One of the review blurbs on the jacket of Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, comes from Elizabeth Kolbert, whose coverage of the global warming beat for The New Yorker has resulted in a couple of her own well-received books. Kolbert’s praise of The Great Derangement includes the claim that it “spares no one.” I think we know what she means. Ghosh analyzes the crisis of climate change and the paralysis that has characterized the response to it in the English-speaking world, and his analysis leads to condemnation and the distribution of blame. What Colbert means when she says he spares no one is that all receive a portion of blame, both those we expect to receive it, and those we don’t necessarily expect. Of this latter group are the writers and artists of the Anglosphere as well as its political progressives.
Climate change is a great re-classifier. Ghosh’s book may leave progressives smarting a little, not so much from being assigned some of the responsibility for the climate crisis, but by the way Ghosh groups them alongside their arch-enemies, the so-called neo-liberals.
Ghosh’s claim is that the moral-political judgments of progressives and neo-liberals rest alike “on that distinctive fusion of economic, religious, and philosophical conceptions” that centers on individual conscience and agency. He’s reaching down, in other words, to the roots of the modern West. Descartes’ dualism is a familiar target in charges of this kind, but as Ghosh sees it, the Scottish Enlightenment fine-tuned the West’s commitment to individualism. Within the Anglosphere especially, cultural identity was built on the belief that “the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good.”
Is it fair to paint progressives with this broad brush? Many would surely object, though on what grounds would be an interesting question. In any case, grouping progressives along with neo-liberals allows Ghosh to explain something exceptional about the Anglosphere. It is in this sphere that we find the world’s only significant degree of denial of climate change. It is also in this sphere that we find “many if not most” of climate change activism’s most prominent voices. As a practical consequence, the response to global warming from our part of the world has been marked most by paralysis, a continuing oscillation between the poles of debate that results in no significant change.
In general, this is not a new critique to those familiar with assaults on the Enlightenment coming from the Frankfort School and elsewhere many decades ago. Numerous strains of postmodernism and posthumanism have cultivated a similar point of view. Yet there is little indication in today’s blogs and social media, for example, that the ongoing contest between progressives and neo-liberals is understood by participants as an internecine battle. Surely few would disagree, however, that these contests are anything if not maddeningly static.
For many of us, the experience of accelerating climate change comes in the proliferation of weather events–tornados, hurricanes, heatwaves, floods–deemed improbable and unprecedented. Ghosh himself was caught in one such event, a “freak funnel-shaped whirlwind” that rolled down the streets of north Delhi–“the first of its kind,” the newspaper said. Ghosh calls on Freud and Heidegger for the adjective “uncanny” to describe how he felt that day. He likens it, too, to a recurring moment in South Asian literature, specifically to depictions of tiger attack in the dense forests of the Sundarbans. According to this trope, on the verge of the tiger’s lunge, the human victim experiences a complex recognition. Part of it is the realization that the tiger has been holding the human in its gaze for some time while the human has gone unawares. Part of it is the acknowledgement of the presence of a non-human intelligence over which the human being has no access or control. Ghosh presents it as a communicative encounter, and yet also one in which human agency is undone. “At that moment a shock courses through you and you are immobilized, frozen,” he writes.
For Ghosh, the tiger is the rapidly changing climate, the non-human intelligence now communicating with us, intervening on our own thought, and our experience of the consequence is both uncanny and paralyzing. What we require to process this experience, Ghosh contends, is to imagine past a vexing dilemma: the improbable was never really improbable. The tiger wasn’t there; the tiger was always there. Our cultural identity is based on a fundamental error. Alas, Ghosh argues, the modern literary genres, which we would expect to do this imaginary work, are constructed to conceal rather than confront this dilemma.
This is especially the case with what has been our most prominent genre, the modern realist novel. Ghosh offers a historical explanation. The modern novel arose during the same period when statistics were becoming the foremost analytical tool for organizing human action. The statistical calculations that so improved the ability to predict represented a vast increase in our sense that we could executive plans and realize control of our surroundings. Reality came to be defined by what was likely to occur. Meanwhile a similar process of definition occurred in expressive culture. Novels began to anchor the literary imagination in “the regularity of bourgeois life.” That regularity was, in turn, made possible by the reliability of concentrated energy in the form of coal and oil. Thus, “probability and the modern novel are twins,” Ghosh writes, “born at the same time, among the same people,” who were simultaneously building the carbon economy.
