The Great Derangement: Amitav Ghosh’s Text For Our Times

I: Stories

I just recently discovered Amitav Ghosh’s book, The great derangement: climate change and the unthinkable (2016), and, as well, learned that he has written quite a few novels and several non-fiction texts on environmental issues. So I managed to get access to the book quickly from my community library, Beaverbrook Library, in Kanata, Ontario (30 km. from Ottawa). The word “derangement” grabbed my attention immediately because I have come to the conclusion that the “collective West” – led by the US/NATO battering ram that has started an ominous fire-storm in Ukraine that is touching most countries in the world, one way or another (through trade ruptures, UN votes, arms sent to Ukraine, etc.)—is led by deranged quasi-leaders who are sleepwalking to disaster.

We are in world war III (wasn’t the bombing of Nord stream pipeline an “act of war”?) – one says this risking the accusation of hyperbole. But it isn’t hyperbole; no, all the evidence on the ground and in military strategy indicates that the US is conducting a hybrid war to weaken and eventually dismember Russia and attack China to maintain its futile hold as hegemonic No. 1 Evil Giant. The Giant is on the move, trying to bridle as many horses as it can to ride triumphantly into Mother Russia and then sail victoriously in the South China Sea. Yet there is no major opposition force, no peace movement and no urgency to move towards diplomacy.

But Ghosh’s book focuses our attention, in a literate and engaging way, not on the war in Ukraine; rather, he wants us to think about the immense yawning gap between the utter seriousness of climate change as a threat to the continuation of a livable world and the utter paralysis of the capacity to act to hold back catastrophes falling head over heels and move off the petroleum producing civilizational bandwagon. What I find particularly exciting about this book is that Ghosh probes decisively the intellectual, spiritual and political foundations for our current derangement and paralysis. Why have we failed to respond (or if we have responded, been so ineffectual) to the climate horrors now erupting in the world—with many more to come? Similarly, we could ask why leaders in the Collective West are pushing the world very, very close to nuclear warfare? One of the basic problems is our inability to imagine anything different. In the  US, “forever war” is the dominant mode of thinking. We cannot imagine a world that has ended all wars; nor can we imagine a world without oil flowing through its veins. We don’t give peace a chance or engage in diplomatic dialogue because we can’t imagine these human actions. They are swept clean from our intellectual landscape. War drums drown out all such thoughts.

Ghosh, a literary critic and master of textual analysis, writes much about the role that the novel plays in nurturing our imaginations and hopes for a different world. He begins part I of his book, “Stories,” with a brief comment on recognition: the passage from ignorance to knowledge. “The most important element of the word recognition thus lies in its first syllable, which harks back to something prior, an already existing awareness that makes possible the passage from ignorance to knowledge: a moment of recognition occurs when a prior awareness flashes before us, effecting an instant change in our understanding of that which is beheld. Yet this flash cannot appear spontaneously; it cannot disclose itself except in the presence of its lost other. The knowledge that results from recognition, then, is not the same as the discovery of something new: it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself” (pp. 4-5).

Ghosh tells the story of his forebears whose village was swept away in massive floods in 1856. In the flash, they recognized a “presence that had molded their lives to the point where they had come to take it as much for granted as the air they breathed” (p. 5). But even the air we breathe can be deadly. As it was in the Congo in 1988, “when a great cloud of carbon dioxide burst forth from Lake Nyos and rolled into the surrounding villages, killing 1,700 people and an untold number of animals” (ibid.).

Ghosh’s point seems to be this: these flash experiences are moments of recognition, where it dawns on us that the energy flowing under our feet and in the  wires in our houses and animating our vehicles and illuminating our rooms may have its “own purposes about which we know nothing” (ibid.). It is not easy, not at all, to find the appropriate language for the recognition (or re-cognizing) how “non-human presences” such as floods, tornados, fires, earthquakes, rising sea levels, etc. exist, and shape how we live and grapple with the uncanny and the unpredictable. Ghosh tells little stories of how he wrote in his notebook that the land was “demonstrably alive,” and does not exist  solely as a “stage  for the enactment of human history” (p. 6). In those olden days, the river wasn’t here and the village was not where it is …

But Ghosh marvels that, when he tries to translate these perceptions of a changed (and changing) environment into fiction (as he did in The hungry tide), he cannot do it with grace and clarity. Why does he have a problem? Well, the accelerating impacts of global warming are generating problems with implications well beyond the particularities of one locality. Wondering why climate change casts such a small shadow on literary fiction, Ghosh searches for reasons why this might be so. Because there is much evidence that “climate change is not taken seriously by serious literary journals” (p. 7). Not taken seriously – let these words sink in. How could this be, given the “potentially life-changing threats” (p. 8) of climate change? The future of the earth itself is in jeopardy (as is the fragile global dis/order edging toward nuclear confrontation in Ukraine). The wild has become the norm; writers know this; they don’t write about it, though.

