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Amitav Ghosh: Why modern art is unable to deal with the big issues of our times


From LA Times Review of Books: If global warming is the most pressing planetary problem, why do we see so few references to it in contemporary novels, apart from post-apocalyptic science fiction? Amitav Ghosh believes the inward turn of modern art has cut it off from nature, and that we desperately need a new approach.

Steve Paulson, LA Times Review of Books 

THE EVIDENCE of climate change is all around us — record temperatures, superstorms, the crack in the Larsen B Ice Shelf. The news keep getting grimmer, and once you really take in the worst-case scenarios of the next few decades, it’s hard not to feel numb. But if global warming is the most pressing problem facing the planet, why do we see so few references to it in contemporary novels, apart from post-apocalyptic science fiction? Where is the great Climate Change Novel?

These questions haunt the acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh. He believes artists of all kinds — but especially writers — have a moral responsibility to confront the issue, and so far, they’ve failed abysmally. In his recent nonfiction book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, he makes the case that climate solutions can’t be left to scientists, technocrats, and politicians. “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination,” he writes. We need radically new ways of thinking, even a new paradigm, to see how the Anthropocene is already transforming our lives. And who’s best equipped to show us this reimagined landscape? Artists, of course. 

It’s a nuanced and often dazzling argument. Ghosh draws on a wide range of sources — climate scientists, philosophers like Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, postcolonial theorists. He believes the inward turn of modern art has cut it off from the natural world, and that we desperately need a new approach.

Ghosh is steeped in the cultural and political dimensions of literature. In his own novels likeThe Glass Palace and Sea of Poppies, he has chronicled the lives of the dispossessed and the powerless. But as he admits, his fiction has only indirectly tackled climate change. And the challenge is daunting. How do you make a compelling story out of an abstract idea like gradual climate change? Even cataclysmic events like floods and hurricanes — what Ghosh calls the “fingerprints of climate change” — present their own artistic problems.

I talked with Ghosh about the failure of contemporary art, why culture cannot be separated from nature, and his own traumatic experience of severe weather.

You can listen to his interview with Ghosh here.

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STEVE PAULSON: You tell a story from 1978 when you were a student in Delhi and a storm came whipping through the city. What happened?

AMITAV GHOSH: It was really something much stranger than a storm. It was a time of year when there aren’t any storms in that part of the world. But that day there was a hailstorm. I was, I think, 21, and I decided to pack up my books and head back to my room in the university. The weather suddenly got worse. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw this sort of strange finger extruding from a cloud. That was really the only word I had for it at that time, because such phenomena were completely unprecedented in northern India in those days. Suddenly I saw this thing whipping down directly at me and I had the presence of mind to look for a place to hide. If it were today, I’d probably stop to take a selfie and would not live to tell the tale, but I did have the sense to go and hide. It was a tornado — the only tornado in the recorded meteorological history of Delhi. And it went down that one road for a quarter of a mile or so. And I happened to be there on that road that day, just at that time.

You write that you almost stopped to seek shelter in a place that was destroyed by the tornado.

Yes, that’s right. Other people were huddling against a glass door under an awning. I could tell that there wouldn’t be much shelter for me there. So I ran around the corner and managed to find a little balcony to shelter under. All of this literally took about a minute, though in my memory it lasted forever. After the tornado had passed, I went back and looked, and those people had been sucked through the door. I think dozens were killed. Many had been terribly hurt. It was a disaster scene like I’ve never witnessed. It was extraordinary. When I looked down the road, buses had been carried into colleges, whole sides of buildings had been ripped out. One was just dumbstruck.

When you look back at that experience, what do you make of it?

It’s a very strange thing. For many years I did try to write about that experience. I’m a novelist, and novelists like to put stuff like this in their books. And I’ve often tried but I was never able to do it simply because the very bizarreness of the experience, the very improbability of it, was such that it was really impossible to put it in a book. The novel has its own conventions of probability and believability. So someone is walking down a road and at just that moment this completely unprecedented thing happens. How do you put that into a novel?

