Book Review: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

By Rajat Chaudhuri


What did the Celt tell Alexander when Alexander asked him what it was that his people feared the most? The Celt had replied that they feared nothing, so long as the sky did not fall or the sea burst its limits. I remembered this anecdote from a book on druidry while reading The Great Derangement, a path-breaking work on climate change that sweeps across a vast landscape of scholarship, finally reaching out to chart new maps for understanding the greatest crisis that humanity faces today.

But we will return to our druid later. To structure this review, we will attempt to discuss the book in the same way that the author has organised his material in three sections: Stories, History and Politics.

The thrust of the first section is on the interface between culture (with a focus on literature) and climate change and how the former is ill-prepared to imaginatively engage with the improbabilities inherent in the latter. The scaffolding of the section on history is erected around the paradoxical relationship between colonialism and climate. Finally, the section on politics is essentially about presumptions in the philosophical concept of freedom and the rise of the “deep state”, which between them have impoverished the political and imaginative spheres, leading to their failure to grapple with the climate crisis.

Each section surveys existing scholarship and employs material and tools from various disciplines in advancing its theses, sharpening its insights, or lighting up facets of the problem, presenting us with a book which, because of this interdisciplinary approach, the clean, jargon-free language and the unwavering gaze of a master of the art of non-fiction (as much as he is of the novel), stands out in an ever-growing library of works on climate change.

“Stories”, the longest, and arguably the most fecund among the three sections, narrates the author’s experience of being caught in a freak storm in Delhi which sets him thinking about the improbability of the encounter and then about the difficulties that the imagination faces in engaging with unusual weather events and unthinkable occurrences that would become increasingly common with growing carbon emissions, global warming and climate change. From there he directs his attention to this failure of the artistic and literary imagination, this evasion which characterises the Great Derangement that he is talking about throughout this book. In his words:

What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

Building on Dipesh Chakraborty’s essay – The Climate of History: Four Theses, the author says, “I would go further and suggest that the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our common-sense understandings and beyond that to contemporary culture in general.” All through this section he is investigating why and how culture, and here he is talking mostly about literature, failed to engage with climatic events and their inherent improbabilities.

In essaying the above, he presents the competing catastrophist and gradualist doctrines studied by Stephen J Gould (Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle) and how the modern novel has been influenced by the gradualist approach which says, “nature does not make leaps”. Here he quotes the literary theorist Franco Moretti, who has explained how the languid narrative flow, achieved by inserting fillers, gained ascendancy in novels in place of leaps and improbabilities, “Because they offer the kind of narrative pleasure comparable with the new regularity of bourgeois life. Fillers turn the novel into a ‘calm passion’ … they are part of what Weber called the ‘rationalization’ of modern life …” But this was always not so.

Dwelling at length on this divide, the author explains how the narrative leaps of certain works were labelled unmodern and banished from the house of “serious fiction”, finding their place in “genres” like Gothic, romance, speculative fiction, science fiction, melodrama, fantasy and so on. Stressing further on the banishment of science fiction from the house of serious fiction, he elaborates how this was closely related to an inherent tendency of modernity, described as “partitioning” by Bruno Latour, which aims to deepen the “imaginary gulf” between Nature and Culture.

Liberally peppered with scholarship and enriched by detailed endnotes (but alas, no index) the book has also benefited much from the excerpts from folk epics (Indian, Chinese), poetry and Ghosh’s own formidable fiction oeuvre. These impart an appealing texture to what is essentially a scholarly work. For instance, where he quotes from the folk epic of the Sundarbans, Bon Bibir Johuranama (describing Dukhey’s encounter with the tiger demon) while illustrating the mystery or rather the “uncanny” which has begun to be associated with climate change and its associated freakish weather events. Similarly, from his own novel, The Glass Palace, he shares the story of the oil prospecting twin-za community of Burma, an intriguing and forgotten chapter behind the establishment of oil industry in the East. In explaining the limits of language Ghosh launches into a pleasant digression about the Mrauk-U complex of pagodas in Burma, where once again, and indeed on several other occasions, he effortlessly traverses the border between analytical writing and a delectable literary style.

Between thought experiments about the very real possibility of a Category 4 or 5 storm surge running into the city of Mumbai and its disastrous consequences or the reckless colonial policy of building cities (Kolkata, Hong Kong, Mumbai) where they would be vulnerable to storms, he returns time and again to the “uncanny”, an awareness of non-human agency pervading events triggered by climate change.

In his erudite and clear eyed analysis of the estrangement of the novel (or most modern novels) from improbable events, epochal time spans or limitless settings, and its tendency to concentrate on “individual moral adventure”, an expression used by John Updike, Ghosh demonstrates how the modern novel has become ill equipped to imaginatively engage the crisis of climate change.

Just as he mentions great novelists of the east and the west, from Bankimchandra to Flaubert, who have been complicit in this tendency of concealment of narrative leaps and the banishment of “prodigious happenings” from the novel, just as he laments how the modern novel divorced itself from epochal time spans and aggregates of people or how the partitioning of Nature from Culture happened, along the way, he also mentions the exceptions:

The boundless time and space imagined in the Chinese folk epic The Journey to the West, Steinbeck’s “visionary placement of the human within the non-human”, the mathematics of War and Peace, the chemistry of Alice in Wonderland, Rahman Munif’s focus on “men in aggregate” in his novel Cities of Salt, Zola’s Germinal and the paths trodden by poets like Blake, Wordsworth, Rilke and Hölderlin as pointers to the kind of literary culture which had resisted. He believes, these exceptions (and their modern counterparts) had the imaginative breadth to engage with improbabilities and the mindboggling realities of a climate-like crisis. But because nature doesn’t speak in words and often in images, the author also suggests that a new form, one that twines words with images would perhaps be better suited to grapple with the realities of catastrophic events that result from this crisis.

