned his hopes on fiction to perform the job of imaginatively searching for the porous line between fiction and fact, as regards the climate crisis. To this, Ghosh said yes, we needed fiction to do the task for us. And perhaps, writers need to go back to the English Romantics, emulating those like William Wordsworth, whose works were deeply focussed on humans’ experience with Nature.

Gandhi raised the question of political will in addressing climate change and Ghosh was rather sceptical. “Politics is a brand of entrepreneurship and most politicians are borderline sociopaths. We’d be deluding ourselves if we rested our hopes on them.”

Despite Ghosh’s persistence that climate change was a reality we all had to reckon with, there were sceptics among the audience who he failed to impress. A young researcher from IIT Madras asked him why there was no scientific data in his book to substantiate his arguments regarding climate change, as he believed that all evidence put in its favour had been refuted. To this, Ghosh directed the student to the works of Harvard academic Naomi Oreskes, geophysicist Michael E. Mann’s book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, and the text of the 2015 Paris climate agreement itself, which had arrived at the consensus that climate change was happening indeed.

“We are living in an altered environment. Every event of this kind has some relation with climate change, even if people choose to disbelieve that,” Ghosh stressed.

After the event drew to a close, I asked a hotel representative as to how many units of electricity it took to keep all the chandeliers in the room burning. “Not sure, ma’am, but they all run on energy-efficient LED bulbs,” he said. That was some reassurance indeed…

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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