You’re saying truth really is stranger than fiction.

That is exactly the case. Truth is much, much stranger than fiction. In fact, most of the time fiction is a very watered-down version of the world. In a novel you try to create a world that will make sense to the reader and somehow events that have such an extreme degree of improbability don’t seem to belong within those parameters.

It’s not just novelists who don’t want to deal with these extreme events. It’s our larger intellectual culture. We really don’t know how to talk about cataclysmic events. Sure, there’s the occasional major storm or earthquake, but those are usually written off as unique occurrences. For the most part, we assume that what happens in nature is gradual. It’s not sudden and huge.

It’s something even stranger than that. This whole question has become very pressing for me, especially in the context of contemporary climate change. I often find myself asking my friends — many of whom are writers and artists — how they respond to events that have a clear climate change fingerprint. It’s such an extraordinary thing that you’ll see any number of books and films that visualize the projected drowning of New York City at some point in the future.

We’re flooded with apocalyptic stories!

We are. And yet if you ask yourself or your friends, has anyone responded to the actual drowning of New York City in 2012 with a novel or story or film or a painting? There’s nothing. Absolutely zero.

Hurricane Sandy did not spawn a lot of novels?

Nothing. I don’t know of a single story in which Hurricane Sandy plays a part. And that’s an extraordinary thing because New York City has an incredible concentration of writers, filmmakers, and artists of all kinds, and many of them were very badly affected by Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Sandy hit the Chelsea part of New York, which has been a major arts neighborhood for the last 20 years. Many artists live there. Many of them lost work. Many of the major galleries lost stuff. Yet if you ever ask an artist, have you produced any kind of work in relation to this, most of them will look at you in astonishment. It just hasn’t entered their minds.

How do you explain this?

[Laughs.] I struggle to explain it. I’m saying this about New York, but the same is true of Mumbai. Mumbai is a city with a huge film industry. Many writers, artists, and painters live there. I recently met a friend and his wife, who are two of India’s most important artists. There was a terrible rain bomb event in Mumbai some years ago. Their house was flooded. They were separated from their daughter for several days and were traumatized by this event. I asked them if this trauma had ever shown up in their work and again, they just were completely astonished. It’s just not what the modern creative imagination is about.

I’ll tell you why. If you ask any artist or writer what their work is about, or what the sphere of art or literature is, the first thing they would say is that it’s a sphere of absolute freedom. And what does freedom mean in the Western tradition? In some very important respect it’s freedom from nature. Only people who are free of nature were thought to be capable of creating their own history, creating their own art. People who had to respond to nature constantly were thought to be without consciousness, without history, without art.

That’s the traditional definition of culture. Culture is what is not nature.

But just traditional since the late 18th century. That’s when these divisions were put in place. Before that, these distinctions never applied. Within the Enlightenment you have this deification of humanity, the centrality of the human and the exclusion of the nonhuman from everything. And if you think of the way our universities are set up now, what do we have? We have the sciences, which deal with nature, and we have the humanities, which deal with the human. So what about all those things that are not human? Well, you might as well say, “To hell with them.”

I would say climate change really dissolves this completely false distinction between the human and the natural. What we see now is an environment, a nonhuman world, which is completely animated by human actions. It’s the stuff we put into the atmosphere that is actually creating these incredible perturbations all around us, like Hurricane Sandy. They are not something that we could call “natural.” They are something on which we have left our own fingerprints and they’re coming back to visit us in these ways.

We often think of climate change as a science problem. We’ve emitted too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and we need a technological fix. You’re saying it’s much more than that?

It’s much, much deeper than that. In my view science can only tell us about the symptoms. These are only symptoms that we see around us. Science is very important because it’s alerting us to these symptoms. And if the scientists weren’t out there telling us about this, we would want to ignore them, because all these things go so profoundly against our intellectual makeup, our history, our education.

If the climate crisis is not essentially a science problem, what is it?

