Of Literature and Fossil Fuels

By Yugank GoyalSeptember 30, 2016

Of Literature and Fossil Fuels

The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

EARLIER THIS YEAR, acclaimed Bollywood actor Salman Khan was acquitted by the Rajasthan High Court in an 18-year case regarding the actor’s poaching of wild chinkaras, a species of Indian antelope. The acquittal reversed a Lower Court decision that had given him a five-year prison sentence. India is a country where poaching is painfully common, and the powerful often get away with far bigger crimes. Why, then, would hunting one of the thousands of antelopes, a species with a stable population, drag the powerful Bollywood star through the courts for years? Because this time, a community — and not just an antelope — was affected.

The shooting took place near Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, which is home to the Bishnoi community. Their religious teachings have strong provisions about caring for and protecting the environment. Stories of their extreme sacrifices for protecting trees and animals are inspirational, and photographs of lactating mothers feeding baby chinkaras are not uncommon. For them, then, Khan killed one of their own.

Two weeks before Khan’s acquittal, Amitav Ghosh’s illuminating book on climate change, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, had come out. The volume provides a testing ground for two more general ideas between which Ghosh’s argument unfolds: the modern (that is, Salman Khan), charged with human agency, and the traditional (the Bishnoi), which values in equal measure the human and the nonhuman.

In a welcome return to nonfiction, Ghosh has done what few can achieve so effortlessly: make us take a step out of our immediate, narrow world in order to question our anthropocentric privileges. Ghosh’s book mocks our obsession with predicting the future: our greatest failures may in fact be found under our nose, in the climate around us. Indeed, not to see that our path is leading us not to a bright future, but to self-annihilation is the sign of a deranged mind.

Writing on climate change usually involves a linear narrative replete with technical vocabulary. Ghosh proceeds differently. He lays out literary imagery invoking writers such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Charlotte Brontë, Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Steinbeck, and Blake. He pulls out select personal stories and makes references to his earlier writings, all in order to highlight the larger context that disturbs him, just as it ought to disturb everyone: even though climate change is one of the most ominous challenges humanity faces today, it has not been able to capture, in any profound way, the imaginations of fiction writers of our century. How will the future make sense of our sightlessness?

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time […] [they will] conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn unto the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities […] [and] this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.

Ghosh shows how the exceptional, the unusual, and the miraculous, which played such a central role in premodern literature, have been replaced in the modern novel by realist depictions of the routine. He wonders whether global warming offers us only those “unthinkable shapes and forms” that literature’s present skeleton is not capable of carrying anymore. And he shows how the formation of some of the most important colonial cities (Mumbai, New York, Hong Kong) on the edge of their coastlines took place as a “deranged” departure from the indigenous age-old wisdom that advised staying away from oceans. This era was marked by a process of “normalization,” of knocking out anything (climactically) exceptional, whether from literature or from our minds. Natural events are freakish, not part of the “regularity of bourgeois life,” which we have lodged comfortably outside the realm of our imagination. But we have to be “deranged” not to be able to recognize nature’s exceptional events and their increase. The traditionally calm winds of the Arabian Sea, for example, have lately begun transforming into intense storms, churning waters into cyclones at an alarming frequency. What would it be like if one of them hit the shores of Mumbai? Ghosh answers with a vividly horrifying picture.

Ghosh looks at climate change through the lens of modernity, and he finds a reflection of modernity itself in it. Relying on Bruno Latour’s notion of modernity as “partitioning” nature (science) and culture (everything else), Ghosh shows how literature has replicated other aspects of modernity. For him, the separation of science fiction from mainstream literature and the relegation of climate change to the former is a disturbing development. The nature-culture divide in the modern novel can be seen as the reflection of a modernity dominated by the use of by fossil fuels, and manifested, most brutally, in the colonial project; the West’s imperialism ensured that its inalienable carbon-intensive character was imposed on the colonies. The West reinforced its own modernity in such a way that “other variants of modernity came to be suppressed, incorporated and appropriated into what is now a single, dominant model.”

This fossil fuel–led modernity defines advancement and backwardness sharply: the former is constructed through individualism and isolation, while the latter through the social and the collective, just like the modern novel, which marginalized the collective emotion and foregrounded the “individual moral adventure,” to use Updike’s apt phrase invoked by Ghosh. Dismissing the coincidence between the rise of the modern novel, with its focus on the individual and the “real,” and the rise of the modern economic system, which encouraged isolation, Ghosh notes:

the acceleration in carbon emissions and the turn away from the collective are both, in one sense, effects of that aspect of modernity that sees time […] as “an irreversible arrow, as capitalization, as progress.” […] A progression of this sort inevitably creates winners and losers, and in the case of twentieth-century fiction, one of the losers was exactly writing of the kind in which the collective had a powerful presence. […] [I]t was consigned to the netherworld of “backwardness.”

Ghosh’s examination of Asia’s role in climate change is haunting. A tiny step by Asia in the fossil-fuel race over the last 20 years has brought the planet to its knees, and given the sheer size of its population, what would happen if Asia were to “advance” in the same way the West has? The continent, Ghosh observes, is a laboratory for modernity’s experiment, and as a “horror-struck simpleton,” Asia has learned that every “family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine and a refrigerator — not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.” Not all the promises of modernity can be kept, and this is something that, through Asia, the whole world has to learn.

No surprise, then, that what Christian Parenti terms the “politics of the armed lifeboat” has come to signify our own times; the images of strict border controls for Syrian immigrants in the Mediterranean are enough evidence for that. Indeed, the Syrian Civil War seems to have been precipitated by climate crises — let’s remember that a six-year-long drought preceded the war. Ghosh doesn’t dwell on this, but he reminds us that the next time we overhear Bengali while shopping for vegetables or pizzas in Venice, we ought to know this might be due to ecological migration, which was the fate of Ghosh’s own ancestors.

One of the most important lessons of Ghosh’s book is that the politics of climate change must not tiptoe around the questions posed by colonial encounters. Issues of climate justice cannot be solved without first addressing questions of equitable distribution of power, historically rooted in imperialism. And therein lies Ghosh’s disagreement with those who find the source of the problem in capitalism itself (Naomi Klein, for example). For him, even if “capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action.”

What is to be done, then? Ghosh’s call for fiction writers to employ their abilities to imagine other possibilities of the human existence, outside of what the status quo has to offer, is indeed welcome. Just like the political resistance to Western modernity coming from Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions in China, and from Gandhi in India, the literary partitioning of nature and culture has received significant resistance from the works of Mahasweta Devi, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Lewis Carroll, and even naturalists like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Ghosh’s call to remake and redefine our literary practices is inspirational. Fiction should become the smelter where human and nonhumans could be alloyed.

Just like in the world of the Bishnois!

The film for which Khan was shooting, while he was shooting antelopes on the side, was titled Hum Saath-Saath Hain, which translates as “We are Together.” Surely, “we” here means “we, the humans.” The film’s story extols traditional values of the human family. Ironically one of main songs in the film — it’s Bollywood after all — celebrates nature: peacock dance, bee’s buzz, and such. No mention of antelopes, though.


Yugank Goyal teaches Economics and Environment Science at OP Jindal Global University in India.

LARB Contributor

Yugank Goyal studied engineering, law, and economics in India, Netherlands, UK, Italy and Germany, and is an associate professor at the OP Jindal Global University in India. He has published in various academic journals internationally, as well as in national Indian dailies such as The Hindu, The Indian Express, and The Deccan Herald.


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