This modernizing process within literature was largely a matter of favoring and authorizing certain techniques over others. The techniques of epic poetry and myth, staples of world literature, were deemed hopelessly primitive. Speculation, alternative worlds, and the merely plot-driven were ghettoized into outlying genres. In so-called serious or literary fiction, the improbable events upon which all narrative depends were obscured by pages and pages of descriptive filler. This re-creation of the quotidian became the only magic authorized to conjure suspended disbelief. “If this were a novel, no one would believe it.” That familiar observation sums up Ghosh’s argument succinctly.
One thinks of Philip Roth’s famous claim, in a 1961 essay, that the arbitrary and outlandish character of real events had outstripped the novel’s ability to contain them. Roth caught a glimpse of the tiger, in other words. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published the following year, and it gave a lot of people a glimpse of the tiger. It stupefied them, to use Roth’s verb. Ghosh doesn’t reference Roth, but he mentions Roth’s counterpart, John Updike. A book by a South Asian novelist so disturbed Updike (the book had relied too heavily on pre-modern literary techniques) that he insisted it wasn’t a novel at all. The modern novel was about “individual moral adventure,” not humankind “in the aggregate,” Updike wrote in his review. Novels were, in the other words, the sort of works that he and Roth created, over and over, with such brilliance and skill. But if this is the case, Ghosh asks, if this is what the modern realist novel is in its essence, how can it hope to address a problem as extra-human and aggregational as climate change? Simply put, the scale—or range—is not equivalent. The inability to respond to global warming becomes, therefore, not merely a problem caused by the financial interests of corporations and of those others historically invested in the carbon economy, but by a lack of imagination among the artists and writers of the Anglosphere, whose range is proscribed by a deeply cherished individualism. And of course it is this same deeply cherished individualism that frames and justifies the carbon economy and that patterns our desire for a certain kind of lifestyle, for particular possessions and places to live.
Obviously, there are exceptions, and Ghosh allows for them, though he mentions few names. One thinks of Margaret Atwood, a writer who has resisted the partitioning of her more speculative fiction and whose star has risen as the politics of the Anthropecene have become more agitated. I immediately thought of the recent novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Barkskins is a multi-generational tale of two families, from their beginnings in the New France of the seventeenth century to the present day. Both families work in logging, one as labor, the other management. With such a sprawling story, such a wide cast of characters, it’s hard to stay long inside the head of any one human being or to dig too deeply into any single psyche. In this and in other ways, the book has an old-fashioned feel. The laboring family are primarily Mi’kmaqs, a tribal people, soulful and humane, who seem to have inhabited a kind of Golden Age prior to the arrival of the cruel and profit-hungry Europeans. The story, in other words, is not a new one. But can we blame Proulx for not offering something more provocative? When the evidence presents itself so plainly, it’s dishonest to avoid a declensionist narrative, no matter how unfashionable it might be. The story, precisely because it spans so many years, is full of historical information and insight into the growth of capitalism, its tools and organizational innovations. A good deal of this exposition comes in the form of dialogue, unfortunately. But even if this is a little teacherly, it is something different from “individual moral adventure.”
Familial moral adventure may be a better description. The Mi’kmaq family live intimately with the forest and with each other, and it is these relations that sustain them, despite centuries of unending blows. This contrasts starkly with the family of empire builders. One of the central stories, itself repeated over generations, concerns the ongoing difficulty in finding an heir to leave the empire to. This family’s relations, like their relations to the forest, are rationalized. Ties fray and connections wither even as the wealth of the corporation expands.
Is love of family, then, the supreme motivation, humankind’s saving grace? Even the sins of the sorriest gangsters can be romanticized by devotion to family. Proulx is too good a writer to resort to this hackneyed reductionism. Motivation is plural, as it is in life; it can’t be reduced to gene preservation or hunger. One of the things she captures about her characters, from both the working and the capitalist lines, is how almost each of them rises up against the threat of loss. Often this overrides all other concerns.