I would say it’s really a problem of culture. It’s a problem of our desires. I can give you so many examples of that, but just to take a small example: if you travel to the Middle East or to water-stressed parts of Australia, you’ll see people trying to grow lawns. They use these fossil fuels to make water. They purify seawater and create, through very energy intensive processes, very expensive water to create lawns.

And really, why? People who lived in these areas 200 or 300 years ago didn’t know about lawns, didn’t care about lawns, didn’t want lawns. So where does this desire for the lawn come into being? You have to think about a whole history and culture of people reading, perhaps, Jane Austen and imagining English greensward all around them. That becomes the model of the good life. What we are all chasing is a model of the good life that comes to us from culture.

Fiction very powerfully shapes our desires and our imagination. But even more powerfully, when fiction is translated into film. If you just think of images of freedom, what does freedom mean to us today? So often the imagery of freedom has to do with an automobile or a motorcycle.

Life on the road, when you’ve chucked the trappings of civilization and you’re off on your own wild ride.

That’s right. You’re speeding down an open road with your hair blowing in the wind. That’s really what freedom has come to mean to us. Yet we never consider that this kind of freedom is dependent on the road, on the machine that some giant corporation produces for you, and on the gas that an even more enormous corporation produces for you. So it’s really not freedom at all.

Do we need a totally different idea of freedom?

Of course. We have to rethink the centrality that freedom has within our conceptions of modern culture and the good life, and we have to start thinking about alternative ways of imagining our lives. For example, California is perhaps the ultimate example of a place where people were always encouraged to think of absolute freedom, to buy and consume as they pleased. Yet when California hit this drought a couple of years ago, they instituted water rationing and people didn’t really complain. They managed to adjust their lives around it. So we really have to think about these things. Freedom doesn’t consist of how much you consume or buy. It’s something more essential. It’s located in your mind, your body, your soul.

So to really come to grips with climate change, we need a whole new way of thinking about fundamental values, whether it’s freedom or this notion that humans are at the center of everything. We need a leap of the imagination.

Yes. We need to imagine our lives in a completely different way. And the technological fixes aren’t going to solve the matter for us. Of course, technology can help. But the reason we can’t just depend on alternative energy is because of what we learned in the mid-19th century. There was an economist named Samuel Jevons, one of the earliest energy economists. He was famous for finding the Jevons Paradox, which demonstrates that greater energy efficiencies actually lead to greater consumption of energy. It’s the same phenomenon as the paperless office paradox. Once the internet came into being, everybody thought people would use less paper. But to the contrary, they actually use a great deal more. So we can’t depend on efficiencies. We have to look at the other end. And that’s consumption. We have to look at it through the prism of our desires and our modes of living.

You said novelists don’t write about cataclysmic storms and natural events because they don’t seem to be the stuff of fiction. Yet there has been a recent surge in what’s been called “cli-fi”  climate fiction. What do you think of those novels?

It’s certainly true that there is a lot being written about projections of what might happen. But again, let me just come back to the example that I started with. There are any number of novels and films about the possible drowning of New York. And yet there’s nothing about the actual drowning of New York.

It really troubles me. When our only way of dealing with these issues is by projecting them into a landscape of fantasy, what we’re really doing is denying the reality of our lives because climate change is not in the future. Climate change is now. It’s happening all around us. It’s affecting and impacting our lives very powerfully. When we project these things so much into the future, we actually give people a way of not trying to cope with these issues as they unfold around us. The Day After Tomorrow, that famous Hollywood film that came out over 10 years ago, was actually a very good film. And yet do you think it had any impact at all in alerting people to climate change? It probably had none, because it projected all of these events into a future. So people tend to lump climate change in the same box as extraterrestrials and visitations from vampires.

So what we call “serious fiction”  literary fiction  has pretty much stayed away from climate change. It’s been left to fantasy and science fiction.

