For most writers, climate change isn't serious literature: Amitav Ghosh

[Book extract] We don't yet have the words to describe it, says the author of 'The Great Derangement'.

 |  10-minute read |   12-07-2016
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In his seminal essay "The Climate of History", Dipesh Chakrabarty observes that historians will have to revise many of their fundamental assumptions and procedures in this era of human-induced climate change, in which "humans have become geological agents, changing the most basic physical processes of the earth". I would go further and add that the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our common-sense understandings and beyond that to contemporary culture in general.

There can be no doubt, of course, that this challenge arises in part from the complexities of the technical language that serves as our primary window on climate change. But neither can there be any doubt that the challenge derives also from the practices and assumptions that guide the arts and humanities. To identify how this happens is, I think, a task of the utmost urgency: it may well be the key to understanding why contemporary culture finds it so hard to deal with climate change.

Indeed, this is perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense — for let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.

Culture generates desires — for vehicles and appliances, for certain kinds of gardens and dwellings — that are among the principal drivers of the carbon economy. A speedy convertible excites us neither because of any love for metal and chrome, nor because of an abstract understanding of its engineering. It excites us because it evokes an image of a road arrowing through a pristine landscape; we think of freedom and the wind in our hair; we envision James Dean and Peter Fonda racing towards the horizon; we think also of Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov.

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When we see an advertisement that links a picture of a tropical island to the word paradise, the longings that are kindled in us have a chain of transmission that stretches back to Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the flight that will transport us to the island is merely an ember in that fire.

When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water in Abu Dhabi or Southern California or some other environment where people had once been content to spend their water thriftily in nurturing a single vine or shrub, we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been midwifed by the novelsof Jane Austen.

the-great-derangemen_071216050306.jpg Jane Austen's romances were English pastorals maintained by the carbon economy of British Empire.

The artefacts and commodities that are conjured up by these desires are, in a sense, at once expressions and concealments of the cultural matrix that brought them into being. This culture is, of course, intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world. But to know this is still to know very little about the specific ways in which the matrix interacts with different modes of cultural activity: poetry, art, architecture, theatre, prose fiction, and so on.

Throughout history these branches of culture have responded to war, ecological calamity and crises of many sorts: why, then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to their practices? From this perspective, the questions that confront writers and artists today are not just those of the politics of the carbon economy; many of them have to do also with our own practices and the ways in which they make us complicit in the concealments of the broader culture.

For instance: if contemporary trends in architecture, even in this period of accelerating carbon emissions, favour shiny, glass-and-metal-plated towers, do we not have to ask, What are the patterns of desire that are fed by these gestures?

on-the-road_071216070437.jpg Jack Kerouac's road novels shaped the landscape of American imagination, wilfully oblivious to petroleum's effects on the climate. 

If I, as a novelist, choose to use brand names as elements in the depiction of character, do I not need to ask myself about the degree to which this makes me complicit in the manipulations of the marketplace?

In the same spirit, I think it also needs to be asked, What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museumgoers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first, and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance?

And when they fail to find them, what should they — what can they — do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its selfawareness, will come to be known as the time of the "Great Derangement".

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On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, the weather took an odd turn in north Delhi. Mid-March is usually a nice time of year in this part of India: the chill of winter is gone and the blazing heat of summer is yet tocome; the sky is clear and the monsoon is far away. But that day dark clouds appeared suddenly and there were squalls of rain. Then followed an even bigger surprise: a hailstorm.

I was then studying for an MA at Delhi University while also working as a part-time journalist. When the hailstorm broke, I was in a library. I had planned to stay late, but the unseasonal weather led to a change of mind and I decided to leave.

I was on my way back to my room when, on an impulse, I changed direction and dropped in on a friend. But the weather continued to worsen as we were chatting so after a few minutes I decided to head straight back by a route that I rarely had occasion to take.

I had just passed a busy intersection called Maurice Nagar when I heard a rumbling sound somewhere above. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a grey, tubelike extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then all of a sudden it turned and came whiplashing down to earth, heading in my direction.

Across the street stood a large administrative building. I sprinted over and headed towards what seemed to be an entrance. But the glass-fronted doors were shut, and a small crowd huddled outside, in the shelter of an overhang. There was no room for me there so I ran around to the front of the building. Spotting a small balcony, I jumped over the parapet and crouched on the floor.

