Stacey Balkan reviews Amitav Ghosh's climate essays titled THE GREAT DERANGEMENT with a strong denunication of his uncanny prejudice against Western sci-fi and cli-fi novels since the 1960s
HERE IS HER VERY WELL-WRITTEN AND INSIGHTFUL REVIEW THAT IN FACT FLIES IN THE FACE OF SOME OF GHOSH'S OUTDATED LITERARY PREJUDICES, slightly edited and annotated by this blogger for clarification and amplification.
''Anthropocene and Empire ''
by Professor Stacey Balkan in New Jersey, USA
Amitav Ghosh was a young Indian graduate student at the time of the tornado and recounts its aftermath in a new monograph entitled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. A book-length work of nonfiction based on the four lectures he gave a year ago at the University of Chicago in October 2015, The Great Derangement amplifies the 4 one-hour lectures there, all of which are available on YouTube free of charge here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW8n6RAAxTg
Focused in part on fictional representations of climate change, the author begins by addressing the bewildering absence of such storms from what he calls the “mansions” of “serious” VIP literary fiction — the kind he writes -- an egregious oversight, he feels, even though American novelist Nathaniel Rich did tackle Hurricane Sandy head-on in his cli-fi novel ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, even thoughGhosh says no Western writers did so. He is wrong and he won't admit it, re catastrophic storms like Hurricane Sandy.
Ultimately he asks: “Is climate change [simply] too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?” Well, if he had bothered to do his homework, he would know and admit that Western novelists have been writing about global warming since the 1960s, over a hundred of them. Maybe not in India, where Ghosh was born, but in the West, where Ghosh now lives since 1991 and as a denizen of West, he should have done his homework on this for his Chicago lecture and this book. Sadly, he did not.
This may strike a familiar chord: eco-critics in the humanities, philosophers, natural scientists, economists, and geographers have devoted a great deal of attention to the question of climate change, its causes, and its consequences. In acknowledging such causes as industrialized agriculture they have achieved something like a consensus around the concept of the Anthrocene — a term informally coined by science writer Andrew Revkin in a book published in 1992 to describe the period within the Cenozoic Era (approximately 66 million years ago to the present) during which human beings became “geological agents.”1
Many have also begun to argue that it is not humanity as such that is the primary engine of climate change, but rather historic modes of capital accumulation. But Ghosh’s argument casts a much wider net than conventional rebukes of capitalism. Indeed, more than an indictment of capital or a critique of popular fiction, in The Great Derangement folds questions about empire, colonialism, and ecological imperialism into an otherwise familiar discussion of the Anthrocene.
Readers of Ghosh’s magisterial historical genre novel Ibis Trilogy — a fictional saga of the 19th-century Opium Wars, and the English East India Company’s rapacious poppy program — will recognize this critique; although the author’s dismissive and controversial pronouncements about fiction and climate may seem somewhat quizzical.2 He himself wrote about a novel about climate change issues in India titled THE HUNGRY TIDE.
While the impact of human development may in fact be “too wild a stream” for some, it is surely not “too wild” for Ghosh. In the Ibis novels, for instance, he reveals the savage nature of colonial-era agricultural programs that relied on monoculture. A central motif is the destruction of local ecosystems for the purpose of planting poppy, a cash crop that consumed some 25,000 acres of arable land in Bengal.3 But the sorts of slow violence that Ghosh documents in these novels resonate rather differently than, say, a category three storm of the sort that struck Delhi.
As Ghosh confesses early on in The Great Derangement: “It is certainly true that storms, floods, and unusual weather events do recur in my books … [but] oddly enough, no tornado has ever figured in my novels.”
While his historical novels offer important critiques of the colonial-imperial project and the environmental destruction that it wrought, conjuring tornadoes, much to his own dismay, is not so easy.
Climate change, or what Ghosh calls the “environmental uncanny,” to refer to statistically improbable weather events, seems to be the province of “cli-fi” — a “generic outhouse,” he arrogantly and derisively remarks in his Great God Ghosh VIP way, “made up mostly of disaster stories,” which in fact is not true. Many cli-fi novels are not dystopian at all, and put a positive utopian spin on the issues invovled.
A good example is Barbara Kingsolver's FLIGHT BEHAVIOR. To his credit, Ghosh does mention Kingsolver and her novel in his essay book, and he also mentions Liz Jensen's THE RAPTURE as liteary fictions that did tackle climate issues. So he needs to get off his high horse and come back down to Earth and admit he did not do his homework on this for his lectures or for the book. There is still time to admit it, and say sorry, Dr Ghosh. We all make mistakes when we write too fast and don't do our research in an extensive enough way.
