THE GREAT DERANGEMENT: Climate Change and the Unthinkable
by Amitav Ghosh
The University of Chicago Press, 196 pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
Almost exactly a year ago, I walked into a large lecture hall at the University of Chicago and found a seat near the back. The hall was half full, an equal mix of students and professors waiting for the novelist Amitav Ghosh to take the stage. Emerging from the wings, Ghosh gave off a dignified air in his black Nehru vest, his hair shockingly white. When he began to speak however, any trace of austerity, of distance between the speaker and the crowd, disappeared. His voice was soft and surprisingly pleasant, so much so that I began to wonder if he narrated his own audiobooks (he doesn’t). His subject, somewhat to my surprise, was climate change.
The lectures can still be found on YouTube, and were recently published in book form with the title The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. In the work, Ghosh argues that future generations will see our cultural response to climate change as one of denial and avoidance, bordering on the pathological. Our failure to acknowledge the dire position in which humans have placed our planet, and our failure to act in any meaningful way to prevent calamity, will cause our times to be seen as an era of senselessness.
“In a substantially altered world,” Ghosh writes, “when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sunderbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable … this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”
With The Great Derangement, Ghosh brings a unique–at least in my reading—perspective to the discussion of climate change: that of the art critic. The book deals intimately, searingly, with the complex connection between climate change and the production of writers and artists. “When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement,” Ghosh writes, “they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable—for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.”
He continues, describing the strange invisibility of climate change within fiction:
 was a year in which the grim predictions of climate scientists assumed the ring of prophecy. These disturbances were almost impossible to ignore: on the web as in the traditional media the phrase ‘climate change’ was everywhere. Few indeed were the quarters that remained unperturbed, but literary fiction and the arts appear to have been among them: short lists for prizes, reviews, and so on, betray no signs of a heightened engagement with climate change.
In these passages Ghosh writes with a supreme belief in the power of fiction and art that, for some, may border on the edge of delusion. Comparing the act of reading and writing novels with the abilities of governing bodies in the case of climate change may seem akin to walking into a burning house and suggesting a different shade of paint. In the case of climate change, why should we care about literature? What responsibility, and more than that, what ability, do novelists even have to engage with climate change? Surely the dwindling readership of literary fiction alone makes such an argument ludicrous. After all, once we’re all living on makeshift houseboats and have to forage for our meals, who will have time to read?
One of the most famous, and grumpy, opinions on the connection between writing, art, and politics was put forth by Vladimir Nabokov. “A work of art has no importance whatever to society,” he stated in a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine. “It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me. I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth.”
Yet since Nabokov’s time, there has been a heartening shift in public opinion. Debates regarding artists’ sexual misconducts and assault, as well as other actions or political beliefs, that might’ve been swept under the rug ten or fifteen years ago are receiving more traction in the news cycle, which is not by any means to say that we now live in a just world where all victims are supported and believed. What is shown by the uptick in articles, as well as boycotts and social media movements, however, is that our culture seems to now think that these accounts are important even if, so-and-so does make catchy music or write good books. In other words, we’re past the delusion that “art for art’s sake” is a phrase that makes any kind of sense in today’s world. “Art is political in whatever way you slice it,” the actress Lupita Nyong’o, said recently in an interview in the Guardian.
So if art is political, why aren’t we writing more fiction about climate change?
One answer, which Ghosh acknowledges, is simply that it is a difficult topic. Climate change, as he writes, is full of “insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are nothing if not inconceivably vast.” These are traits that don’t seem particularly suited to the traditional necessities of character and plot. How can a work on climate change focus on a central character when it affects all of us?
Ian McEwan’s Solar solves this problem by making the main character a scientist on the hunt for sustainable energy and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior does similarly by having the protagonist stumble into a field full of butterflies whose bizarre migration is caused by global warming. Yet, Ghosh also hopes for a new kind of literature, one that is less grounded in individualism and which can embrace “the group, the community, the masses, and so forth.”
