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  • Writer's pictureChloé Salmon

CLIMATE READS: The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh

Welcome to part 1 of my climate reading notes!

I have read few books on climate change that completely altered my thinking. Filled to the brim with astute observations, crystal clear and profoundly original ideas — ‘The Great Derangement’ is one of them. This review zeroes in on my key takeaways, in a three-fold analysis.

1. How we talk about and imagine climate change:

‘The Great Derangement’ (TGD) refers to our collective inability to conceive or imagine the crisis that is currently unfolding left, right and centre. Ghosh traces the causes of this inability to matters of language. Indeed, the language that we have developed around climate change to date is dangerously far removed from the human experience. Thinking about the implications of that has been a major focus during my masters, where I worked on the intersection between knowledge production and socio-political orders in particular: how do we know about climate change?; what kinds of knowledges are considered valid and legitimate, and what power relations are embedded in this process? For his part, Ghosh focuses on forms of literature expression in particular, raising the following questions: why is climate change so palpably absent from ‘mainstream’ literature, and what are the implications of our inability to imagine climate change?

My fascination with the language and knowledge has lead me to think more deeply about the development of climate science and the particular epistemological and ontological assumptions that are integral to our dominant paradigm. I am deeply indebted to feminist and STS scholars (Donna Haraway, Karen Litfin, Sheila Jasanoff), whose works have helped me destabilise core concepts such as ‘objective science’ and remind me that all knowledge comes from somewhere, from some particular perspective — and is therefore always partial.

The tools we currently dispose of, in order to conceptualise and communicate climate change are radically detached from earthly settings, plugged instead to imaginaries of a climactic globality. To illustrate: techno-scientific developments such as satellite remote-sensing have produced what Liftin terms a ‘planetary gaze’: offering a picture of the earth through remotely acquired and decontextualised data (1997). We have grown used to talking in terms of global mean temperature, global sea level rise, etc. concepts which are accepted as real despite ‘reflecting no one’s unmediated observations’ (Jasanoff 2010). The dominance of this ‘View from Nowhere’, I believe, is tightly linked to failures of the human imagination. The language we dispose of to discuss climate change is incompatible with the ways I which humans conceive of the world. On this, Ghosh muses, is climate change resistant to logo-centricism?

Some of my core influences: Donna Haraway (1988), Karen Litfin (1997), Sheila Jasanoff (2004).

The first section of TGD is devoted to tracing the genealogy of science-fiction and its divorce from mainstream literature. Ghosh conceives of literature as a cultural force, with the ability of sustaining collective myths of bourgeois modernity that are complicit in our current crisis. These myths are embedded in the modernist ‘partition’ between nature and culture, which is tied to the linear conception of time as ‘an irreversible arrow, as capitalisation, as progress’ (Latour 1991). These myths prevent us from seriously considering that this state of infinite progression could be disrupted by catastrophe/black swan events. Note, this is new: human societies letting go of the constant, primal fear of shattering catastrophes is a modern development.

The modern novel as a paragon of literary expression has been complicit in uncritically embracing these myths, and painting a picture of the world that is dramatically ego-centric and painfully detached from material realities. Literature is fundamentally complicit in preventing us from thinking about the world in both non-human and non-moral terms: TGD is about our inability to make sense of climate change as a disturbingly non-human force. This wouldn’t be so worrying if it was just another abstract concern. Unfortunately, there is a direct relationship between our ways of knowing the world and how we act (or don’t act) upon it.

2. On the retreat of the collective

Let’s sit with the second big idea in TGD: the disintegration of the collective as a political unit. Ghosh delves into this shift using the global-scale replacement of coal by oil as an entry point. More than a resource, oil is a lifeline to our current political-economic arrangement. Ghosh draws our attention to the immateriality of oil, and the implications this has for the political structures that surround carbon economies around the world. Whilst coal is inextricable from the labour-intensive act of mining (coal dusted faces, expansive fields and mines, labor unions) — oil is a remarkably inhuman business. Associated with networks of underground pipelines and cold hard infrastructure, oil is a political disempowering commodity. As Roy Scranton puts it, ‘no matter how many people take to the streets in massive marches, they cannot put their hands on the real flows of power because they do not help produce it. They only consume’ (Scranton 2015). Our agency as consumers is fundamentally limited, and our ever increasing separation from the levers of power hold the key to understanding why business as usual prevails.

Visualising the (im)materiality of the resources we depend on: from co-producers of coal to consumers of oil. Left: coal mines in Bokapahari, India, Kevin Frayer/AP Photo. Right: Chevron’s oil field in Kern County, California, Jim Wilson/NYT.