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The noise quickly rose to a frenzied pitch, and the wind began to tug fiercely at my clothes. Stealing a glance over the parapet, I saw, to my astonishment, that my surroundings had been darkened by a churning cloud of dust. In the dim glow that was shining down from above, I saw an extraordinary panoply of objects flying past — bicycles, scooters, lamp posts, sheets of corrugated iron, even entire tea stalls.

In that instant, gravity itself seemed to have been transformed into a wheel spinning upon the fingertip of some unknown power. I buried my head in my arms and lay still. Moments later the noise died down and was replaced by an eerie silence.

When at last I climbed out of the balcony, I was confronted by a scene of devastation such as I had never before beheld. Buses lay overturned; scooters sat perched on treetops; walls had been ripped out of buildings, exposing interiors in which ceiling fans had been twisted into tulip-like spirals. The place where I had first thought to take shelter, the glass-fronted doorway, had been reduced to a jumble of jagged debris.

The panes had shattered and many people had been wounded by the shards. I realized that I too would have been among the injured had I remained there. I walked away in a daze.

the-great-derangemen_071216050440.jpg In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh says patterns of desire first voiced by a Jane Austen or a Jack Kerouac still inform our response to climate change.

Long afterwards, I am not sure exactly when or where, I hunted down the Times of India’s New Delhi edition of March 18. I still have the photocopies I made of it. "30 Dead," says the banner headline, "700 Hurt As Cyclone Hits North Delhi".

Here are some excerpts from the accompanying report: "Delhi, March 17: At least 30 people were killed and 700 injured, many of them seriously, this evening when a freak funnel-shaped whirlwind, accompanied by rain, left in its wake death and devastation in Maurice Nagar, a part of Kingsway Camp, Roshanara Road and Kamla Nagar in the Capital. The injured were admitted to different hospitals in the Capital.

"The whirlwind followed almost a straight line. . . . Some eyewitnesses said the wind hit the Yamuna river and raised waves as high as 20 or 30 feet. . . . The Maurice Nagar road . . . presented a stark sight. It was littered with fallen poles . . . trees, branches, wires, bricks from the boundary walls of various institutions, tin roofs of staff quarters and dhabas and scores of scooters, buses and some cars. Not a tree was left standing on either side of the road."

The report quotes a witness: "I saw my own scooter, which I had abandoned on the road, during those terrifying moments, being carried away in the wind like a kite. We saw all this happening around but were dumbfounded. We saw people dying . . . but were unable to help them. The two tea-stalls at the Maurice Nagar corner were blown out of existence. At least 12 to 15 persons must have been buried under the debris at this spot. When the hellish fury had abated in just four minutes, we saw death and devastation around."

The vocabulary of the report is evidence of how unprecedented this disaster was. So unfamiliar was this phenomenon that the papers literally did not know what to call it: at a loss for words they resorted to "cyclone" and "funnel-shaped whirlwind".

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Not till the next day was the right word found.

The headlines of March 19 read, "A Very, Very Rare Phenomenon, Says Met Office": "It was a tornado that hit northern parts of the Capital yesterday — the first of its kind. . . . According to the Indian Meteorological Department, the tornado was about 50 metres wide and covered a distance of about five k.m. in the space of two or three minutes."

This was, in effect, the first tornado to hit Delhi — and indeed the entire region — in recorded meteorological history. And somehow I, who almost never took that road, who rarely visited that part of the university, had found myself in its path.

Only much later did I realise that the tornado’s eye had passed directly over me. It seemed to me that there was something eerily apt about that metaphor: what had happened at that moment was strangely like a species of visual contact, of beholding and being beheld.

And in that instant of contact something was planted deep in my mind, something irreducibly mysterious, something quite apart from the danger that I had been in and the destruction that I had witnessed; something that was not a property of the thing itself but of the manner in which it had intersected with my life.

the-great-derangemen_071216050106.jpg The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable; Amitav Ghosh; Penguin/Allen Lane; Pages 275; Rs 399. 

(Extract published with permission from Penguin Random House.)


Amitav Ghosh Amitav Ghosh @ghoshamitav

The writer is an Indian author, best known for his Ibis trilogy.

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