Yes. It’s not entirely the case. Ian McEwan has written about climate change in his book Solar. Barbara Kingsolver has written a wonderful novel in which climate change plays a part. It’s called Flight Behavior. So it’s not entirely absent, but if you look at the mainstream of literary fiction today, it’s carrying on much as it was 20 or 30 years ago and there seems to be absolutely no recognition of the profound rupture that divides the world of today from the world of 1990.

Has climate change figured in your own fiction?

It has in oblique ways. And let me just say here that this book I’ve written, The Great Derangement, is an introspection in a way. It’s really me trying to cope with my own inability to grapple with climate change. So I’m not pointing the finger at anyone nor is it in any way my intention to reprove other writers for what they choose to write about. That’s none of my business. So I’m trying to explore my own limitations.

I have written about climate change obliquely. But when I look around the world now and see the impacts that are actually unfolding around us in such profound and important ways, how is it possible that I have not paid enough attention to this? You know, people of my generation used to ask our parents, what did you do in World War II? And our children are going to say to us, how did you respond to this? I think the world of the arts and culture will not have a very convincing response.

You said that your goal is not to point fingers, but you do point a finger at John Updike, who in a book review once defined the purpose of the novel as an “individual moral adventure.” You take issue with that idea, right?

Very much so. But let me say that Updike’s description is correct in relation to his own practice and the practice of the great majority of writers around the world today. They are writing about individual moral adventures. They are writing about people’s individual lives. But what is so interesting to me is that Updike’s statement really comes at exactly the same time that we have this invention of neoliberal economics, where everything is really about individual choices.

So the economic system filtered into what was expected of a novelist?

That’s absolutely the case. This neoliberalism that started in the late ’80s has had a profound effect on all our thinking in so many ways. It profoundly affected the ways that artists and novelists think about their work. Look at earlier novels. Take an iconic, really great American novel like The Grapes of Wrath. How could you possibly call that an “individual moral adventure”? The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the single most influential novel written by an American in the 20th century. It’s in every way a novel about a collective predicament. If you take the first chapter, it’s really what I would call a climate novel before its time. That first part is such a powerful piece of writing. You take another great iconic American novel, Moby-Dick, which to me is perhaps the greatest novel of the 19th century, if not of all time. In what way would you describe this as an individual moral adventure? It’s not. It’s about a collective predicament. So the very idea that someone like Updike, who was not only a novelist but also an American critic — the sort of authoritative voice speaking on behalf of American literature — that he could make such a statement is itself a kind of absurdity. It just shows an utter blindness to what in fact an American tradition has produced over the years.

Updike was reviewing the 1984 novel Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif. He described that novel as insufficiently Westernized, so he believed the novel by definition is supposed to have this Western value of the individual moral adventure. Are you saying there are many other kinds of novels?

Absolutely. It seems to me that if you take the world that we are going into now, it’s very hard to treat it as an individual moral adventure. How is the life of someone running away from some terrible hurricane, how can you treat that as an individual moral adventure? We’re responding to all these crises around us.

Yet if you go back in the history of the novel — and I guess we’re talking about the Western novel — isn’t that what happens in novels? These tend to be stories about how individual lives change over time.

No, I don’t really think that’s the case. Look at some of the great novels of the Western canon. You look at Les Misérables, for example. The list is endless, actually, of novels that are really about collective predicaments. But again let me say that Updike’s summation of the novel was correct for his time, for his practice, for the practice of the great majority of his contemporaries.

If we’re living in a different age now and we need a new mindset, a different imaginative space, what would it mean to write about a universe that is animated by nonhuman voices?

That’s really the problem, isn’t it? Because the nonhuman has no place within novels, a genre that really grew out of this whole process of separating the human from the nonhuman. Again, let me let me return to Moby-Dick. One reason why Moby-Dick really is such an extraordinary novel is because it doesn’t make the separation between the human and the nonhuman. To Melville the whale is very much a creature with intention and perhaps with even greater agency than the human beings that it’s dealing with. Melville never makes a distinction in that sense between the world of the human and the nonhuman. In his book he returns time and time again to telling us what whales do, what whales are. That’s so hard to imagine in the world of today’s literature. Yet that’s exactly what makes Moby-Dick such a transcendent piece of writing. Melville was in a sense a pantheist. For him, every part of the world of man and nature was animated by forces that were divine.

