A review of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
By Suvrat Raju
“The Great Derangement” is a very well written book. It is difficult to write accurately and readably about a complex issue, but Ghosh explores the cultural, historical and political questions surrounding climate change with remarkable grace. Ghosh’s attention to detail, his research into the history of the British Empire in Asia, and his fondness for science are evident throughout the book. And at times, in some of the parts that I found the most enjoyable, he throws in obscure but fascinating details—an eleventh century Chinese poem about coal use, for example.
Ghosh divides the book into three parts —“stories”, “history” and “politics.” In the last two parts, as I will describe later in this review, Ghosh turns to the contemporary politics of climate change and his intervention deserves careful analysis.
However, some of the most interesting arguments in the book are contained in its first part, where Ghosh starts by asking why “contemporary culture finds it so hard to deal with climate change.” This, he believes is “perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense”. Ghosh is absolutely right about the importance of this question although his focus is on a narrow cross-section of literature, which is sometimes termed “mainstream fiction”.
That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish. To see that this is so we need only glance through the pages of a few highly regarded literary journals and book reviews, for example, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Literary Journal and the New York Times Review of Books … Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. (p.9)
Ghosh observes that “serious” literature relies, implicitly, on a soothing notion of the regularity of nature, in which only mildly improbable events take place on a backdrop that portrays the mundane flow of life. “Before the birth of the modern novel … fiction delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely. Narratives like those of The Arabian Nights … proceed by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another.” (p.22) But now mainstream fiction revels in everyday events and the violent natural occurrences that would be a consequence of climate change no longer have any place in the “mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence”. (p.32)
Ghosh outlines a powerful critique of this tendency. He is right that this branch of “fiction itself … has been diminished by it.” (p.96) But surely, it is a little presumptuous to frame this in terms of a crisis of culture? After all, as “serious” literary intellectuals and journal-editors themselves bemoan, their broader impact on culture — and even on literature — is remarkably limited.
The hesitancy of mainstream literary journals to discuss climate change is admittedly a serious problem for them, but the difficulties of contemporary culture go deeper than this intellectual myopia. In fact Ghosh hints at what, I believe, is the real difficulty but then doesn’t pursue if further: “this challenge arises … from the complexities of the technical language that serves as our primary window on climate change.” (p.12)
Why should technical language pose a challenge to culture? The obstacle originates in the systematic alienation of science from popular culture and discourse. This is not the result of popular choice. To the contrary, as anyone who has organized a scientific outreach program can corroborate, people are tremendously keen to learn more about science, if this information is made accessible to them.
There is a simple reason that this desire for knowledge has not translated into broad-based scientific education. Just as feudal societies benefited from keeping people away from literacy, modern capitalist society thrives on alienating people from scientific knowledge. In a society that is reliant on science and technology, this subverts democracy by ensuring that most people are not empowered to participate meaningfully in decisions that concern them. I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far but in some respects the modern scientist occupies the position of the medieval priest: serving a dominant elite, while handing down interpretations of obscure literature and phenomena that most people cannot make sense of independently, and cannot incorporate into everyday discourse.
On the other hand, Ghosh is absolutely right that another reason that the West finds it so difficult to have an honest discussion about climate change is because the issue is tied up so closely with the history of imperialism. It is a fact that the United States and countries in Europe, which constitute about an eighth of the world population are responsible for almost half of cumulative human emissions of carbon dioxide today. Ghosh points out that this underpins the position of these countries in the global power structure. “This is because the nature of the carbon economy is such that power, no less than wealth, is largely dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels.” (p.191)
But what is the origin of this inequity in global carbon emissions? As Ghosh explains, the Chinese had pioneered the use of fossil fuels well before their adoption in Europe. An incipient oil industry in Burma developed before the oil industry in the United States. These developments were prevented from advancing further by force.
The emerging fossil-fuel economies of the West required that people elsewhere be prevented from developing coal-based energy systems of their own, by compulsion if necessary. As Timothy Mitchell observes, the coal economy thus essentially ‘depended on not being imitated’. Imperial rule assured that it was not. (p.144)
These facts are seldom acknowledged in Western discourse, which also ignores the coerced contribution of the rest of the world to the industrial revolution—this involved, not only plundered resources, but also appropriated scientific and technical knowledge. Ghosh acerbically notes that there is really only “one feature of Western modernity that is truly distinctive; its enormous intellectual commitment to the promotion of its supposed singularity”! (p.138)
Given this powerful and erudite analysis of imperialism, it is surprising that Ghosh moves away from his anti-imperialist viewpoint when he turns to the question of what one should do to address climate change. Decolonization raises a paradox for him.
