Climate Change, Pandemic & more: The Great Derangement

How does Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable fare in the context of the past year?

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable


“Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, dangerously alive?” The first words of acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s latest book force visuals from 2020 to flood a post-pandemic mind.


The question feels personal. How else do you explain its chilling precision? It holds not only metaphorically, but also very literally. The past year has been a series of events that has emphasized, time and again, that our environment is not stagnant; it controls us, and when needed, destroys us. And it is framed like a striking description of a virus: they stay dead until they are inside a host’s body, after which they are ‘dangerous alive’.


The past year-and-a-half has changed us—mentally, physically, and politically. It has cast an altered—if not grim—lens on our worldview and reminded us of our agonizing vulnerability. In such a year, Ghosh’s 2016 release feels like a necessary reminder. In his non-fiction book, Ghosh examines our collective inability to think about the “unthinkable”, even in the face of a rapidly advancing climate disaster. Through an insightful three sections—story, history, and politics—he outlines our inability to grasp the scale and brutality of climate change. He argues that our age would be defined as the age of derangement. After all, we continue to hurtle towards an apocalyptic end head-first, ignoring blazing red flags.


Ghosh’s narration reads like a foreboding of the pandemic: “… it appears that we are in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normality, highly improbable”. And for anyone who is looking to understand our current environment from a different lens, it is a highly recommended read.


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In India, human life has always been very intricately associated with the environment. From realms of religion to livelihood to education and more, environment and nature have always featured heavily: Agriculture is the primary source of living for about 58 percent of people in India; festivals in many parts of the country celebrate the arrival of rain—the natural phenomenon so many lives depend on; for many others, especially people who were primary school students from mid-2000s to mid-2010s, the ‘Save the Earth’ campaign has been a significant part of their elementary education.


More commonly, the weather is perhaps the most exploited talking point in small conversation. No one cares about the discussion when they bring up the weather. And still, it reveals so many observations and insecurities all of us collectively have about the changes in our environment that we routinely observe. It is then a cause of wonder why environmental issues are not at the forefront.


While the last couple of decades has seen an intensification of engagement towards socio-political issues by writers, artists, and such members of what Ghosh calls ‘the intelligentsia’, this movement has not been able to capture outrage towards acts of climate injustice. Climate change is a global phenomenon free of the boundaries of nation, religion, and class. Yet, the brunt of climate change is invariably borne by marginalised communities and those living in already fragile ecosystems. Ghosh links this lack of sufficient action on our part to two things.


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Firstly, in his book, he makes a very interesting observation about the regularity of bourgeois life. The pattern of middle-class settlements reflect uniformitarian expectations; their lifestyles depict a level of comfort that states they’re above the instability of the lower classes. “highly improbably events for them belong not in the real world, but in fantasy,” he writes.


When the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 happened, Ghosh who went to Nicobar islands on a writing assignment, observed that a shoreside town had completely been razed. Those who settled along the seashore had mainly been educated, middle-class Indians from the mainland. In contrast, the interiors of the island, where indigenous islanders lived, were unscathed. The settlers had paid a heavy price for what Ghosh calls the “bourgeois belief in regularity”, proving yet again that the colonial depiction of affluence was not worth the cost.

Indian Ocean Tsunami 2004 (Photo Source: India Today)


The Pandemic is a reminder that the idea of stability is deeply embedded in our middle-class lives. There had been multiple pandemics, epidemics, and health crises in the past, and several scientists had predicted that it was only a while until we’d be facing another. Yet, the way the past year has turned out was unprecedented. What had made this Pandemic different from everything was its gigantic scale, and how it affected first-world countries and upper-class populations, in addition to the rest of the world.


The fact that The Pandemic did not discriminate was a hard pill to swallow, making it harder for privileged populations to prepare adequately for this ‘highly improbable’ crisis. And perhaps the nature of the pandemic can just be described in this sentence by Ghosh: “… a world of insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are nothing if not inconceivably vast.”