Ghosh doesn’t give many specifics on what he thinks this climate change influenced novel will look like, perhaps because it is in some ways a radically different thing than the objects we call novels now, and isn’t easy to imagine. Yet he does give some inkling of the possibilities. Writers such as Tolstoy and Dickens, John Steinbeck and Chinua Achebe are given praise for their ability to write about large communities and not merely families or individuals. Steinbeck, particularly, presents “a form, an approach that grapples with climate change avant la lettre.” These new writers then, in addition to grappling with climate change, will also have to address a vast community of characters, and pull it all off without seeming didactic or preachy. All while maintaining whatever magic it is that brings readers to novels in the first place.
Perhaps what makes most intuitive sense about Ghosh’s claim that climate change has a place in literature is that presenting climate change in a way that is relatable, without removing its deep mystery and danger, is a task well suited to the novelist. For centuries writers have been doing much the same thing with all of the various problems, difficulties, and nuances of our world’s societies. Why not now turn their talents to the world itself?
Near the beginning of The Great Derangement, Ghosh recalls surviving a tornado that swept through north Delhi in 1978. Sheltered inside a small balcony, Ghosh was unharmed, but others were not so lucky. The Times of India headline from the day after the tornado, of which Ghosh still keeps a photocopy, proclaimed that thirty people had died and 700 were injured. Yet, at that point, one day after the storm had touched down in Delhi, officials were still looking for a word to call the disaster. “So unfamiliar was this phenomenon that the papers literally did not know what to call it: at a loss for words they resorted to ‘cyclone’ and ‘funnel-shaped whirlwind’” Ghosh writes. “This was, in effect, the first tornado to hit Delhi—and indeed the entire region—in recorded meteorological history. And somehow I … had found myself in its path.” The experience was one of those coincidences so monumentally improbable that in fiction it would be dismissed as, in Ghosh’s words, “a contrivance of last resort.” Yet, it happened.
Ghosh continues on to say that despite his tendency, like most writers, to pull events from his own life and reform them into parts of his narratives, he never managed to write about the tornado. It seemed to simply defy the prevailing logic, the unspoken code, of contemporary fiction. He writes of the experience: “To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.” A few pages later, he writes:
Climate change events [are] particularly resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to ‘Nature’: they are too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous, and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, or elegiac, or romantic vein. Indeed, in that these events are not entirely of Nature (whatever that might be), they confound the very idea of ‘Nature writing’ or ecological writing.
What I’m left with after reading these passages is bewilderment. Why is Ghosh so fixated on “customary frames” and the “mansion” of “serious literature”? If, as he suggests, such things can’t cope with climate change writing, why not just abandon them? Why the obsession with high literary fiction when right in its backyard is science fiction, a form that seems perfectly suited to discuss climate change and has in fact, already begun to do so?
In the dedication to Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, editor John Joseph Adams lays the problem clear in one simple sentence: “For Grace, who I hope will inherit a better world than the ones depicted here.” The 500 page cli-fi anthology contains some of the most acclaimed examples of the burgeoning genre of climate fiction or “cli-fi” and just reading through the titles will key you in to Ghosh’s predicament. “The Snows of Yesteryear,” “The Day it All Ended,” “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet.” Many, if not most, of these stories are set in the future, in worlds that have been purposefully depicted as different from our own. Ghosh cites an essay on science and speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood that uses the phrases “imagined other worlds,” “in another time, in another dimension,” and “‘wonder tales’” in describing these genres. In doing so, Ghosh points out, Atwood makes clear why these genres cannot adequately address our reality. Climate change is happening right now, on this planet and in this dimension.
Nonetheless, this is one point where readers may disagree. Science fiction and cli-fi seem to have already solved the problem Ghosh diagnoses. While he claims that in 2015 climate change was invisible among reviews and prize panels, articles about cli-fi were published in The Atlantic, Wired, The New Republic, and The New Yorker among dozens of other outlets. There was even a cli-fi listicle published on the Barnes and Noble blog. While I haven’t found any works of cli-fi that won “serious” literary prizes (that is to say, non-genre or sci-fi specific prizes) that year, the prominence of the genre among cultural conversation does bring up some questions. Is Ghosh’s wholesale dismissal of cli-fi and other works of science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction simply prejudice? Are they the entrenched beliefs of a man indoctrinated with the idea that only certain types of literature are serious, that only certain modes of writing and expression are worthy of the moniker “literature”?