Asia has played yet another critical part … that of the simpleton who, in his blundering progress across the stage, unwittingly stumbles upon the secret that is the key to the plot. … What we have learned … is that the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practised by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every human being. (p.125)
He then goes on to ask
Should we perhaps abandon the quest for Western-style prosperity, so that a greater number will survive to take the struggle for justice forward in some uncertain future? But this would require the abandonment also of the project of “modernization” that was often implicit in decolonization: it would put a freeze on a system of colonial-style inequality. (p.199)
Ghosh does briefly point out that “Western-style prosperity” is not the only model of economic development. But the passage above accurately captures the central dilemma in the book: Ghosh doesn’t see any path to reconciling the task of redressing global inequities with the even more urgent task of combating climate change.
Church as saviour?
Ghosh finds hope only in the “growing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change.” (p.213) And he describes, at some length and in approving terms, the Pope’s encyclical letter of May 2015, Laudato Si’, that deals with the environment.
This is puzzling, especially given Ghosh’s own eloquent explanation of the link between imperialism and climate change. After all, it was the Church that provided the moral backbone for conquest and colonialism. In 1452 CE, Pope Nicholas V granted authority to the Portugese king to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans … and other enemies of Christ … to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” And the capture of North America, and the destruction of its indigenous societies was justified by the Church through the “doctrine of Christian discovery” in 1493 CE — a doctrine that was cited as late as 1823 CE by the U.S. supreme court in denying rights to its indigenous inhabitants.
And while the Catholic Church is, thankfully, far weaker than what it was in medieval times, it would be a serious error to believe that it has reformed fundamentally. Even on the ecological crisis, while successive popes, and not just Francis, have made progressive-sounding statements, the Church’s actions tell a different story. Pope Francis’ encyclical letter is closely aligned with the doctrine expounded by Pope John Paul II. For example, on 1 January 1990, Pope John Paul held forth on the “ecological crisis” explaining that the “gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions.” He even paid lip service to the issue of global inequity explaining that “some heavily indebted countries are destroying their natural heritage” but that “it would be wrong to assign responsibility to the poor alone for the negative environmental consequences of their actions. Rather, the poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty.”
Precisely how the Vatican intended to help poor countries out of ecological crises became evident soon afterwards. In 1991, Jean Bertrand Aristide, the elected president of Haiti—the site of one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes—was unseated in a military coup. Aristide was an ordained Catholic priest but the Church hierarchy was uncomfortable with his ideas about “liberation theology”. So the Vatican supported the coup throughout the three year reign of the military leaders, and in that period it remained the only body in the world to have diplomatic relations with the regime.
The immediate predecessor of the current pope, Pope Benedict, was at the forefront of the Church’s efforts to rein in religiously based social justice movements in the Western hemisphere. While he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he explained the “risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use … concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought.” And he expressed his grief that “faced with the urgency of sharing bread, some are tempted to put evangelization into parentheses, as it were, and postpone it until tomorrow: first the bread, then the Word of the Lord. It is a fatal error to separate these two.”
While the public images of individual Popes vary — Benedict was portrayed as a conservative and Francis is portrayed as progressive— it takes only a glance at the policies and doctrines of the Church to see that they are characterized by a remarkable level of continuity. And its actions over centuries have shown it to be deeply resistant to any radical notion of global justice. So it makes little sense to look to the Church for leadership in the movement against climate change.
The differentiated responsibilities of environmental activists
Perhaps Ghosh was motivated by the fact that religious movements “transcend nation states” (p.215). It is true that mitigating climate change requires concerted global action. Locally, carbon dioxide, which is the main cause of human-caused climate change, is a harmless gas. Its harmful effects on human beings are indirect and occur through its contribution to the greenhouse effect. But the net anthropogenic contribution to the greenhouse effect depends on the sum total of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity all over the world. So, the sincere efforts of a village in Kerala in reducing its climate footprint can be entirely undone if a few Americans across the world choose to stay in a suburb and commute to work every day using their own cars.
