Acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh‘s non-fiction take on climate change and our collective inability to acknowledge its danger – titled The Great Derangement – has been hailed as a landmark, which promises to change the conversation around this crucial issue. In this series, we’re re-publishing interviews which feature the writer at his forceful and articulate best.
Amitav Ghosh, the author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, speaks to Nitin Sethi about the language of concealment in which the Paris agreement was scripted. Edited excerpts
You make an argument that turning it into a moral issue will not work to resolve climate change. But that is the argument globally civil society deploys. Do you think it’s the failure of civil society to use the moral argument better or the argument is inherently built to fail?
I think it is an approach that is very ill suited to this particular problem. This whole issue of presenting it as a moral issue to my mind that actually is a capitulation to a kind of neo-liberal ideology which tries to reduce all collective action to cases of individual choices. As I say in the book, I think that you can actually argue the morality of it very easily. What are the dominant parameters of morality, especially in the English-speaking world in neo-classical economics of one kind or another? Looking at a lot of literature on the justice literature on climate change, which was very striking to me. How many approach it from a Rawlsian perspective. Essentially within that perspective the results that you get in relation to morality are not at all what you and I would imagine.
It’s been very interesting for me to especially think of it in terms of Gandhian approach to politics and morality. Part of our political priority is this whole idea that you have to be the change that you want to see. Actually, it is in some sense an embrace of complete neoliberal model that you reduce all collective action problems to individual action problems and let all collective institutions off the hook. That for me is really one of the major problems with the morality thing. Secondly, to approach this issue from moralistic perspective you shall always be weakened by the deniers. They are going to reduce it to a question of individual sacrifice: What have you sacrificed? Why are you wearing that shirt? Why are you sitting in an air-conditioned room? You are actually handing them the tool with which to bludgeon you. I have seen this so often, repeatedly. People have become accustomed to this neo-liberal individualising morality. What they want is to reduce the question of individual sacrifice. Not institutional and not collective.
Conversely, you enter this problem and you get caught up in it at so many levels. Many major climate scientists Kevin Anderson and several others, Michael Mann, they also have now started talking about this in terms of individual sacrifice.
Yes, they drive the conversation along these lines very often…
Kevin Anderson particularly. I really admire the man. I think he is great. But you can see he is filled with this kind of anger, at the same time you can see equally that this is a kind of protestant thing. He feels that he is in a church.
At a pulpit you mean…
Give up stuff. Give up this…give up that. I think there is a second thing which gets completely effaced in this. It also accepts that climate change is only about lifestyle issues. A question of making a few sacrifices here and there. If it came to that most people would not mind making a few little sacrifices. This whole discourse is a kind of concealment in many of its levels. What it effaces is that the most difficult problem in terms of climate change is the connection between emission and powers. Ultimately we are not really talking about minor creature comforts. We are talking about power structures. That is the problem that we are unable to address. The issue which holds up the negotiations and prevents the powerful from acting: what they are afraid of is not giving up their SUVs. What they are afraid of is giving up their powers.
This is the question I want to ask any of these people. That yes, you are willing to give up creature comforts but are you willing to give up your influence, your power as intellectuals. Say would you be willing to give up for India and Chinese institutions to dictate your agenda in the way American dictate agendas in our universities.
In the way that science has been set up to ask only some kind of questions and therefore get answers only of a certain nature.
That’s right. Exactly. I can assure you, if you pose the question in that way, they shall say no. That’s the question we have to ask. It’s not about creature comforts, those are secondary. What is really in dispute over here is a certain power structure. And that is what is very hard to articulate within the whole climate change thing. Power is unquantifiable that is why so much of the discussion is reduced to quantifiable metrics, the precise number of emissions and this and that. That is a way of not talking about the core.
When you hooked in to understanding the climate change issue were you clear that you need to understand the science, economics and the power games behind it? Or did that just fall in to place? The language of climate change has all kind of jargons and idioms which are to be deciphered.
I got interested in these issues around 16 years ago when I began writing The Hungry Tide since then it’s been a private concern. For 10 years I was writing this huge titles of novels, all of which are in some sense about climate change and in some sense not. I have been very interesting in it for a while. It’s interesting what you say about the technical jargon and vocabulary. I am increasingly convinced that the jargon is also a device for protecting an area of power. There is a whole climate bureaucracy now which is guarding its own ownership of this issue. That is why I think the Pope’s Encyclical is so radical. In the language, it completely eschews all the climate jargon. Yet you can see he is deeply informed about it. Yet he manages to produce a discourse which is so profoundly humane. It cracks the subject wide open.