Looking back at Ghosh’s track record, it is clear that this is not the case. His writing spans a wide array of genres and often dips into areas not typically considered part of the “mansion” of serious fiction. His Ibis trilogy is a work of historical fiction, and his third novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, won the Arthur C. Clarke award, a prestigious Science fiction prize. His 2004 novel The Hungry Tide could even be labeled cli-fi under Margaret Atwood’s (admittedly broad) definition of the genre as “books in which an altered climate is part of the plot.” His main beef with cli-fi, after all, is the genre’s setting in a time and place other than our own; which is to say, it’s fictiveness. And all novels are fictions
Perhaps, as many fans would say, science fiction is meant to hold a mirror up to our society, to reflect its inconsistencies and absurdities in ways that would be impossible inside the realm of the traditional realist novel. These cli-fi stories will create awareness, apprehension, fear—or in the case of the Utopian micro-genre within cli-fi—hope. It seems unfair, if not downright impossible, to predict that such fictions will not be effective whereas realist fiction will.
Yet it is hard to deny Ghosh’s claim that what we need now is not an art of the future, but an art of the present. Not an art of allegory, but one of direct, clear, and painful immediacy. He uses a similar argument against magical realism and surrealism, forms that make abundant use of the improbability and happenstance he struggled with regarding his tornado incident. He writes, “To treat them [climate change events] as magical or surreal would be to rob them of the precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling—which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.”
And so he is left between a rock and a hard place. Science fiction, cli-fi, and other genres on one hand, and the traditional novel on the other. Neither quite the right tool for the job.
The question that burns most deeply for me in reading The Great Derangement—and I don’t think I would be alone in this—is not what this new, climate change informed literature would look like or how it might be accomplished, but rather why it is important in the first place. Even as someone with an English Lit degree, an interest in the climate change conversation, and an ever-growing stack of novels on my nightstand, the connection between literature and climate change isn’t exactly clear. Perhaps it’s because I’ve somewhat internalized what my entire culture has been telling me since I was young: that art and books don’t really matter, that they’re just window dressings that fancy, rich city people get to indulge in while the rest of the world works hard. Or perhaps it’s simply because, faced with the numbingly terrifying reality of climate change, it is hard to imagine anything being effective.
Yet, if you look carefully at Ghosh’s prose, you’ll notice that he’s very careful not to say that literature can miraculously solve climate change. The idea that anything can “solve” climate change at this point is beyond wishful thinking, and part of accepting Ghosh’s work is accepting this fact. What Ghosh is pushing for then, is not a literature that will help us stop climate change, but one that will help us live with, and in, climate change.
If writers are interested in portraying human experience in its varied forms, then part of that work is depicting climate change. Certainly there has been a strong tradition of writers turning to their surroundings for inspiration and literary fodder. And for many of these writers—Wendell Wendell Berry, Homero Aridjis, and Jean Giono for example—the earth becomes a character just as palpable and mercurial as any human, with capacity for danger alongside beauty. Yet our current moment calls for something even more complex: not just the earth, plants, and animals as powerful forces in fiction, but also a realization that we humans have brought this change upon our whole planet. And Ghosh, while not optimistic about the current state of literature, does think such fiction has yet been written in our age. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Liz Jensen’s Rapture are particularly good examples. Yet, these kinds of works, at least in Ghosh’s calculations, are the exception and not the rule.
Avoiding climate change in literature isn’t pernicious because literature will somehow save us from the damage we’ve inflicted upon ourselves; it is instead a symptom of our inability to perceive of climate change as part of our daily experience, as part of our everything. We need, in other words, a literature that reflects and enlarges our experience. And isn’t that what humans have always wanted, have always needed, from art?
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.