The great Derangement: Climate change and unthinkable


Md. Imteyaz Alam

The great Derangement: Climate change and unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh (University of Chicago Press, 2016, 176 pp, Rs. 399) tells stories, history and politics of climate change in a single book. The deftness of storytelling of fiction giant of our time is at full display in this remarkable book on imminent crisis the planet earth is facing today. Amitav Ghosh, the celebrated author expiates or, in other word, introspects on behalf of fellow writers by writing this extraordinary non-fiction. Why the master story teller resorts to non-fiction? The answer comes from the author himself : “Yet, it is a striking fact that when novelists do choose to write about climate change it is always outside of fiction”.

The author rues elsewhere in the book, “If certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed- and their failure will have to be counted as an aspect of broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of climate crisis”.

This era of collective failure of art and literature in negotiating with this existential threat will then come to be known by the future generation as the time of the Great Derangement the author imagines. The book highlights the failure of collective imagination and lack of sense of urgency though the climate change and its impact is visible all around us. “The climate change casts much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish”.

There is a plethora of books written by academics and non-academics on the issue of climate crisis but most of them are tedious for general readers because of technical terms and scientific data used in these texts. Amitav Ghosh has avoided jargon, fact and figures making it easy to read and comprehend. The writer traces the old tradition of storytelling, religious texts and documents of modern treaties. Amitav Ghosh probes all the possible written or unwritten sources on climate change. In fact, the author goes on to compare papal encyclical letter Laudato Si’ published in 2015 and Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Ghosh concludes that the approach of papal encyclical is more serious, humane and just than the document of Paris Agreement.

Without the customary preface or introduction the book takes its reader directly to “Stories” which is first part of the book. In this part Amitav Ghosh unravels the uncanniness of climate change and its relationship with human beings. Through stories the author illustrates how non-human entities consistently remind its benign presence and its potential to create havoc. While reading the book one realises how the human beings take non-humans for granted and do not try to listen to them, let alone communicate with them.

The world has come out of denial mode and accepted this inconvenient truth that the crisis is staring at us. The elephant is there in the room and we cannot escape it anymore. The human beings have so recklessly abused the resources bestowed on us that we are deranged now. The bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world has been shattered. The disaster has struck the most unexpected places. It has given a forceful jolt. The author illustrates the case of founding of cities at vulnerable sea side during colonisation and globalisation. These cities were found to facilitate trade and serve strategic purposes of colonisers. But today they are afflicted with one after the other disasters. The disastrous downpour in Mumbai, the destructive tsunami that struck Fukusima and the vulnerability of Kolkata as per World Bank report illustrate the aspect of uncanny in the history of our relations with the environment.

The current model of capitalism along with empire and imperialism is one of the drivers of climate change. The vast population of continent Asia makes it critical to global warming. The writer argues that rapid industrialization of Asian countries beginning in the 1980s has aggravated the climate crisis and has brought it to a head. The author looks at the historical and philosophical context of low industrialisation of most populous Asian countries. Colonisation turned these countries into market and producer of raw material only. This restricted the industrialization process of these countries. Resistance to rapid industrialization also came from champions with high moral political authority in India as well as in China.

The modern idea of freedom is faulty which contributes to the crisis. Independence from nature is considered to be defining characteristics of freedom. Now the nature has shown its presence, sometimes violent enough so that we recognise today that we have never been free from non-humans. The politics, the author argues is much to be blamed for the crisis. The author considers nation state as the stumbling block in dealing with this crisis. The book reflects on the uselessness of convention and highlights unjust and inhumane, careless agreement. The book however, reposes faith in religious leaders, groups and other civil society groups.

This compact book portrays the complete picture of climate crisis in minimum possible words and sentences. It has references of other writers and their work which will help readers to further enrich their knowledge on this subject. As one expects from Amitav Ghosh, the craft is gripping, compelling and deft. This book has the capacity to change perspectives on climate change.