A Timely Investigation of Gaslighting and Accountability
A review of Amitav Ghosh’s powerful book on climate change
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On November 14th, 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Santa Barbara county. A small bonfire set by about ten college students in the Montecito area had caught the highly flammable vegetation after years of drought. For three days between November 13th-November 15th, the town of Santa Barbara, nestled between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific ocean, watched as a gigantic half crown of flaming thrush lit up the mountainside.
My neighborhood was evacuated almost immediately, and my boyfriend and I (good graduate students that we were) found ourselves frantically packing up our cat and books and even a few items of clothing before heading down to the motel 6 in Carpenteria to wait out the hellscape. Even in the daylight, the ash floating throughout the usually Disney-fied downtown looked like a scene out of Milton’s hell. Cars were covered in a thick film of soot, and I felt my own asthmatic lungs spasm for weeks after the incident. As an east coaster, raised most of my life outside of Philadelphia, I had always found the vast open stretches of California vistas incomprehensible.
The calm, limitless Pacific lapping towards the red towering rock which in turn always seemed to bow down to a happy meadow of yellow weeds running alongside the 101 — the beauty of these scenes seemed unthinkable and overwhelming to someone who was used to strip malls, suburbs, and a line of fast food chains blotting the major east coast highways of the tri-state area. As a twenty three year old barely a few years into a graduate program, Santa Barbara seemed like a place out of time. And yet now here it was, a smoldering paradise made wicked by fire. And even stranger, here I was transfixed by its rage and unbecoming. To be so captivated by its relentlessness gave me some unease.
Fire was not an element I understood very well in the context of this region. To me, I felt as if I was witnessing a catastrophic, biblical event. In reality, fires in Santa Barbara county aren’t rare at all. In fact, 2008 had its share of destruction from the Great Gap fire of July to what was eventually called the Tea Fire of November that year. In 2016, the California Climate Change Center estimates that due to extreme weather variations, we could see a 300% increase in wildfire risk, and just this past August, the Rey fire above Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara county burned over 32,000 acres.
I begin with this story, because I think we probably have all had an experience such as this one. A feeling that what we were witnessing was an uncanny, freakish, or improbable event, and that by witnessing such an exceptional sight, we were documenting a rupture in the natural world. I also begin here because that is how Amitav Ghosh begins his book. Only eleven pages into The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh recounts an experience in Northern Delhi in March of 1978. Crouching on the floor of a nearby balcony, Ghosh, to his astonishment, hears “a frenzied pitch” of wind that begins to tug at his clothing and then sees “an extraordinary panoply of objects flying past– bicycles, scooters, lampposts, sheets of corrugated iron, even entire tea stalls. In that instant, gravity itself seemed to have been transformed into a wheel spinning upon the fingertip of some unknown power.”
After the “event,” some papers reported it as a cyclone. Others used the phrase “a funnel shaped whirlwind.” Ghosh learned later that he actually had witnessed the very first tornado to hit Dehli in recorded meteorological history. He writes:
“What had happened at that moment was strangely like a species of visual contact, of beholding and being beheld. And in that instant of contact something was planted deep in my mind, something irreducibly mysterious, something quite apart from the danger I had been in and the destruction I had witnessed; something that was not the property of the thing itself but the manner in which it had intersected my life.”
Beholding and beheld. A species of visual contact. A manner of intersection. What is being communicated in this mesmerizing contact or intersection? Perhaps a reality of climate change that we continue to fail at imagining? Hence our collective derangement. But perhaps what is most interesting about Ghosh’s provocative narration of this seemingly chance encounter is that increasingly, these are becoming not chance encounters at all, but the very makeup of our daily lives. He asks us to imagine a narrative style of improbable events and chides a novelistic reflex that focuses, channeling Franco Morretti, too much on “fillers” that make novels “compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life.”
Here, he suggests that a fidelity to representing routines of modern life and the habits of a modern mind make large scale events inconceivable to narrate. The catastrophic has long been regulated to genre fiction (science fiction, climate sci-fi, fantasy, horror), but to continue to think of genre in this way has great ethical implications for Ghosh who sees the “sense of place” in these texts as part of a dangerous delaying trend to some dystopian future when narrativizing climate change and disaster. “The future is only part of the Anthropocene,” he argues in one section. Ghosh’s determination to reorient our climate despair in the present is reminiscent of Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, a text which critiques the compulsory “eventilization” of disaster and ignores how crisis is rooted in our everyday routines and habits of consumption. Ghosh write of these “events”:
“To treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling — which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.”
Ghosh’s book is divided into three sections: stories, history, and politics. His writing is erudite and elegant with some broad, associative leaps from researched to anecdotal accounts of climate crisis to support his major theses. Each of these sections come to quick and surprising conclusions that feel slightly out of pace with the rest of the book, perhaps betraying a mild impatience on the part of the author who takes (among politicians and religious leaders), writers and artists to task most of all for their complicity in the great derangement. This is not a structural issue to brush aside. Climate despair is a kind of trauma and often traumatic events are nonlinear and non-causal.