Your critique is not just about the modern novel. It’s really about the humanistic philosophy that most of us have come to believe in the contemporary era. Human beings are at the center of everything, and what we come up with in our own minds is what matters. Do we need an entirely different way of thinking about art?

I certainly believe that. For me, it’s troubling and distressing because after all I’m very much a part of that world. And suddenly you realize that so much of it is completely hollow in relation to the world we face, a complete turning away from what is actually pressing upon our lives so urgently. I mean, how do you really cope with that?

But isn’t climate change hard to turn into a compelling story? It’s very abstract. It’s hard to wrap your head around this concept of very gradual change that will have catastrophic consequences. How do you do that well in a novel?

That is exactly the point. It’s not that human beings have not in the past dealt with these issues. In fact, humans have always dealt with these issues. Think of the part that storms and clouds play in the Odyssey. Think of the cataclysmic weather events that are in the Bible or even in Milton’s writing at a time of great climatic perturbation. There’s a darkness in his writing.

I think the most important thing is that novelists shouldn’t write about climate change. I mean, that’s the whole point. As soon as you conceive of your object as something called “climate change,” your work dissolves. What you have to be writing about is actually your changed reality. This is what novelists have always done. Novelists have written about war, about famine, about all sorts of things. This is the changed reality that we have to try to confront. When we try to think of this thing in terms of a single object, it does in fact become very abstract and dull. But if you look at the actual impacts that are unfolding around us, they’re anything but abstract and dull. They’re incredibly powerful, overwhelmingly powerful. It’s so interesting that Hurricane Katrina resulted in so many important documentaries and nonfiction books. And even Hurricane Sandy has resulted in some good nonfiction work. But where is the fiction? Where’s the culture? Bill McKibben pointed to this decades ago, asking where is the culture that reflects our changing reality.

Is it a matter of writing stories where, say, Hurricane Katrina figures into the plot? Or are you talking about something even more fundamental?

I don’t think I can offer any kind of program. That really is the problem. Every writer has to try and reimagine their work and think about their craft in a different way. There is just not a single program that will lead you there. If you sit around trying to write the big climate change book, you’re almost inevitably going to end up writing a kind of apocalyptic science fiction. That’s not actually the reality of the world that we live in.

In The Great Derangement, you say Asia is central to the story of climate change, but those of us in the West don’t realize that. Why is Asia so important?

For any number of reasons, but it’s actually been very interesting to immerse myself in this whole climate change literature. It’s a discourse almost completely centered on the West. It’s very strange because nobody would deny that the climate crisis has been precipitated by the very rapid growth of China, India, and Indonesia over the last 20 years. That’s actually what precipitated the crisis we’re in. Yet everybody wants to think this crisis grows entirely out of the West, whereas historically it’s perfectly possible to demonstrate that it’s not. In India, people were incredibly eager to take up the carbon economy in the early 19th century. The small country of Burma had an oil economy going back a millennium.

What changes if we bring Asia more centrally into this story?

For one thing, the history of it changes. Secondly, it also makes us very aware of issues of climate justice. Asians were denied the fruits of the fossil fuel economy through acts of power.

Because the occupying colonial powers didn’t allow certain kinds of development.

That’s right. People in India and elsewhere were very eager to take up the fossil fuel economy, but they were literally kept out of it through administrative, financial, and military means. So the inability of the rest of the world to tune into the fossil fuel economy wasn’t because of any lack of interest or capacity on their part. It was because they were actively forced out. So yes, it makes the arguments for climate justice even stronger. It really does change our thinking about these things. At the same time it’s important for people in Asia and Africa to acknowledge that this is a common human problem. This isn’t a problem that you can just ascribe to one part of the world and say all the rest of the world figure merely as victims.

