Interview: Amitav Ghosh on the Novels, Commerce and Sociology of Climate Change

'When you actually have a different genre for climate change fiction, it becomes something separate that is not connected with the seriousness of everyday life. But it is absolutely integrated into our everyday life.'

In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh’s new book of essays, the author examines the failures of storytelling, history and politics that have led humanity to its current predicament in the form of today’s climate crisis.

The slim volume is wide-ranging in scope: among other things, Ghosh traces the effects of the Cartesian dualism that led humanity to see itself as separate from nature on the mainstream novel; tells the story of his own family’s encounter with climate disaster; asks what would happen to a coastal city like Mumbai in the event of a storm surge; and argues that empire is as much a part of the making of the climate crisis as capitalism.

In a conversation with The Wire, Ghosh answers questions about the most urgent impulses behind the writing of the book, and how he feels about the framing of climate change as a distant phenomenon, both in storytelling and in politics.

You explore the failure of the contemporary novel, specifically literary fiction, to address climate change. Was the novel always going to be central to the project?

I’m looking at the novel as a symptom of a broader imaginative failure. The novel is one form of writing but I think this failure extends to all forms of writing, including journalism. It’s been very interesting for me because I’ve had so many young journalists come in [to interview me] and some of them have said that climate change is a very distant thing, it’s happening somewhere else.

And I say to them, well, if you’ve been in Delhi these last few weeks, you will have had to live through that incredible heat wave, what have you written about it? None of them have actually written about it. It’s very striking. One can’t help asking oneself why is it that people have just decided to be silent on this.

At the same time, almost all writing on climate change is in non-fiction. I’m a person who is very committed to the novel as a form. When you’re working in a medium which seems unable to recognise the world that’s around you, it raises questions.

At the same time, there are novelists working today, like Margaret Atwood or David Mitchell, who are blurring these boundaries between so-called ‘serious’ fiction and genre fiction, and also dealing with climate in their work.

Absolutely. I’ve always loved reading science fiction, I’ve even written a book that some people consider science fiction, although I don’t think it is.

What is interesting though is that when people write about climate change, it is almost automatically hived off into a different genre. So what is actually being said there? One is that climate change is not serious. What happens there is that it brings into question the idea of seriousness itself. If your seriousness is something the excludes mortal threats, in what sense can that be seriousness?

So just the very fact that climate change comes to be treated in the same way as Martians, space apocalypse (laughs). It just tells you about the disastrous nature of our conception of seriousness. This idea of seriousness then itself becomes part of a great derangement.

In defence of Martians, though, there’s a certain kind of contemporary genre fiction that deals in two concepts that you’ve detailed in your book: the uncanny and the agency of the non-human, both of which you use to discuss global warming. I’m thinking about weird fiction, as in the work of China Miéville, and the manner in which it introduces the reader to ultimately unknowable creatures. And it is this kind of fiction that also deserves to be taken seriously.

It certainly does. All these issues come most dramatically into the spotlight in relation to Doris Lessing. She spent the last years of her life writing what other people considered science fiction. But she did not. And she always repeatedly made the case, as Ursula Le Guin has done, that there is no distinction between these genres. I think Ursula is absolutely right on that and Doris Lessing was right on that.

I find Miéville’s work very interesting, and he does address the uncanny in various forms, but what is also curious about it is that he doesn’t connect those things with climate. That’s why to me Barbara Kingsolver’s book (Flight Behaviour) is particularly powerful, because it is set completely within a realistic framework, absolutely within our time. While Margaret Atwood and China Miéville’s speculations are set in the future or in alternate universes, this work is about our present day.

In order for this kind of fiction to be effective, you’re saying it should be set in a recognisable universe?

Absolutely. See, this is the problem: when you actually have a different genre for climate change fiction, it becomes something separate that is not connected with the seriousness of everyday life. But it is absolutely integrated into our everyday life. And that is why you have to ask yourself the question of why mainstream fiction can’t recognise this. What is the form of blindness that it creates, that somehow your inner state is more important than these absolutely real questions of survival.

This reminds me of something Ursula Le Guin said, that she doesn’t want to read “fiction about dysfunctional urban middle-class people written in the present tense.”

I couldn’t agree more. But this has what has happened. What is considered serious fiction is exactly this: it has retreated into the bedroom, into the individual psyche, it’s all about fine shades of feeling. And it has lost the thing that fiction once did, so magnificently, like with Herman Melville for example, or even George Eliot. The Mill on the Floss is so much about the natural world and its surroundings which make possible rural life. All of of that has vanished now from the centre of our consciousness. Fiction has become completely urbanised, focused on urbanity and the urbane. Fiction has become part of a merry-go-round which is hurtling towards its own destruction.

Coming back to the ideas of the uncanny and the agency of the non-human, there’s a moment in the book where you describe yourself caught in the middle of this terrifying, unprecedented tornado.

All our words commit us so much to an anthropocentric perspective. When we say agency we are committed to a subjectivist, Kantian position in which only humans can actually have agency.

Anyone who’s lived amongst people who live in forest knows that for forest-dwelling people everything has agency. It’s a very strange thing how we’ve entered this world view where we worship ourselves as separate from everything else. That tornado certainly did wake my mind up to something. In that sense it had agency. I have been in dialogue with it.

In some sense, it’s my interlocutor.

