Wonder why?

Wonder why?

Lead review

Wonder why?

Some of the observations Amitav Ghosh makes about climate change, and his attempts to deal with it, are not new. But he unearths unknown linkages in arts and literature, philosophy, history and politics, which makes a better understanding of it possible. He shows how inadequately equipped we are to confront it, and describes how the best tool available for it, the Paris Agreement of 2015, falls much short of its aims, and in fact represents attitudes and worldviews that have aggravated the problem.

The Agreement does not seriously recognise the magnitude of the disaster. It is, in effect, silent on the idea of climate justice and legal recompense for the victims, and has bargains, unspoken agreements and loopholes in it. Like others, Ghosh knows that our consumption culture and over-exploitation of resources only hasten the doom. But it is in his exploration of the reasons for our inability to address, or even to imagine, climate change that he stands out from other writers. For him, the climate crisis is a crisis of culture, and of imagination.

The book has three essays. The third one is about the inadequacy of present efforts to deal with the problem; the second tracks the idea about it through history; the first tries to find out why we are unable to deal with the problem.

It puzzles him that the arts and literature have failed to capture the idea of climate change, though it is the biggest challenge to our existence. The book is as much about the limits of human imagination and its expressions in the art and literature of the past few centuries as about climate change.

Ghosh makes the premise that we have dissociated ourselves from our moorings and are unaware of the non-human presence in the life of the earth and of human beings. This part of the book is the most challenging and yet the most fruitful. There is a remarkable application of intelligence and imagination on a wide range of ideas from geology through philosophy and politics to arts, which give a number of insights. There is a revelation on almost every page, and the main argument runs through them, supported and strengthened by each of them.

The focus on the individual and the failure to conceive the aggregate and the collective in the post-Enlightenment thinking works as a constraint on literary imagination. Ghosh thinks a Great Derangement has happened in the mind, which has made it impossible for it to comprehend the uncanny forces working beyond us. Climate change is unthinkable and unimaginable because historical developments have turned both fiction and politics into just a “search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery.”

The argument that self-discovery is the aim of art has long dominated the modernist thought. In the face of a threat to the entire earth, some of these ideas may need change. He questions some basic assumptions about modernity, the role of the artist, and the idea of freedom as it has developed in the last few centuries, and informs our conduct and actions.

How our idea of our place in the universe shapes our self-image in life, and our view of ourselves in the arts and in religion, has been discussed in the past. Ghosh does not mention it, but the Copernican world, in which the earth and the human beings lost their primacy, diminished man.

Arts and literature have reflected this. Sociological critics of literature have noted that while the gods had to come down from heaven to strike down heroes in Greek tragedies, it was the lowly syphilis germ that strikes Ibsen’s tragic hero of later times. While making this point about tragic fallacy, Joseph Wood Krutch says that man, after Copernicus, lives in a world which he does not dominate, but which is always aware of him.

Ghosh also talks about it, but he says man has lost sense of the world’s watch. Our inability to comprehend climate change and failure to deal with it can be attributed to this. The Cartesian worldview made it more difficult.

There are other ideas which are equally striking. He traces the rise and location of cities on sea shores and notes the discontinuities in settings common to port cities and the novel, which is a product of modernist imagination, and even the nation state. There are interesting cameo views on the influence of Protestantism, the relationship between literary fiction and science fiction, the nature of modernity with its idea of steady progress and irreversible time, the differences between the coal economy and the oil economy, the CIA’s support for abstract expressionism, and a host of other issues.

It is not necessary to agree with all these to support his thesis. Ghosh, like many others, accepts that capitalism has driven climate change, but adds imperialism as a separate category that has given it momentum. But there may be no need to treat imperialism separately if Lenin’s view, that it is the highest stage of capitalism, is accepted.

The book is for anyone who wants to get a deeper understanding of not only climate change, but our ways of life, history, thinking and imagination.

Imagination is the ability to connect disparate things, be it in fiction or in discursive thought. Ghosh connects the most improbable of separate things and ideas, and creates refreshingly new ideas. Some of them might look far-fetched and more invented than real, to some. But that is creative and original thinking at work, perhaps with some excess, on the most destructive fate awaiting us.

The Great Derangement
Amitav Ghosh
Penguin
2016, pp 275, Rs 399

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