Aug 22, 2016
Amitav Ghosh thinks the world has gone mad — or at least that’s what the title of his new book suggests.
“The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,” the Indian author’s latest work of nonfiction, raises the alarm, once again, that the planet is in danger from rising temperatures and sea levels. In the book, which goes on sale outside of India next month, the award-winning writer takes aim in particular at other writers, lambasting them for failing to reflect such a grave matter as climate crisis in their works.
“What is so ironic is that writers, especially in the last 100 years or so, have almost unconsciously taken on the task of being in the avant-garde — of seeing what lies ahead,” Ghosh told Sixth Tone. “That’s why it’s so strange to think that, in literary fiction at least, climate change has almost no presence.”
Ghosh tackled the climate question following completion of his “Ibis” trilogy, which occupied all of his time between 2004 and 2015. Set against the backdrop of the opium trade, the historical fiction collection follows the path of its central characters as they sail between India, Mauritius, and China.
“It was during this period that we began to live with the unfolding disaster that is climate change,” he said, “and things became more and more urgent and clear.”
Ghosh spoke to Sixth Tone about the “inescapable” nature of climate change, the successes and challenges of China’s response to it, and the role of writers and artists in spreading the word about the danger mankind is facing.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: What prompted you to write this book, and what is the significance of the title?
Amitav Ghosh: It was very clear to me, starting about five years ago, that we are in some kind of transition to a climate crisis, and somehow it doesn’t seem to register to us, to our leaders, or to our collective consciousness. So it became really a question for me to try and figure it out — what is happening, what is going on. The question I am trying to explore in the book is why it hasn’t registered.
If you consider the ways in which the whole world is progressing right now, if you go to Hong Kong, Miami Beach, or Mumbai and see people building closer and closer to the water, at exactly the time the water is rising, at exactly the time these catastrophic rain events are happening, it makes you realize that something is out of whack. What is happening in the world, and our ways of processing it and approaching it, are completely out of whack. It’s similar to those people who stand in front of some horrible calamity that is approaching — for example a runaway truck — and they take pictures of themselves until the truck comes and hits them. That’s the kind of [deranged] world we’re in.
Sixth Tone: You come down hard on writers and artists in general, saying they need to do more to reflect climate crisis in their work. Why?
Ghosh: Within culture in general, certainly there is more awareness of this issue now — the Rio Olympics for example [where climate change was a theme of the Opening Ceremony] — so many Hollywood people have been talking climate change. President Barack Obama talks about it a lot. Which is why the question that is doubly interesting and important to me is: Why do art and literary fiction not respond?
In a way, literary fiction represents “high seriousness” within contemporary culture, or at least it prides itself on representing high seriousness. So how do we come upon this conception of seriousness that actually excludes the most serious threats that we face? Inasmuch as climate change is talked about at all, it’s within genres such as fantasy and science fiction, which in itself tells you something disturbing about this whole situation: that climate is lumped together with extraterrestrials, vampires, and fantasy.
Sixth Tone: Next month, China will host the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, and it has pledged to ratify the Paris Agreement global plan to limit climate change ahead of that event. How would you evaluate China’s efforts around climate change?
Ghosh: It’s certainly the case that China seems to be responding to climate change quicker than most other countries in the world. This is not my opinion — Lord Nicholas Stern, who wrote the “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change,” said that China, amazingly, did something last year that no country has done until now, which is to reduce its reliance on coal by 5 percent.
Mitigation is one aspect; another is preparedness. One of the things we know that’s going to happen with climate change is extreme rainfall events, intensifying hurricanes, and a couple of weeks ago we saw this very intense storm hitting the south China coast, and evacuation procedures worked impeccably. Compare that with the evacuation measures before Hurricane Sandy in New York, or Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and you suddenly see what a great difference there is.
China in terms of population is one of the most vulnerable areas because so much of its population and industry are concentrated in coastal areas, actually within a three- or four-meter rise of sea level. So how should people respond to the rising sea level? Obviously, it’s managed retreat. Every sensible government now will start putting in place policies for managed retreat. The Netherlands, for example, has extensive planning for this.
It’s basically the countries that are completely in the grip of the free-market model that are unable to plan for this problem. If you were to ask me, perhaps one of the very few places in the world that could pull off a managed retreat effectively is China.
Sixth Tone: With so many hundreds of millions of people living along such a narrow slice of coastline, how practical is that?
Ghosh: Let me compare to the U.S., where fifty percent of the population live along a very narrow shoreline. In America, no one is even talking about a managed retreat. Traveling around China this time, every time I have spoken of climate change there is an acceptance of the issue that is lacking certainly in the U.S. and, I suspect, in the United Kingdom. In China, people are aware of the problem. They understand the seriousness of it, the enormity of what we face.
Sixth Tone: You describe China’s one-child policy as draconian and repressive, but say it might one day be viewed through different eyes, as a policy that warded off climate change, if only for a little while. Yet this policy demanded huge sacrifice by Chinese citizens. Will people have to suffer to stave off climate change?
Ghosh: I’m not proposing solutions. In this case, I was talking historically. Obviously, if China’s population were four or five hundred million more than it is now, the consumption of resources would have been proportionally greater. That’s the point I was trying to make.
But it is certainly clear that in order to deal with this problem on this scale, it’s not going to be solved through small fixes. We’re seeing certain emerging solutions that are clearly going to change ways of life — in California, for example, which is after all the free-market paradise, a “Be what you want to be” type of society. It’s been the official ideology of California for so long. But they have accepted water rationing without protest. That’s really the paradigm of what’s going to come about. We’re going to see more and more policies of this kind.
Similarly, if you try to think of what managed retreat would require, you have two options: Either you let people drown, or you try to get them to pull back. Which is the more humane policy?
Sixth Tone: You said that these days everybody with a computer and a web connection is an activist. What role do you see for the ordinary man or woman in the fight against climate change, particularly in countries like China, where there is restricted access to the internet?
Ghosh: This is the great paradox, that in China, where there is perhaps restricted access to expression, information, and so on, there does seem to be — let’s say on environmental issues like the pollution in Beijing and Shanghai — a popular movement against it, while in India, where there are no restrictions on information or expression, there is not.
Similarly, the highest level of climate denialism is in English-speaking countries, which on the whole don’t have any restrictions on information and expression. Where information is freely available, those are the places where people are most resistant to the realities of climate change.
I don’t know if one can explain this paradox easily, but one obvious reason why people resist this conclusion is because it threatens their way of life. They are used to high-consumption lifestyles and actually they don’t care if this is going to destroy the world. They just want to preserve what they have.
Sixth Tone: Are there things that China could learn from India, and vice versa, in terms of the environment and how to prepare for the future?
Ghosh: Inasmuch as resiliency exists in India, it’s at the village level, with the rural poor. Once climate change is upon us, it’s really the middle class that’s going to be poor, because essentially they’ll be facing survival conditions. It’s the people who already have survival skills who are going to get through this.
There’s a lot to be learned from rural areas of India, for example, how to plant drought-resistant crops, how to maximize the usage of water in order to grow crops. These are areas in which Indian farmers still have a huge amount of wisdom.
What India could learn from China are these strategies of mass evacuation, because those are exactly the things we are going to need in the years to come.
(Header image: Amitav Ghosh, author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, poses for a portrait, in Shanghai, Aug. 21, 2016. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)