You also address these questions purely the question of if equity and justice arises out of how much power each nation consumes. The equity in consumption of power is not spoken off at the climate negotiations.
Absolutely. In fact some of the reviews of my book have said that I am letting capitalism off the hook. The argument I am trying to make is that what we call capitalism is not just one thing, there are several iteration of capitalism. We know that East Asian capitalism was not resource intensive. Similarly Swiss capitalism is not as resource intensive as others. What we are really talking about is Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It arises out of Britain’s conquest of the new world where we have this predatory economy coming in to being. Huge resource-rich continents are in your hand and you decide to essentially plunder them. Basically what happened after 1989-90 the Washington consensus was essentially exporting the American capitalist ideology, completely a new world ideology and exporting it to country like ours. How crazy is it to sit in a country like this which is resource poor and labour rich to think that you can have two cars for every nature…
A society of that nature…
Yes, and we are already paying the price. We see it actually visible in front of our eyes.
The science of climate change is built on probability. I would think while it is difficult to convey it as a journalist it would be much easier to represent and address it in fiction? Especially in a developing country where the risks of everyday life abound and cut at it leaving the probabilistic challenge of future climate change very distant. But you note that literature and arts have failed to capture it.
This is what I explore in the book. There are sub-genres of fiction that do address it but that exactly is the problem. Fiction and the arts are only reflection of the broader societal dilemma that we face in looking at this issue. Our imaginations have become so profoundly anthropocentric that we are just unable now even to be attentive to our surroundings in a way that was not difficult even 20-30 years ago.
You look at Satyajit Ray’s films. They are so attentive to the weather phenomenon which is completely integrated in to the work. It’s interesting that when Ray’s work came out it was so much against the grain of a certain kind of modernism that, especially in the West, it was often attacked.
(Jean-Luc) Godard hated Pather Panchali and what he said was, “Pad pad pad through the paddy fields. The film is engaged with the realities of what your surroundings are. That is what modernism has come to mean. It has come to mean an increasing anthropocentricism, an increasing interest in abstract, in the formal, the human consciousness. There is no reason why novels have to be like this.
Herman Melville or Steinbeck’s word does not fit into this frame at all. It is exactly those traditions of writing and literature that have been suppressed and quite actively at that. We think of literature and arts of being self-made as it were, directly primarily by the aesthetics in a sense, but its increasingly clear that after the second world war or even before, one of the prime players in the art were intelligence agencies. The CIA, for example, massively supported abstract expressionism because it was de-politicised and was a riposte to Soviet-sponsored social realism.
In so many ways these convergences have happened in a way that you can only call a catastrophic convergence. Our sensibilities our minds, even 15 years ago would have been more open to what we are dealing with now than we have today.
Very often while the developed world in general continues to hold a very anthropocentric way of how life should be for its citizens it often asks the poorer countries to respect nature and preserve it. It sets up a narrative that helps maintain the existing power equations. Did you come across this during your research too?
All the time. It is one of those absurd hypocrisies. But, I think part of the problem lies in the word nature itself. The word is a product of the Enlightenment and it is what lies at the root of the present crisis.
Phrases like virgin forests…
Ha-ha yes, untouched, landscape, primeval and all of that. It became easier and easier for them to think that nature is something in the forest, and out there, it is not your micro-biome as if that was not nature. But all these conceptions are essentially collapsing around us. That freedom from nature that they thought they had achieved, clearly they have not. That is increasingly clear. The phrase Anthropocene world is the reassertion of the relationship between the human being and the other beings, if you like.
You read the Paris agreement and talk about the use of a language that hides the real issues. I always though the global North did it better with building a rhetoric and now we too are catching up.
That is what is striking about the agreement. The whole vocabulary is a vocabulary of concealment. It’s pulling the subject away from any kind of public participation. It’s trying to close all the windows that we might have. It produces a rhetoric that is geared towards something while all the players are doing exactly the opposite. Obama goes around the world climate is important and at the same time he allows offshore drilling.
Or shale gas…
Shale becomes the new hope. And what is his achievement…shutting down a few coal power plants. Think of the fact that they have not included agricultural emissions in their tally and its one of the largest sources. It is just not counted. Similarly the entire transportation sector is not addressed. It is clear it’s just a set of gestures. When you see what our government is doing, it is exactly the same. At one level there is lip service to climate change, at another there is acceptance of climate change as a commercial opportunity and that’s the part of this whole climate change agenda that will flourish. But at the same time look at what the government is doing, taking all the teeth out of the Forest Rights Act. They are talking about climate but speaking of coal. I see what is exactly that is happening here but I don’t see anything different anywhere else. We have essentially become so captive to a certain model of economy that it holds us captive now.
