This book is not for activists working in the field of climate change, although the Delhi launch had environmentalist Sunita Narain doing the honours, for it only dabbles in scientific facts and political ideology. It is basically for fans of Amitav Ghosh, who lap up every word he writes — and this is only his second non-fiction on the heels of seven novels and the Ibis Trilogy. That he imagined the tsunami even before it occurred in The Hungry Tide was a leap of imagination of epic proportions.
Eulogistic blurbs for The Great Derangement make one expect far too much from this volume. Naomi Klein says that “even a well-trodden subject is blown wide open.” Elizabeth Kolbert calls it “fascinating, erudite and unflinching”. Naomi Oreskes says it will make us think about climate in a “wholly new way”. But the contents fail to live up to the hype.
A fundamental problem may be that it is merely an expansion of essays Ghosh wrote from time to time with, one presumes, Nature as a subject. This deprives it of a central theme, a pivotal argument. The division into three sections — Stories, History and Politics — seems a lazy categorisation.
The first part is basically a whimsical look at the lack of natural disasters in literature. In the 19th century, we are informed, “it was assumed in both fiction and geology, that Nature was moderate and orderly.” Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, in fact, berated Michael Madhusudan Datta for showing Nature in extreme moods. “The winds rage their loudest when there is no necessity for the lightest puff. Clouds gather and pour down a deluge, when they need to do nothing of the kind; and the sea grows terrible in its wrath…” One wonders if this is real criticism — one Bengali writer trying to ridicule another is par for the course, and the argument may have no merit.
Ghosh himself, in one sweeping generalisation, says no fiction is being written which features a natural disaster. He explains this by saying “literary imagination became centred on the human” during the time global warming was creeping up on us. He tells us that such events were consigned to another genre — science fiction and fantasy. Since there must be many budding writers in the audiences he is addressing, this lacuna may soon disappear, but only if publishers stop their strict categorisations, and their unwarranted views of what works in the market and what doesn’t.
In the History segment, Ghosh puts forward the curious theory that the Asian continent is central to ‘every aspect’ of global warming, whereas the discourse remains largely Eurocentric. The majority of victims will be in Asia, particularly the Bengal delta, because of the density of population. This theory seems to brush aside the whole ecological North vs South debate, in which developing countries are demanding reparations for the depredations of the developed nations. If India and China are so overpopulated, whose fault is it? Surely, not of the West. He even says that when the carbon footprint of the West was growing, Asia chose to go in for rapid expansion (in the 1980s). So he should have blamed policymakers, really, for turning a blind eye to population growth. The author then twists the dagger by calling the continent a “horror-stricken simpleton.” This supercilious attitude is unwarranted.
So what is the politics of The Great Derangement? The author does not seem to belong to any ideological camp, and therefore puts out facts without any perspective. The Pentagon, he tells us, “devotes more resources to the study of climate change than any other branch of the US government”. Then comes a curious twist. He blandly states that the US military, the single largest user of fossil fuel in the country, is heavily invested in renewable energy initiatives. It has also made climate activists ‘prime targets of a rapidly growing surveillance-industrial complex’.
Does the author even know the nature of the beast? It is the military-industrial complex that forces the US to wage wars in the Middle East to secure energy assets. This destructive role cannot be described in a wishy-washy way, not to a politically aware Indian readership — unless the book is not meant for local audiences at all.
During the Delhi launch, Sunita Narain and the author both criticised the Paris Agreement of December 2015 without explaining its stellar points. In the book, he has attempted almost a literary criticism of the text, calling it a work of “extraordinary compositional virtuosity — thousands of words separated by innumerable colons, semicolons, and commas and only a single, lonely pair of full stops.” Is he serious?
Ghosh says the targets laid out in the Agreement presumes there will be technological advances that take care of greenhouse gases. But if climate change started in the realm of science, then it is on science that the world must pin its hopes, not on international negotiations. Did not fracking techniques developed in the US strike down petro dollars?
In sum, if the Paris Agreement is to be faulted for not using the words ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’, The Great Derangement is to be faulted for not doing justice to environmentalism, both its theory and its practice.