Review of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate change and the Unthinkable

By Imteyaz Alam


The Great Derangement: Climate change and the Unthinkable (Penguin Books, India) by Amitav Ghosh encompasses the stories, history and politics of climate change in a single volume. The deftness of storytelling employed by one of the giants of fiction writing of our time is on full display in this remarkable book on the imminent crisis that 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 piece of non-fiction. Why does the master storyteller resort to non-fiction? The answer comes from the author himself: “Yet, it is a striking fact that when novelists do chose 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 impact of climate change impact is visible all around us: “That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish.”

There are 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. Ghosh has avoided jargon, and facts and figures, making the book easy to read and comprehend. The writer traces the old tradition of storytelling, religious texts and documents of modern treaties. Ghosh probes all the possible written or unwritten sources on climate change. In fact, the author goes on to compare the 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 customary preface or introduction, the book takes its reader directly to “Stories”, which is the first part of the book. In this part, Ghosh unravels the mystery of climate change and its relationship with human beings. Through stories, the author illustrates how non-human entities consistently remind us of their benign presence and their potential to create havoc. While reading the book, one realizes how 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 in the room and we cannot escape it anymore. 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. Disaster has struck in the most unexpected places. It has given us a forceful jolt. The author illustrates the case of founding of cities on vulnerable seasides during colonization and globalization. These cities were founded to facilitate trade and serve strategic purposes of colonizers. But today they are afflicted with one disaster after the other. The disastrous downpour in Mumbai, the destructive tsunami that struck Fukushima and the vulnerability of Kolkata as per the World Bank report illustrate the aspect of the uncanny in the history of our relationship 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 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 industrialization of the most populous Asian countries. Colonization turned these countries into markets and producers 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 the defining characteristic of freedom. Now Mother Nature has shown her presence, sometimes so violently that we recognize today that we have never been free from non-humans. Politics, the author argues, is much to be blamed for the crisis. The author considers nation states as the stumbling blocks in dealing with this crisis. The book reflects on the uselessness of convention and highlights unjust, inhumane and careless agreements. The book, however, reposes faith in religious leaders, groups and other civil society groups.

This book is compact and yet portrays the complete picture of the climate crisis with the least possible words and sentences. It has references of other writers and their work, which will help readers to further dig and enrich their knowledge on this subject. As one expects from Ghosh, the award-winning writer, the craft of this book is gripping, compelling and palatable. This book has the capacity to change a reader’s perspective on climate change.

The reviewer works with the Ministry of Railways, Government of India.