You speak of the failure of the moral positioning to address climate change. But that is perhaps the only tool that the small island countries have even as they need to keep their existing economic linkages to developed economies alive. What are they left with if this moral posture is not there?
This whole argument for morality has become our last resort, used when there is nothing left. But do you think it is going to work? I don’t think it is. When has the Western world ever responded to moral crisis? Look at what is happening in Syria. This whole breakdown and the migration is against a background of climate change. Has Australia taken any people from there? No. They have obviously no, especially the Anglosphere. It has adopted this armed lifeboat strategy. It won’t say so in so many words but it is clear. They are essentially seeing the world sink around them and they have decided that they shall and are more able to adapt and they shall out-adapt the poor countries of the world. This is not explicitly said but absolutely implicit in their approach.
You bring a passion to your essay. Do you think it keeps off some who may have read it otherwise? Or is it essential in an essay for you?
I am very surprised to hear you say it’s impassioned. To me it doesn’t seem so. Though others have also said so. So, perhaps it’s the case, I don’t know. To me, the voice of the essay seems very measured. I think it is the subject and I am treating the subject in a way that is not an expert’s approach to it. Perhaps that is the incongruity you feel. Certainly, my writing on this is not impassioned in the way Arunadhati Roy’s is. She has a great gift for that but that is not my gift. I can’t even say I feel about it in a very impassioned way. If I was impassioned I would be an activist. For one thing I am too old now to be an activist. I don’t see myself in that role. Arundhati is in some ways. I am not. This book is a set of reflections really. IN the first instance about the arts, secondly about the imagination, the human imagination and what it has become. Those are the questions that really interests me in relation to climate. As for issues of climate justice and so on I think the most difficult question is the one we don’t confront. Which is, it’s a part of the liberal imagination, post-Enlightenment imagination, early in the 21st century that everyone wants justice. This is the sentimentality we bring to it. But if you just think about it for a moment, no one has ever wanted justice.
If everyone had wanted justice, why would there be castes, clans, tribes or imperialism. The inequalities today are the greatest they have ever been. Why do we think justice is a goal that everyone aspires to? If you think like that, then one of the most difficult problem that becomes, is what if it is solved if we accept the only solutions would be injustice. What if the only way we can get the West to act in regards to this that everyone will make cuts but they shall remain the big bosses. This is implicit.
The Paris agreement lays the framework for this…
It is never stated but this is what it does. In fact, the entire Western approach to these negotiations from the very beginning has been how do we preserve the status quo? That is why it is so important to think of this in terms of power rather than in terms of technicalities. When you think of it in th0se terms it gets reduced to numbers but actually what is behind it is a relationship of power. What they want is to put in place some kind of framework that shall maintain the status quo. But this is impossible. It is an objective that they can never achieve. Simply because China and India now know that emissions is what brings you power and that genie can never be put back in the bottle. These power relations are already changing. I think they see that and that is one of the reason they have adopted this politics of the armed lifeboat.
You shall always find a receptive audience for such arguments in the developing world but how have they been received when presented to audience in the developed world, say through your lectures?
When I presented them in Chicago they were certainly completely open to them. I have just done a piece of the Journal of Asian Studies, a scholarly journal. They are doing a special forum for the book. And I have stated exactly these arguments in exactly these terms and they are very excited about it. Look, it is only a matter of putting in to words what we all know but nobody articulates. Another sentimentality that we have absorbed from liberalism is the idea of progress, that somehow everything is only going to get better. One of the very critical things about this climate situation is that we now know in our hearts that things are not going to get better, they are only going to get worse. Where does that leave us? Those of us who consider ourselves progressive. It means an absolute denial of our project. It’s a refutation of our project. In an intellectual or philosophical sense climate change really represents such a profound refutation of all the idea that we bring to it that it is very difficult to grapple with. This whole post-Enlightenment era has essentially been built upon a Hegelian vision, that spirit guides history and the human spirit is always yearning from greater freedom and betterment. And, freedom in this case means freedom from nature for Hegel and for the Western thought. But if you contrast that with a catholic or religious view of history, the philosopher Carl Schmitt says, history is a labyrinth through which humanity blindly reels not knowing its entrances, exits or its shape. If you consider that alternative view of history it is very clear that this fits our climate change scenarios much better. I think these are the things that are very difficult to articulate and enunciate even to oneself.