This makes the problem of climate change completely different from other environmental problems, such as pollution, waste-management or even conservation issues. For example, if a city takes steps to address its air or water pollution, it is left with the benefit of clean air and water irrespective of the actions of governments or corporations in another part of the world. This gives local movements a tangible goal to work towards—something that is absent in the case of climate change that can either be prevented at the level of the whole world or not at all.
This should not be a dead end for activism. It simply means that environmental activists need to think more carefully about how to address the problem. However, the careful strategizing and global solidarity among movements that would be required to successfully address this issue is hampered by the peculiar tone that the climate-debate has taken on in progressive circles.
It is clear that climate change is a serious and urgent environmental problem. However, some activists, almost certainly well-meaning, go beyond this and frame the issue as a singular “crisis that threatens our survival as a species”. This idea is not based on any scientific consensus. To the contrary, an examination of the possible consequences of climate change shows that it is a different problem—both in form and in magnitude—from, say, large scale nuclear war, which could indeed threaten the very existence of civilization. To assert this is not to deny the magnitude of the issue of climate change; it is simply to point out that exaggerating the scope of the problem is not only unscientific, but also leads to political errors.
Ghosh himself tacitly adopts this apocalyptic tone in this book. And this is what seems to have led him to move reluctantly away from his anti-imperialist perspective and look to the Church for succour. It also seems to be the reason that he makes short work of the idea that societies could “adapt” to climate change, for how can one adapt to apocalypse?
However, I would argue that adaptation—the strategy of anticipating the consequences of climate change, and taking action to help communities adapt to these consequences—is precisely what movements in developing countries should focus on. A significant advantage of focussing on adaptation over “mitigation”—the strategy of preventing climate change by limiting greenhouse gas emissions—is that it would lead to gains for local populations that are independent of the actions of rich countries.
Consider, for example, the issue of sea level rise which, as Ghosh correctly identifies, is one of the primary expected negative consequences of climate change. The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that with modest mitigation or the business as usual scenarios (so-called RCP 4.0 and RCP 6.5) “for the period 2081 – 2100, compared to 1986 – 2005, global mean sea level rise is likely” to be in the range of 0.32 to 0.63 metres – between about one to two feet. This is, admittedly, a serious problem but it is not one for which it is impossible to prepare.
On tropical cyclones—a danger that Ghosh discusses extensively—the IPCC report is rather ambivalent. It notes that “globally, there is low confidence in attribution of changes in tropical cyclone activity to human influence” due to insufficient “observational evidence [and] physical understanding”. But, with this caveat, it states that “projections for the 21st century indicate that it is likely that the frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged, concurrent with a likely increase in both global mean tropical cyclone maximum wind speed and rain rates.”
The possible growing intensity of storms is a serious issue. However, as Cuba, which faces violent hurricanes every year, has shown, it is possible to ameliorate the consequences of extreme events through effective planning. In a tragic story that is repeated year after year, in 2016, Hurricane Mathew caused almost 900 deaths in Haiti; but it is instructive that it did not cause the loss of even a single life when it hit Cuba.
It should be clear that the question of how society should adapt to climate change cannot be separated from the question of class. As Ghosh points out “it is not the middle classes and the political elites … that will bear the brunt of the” consequences of climate change “but rather the poor and the disempowered.” (p.199) Relatedly, many of the measures that are required for adaptation are pro-people policies — such as better preparedness for disasters and floods, or better water-management practices for variable rainfall — that should be advocated by class-based movements regardless of climate change.
All this is not to suggest that “mitigation” is unimportant. Mitigation efforts are particularly important and urgent in advanced capitalist countries that are not only historically responsible for causing climate change, but continue to have very high per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases. For example, per-capita emissions from the United States and Europe are, respectively, ten times and five times as large as per-capita emissions from India. In such countries, mitigation efforts also have an anti-imperialist component: as Ghosh correctly points out “differentials of power between … nations are … closely related to carbon emissions.” (p.196) Moreover, these countries, having arrived at their present prosperity through colonising both countries and carbon space, are certainly in a position to not only make a transition to other technologies, but to fund a similar transition in developing countries, and so pressure must be applied on them to do so.
