books climate change

Book review: The Great Derangement, by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is an Indian novelist who writes with a vivid sense of the natural environment. His book The Hungry Tide was in a pile of novels I was given for my birthday, and I thought I’d read it as a double bill with the author’s latest book, The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable.

First, a note on The Hungry Tide. It’s set in the Sundarbans, the tiger-infested maze of low-lying islands on India’s coast. It’s a fascinating place in itself, but it’s a region where the landscape can change suddenly. Rivers change course, mud banks and islands rise and shift. A storm surge can flood an island with salt water and make in uninhabitable overnight. It’s a place where environmental change is accelerated, where processes that would normally take centuries occur in weeks. Ghosh uses it as a microcosm for looking at how people and communities live with an environment that can’t be predicted.

The book follows a nephew returning to the islands to sort through some papers left to him by uncle, a Marxist, a poet and a hopeless idealist. We jump back and forth between his story and that of a young biologist looking for river dolphins with her local guide. Ghosh weaves together the traditional mythology of the area with aspects of its history as an experimental cooperative society in the 1930s. Characters have competing ideas of development and progress. They each have their own hopes and ambitions that may or may not be realistic in the unique environment of the tide country, which in some ways functions as a character in itself. It’s a great book, and while climate change is never explicitly mentioned, it’s one of the best treatments of the climate in fiction that I’ve read.

On to The Great Derangement then. Written over a decade after The Hungry Tide, this is Amitav Ghosh pondering his profession, and wondering why literary fiction has such as hard time addressing climate change. The moment a writer sets a book in a radically altered world, it gets pegged as science fiction – which isn’t taken seriously. This matters, he suggests, because literary fiction is one of the ways to track the stories that a society is telling about itself. Since it is so easily framed as a work of speculative imagination, fiction seems to be incapable of talking about climate change as reality. It becomes ‘unthinkable’.

In this series of essays, titled ‘stories’, ‘history’ and ‘politics’, Ghosh explores other ways that climate change becomes unthinkable. One section looks at the possibility of a cyclone hitting Mumbai. It’s not an area that has experienced cyclones historically, but in a changing climate nothing is so predictable. Other areas of the Arabian Sea that also thought they were immune have been hit recently. Ghosh investigates the likely consequences of a cyclone in one of the world’s most densely populated cities, the number of vulnerable people, the repercussions for India’s economy, the possibility of evacuating 18 million people. I found it chilling in a way few climate change books are, even the ones that try to be. But there are no plans for evacuating Mumbai, or for shoring up its defences. It is to all intents and purposes unthinkable.

Ghosh talks to his elderly mother who live in a flood-prone area. Would his relatives consider leaving the family home and moving to safer ground? Of course not. “To abandon the homes that have given our lives roots, stability and meaning, is nothing short of unthinkable”. And that is true of countless coastal communities, including the Sundarbans, that are right in the teeth of climate change. Ghosh describes the conversation with his mother, and decides he cannot press her on it, recognising that “contrary to what I might like to think, my life is not guided by reason; it is ruled, rather, by the inertia of habitual motion.”

There’s a lot more I could share, including how novels tell individual stories and sideline collective experience, risk and how we handle it, and how the Western model of development cannot be universalised. As an India writer, he points out the critical role that Asia plays in climate change, something I will come back to. He writes intelligently about the legacy of empire, and how taking climate change seriously would mean rebalancing historical inequalities. And of course he comments on his own writing, which added depth to my reading of The Hungry Tide. You’ll get the most of of The Great Derangement if you’re specifically interested in his main concern, which is the role of climate change in literature, but it’s a book full of insights and unusual perspectives.

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