To come back to your native country, India, you lay out a scenario of what could happen in Mumbai, a city of 20 million people, if a Category Four or Five storm swept through it. We really have not come to grips with what might happen.

I started thinking about Mumbai’s vulnerability because of Hurricane Sandy. I spend part of my time in India, not far from Mumbai. And when I saw what Hurricane Sandy did to the New York region, it occurred to me to ask what would happen if a similar storm hit Mumbai. Let’s remember that although Hurricane Sandy was a superstorm, it wasn’t an incredibly powerful storm by the time it actually hit New York. Similarly, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a Category Four or Five storm that could have a devastating impact on Mumbai. Even a Category Two or Three storm, if it were to make a direct hit on Mumbai, would have a devastating effect.

You see, Mumbai was originally six or seven islands. It was an estuarine landscape just like New York. But unlike New York, Mumbai has been built up into this promontory by filling in huge stretches of land. These are called reclamations, but in a world of sea level rise, it’s the sea that’s going to do the reclaiming. We can see this scenario play out on a daily basis in Mumbai. Already many times of the year at exceptionally high tides, many roads and some neighborhoods are subject to floods. Now, if a major storm were to hit Mumbai — which is not an entirely unlikely scenario because of intensifying cyclonic activity in the Arabian Sea — it would be absolutely catastrophic.

Are you talking about millions of people dying?

One doesn’t want to put a number on it, but yes, I think it would result in very serious casualties. With cyclone warnings as we have nowadays, we have perhaps four or five days to evacuate Mumbai. But Mumbai is actually connected to the mainland only by a couple of arterial roads. So just logistically to evacuate everybody out of Mumbai would be very difficult. The most exposed part of Mumbai has a population of perhaps 10 or 11 million people but to remove all of them would be a Herculean task. And we know from the experience of Katrina and Sandy and other storms that many people don’t actually leave.

They don’t have the means. And where will they go? They decide they’ll take the risk and try and ride it out. Besides, many people are afraid of having their belongings looted, especially middle-class people. So much of their assets consist of their apartment and their car that they don’t want to leave those things. You can be sure that several million would actually stay behind to experience this storm. So I think people would be completely unprepared. One thing that became apparent to me while writing this book is that I went through all the disaster preparation scenarios of the local governments and it’s perfectly clear that they’re not prepared for a major cyclone.

Isn’t there also a nuclear facility in Mumbai?

Two nuclear facilities. The city is literally jammed between two major nuclear facilities, both of which sit directly on the water. Think of what happened with Fukushima. So it’s something one really doesn’t want to think about. But one good thing that’s come out the book is that a major climate scientist, Adam Sobel at Columbia — who’s written a very important book about Hurricane Sandy — got involved with Mumbai. He’s got a team now doing impact studies on what a major storm would mean for Mumbai. And various citizens groups have also started responding.

This is quite a bleak assessment. How would you assess our prospects for surviving the climate crisis?

I don’t think we have a choice. It’s on us. We have to cope as best we can. And even if we make all the necessary changes today — if today we were to stop emitting fossil fuels altogether — we know that some of the impacts are inevitable. A sea level rise, for example, can’t be halted at this point. There are other very scary phenomena. It appears that the traditional carbon sinks — the oceans, forests, and soils — have actually passed their absorption point and are now emitting carbon dioxide. So all of this is very troublesome. You know, I’m not a scientist. I can’t make projections about what’s going to happen in the future but it’s perfectly clear that at an experiential level, human beings just have to be ready.

I was in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this year, where they have a very good climate change group. Many of them told me that this is a place that should never have been settled. It was only possible to settle Phoenix because of air conditioning. But you recently saw the heat wave in Phoenix. At a certain point even air conditioning is not going to serve you. How do you manage when the outside temperature is over 50 degrees [Celsius] as it was recently in Kuwait? So these impacts are upon us. They are unfolding on a day-to-day basis all around us. And that’s why it’s so strange that we only treat this as something that’s projected into the future.

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Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science.


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