Even in developing countries, many measures that are required for mitigation dovetail with policies that have long been demanded by progressive and class-based movements. These include the provision of public transport and curbs on private automobiles, the promotion of railways over road and air transport, the rationing of electricity, prioritizing basic needs over luxury needs, and of course radical redistribution of wealth and reduction of income inequality. All these would lead to a reduction in emissions, but the people of India and other developing countries also have a direct and tangible interest in promoting these measures as part of their struggle for pro-people policies.
But not all mitigation measures are of this kind. Indeed the reason that governments, when they pay attention to climate-change at all, focus largely on mitigation is because, as opposed to the “everyday” measures that fall under the category of adaptation, the banner of climate-change mitigation can be used to cover large-scale capital intensive projects. For example, this was the excuse that Modi and Obama used to explain India’s decision to buy six AP-1000 nuclear reactors from the U.S. company Westinghouse at a potential cost of Rs. 4 lakh crores.
For the same reason, while some corporations, such as those in the fossil-fuel industry fund “denialism” — the claim that human activities are not relevant for climate-change at all —other corporations see large monopoly profit-making opportunities in climate-change mitigation. Thus, the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, recently criticized the Trump administration for stepping away from Obama’s climate policies not because this would hurt the climate, but rather by asking “how can America be great if we don’t dominate the next great global industry — clean power?”
So it is important for environmental movements to have a clear-eyed perspective on climate change, and reject those solutions that simply reinforce existing patterns of hegemony.
I do not at all intend to undermine the seriousness of the current environmental crisis that capitalism has brought about. I agree with Amitav Ghosh that we live in a deranged world, but climate change is not the only symptom of that derangement. Even from an environmental perspective, climate change is one of a multitude of environmental problems—some of which are more urgent for people in developing countries, and more amenable to being addressed by them. To view climate change in apocalyptic terms, and to allow it to overshadow other environmental and political issues is a trap that must be avoided in the struggle for a just and sustainable society.
(Suvrat Raju is a physicist with the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and also active with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. The views expressed in this review are personal and do not represent those of any institution with which the author is affiliated.)
 Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, Carbon and Inequality: From Kyoto to Paris (Paris School of Economics, 3 November 2015) <piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ChancelPiketty2015.pdf> [accessed 9 April 2017].
 C. K. Raju, ‘Benedict’s Maledicts’, Znet, 2010 <https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/benedicts-maledicts-by-c-k-raju/> [accessed 9 April 2017].
 John Paul II, ‘Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace.’, 1990 <https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/messages/peace/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19891208_xxiii-world-day-for-peace.html> [accessed 9 April 2017].
 Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”’, 1984 <http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19840806_theology-liberation_en.html> [accessed 9 April 2017].
 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (Canada: Alfred A Knopf). See page 2.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (Cambridge University Press, 2013). See Page 1140.
 It is true that some climate scientists like James Hansen argue that sea-level rise may be significantly higher because the IPCC’s models fail to properly account for ice-sheet dynamics. (See James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren, London: Bloomsbury, 2009, chapter 5.) This is indicative of another problem with the climate-change debate: while it is clear that human-caused global warming is taking place, our analysis of future-consequences is far more uncertain.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. See page 113.
 ‘Cuba Spared from Hurricane Matthew Deaths’ <http://www.skynews.com.au/news/world/nthamerica/2016/10/09/cuba-spared-from-hurricane-matthew-deaths.html> [accessed 9 April 2017].
 While the elite in countries like India may have a lifestyle comparable to that of people in the advanced capitalist countries, its contribution to world emissions is low. Chancel and Piketty (op. cit.) estimate that only 37 million people in India (3 per cent of India’s population) are responsible for emissions above the world per capita average; and the emissions for which they are responsible account for only 1 per cent of global above-average emissions. (See Table 9A.)
 Suvrat Raju, ‘The Cost of Nuclear Diplomacy’, The Hindu, 20 June 2016 <http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/The-cost-of-nuclear-diplomacy/article14432315.ece> [accessed 10 April 2016]. Fortunately, Westinghouse went bankrupt earlier this year, and so it is unlikely that this agreement will be operationalized soon.
 Thomas L. Friedman, ‘Trump Is a Chinese Agent’, The New York Times, 29 March 2017 <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/opinion/trump-is-a-chinese-agent.html> [accessed 9 April 2017].