Book Review | The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable

‘The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ by Amitav Ghosh; University of Chicago Press, 2016 – Book Review written by Noel Corkery, Founding Director of Landscape Foundation Australia

“As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas”;

These words were spoken by the United Nations Secretary General U-Thant in 1971, and more than 50 years later they remain relevant.

The acclaimed Indian novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh in his book ‘The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ expresses a similar sentiment by asking the question – are we deranged? Will future generations look back at our current generation and decide that it fits the definition of deranged; unable to think clearly or behave in an organized way to respond to the existential threat of climate change.

Ghosh structures his book into three parts: ‘Stories’, ‘History’ and ‘Politics’.

In Part 1 – ‘Stories’ Ghosh focuses on the role of literature, particularly fiction, in relation to climate change. He suggests that the extreme nature of climate events makes them resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining. He argues that the climate crisis demands that we imagine a fundamental shift in thinking about human existence away from the individual to the collective, and that literary fiction can play a major role in helping that shift. But he discovers that climate change receives little attention in the arena of literary fiction. A search for ‘climate change’ in book reviews, such as the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books or the Literary Journal, reveals that most references are to nonfiction books. Ghosh sees this as a major gap because it is through fiction that readers can leave the confines of the current situation to conceptualise a future world that is sustainable and one in which humans live in balance with each other and natural systems.

Ghosh reflects on a substantially altered world in the not too distant future “… 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 arts and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they – what can they – do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly then this era, which congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

In Part 2 – ‘History’ Ghosh traces the history of industrialisation in Europe and the role of western imperialism in delaying the process in Asia, which has created a large inequality in relation climate change. While the European imperial nations undertook a spectacular process of carbon-based industrialisation, their colonies were generally confined to providing raw materials.

While Ghosh agrees with Naomi Klein and others that capitalism is a major cause of climate change, he argues that the narrative overlooks the central role of empire and colonialism. Ghosh says that to look at the climate crisis through the prism of empire is to recognise that the continent of Asia is critical to every aspect of global warming and the possibility of an effective global response. This significance rests on numbers, with the majority of likely victims of climate change being located in Asia, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and South-east Asia. An effective and equitable global response to climate change needs to acknowledge the timing of industrialisation in Europe and North America, relative to Asia. As Asian and African societies aspire to living standards comparable to those enjoyed by western nations the consequences for climate change are potentially catastrophic.

Ghosh notes that Indian historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have pointed out that anthropogenic climate change is the unintended consequence of the very existence of human beings as a species. Although the relative contribution of different groups of people have varied both spatially and over time, global warming is ultimately the result of the totality of human actions up to the present time. Accepting this reality requires both more truthful acknowledgment of history and the adoption of a human-based world view that transcends national boundaries.

In Part 3 –Politics’, Ghosh starts with a statement that “Climate change poses a powerful challenge to what is perhaps the single most important political concept of the modern era: the idea of freedom, which is central not only to contemporary politics but also to the humanities, the arts, and literature.” He notes that since the Enlightenment, non-human forces and systems had no place in “the calculus of freedom” and being independent of Nature was considered one of the defining characteristics of freedom. However, climate change now forces us to recognise that we have never been free from non-human constraints.    

At the same time, Ghosh observes that it is becoming increasingly evident that the existing formal global political structures are incapable of confronting the challenges of climate change in a coordinated manner. This failure arises from the basic structure of individual nation-states, that are focused on their own perceived interests, which may or may not align with long term interest of global sustainability. So strong is the power of nation-states that even trans-national organizations such as the United Nations, have been unable to overcome them to achieve a coordinated global commitment to seriously address climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change is an illustration of this incapacity.

Ghosh presents a detailed comparison of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the Encyclical letter ‘Lauduato Si’, (Praise Be to You), issued by Pope Francis in the same year.

He points out that that Paris Agreement incorporates language reflecting multiple compromises that were made to satisfy the interests of the individual signatory nations. It contains no acknowledgment of the practices that have led to the climate crisis that the agreement seeks to address and is similarly tepid in naming the conditions that it is intended to remedy; for example referring only to ‘adverse impacts’.

Ghosh notes the surprising contrast in writing style of the two documents, with ‘Laudato Si’ challenging contemporary practices both in the choice of words and the directness of its style, while the Paris Agreement contains no acknowledgement that something is wrong with our current paradigm of perpetual growth and consumption of the environment. The Encyclical, which has the subtitle “on care for our common home”, is strongly critical of the widely held paradigm of unlimited growth. It emphasizes that “… it is because of our commitment to this technocratic paradigm that we do not see the deepest roots of our present failures, which come from the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of perpetual technological growth.” ‘Lauduato Si’ is also critical of consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming, and calls on all people to take swift and unified global action.

Ghosh provides a thought provoking proposition on the role of religion in addressing climate change. He observes that major religions transcends national boundaries and strongly influence on beliefs and behaviours of many people, regardless of the national political or economic system in which they live. The scale of this influence is indicated by the Pew Research Centre survey which estimated that 84% of the world population in 2010 identified with a religion. Ghosh sees the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change as a positive trend and a sign of hope.

Another entity with global reach is the United States military, which Ghosh discusses in relation to its climate change response. The head of the US Pacific Command in 2013 identified climate change as the threat most likely to “cripple security environment” in the Pacific Region. While the US military is investing heavily in renewable energy projects, which are projected to be $10billion by 2030, this investment is occurring in parallel with a highly negative aspect of the climate change response, which Christian Parenti, an American journalist and author, refers to as the “politics of the armed lifeboat”. This response combines “preparations for open ended counter-insurgency, militarised borders, and aggressive anti-immigrant policing”. Adoption of this position by the world’s most powerful nations is creating the prospect of ‘unthinkable’ consequences for millions of people in Asia, Africa and elsewhere who will become climate change refugees.

In conclusion and despite all of the challenges and obstacles to achieving a coordinated and effective global response to climate change, Ghosh expresses a note of hope by saying:

“I would like to believe that out of the current struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes than those who preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped during the time of its derangement; they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature.”

Like many landscape architects, my thoughts about climate change tend to focus on what I can do at a personal level and through my professional work, to help address the challenge in a practical way. But reading Amitav Ghosh’s book has provided an enlightening context for those efforts. ‘The Great Derangement’ provides a much deeper and broader understanding of the historic origins and current causes of climate change, together with possible avenues to address it.

A striking aspect of the book is Ghosh’s capacity to discuss climate change in depth from three very different perspectives of human activity; ‘Stories’, ‘History’ and ‘Politics’, which I found engaging and informative. The overriding thought he provokes is that climate change is highly complex and has deep roots in the carbon-based Industrial Revolution, occurring in the context of current social, cultural and economic systems. Ghosh makes the case that the global political structure based on individual nation-states has proven incapable of effectively addressing climate change. His discussion of the potential for religious leaders to help shift the beliefs and behaviours of a large portion of the global population in relation to climate change is compelling. It prompted me to reflect on the potential for multi-nationals, with their similar level of global reach, to make a positive contribution to addressing climate change.

‘The Great Derangement’ is very well written and I would highly recommend it for gaining a deeper understanding of climate change in the context of our global political, economic, social and cultural systems.

Amitav Ghosh is an award-winning novelist and essayist whose books include The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In an Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and the Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire

The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable
Amitav Ghosh, 176 pages. Published by The University of Chicago Press
https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo22265507.html

About Damian Holmes 5513 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/damianholmes/