Ghosh draws on the seminal work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The  climate of history,” and observes that historians will have “to revise many of their fundamental assumptions and procedures in this era of the Anthropocene” (p. 9). Thus, humans must re-cognize the formerly unrecognized “non-human presence” – in the unfolding through time of geological agents. We are not only playing our games of life on the surface of things. No, our human learning challenges now must embrace the reality that we, humans, have so transformed nature that we are, ourselves, geological agents. Our history meshes with that of the geological world we inhabit. The old Cartesian dualism is cracked forever.

Ghosh states, rightly so, that we should make no mistake that the “climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” (p. 9). I agree wholeheartedly with this assertion. Culture fuels desire; and our “exquisite consumerism” and “market society” floods us with goods as it conceals what is really-going-on beneath the surface of global neo-liberal capitalism. For example, Ghosh asks us what desires have fed contemporary trends in architecture – such as building shiny, glass-and-metal-plated towers reaching into the heavens? If he uses brand names to depict characters, is he complicit in the market’s manipulations? That’s one question, but when readers or museum-goers turn to art or literature of our time, they will fail to see “traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance?” (p. 11). Ghosh makes the terrific argument that “most forms of art and literature” have been “drawn into modes of concealment and prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight. Quite possible, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement” (ibid.).

Ghosh is entranced by the “exception event” – such as a tornado that came out of nowhere. Admitting that he does include storms, floods, and unusual weather events in his novels, he also acknowledges that the wild, improbably impossible to imagine tornado has not figured in any fictional writing. He thinks he knows why: novels require “probability” and “regularity” – exceptional is unlikely; the narrative is kept under control. Narrative pleasure, Ghosh thinks, results from the “regularity of bourgeois life.” Detailed descriptions of everyday life (called “fillers”) turn the world into a “world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all” (p. 19). This regularity is also imposed on the sciences: in other words, the “central credo” in geological studies (now fiercely debated) is that “nothing could change otherwise than the way things were seen to change in the present.” Or, to put it simply: “Nature does not make leaps.” Talk to Stephen Gould about that idea! Ghosh reminds us that “Nature does certainly jump, if not leap” (p. 20). Neither history nor Nature proceeds without fractures and ruptures. We are not free to shape our own destiny. Ghosh offers many lovely examples of this glistening idea. In other words, deeply embedded in our cultural history is the idea that Nature proceeds in gradual steps; it is moderate and orderly. Our imaginations, if you like, are unprepared for the exceptional and the improbable.

Here’s Ghosh’s transition to the novel and its problems in modernity. “But the modern novel, unlike geology, has never been forced to confront the centrality of the improbable: the concealment of its scaffolding of events continues to be essential to its functioning. It is this that makes a certain kind of narrative a recognizably modern novel” (p. 23). The irony is that the “realist” novel conceals the real as it conjures up reality. So, the  “wildly unlikely” event is not persuasive for the modern reader. How, he says, could he convince his readers if he created a scene where a “character is walking down a road at the precise moment when it is hit by an unheard-of weather phenomenon” (p. 24). This happened to  Ghosh. Meteorologist Adam Sobel, who studied the superstorm Hurricane Sandy that struck New York in 2012, argues powerfully that “human beings are intrinsically unable to prepare for rare events” (p. 25). Ghosh wonders, though, if humans have always been so unable. In fact, he thinks that their “instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability was gradually supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism—a regime of ideas that was supported by scientific theories like Lyell’s, and also by a range of governmental practices that were informed by statistics and probability” (ibid.).

Ghosh thinks we are trapped in the “calculus of probability” (p. 27). But climate events require us to see them as “urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time” (ibid.). Our challenge is to recognize the “strangeness of what is unfolding around us. For these changes are not merely strange in the sense of being unknown or alien; their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors” (p. 30). He thinks, perhaps controversially, that we humans are becoming aware that we are never alone—indeed, we are beings of all kinds, who manifest the “capacities of will, thought, and consciousness” (p. 31). Ghosh offers us a plateful of radical ideas (if you are ensconced in Enlightenment rationality): namely, that forests are capable of “inserting themselves into our processes of thought” (ibid.). I am not sure how to “read” this assertion, that unseen presences play a part in “shaping our discussions without our being aware of it” (ibid.). Perhaps Ghosh is counselling us to imagine how Nature does, in fact, now “haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms” (p. 32). The very idea of “Anthropocene” – it strikes me – acknowledges that our relationship to the events of global warming are intimate. Our historic actions have caught up with us, and nature is sowing vengeance and judgment upon us.