Here Barkskins resonates with Ghosh’s argument. What the book traces is a slow learning on the part of humans that the vast forests of the North American continent are not limitless and eternal, after all. We anchor reality in our material environment, and yet that environment can be lost. In the book’s final pages, an ecologist, descendant of a French peasant barkskin and a Mi’kmaq healer, views in horror a collapsing pit of melting polar ice. She suffers “a full-force shock of recognition—the coming disappearance of a world believed immutable.” Her instinct is to resist the crush of futility but “her voice froze in her throat.”
Ghosh brings a great deal to the concerns of an Environmental Humanities, a relatively new research field investigating the relationship between the humanities and environmental crisis. Much of this has to do with his background. He’s a South Asian writing in English, first of all. As a member of a generation of non-Western writers whose work gained attention at least partly because of the merger of politics and identity in the West, he’s a hybrid figure, with insights into both worlds. He’s conversant with modern literary movements and in tune with pre-modern forms of fiction in Asia and elsewhere which do not share the modern novel’s individualist bias. Finally, he comes from India and more specifically, India’s coast on the Arabian Sea, where the consequences of climate change are more immediately threatening than they are for most of us–or at least harder to overlook.
It is, in sum, his postcolonial perspective that brings Ghosh to stress this conclusion: climate change can’t be understood apart from capitalism and neither can it be understood apart from empire. Writing prior to the unexpected turns of the 2016 election, Ghosh dreaded that the Western nations would adopt an “armed lifeboat” policy of stockpiling weapons, firming up borders, and closing the door to refugees. (Ghosh is drawing here on the work of Christian Parenti in his 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos.) Obviously, this is what we see coming to pass with Brexit, the Trump administration, and the near-miss of La Pen in France last spring. What is less clearly understood is that the current unrest and refugee crisis is a manifestation of the carbon economy and its legacy of empire. Trumpism and its equivalents in the nations of Europe are precisely the politics of climate change. If political paralysis is almost impossible to overcome now, how much harder will overcoming it be as climate threats become more direct and explicit?
Ghosh’s reference to global warming as a “wicked problem” put me in mind of the concept I’ve traced in my own work: anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s double bind. Bateson’s concept came out of the new post-World War II theories of information and communication which Bateson applied to the life sciences. Bateson was trying to understand schizophrenia as a disease not of individual bodies but of families and environments. Families whose ways of communicating were distorted by an inability to confront contradiction found themselves paralyzed by the continuous oscillation between disturbance and the concealment of disturbance. Bateson described this paralysis as a bind to emphasize how it fed on traditional and commonsense efforts at solution.
Climate change is a wicked dilemma because it too seems to feed on traditional solutions. It seems designed to refute, as Ghosh puts it, “our most treasured ideas.” That we will innovate our way out of the problem, as many of the less alarmed predict, may be one of those ideas. “Be the change you want to see,” Ghosh warns, may be another. The abandonment of ideas so fundamental to our best conceptions of ourselves may be required to escape “the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped.” But how? The actual act of abandonment is what seems so impossible to imagine. In the same way Gregory Bateson defined the double bind as inescapable, so seems the trap of an entrenched “imaginary.”
Ghosh’s topic is bleak, obviously. Because he’s a human being, he’s perhaps obliged to end on a note of hope. Ghosh finds hope “in the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change.” Again, we have to look outside the Anglosphere for much of this activity. Pope Francis’s Laudato Si (2015) is a touchpoint. Ghosh cites rising concerns in the politics of climate change among Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, as well.
Here is another insight of benefit to the secular progressives of the West. If internet chatter is any indication, religious faith runs a close second to neo-liberalism on the progressives’ enemies list. No doubt there are good reasons for this. Denial of global warming and its causes is strong among American nationalist evangelicals, as if it were blasphemy to even speculate that God would create an atmosphere vulnerable to despoliation by mere human beings. Furthermore, nationalist evangelicals support the arming of the lifeboat. A lifeboat is only so big, after all, and no individual secure inside it is alone responsible for the ship going down. Secular progressives may be stifled by the power of this logic unless they can come to accept and embrace as political partners the religious in both its non-nationalist Christian and non-Christian forms. Without this merger of the secular and the religious, it is difficult to perceive, at least within the United States, any reservoir of good faith deep enough to stave off the immediate recourse to desperate measures of self-preservation.