Ghosh’s argument: the rise of individualism and the downfall of political collectives is tightly linked to the birth of the modern novel — which has facilitated the disappearance of both the human aggregate and the non-human from ‘serious’ literature. True to Enlightenment ideals, the novel treats collective metamorphosis as secondary to individual character development. The modern novel is part and parcel of an ideology that wants us to focus our energy on nurturing our individual interiority, despite this coming at the cost of rights, freedoms and forms of empowerment that are only available to us when we stand together, as a collective.

Climate change has emerged into the global consciousness as a profoundly collective predicament, precisely at the peak of a dominant culture which has sought to banish the idea of the collective from virtually all spheres of politics, economics and culture. As a result, we have resorted to moralising climate change. The individual conscience has become the core battleground for a struggle that requires stepping out of the individual scale: identity politics and performativity play a disproportional role in climate politics today.

Moralising climate change leads to an emphasis on the spectacle: moral posturing and personal sacrifices. It is interesting that the terms used to frame how we should respond to climate change often place the onus on the individual (Recycle! Go vegan!), whilst narratives surrounding responsibility for climate change tend to point to humans as a collective race. This depoliticisation is clearly encapsulated in the notion of the Anthropocene. Here we echo a long-standing critical debate over how the term ‘Anthropocene’ erases profound inequalities within human interventions on the environment: climate change is not the result of ‘human activity’, but that of an extremely small subset of the world population (more on this soon).

3. Weaving the thread: climate, imperialism, late capitalism

Lastly, TGD is stellar in its unraveling of Eurocentric narratives on climate change. Ghosh places an emphasis on Asia’s central role, both as victim and agent. Up until now, climate change was the result of the extreme expansion of the carbon footprint of a small sliver of the human population. Following the dizzying economic expansion of the Asian continent from the late 20th century onwards, our climate is suffering disruptions caused this time by the small expansion of the carbon footprint of a much larger population. This has dramatically shortened the time available to adapt and mitigate climate change. In many ways, it is Asia’s late adoption of the dominant economic/cultural paradigm oriented towards infinite growth that has most clearly illuminated the unsustainable nature of the latter.

On the other hand, Ghosh challenges Eurocentric takes by retracing the genealogy of the carbon economy, bringing to light the integral role played by Asian nations from the very start. The reasons why industrial development was restricted to the West for so long is tied to the structures of imperial rule: ‘the emerging fossil-fuel economies of the West required that people elsewhere be prevented from developing coal-based energy systems of their own’. To push this thought to its natural conclusion, one may argue that imperialism has slowed the onset of the climate crisis. In this, Ghosh challenges the pre-conceived notion that industrial development was exported from the West to the rest of world, where no economic development would have taken place if it weren’t for the ingenuity of entrepreneurial white men.

Indeed, far from a passive actor, Asia was a co-creator of modernity. Much of Asian history is masked by Eurocentric narratives, including historical industrial expansion and pre-existing carbon economies, e.g. the large-scale deforestation induced by China’s industrial revolution in the 11th century, to name one example. Ghosh illustrates with the case of oil wells in Yenangyuang (Myanmar), where petroleum was already a primary source of activity since as early as the 10th c. AD, whereas most historical accounts traces the first oil drilling to 19th c. USA (Longmuir 2008). Ghosh muses that Myanmar may have been the world’s first petrostate, if it weren’t for British colonial wars. The neutralisation of Asian nations’ ability to develop their own carbon economies was integral to the imperial project: ‘(…) carbon-intensive technologies were to have the effect of continually reinforcing Western power with the result that other variants of modernity came to be suppressed, incorporated and appropriated into what is now a single, dominant model’. This complex argument re-introduces a nuanced understanding of the deceptive binary according to which: developed world = bad guys, and developing world = innocent, passive victims.

Challenging the origin story of the carbon economy: Yenangyaung, in mordern day Myanmar, was home to a thriving century-old oil economy. Left: Drawing in pen-and-ink by Colesworthy Grant dated 1855, depicting the town of Yenangyaung in Burma (Myanmar), named ‘Earth Oil City’. Right: Oil wells in Yenangyaung around 1915, SEG Library.


TLDR: TGD provides a welcomed counter-point to Eurocentric takes on the genealogy of climate change, whilst providing a truly nuanced understanding of the messy reality of climate politics. The focus on the intersection between climate change and literature may seem niche and irrelevant to some, however the stakes are successfully outlined: this book is about the deeper causes of our inability to imagine / care about climate change. Reading this book will make you think twice about the content you consume, and the logics/narratives/myths/world-views that are embedded within these.

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