A notable example is the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow in which the anomalous weather events of recent years somehow all coalesce into a single cataclysmic horror. Of course, to be fair, environmental violence is notoriously spectacle-deficient.
Surely Ghosh’s portraits of beleaguered poppy farmers are less titillating for mass audiences than packs of feral wolves terrorizing the New York Public Library, the latter among several absurdist tropes of the film. Hence the author’s remarks that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination.” This so-called imaginative failure, which in fact never happened in the West where novelists and climate activisits have been alert to climate change issues for over 50 years, has been many decades in the making in his native India, but not in North America or Europe or Australia or Canada, among novelists there. Wake up, Dr Ghosh. Maybe you should have titled your book THE GREAT AWAKENING?
The disaster films and novels that constitute such important literary genres as “cli-fi” and sci-fi and speculative fiction and ecofiction in fact signal a grave crisis — a “great derangement,” Ghosh argues, midwifed by the emergence of literary realism and its accompanying intellectual traditions.
In the first chapter of The Great Derangement, entitled “Stories,” Ghosh traces the contemporaneous development of the modern novel, 19th-century theories of probability, and Freud’s concept of the “uncanny,” which he defines as “an irreducible element of mystery” well-suited to describing the bizarre weather events of recent years. Ghosh, given his prejudice against genre novels, cannot understand that many Western novelists since the 1960s have had ability to see, represent, and understand the environmental crisis we are in and have made room for such “uncanny” weather phenomena as freak tornadoes, sea level rises and killer heat waves across India and Europe. Sadly, Ghosh argues that “the uncanny intimacy of our relationship with the nonhuman” would only be tolerated in the realm of the supernatural, in the ghost stories of Charles Dickens or Henry James, but once again modern climate novels in the West over the past 50 years prove the Brookly essayist wrong here. Very wrong. And it's about time he admits it.
Think about the novels of Paolo Bacigalupi, Claire Vaye Watkins and Margaret Atwood, among others, not to mention Kim Stanley Robinson, Jeff VanderMeer and the French novelist Jean-Marc Ligny. Dr Ghosh, do your homework, sir.
''We cannot ignore the coincidence of European imperialism and the so-called great acceleration in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.''In this sense, what the author terms “derangement” is both an imaginative as well as an epistemological crisis; a crisis born, unfortunately, at the same moment that the “accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.” The uncertainty of climate, he argues, was anathema to the “uniformitarian expectations” of the era. And the modern novels of writers like Jane Austen would succor those “expectations” by “offering the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life.”4
Nevertheless, bar the occasional cyclone—in Sea of Poppies or The Hungry Tide, both of which occurred in the storm-prone Bay of Bengal—Ghosh’s novels are a far cry from cli-fi.
His fictional worlds instead offer searing portraits of ecological imperialism, intervening radically into a discourse that too often ignores the role of empire in anthropogenic climate change.
With some noteworthy exceptions—among them, Mike Davis’s 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, and Ashley Dawson’s 2016 Extinction: A Radical History—even the most well-meaning critics often dismiss the uneven history of development, opting instead for indictments of the entire species.
''In Ghosh’s view, the Paris Agreement is grotesque—since the agreed increases in carbon dioxide amount to a death sentence for many African and Asian nations.''
Ghosh skewers American individualism and its toxic political fruit.12 He then reminds his readers that the “Pentagon devotes more resources to the study of climate change than any other branch of the U.S. government,” a fact that ought to ignite political engagement among voters with a seemingly unshakable faith in the wisdom of our military. Unfortunately, the populace is routinely paralyzed by the latest cli-fi blockbuster—terror quickly transformed into inertia.
I wonder, though, what to make of such films: 2015 was the hottest year on record; there were, for the first time in history, as many cyclones in the Arabian Sea as there were in the Indian Ocean; and the proliferation of “unprecedented” weather events has made it so that the very word “unprecedented” is starting to sound a bit foolish. Perhaps such dystopian stories are appropriate responses to the nightmare of global climate change, Dr Ghosh!!!
Ghosh, though, given his anti-genre prejudice against sci-fi and cli-fi narratives, arrives at a different conclusion. Arguing against any fantasies about state-level intervention, he turns to the sacred.
Perhaps, he suggests, religious communities are our last resort. Their transnational frameworks offer us potential models for collective political action. While I would disagree with Ghosh’s assertion that “religious worldviews … do not partake of economistic ways of thinking,” it is in fact in the realm of religion that we find an “acceptance of limits and limitations,” and an embrace of a power beyond ourselves. In any case, before any real change can occur, we must first be able to imagine a possibility beyond the limited horizon of our deranged imaginations.