Ghosh’s book is crammed with stories that slap you in the face, telling us to “wake up”! For instance, he tells us about well-off folks who experienced the impact of the tsunami on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The severe damage was limited to a half-mile radius along the shore. Upwardly mobile on the edges; indigenous people in the interior. These people near the shore “had come to reflect the uniformitarian expectations that are rooted in the ‘regularity of bourgeois life’” (p. 35). Life, however, is not regular anymore. Proximity to the water is a sign of affluence and education, a beachfront location  is a status symbol; an ocean view greatly increases the value of real estate. A colonial vision of the world, in which proximity to the water represents power and security, mastery and conquest, has now been incorporated into the very foundations of middle-class patterns of living across the globe” (pp. 36-7).

And Ghosh informs us that this proximity to the ocean (like New York, Singapore and Hong Kong today) was not always the case. He also puts the search light on Mumbai, which represents an “extraordinary, possibly unique, ‘concentration of risk’” (p. 39). His account of cyclonic threats to Mumbai are simply fascinating (including a story of the July 26, 2005 downpour in the north suburbs which received 94.4 cm of rain in fourteen hours). The improbable has become probable.

II: Politics

In the interest of keeping this commentary reasonably short, I will focus on some of the ways political organization in the Neo-liberal order blind us to the significance of climate change for the future of humankind and all non-human creatures intertwined with us. Ghosh states: “Climate change poses a powerful challenge to what is perhaps the single most important political conception of the modern era: the idea of freedom, which is central not only to contemporary politics but also to the humanities, the arts, and literature” (p. 119). Decisively, Ghosh identifies a seismic shift in our Anthropocene era from a politics that would enable men and women to escape the injustices and oppression of human-made systems. Now, the “stirrings of the earth have forced us to recognize that we have never been free of nonhuman constraints–how are we to rethink those conceptions of history and agency?” (ibid.). Not an easy question to answer!

Ghosh argues against the grain. He documents writers political and social engagements over the last decades. “Today everybody with a computer and a web connection is an activist. Yet what I said earlier about literary circles is true also of the intelligentsia, and indeed of circles far beyond: generally speaking, politicization has not translated into a wider engagement with the crisis of climate change” (p. 125). I am noticing here and there that some left-leaning critics are pooh-poohing the emptiness (in terms of outcomes for justice-for-the-people) of mass demonstrations. It looks like performance for its own sake. We march, dance, fire off twitter rants, and then depart. Performance over. Feel good. Everything continues as is. Nothing changes. Ghosh provides us with a sobering illustration from South Asia. There, where people are extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change, great numbers take to the streets in India, express indignation on television, and speak their minds ever more stridently. Alas! “Yet climate change has not resulted in an outpouring of passion in the country. This despite the fact that India has innumerable environmental organizations and grassroots movements. The voices of the country’s many eminent climate change scientists, environmental activists, and reporters do not appear to have made much of a mark either” (p. 126).

Like other social critics, Ghosh tosses his political ideas into the ring, daring to critique the way political energy these days is channelled into questions of identity: religion, caste, ethnicity, language, gender rights, and so on. Then he draws a bold conclusion: “The divergence between the common interest and the preoccupations of the public sphere points to a change in the nature of politics itself. The political is no longer about the commonweal or the ‘body politic’ and the making of collective decisions. It is about something else” (ibid.). What is this “something”? Put succinctly, Ghosh says that the new form of politics is not a “politics that is principally concerned with the ordering of public affairs. It is rather a politics that is increasingly conceived of as an ‘individual moral journey guided by the conscience. Just as novels have come to be seen as narratives of identity, so too has politics become, for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery” (p. 127). Our politics is now performed; our individual choices (such as deciding to purchase only goods with a “fair trade” label). Ghosh links this search for perfectibility to a secularized Protestantism. One can twitter one’s way to the shining city on the hill. One thinks of Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle.” We inhabit it.

Let me finish with this bitter quotation: “For the body politic, this vision of politics as moral journey has also had the consequence of creating an ever growing divergence between a public sphere of political performance and the realm of actual governance: the latter is now controlled by largely invisible establishments that are guided by imperatives of their own. As the public sphere grows ever more performative, its ability to influence the actual exercise of power becomes increasingly attenuated” (p. 129). This form of political critique has been central to those who think “deliberative democracy” is a delusory dream. For Ghosh, the protests against the Iraq War in 2003 on February 15thdrew massive antiwar demonstrations (which included 600 cities). But these marches did not effect a change in policy. “Then, as never before, it became clear that the public sphere’s ability to influence the security and policy establishment had eroded drastically” (p. 130).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.