I think the real problem lies in thinking of nature as being separate from humankind. That has been the tradition of Western nature writing. But one of the things that climate change shows us most dramatically is that there is no distinction between man and nature, we have set in motion these changes that are now appearing to us, that are manifesting themselves in various different forms.

Now we have to reckon with this force that is partly of our own making, it’s the work of our hands. It’s no different from a chair, except that it has its own will, which we don’t understand.

Although global warming is a reality that affects all of humanity, it is the most marginalised communities that are at the forefront of the resistance against climate change. You make a similar point about the political resistance led by coal miners in the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. In India, I’m thinking of Adivasi people fighting land grabs in Odisha, or Dalit communities displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam, to name just two.

There is absolutely no doubt about it. These communities are absolutely at the forefront. What they’re seeing is that their patterns of resiliency and adaptation are essentially being destroyed. Bauxite mining is perhaps the most obvious example. It’s so incredibly water intensive. It destroys entire mountaintops. There’s clear cutting of the forests. So they see all these things and they realise that their livelihoods and patterns of life are being dramatically threatened and they are trying to protest.

Can those protests somehow be incorporated into our parliamentary form of rule, that really is the question. And I feel increasingly despondent about it because the media has come to play such an important political role. But the media will be much more interested in an Aam Aadmi Party protest, or in a cricketer turning into a politician, than in representing something which to them is immeasurably distant.

You make the point in the book that although there’s increased politicisation, it’s not being directed at climate change. But is it more the case that the political resistance against climate change is being deliberately ignored because of class and caste divides?

The sort of politicisation I was referring to, a lot of it has to do with social media, with the Internet, and what these are very good at is immediate responses. And that really is the problem: climate change is not an immediate issue that people can respond to minute to minute. It’s a long horizon issue. It’s issues like that that seem to be outside the scope of our imagining, of our thinking, of our responding, and most of all our political cycle. Our political cycle, whether here or in the United States is geared to four or five years and people are thinking within that horizon. That longer horizon, the sort of attention that these long term issues need just fall by the wayside.

There is very much a class and caste divide here, and people are certainly being ignored. You take another example. The way that factories are allowed to pollute the rivers, pollute the coast. Hundreds of thousands of people use these coastal waters. One factory that has a thousand employees and is essentially enriching one or two people is allowed to destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. There can be no doubt about it: India is a special case of something we see accelerating around the world, this sort of neoliberalisation which is all about enriching a few at the expense of the many. That’s what is happening to climate change. Climate change has increasingly been neoliberalised, it’s being treated as another kind of commerce.

Are there particular climate-centred movements you’re following in Asia that give you some hope?

There have been many movements across Asia, even within China. China actually has more effective environmental movements than India. In fact, a very good book has recently been published by an Indian scholar of China, Prasenjit Duara. The book is called The Crisis of Modernity in Asia and he deals in great length with a whole range of issues.

In India, we have had many strong, powerful environmental movements – Chipko, the Narmada movement – but the question is how to bring them together to also encompass climate change. Because we are the most threatened part of the world. We already see thousands of livelihoods disappearing. So how to bring all of this together into a broader purview? That is really the challenge ahead for activists.

There’s a difference between an environment movement and movement on climate change.  The former is geared towards particular environments, particular issues, and most often, those issues are framed in such a way that human action can make an immediate difference. When we are thinking about climate change, we are thinking about something much larger, it’s an overarching thing. It’s a broader envelope within which all our activities occur. And moreover, the question of whether we as human beings can control it or what impact we can have on it is open to dispute. So that’s what makes it very hard to create a movement around it. But that is exactly what is needed.

Also, we see governments ignoring this kind of protest constantly now. They actually have no care for people. We saw this with the siting of the nuclear plant in Maharashtra, the one in Tamil Nadu, people did everything they could to stop them coming and they forced through. I think they did this in part because of industrial lobbies and partly because some people are making a lot of money out of this.

As someone who has written extensively about the Sunderbans delta, which also forms an important part of this book, what’s your reaction to the Rampal Power Station?

I think it’s an absolute disaster. Of all the places, to site this power plant there, what sense does it make? You’ll be having these gigantic barges filled with coal going through the Sunderbans, disrupting [everything]… it’s complete madness. I’ve signed many petitions, documents, as one does nowadays, but let’s see what comes out of it.

Towards the end of the book, you compare Pope Francis’s document on climate change with the text of the Paris Agreement and find the latter wanting.

The Pope’s encyclical has had greater impact than anything else that’s ever been done or written on climate change. I think it’s a miraculous document in its humaneness, its comprehensiveness and the way in which the document is structured to reach out to people, to demystify the issues around climate change. If you compare it to the climate change bureaucracy, the entire approach has always been to mystify and technologise it, to create their own little empire, where they as experts will rule. So what the Pope has tried is exactly the opposite thing.

Unfortunately, what we see now is that this blind belief in technicity is in itself one of the major drivers of the predicament we’re in. The most moving part of the Pope’s document is exactly the acknowledgement that we have lost our way, and that this technicity cannot show us a way out of it. Heidegger argued a long time ago that when we deal with technicity it’s wrong to think of it as tools, because they’re not tools. This technological framing that we have created, we no longer control it. And he said it all the way back in the 30s: it controls us. And that is perfectly clear now. Anybody who thinks that human beings have agency and control over the technicity we’ve unleashed is deluding themselves.

Shreya Ila Anasuya lives and writes in Delhi. She tweets at @shreyilaanasuya.