Ghosh delves into a wide range of sources in building his arguments in the next section on history. Here he lucidly portrays how, because of the nature of fossil fuel technologies and the crucial connections between economic, political and military power, colonialism may have in fact kept carbon emissions in check. So, it should be no surprise that the period of decolonisation had coincided with the Great Acceleration in emissions. Paradoxical as this might sound, Ghosh brings incisive analysis and solid evidence to make his case.

But industrialisation and consumerism, which are the driving forces behind the growth of emissions, had never had a free run. There has always been sane voices and resistance from different quarters. A panoply of characters, belief systems and policies have offered resistance and he mentions Gandhi, Burmese diplomat and third UN Secretary-General U Thant, the voice of thinkers (citing Prasenjit Duara’s work) of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions and China’s draconian One Child Policy, which between them have offered resistance to runaway consumerism, and in some cases have helped to keep emissions in check. The book goes on to state how this “resistance to capitalist modernity was overcome very slowly in both of Asia’s most populous countries through a range of political and cultural movements that would lead, over time, to the Protestantisation of religions, secularisation … and nation building.’”

The role of religious groupings, the problematic quest for individual moral adventure and authenticity in fiction, secularisation, the concept of freedom in politics, humanities and the arts are addressed in the last section, which discusses the politics surrounding climate change. Here the analysis is hinged on “freedom” and how the philosophers of freedom, focused as they were on freedom from injustice, oppression, inequality of man-made institutions and systems, had assumed Nature as already subjugated. This in literature and the arts had led to the supremacy of the human over the non-human; the self reflexive and abstract over the figurative and finally in the complicity of arts and literature in the Great Derangement. Ghosh writes, “Recent years have certainly demonstrated the truth of an observation that Guy Debord made long ago: that spectacular forms of rebelliousness are not, by any means, incompatible with a smug acceptance of what exists … for the simple reason that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity”.

Yet there are authors like Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard, Barbara Kingslover among a handful of others who have bucked the trend, who were aware and whose “imaginative work communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment”.

The “vision of the world as a secular church”, argues Ghosh, has led to the recognition of sincerity and authenticity in politics and literature, as the greatest virtue. He goes on to write, “If literature is conceived of as the expression of authentic experience, then fiction will inevitably come to be seen as `false’. But to reproduce the world as it exists need not be the project of fiction … the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities”.

Striking a cautionary note, the author talks about the politics of the spectacle coexisting with the sinister working of the “deep state” and finally about the polarisation of climate change positions in the Anglosphere which could lead on to possible scenarios where hardening of stances turn advanced capitalist nations into “armed lifeboats” where access is completely denied to the outside world while the elite of developing countries tacitly accept a “politics of attrition” – if you are poor and accustomed to hardship, you have a larger capacity to accept shocks and disruptions.

Ghosh combines a sleuth’s watchful eyes with powerful prose when he compares the two most important documents that the climate crisis has produced in recent times – Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and the text of the Paris Agreement. Critical of the latter document for what it hides and the many collusions that are concealed in its opaque language, he describes its Preamble: “The lines pour down the page in a waterfall of gerunds and then, without the sentence yet reaching an end, the clauses change into numbered articles as the document switches gear . . .” What is more worrisome, as the author rightly points out in this finely executed document comparison, is how the use of certain words and the omission of others, point towards a “conscious avoidance of disruptive terminology”.

One test of a scholarly work is in the number of original ideas it spawns or the research avenues it opens up. On that count alone, this book has to be reckoned as a work of formidable scholarship. The Celt at the beginning of our review, a wise man, knew that the sea bursting its limits would spell disaster. He was surely a druid, a follower of one of those ancient traditions, which had respect for the natural environment at the core of its belief system. He had listened to the earth and was wise to the dangers of taking the environment for granted, long before climate change had begun to toy with humankind. Perhaps a part of the solution of this crisis lies in finding more like him.

Near the end of his book, Ghosh the optimist holds out some hope in his conviction that if religious groups join hands with popular movements, together they might be able to stem the tide of emissions and control the damage. For religious worldviews as he has shown earlier, had been a platform of resistance in the past and in their very nature can transcend nation states. Religious worldviews are sensitive of intergenerational debts and responsibilities and being free of the economist’s way of thinking can conceive non-linear change or catastrophe. So, the issuance of the Pope’s encyclical is no doubt an important step and perhaps there is still a modicum of hope left that life on Sister Mother Earth, as St Francis of Assisi loved to call it, will survive this crisis of our own making. Whether you are a seasoned activist, a serious academic or just like the growing numbers of our tribe, care a lot for the environment, this is a book you should not miss.


The reviewer is a Charles Wallace, Korean Arts Council-InKo(Toji) and Hawthornden Castle Fellow and the author of three works of fiction. He had been the coordinator for developing country NGOs at the Caucus on Energy and Climate Change at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, New York.