For example, in Delhi and elsewhere in the country, healthcare systems couldn’t bear the burden of the peak of the second wave of the Pandemic. It led to many extremely well-connected and affluent people resorting to Twitter for calls of help for oxygen, hospital beds, and other such health resources. In this peak, many noted that this healthcare crisis was not new to the Pandemic. Healthcare is severely underfunded, and most of the country faced a crisis of access to it on a regular. The healthcare system has not collapsed, it barely existed, said many on the internet. It needs extensive reforms, maintained many others.


But how do citizens demand these urgent, massive reforms, in this era?


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If the past year was marked by tumultuous environmental challenges, it was also marked by the state bulldozing towards ecological destruction and never-before-seen political suppression of public environmental movement. First came the draft EIA 2020, which sought to weaken environmental protection policies; then came the suppression of the voices protesting against EIA. And finally, in one of its most controversial moves: Young environment activist Disha Ravi’s arrest in the ‘toolkit’ case.


In such unsteady political circumstances where few things seem to have a concrete impact, it is important to ask: can our action bring about change?


The second thing Ghosh links the lack of sufficient action in the right direction to is: ‘politics of identity' and ‘politics of sincerity’. As a writer who has explored climate in the past through his novels, his book serves as a call to action for artists and writers to incorporate elements of the environment more frequently in their stories.


Literature, he says, has largely ignored the most pressing problem of our time. He posits that it is so because fiction and art largely focus on an “individual moral adventure” instead of “the collective”. But literature is not just a moving force for the masses, it is also a reflection of humanity in its various ages. Just the way novels are a narrative of identity, he says, personal politics has become a ‘journey of self-discovery' for many; politics is not primarily concerned with public affairs anymore. And so, in both these processes, the environment and the non-human elements end up as an insentient backdrop, and not as entities that warrant a closer and prolonged examination.


Moreover, when politics is conceived as a moral journey—and a performance of personal expression—it has less to do with collective action. The public sphere acts through petitions, posters, and Twitter hashtag campaigns, all of which actions Ghosh thinks only serve to make people feel like they belong in a group. In this process, the gap between public action and the realm of actual governance invariably widens. The bigger stakeholders—corporations, governments and public officials—are ruled by their imperatives, and have low grounds to consider the public sphere.


Because stakeholders won’t be moved until there is substantive resistance, it leaves ‘politics of sincerity’ as the public’s last resort to move large groups of people. Political positions about the climate crisis are then perpetually seen in terms of individual choices and sincerity. For example, the 2018 campaign around giving up plastic straws to save turtles in the ocean. The idea comes from a good place, but it is not enough.


The scale of climate change is so immense that individual choices will make little difference until decisions are taken and acted upon by the larger stakeholders. “One of the wickedest aspects [of climate change] is that it may require us to abandon some of our treasured ideas about political virtue: for example, ‘be the change you want to see’,” writes Ghosh. “What we need instead is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped.”


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This brings us back to our first question: How do citizens demand urgent, massive reforms, in this era?


While Ghosh recognizes the spreading sense of urgency about climate change, he also states that it is hard to see how popular protest movements could gain enough momentum within such a narrow timeframe: movements take years to build and the nature of climate crisis is such that every year gone without drastic policy change means the subsequent worsening of climate.


“…if the securitization and corporatization of climate change is to be prevented, then already existing communities and mass-organizations will have to be in the forefront of the struggle,” he says. And then, in perhaps is what his most contestable opinion in the book, he postulates that it is religious groups that can successfully be the torchbearers of the climate movement.

Amitav Ghosh


India is notorious for its saffronization. Religion as a force of mass-mobilization has only led to a more divided, polarized, and politically sensitive climate; moreover, it is a vehicle for perpetuating hate against minorities. In such a condition, it is difficult to see how—if ever—religion can bring about the much-needed climate policy changes without setting fires across the country.


The question is such that there perhaps is no correct answer. And that is exactly why we need more intensified discussions around climate politics, a point that the book drives home very well.


You can read more about the book here.

 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.

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