Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press 2016) 196 pp. $15.00 Pb, $22.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0226323039
Considering current political and scientific debates, the topic of the latest book by acclaimed Indian writer Amitav Ghosh could not be timelier. The Great Derangement, a relatively small volume of non-fiction but showing the impressively wide scope characteristic of Ghosh’s writing, deals with climate change, and, more specifically, with our imaginative and practical failure to think – and thus ‘deal’ with the climate crisis. The author’s first single-topic non-fiction book since In An Antique Land (1992) – excepting his many essays on a myriad of historical, cultural and political issues, published in the meantime, for instance, in the collection Incendiary Circumstances (2005), will neither disappoint nor surprise avid readers of his previous works – fiction and non-fiction. The engagement with scientific and ethical questions has been a preoccupation from Ghosh’s early novels such The Circle of Reason (1986) and The Calcutta Chromosome (1995) up until The Hungry Tide (2004), which is set in one of the world’s regions most threatened by climate change, the Bengal Sundarbans, and has acquired canonical status in the field of literary environmental criticism and posthumanism over the last decade. Other recurrent concerns in his oeuvre are the entangled, global histories and legacies of empire, and the power and fascination of storytelling itself - particularly through excavating largely forgotten or suppressed stories and silent voices.
Based on a series of four lectures – as part of the Berlin Family Lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015, The Great Derangement is subdivided into three parts, with the first – 'Stories' – being the most substantial and as long as the following two, 'History' and 'Politics', put together. The book also contains thirty pages of Notes, testimony to the characteristically meticulous research, wide reading and scholarship that informs Ghosh’s writing. Still, in what is also a characteristic fashion, storytelling triumphs, and though the book contains numbers, the argument proceeds via digressions and anecdotes. The result is a highly readable, poetic as well as lucid exercise in thinking about the unthinkable, full of urgency but without apocalyptic doomsday crying. The Great Derangement is not in any shape or form a scientific manual or a prescriptive call for action. It does not engage in the popular discourse of proving (or dis)proving the reality of climate change or predicting its scale, but addresses the challenges it poses for contemporary writers and us, as politically and ethically aware citizens. Of central importance is the description of the climate crisis as being not just one of nature, but also 'a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination' (9). Ghosh argues that the extreme nature of climate events and natural disasters makes them resistant to depiction in serious, ie realist fiction in the Anglosphere because they feel too improbable. As a result the topic is usually confined to being treated in popular science fiction or non-fiction writing. But, the author says, 'we are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normalcy, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred-year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, […] and, yes, freakish tornados' (24). Interrogating contemporary literature's curious silence about the reality of the life-changing threat of climate change, noting how to date only a handful of writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and Barbara Kingsolver, have dared to tackle the topic in their fictional works, and, with the exception of McEwan’s Solar, mostly as speculative disaster stories set in the future, Ghosh postulates that the disastrous, uncanny, and improbable needs to be incorporated into writing about our present reality. Otherwise, he suggests with reference to the book’s title, 'this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement' (11). It has to be noted, though, that Ghosh, the author of the majestic Ibis trilogy set in the times of the Opium Wars between China and the British Empire, has, at least to date, refrained from tackling the challenge of writing the great novel of global warming himself and resorts to non-fiction when it comes to the history of the carbon economy.
Interestingly, Ghosh bases the literary strand of his argument on scholarship on the history of probability theory (eg Hacking 1975) and its coincidence with that of the modern novel. The concealment of the dramatic unlikeliness of climate change events appears as a result of the development of the novel which reflects from its beginnings the end of the delight in the extraordinary and the unlikely and which, especially during the course of the nineteenth century, centres on a worldview oriented toward progress and the human control of nature that perceives the idea of the uncontrollable intervention of nature as improbable, characterizing 'catastrophism as un-modern' (22). The fundamentally modern pattern of thought hinges on a belief in the regularity of society and the measurability of life. This leads to the perception that we are unfit for dealing with climate change risks which 'should not exist' and threaten to overwhelm us with their improbable reality.
Aside from the fact that climate change events present a challenge to the (spatial, temporal) scale of the modern realist novel and its customary rejection of nonhuman agency, a main reason why the trajectory of the novel opposes the depiction of climate change is what John Updike identified as the focus on individual moral adventure, which caused the banishment of the collective from the realm of fictional imagination. With the individual typically triumphing over the collective, writers and readers alike struggle to imagine global warming as a shared predicament. And here Ghosh draws a direct parallel between contemporary fiction and politics, for the latter similarly sees a prioritizing of individual moral consciousness and action and a tendency to exclude the nonhuman. This focus on human existence in isolation directly opposes the thinking called for in light of the crisis of the Anthropocene.
The Great Derangement also draws much needed attention to the necessity of looking at climate change through the prism of empire and of considering Asia's belated but increasingly central role when it comes to the nexus of capitalism and global warming, not merely because Asia is home to the majority of people at risk from climate change. The historical-political line of Ghosh’s argument traces the elision or overwriting of multiple modernities in favour of a monolithic, Eurocentric modernity focused on the example of the history of the carbon economy. The call for alternative multiple histories entails the break with 'one of the distinctive features of Western modernity: its insistence of its own uniqueness' (95) and, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s terminology, a ‘provincialization’ of Europe. Asia thus appears at the centre of the climate crisis, 'its causes, its philosophical and historical implications, and the possibility of a global response to it' (87). Detailing the devastating effects of the 1971 Bhola cyclone, the critical rise of sea levels, the risks of desertification and the water crisis across Asia, Ghosh attributes the current acceleration of the climate crisis to Asia’s development which proves that the patterns of life engendered by Western capitalist modernity can only be practiced sustainably by a minority of the globe’s population.
Ghosh’s book is as much about stories at it is about climate change and will therefore be interesting to general readers, literary scholars and historians alike. While his account is selective and subjective, without claiming to be otherwise, it ends with the proposition that the solution to end the derangement lies in a new culture of imagination, in envisioning the entanglements of human existence within its own species and with the non-human, and in finding new narrative hybrid forms between science and fiction and which acknowledge the improbable realities of the future of our globe.
Julia Hoydis, University of Cologne