Ghosh is a seasoned writer of global history and migrations, particularly across Indian ocean diaspora. His work has always attended to patterns of displacement or trade routes, and his writing is eerily anticipatory as evident by books like The Calcutta Chromosome which seemed to predict questions about bioengineering and biopolitics. In contrast, The Great Derangement feels nervy and speedy, moving the reader from one continent to another, from one staggering statistic to another, without enough room to fully grasp the gargantuan swell of the threat. To feel dwarfed and destabilized is part of the intended effect.
Ghosh points out some well mapped neoliberal myths about the dangers of personal authenticity, sincerity, and interiority in novels that do not spend enough time talking about “men in the aggregate” and furthermore, he suggests that if politics can be defined as a collective survival, then what is missing from contemporary fiction is exactly that: the collective. This is a difficult argument to digest since contemporary fiction, especially to a newer writer such as myself, feels so varied, experimental, and heterogenous, but perhaps what Ghosh was suggesting is that even if there were a plethora of novels dedicated to a present day representation of “men in the aggregate” representing a specifically atmospheric climate change disaster, that it would still somehow fail to move or alter the popular literary imagination.
Yet if we think of climate change as that which frays our idea of a nation-state and geopolitical terror, I think of Lidia Yukanavitch’s recent book, The Small Backs of Children. If I think of superstorms and the threat to megacities, I think of Ben Lerner’s 10:04. If I think of people so lobotomized by their televisions that they eat the inedible, consume the inorganic, quietly starve as they sit lithe in front of their programming, I think of Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. If I think about the ways that animals have served as objects of disgust and abjection, but also metaphors of deviant sexuality and disposable bodies, I think of Aaron Apps’ Intersex. In other words, it is possible that we are all interpreting the effects of climate change the only way we know how to encounter threats of competing vitalities: through discourses of otherness. When we write about bodies that are deemed disposable, we are writing about climate crisis. It is the paradigmatic form, borrowed from critical race, disability, queer, and postcolonial studies, in which our derangement manifests. And vitality is important to Ghosh here. After all, part of what made the tornado experience so riveting was the forced acknowledgment of a mighty, nonhuman power.
Spending some time parsing out the narrative kinship between human and nonhuman forces in the world, Ghosh treads on academic fields such as posthumanism and new materialism. While scholars important to those fields such as Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton are cited frequently, there appears to be a missing intellectual history of feminist and queer science studies critics who have discussed widely the relationship between a vitalist nonhuman agency and a contemporary environmental politics (Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway, Stacy Alaimo, Mel Y. Chen, Karen Barad, etc).
Borrowing language from discourses on toxicity, physics, and biodiversity, these scholars often position the Anthropocentric as a lens to uncover the bodies most vulnerable to ecological debt. As Stacy Alaimo argues in her book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self:
“Race, for example, has been well documented as the single most important factor in the placement of toxic waste sites in the United States.”
Ghosh offers an pointed history of the effects of industrialization and urbanization on climate crisis. Port cities such as London and Amsterdam are protected from open waters by “bays, estuaries, or deltaic river systems,” but cities built after European global expansion in the seventeenth century such as Mumbai, New York, and Chennai, are instead built directly on seafronts and therefore are the most susceptible to superstorms. Ghosh writes: “A special place ought to be reserved in hell… for planners who build with such reckless disregard for their surroundings.” Build on an estuarine landscape, Mumbai’s soil has lost much of its absorptive ability and in the great deluges of the 21st century, 2.5 million people were “under water together” during the floods.
Ghosh traces the new brewing seismic activity and cyclonic profiles in the Arabian Sea off the west coast of India and provides evidence that for the first time in history as of 2015, the Arabian Sea has provoked more storms on the west coast than cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal on the east coast of India (which has typically born the brunt of tsunamis and tropical storms). His point in this comparison is to illuminate the vulnerability of a country now flanked by storms on both sides:
“Suddenly the waters around India were churning with improbable events.”
The great derangement is essentially a great denial of climate crisis, but not by climate deniers on the fringe of politics, but actually as Ghosh argues, by state sanctioned engineers and government agencies themselves. The idea that we are planning for the “exceptional” event is maddening. The idea that disaster management is mostly focused on “post-disaster” response is to neglect and disregard a risk that feels more like an inevitability. If Mumbai floods, the most dangerous threat to the region is that it is one of the only world’s megacities with two nuclear facilities within its urban periphery. “Both these plants sit right upon the shoreline.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the Pentagon is among one of the most dedicated investors and researchers of climate crisis, because they take seriously the need for green security.
Ghosh recounts the words of Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell while he was the Secretary of State:
“The only department in… Washington that is clearly and completely seized with the idea that climate change is real is the Department of Defense.”
And yet even green security might be stuck in the same deranged echo chamber, in an endless feedback of the same problematic hermeneutic loop, as Lindsay Thomas, a scholar of literature, media, and security studies at the University of Miami suggests: “The word “recovery” itself — a favorite word of the Department of Homeland Security, for example — is telling: it assumes not only that disasters are something out of the ordinary, but also that they are something we can “recover” from. Something that we can “return” to “normal life” from, as if normal life is not part of the disaster itself.”
The second section of Ghosh’s book is entitled “History,” and it details an astonishing account of climate risk for Asia. Ghosh argues that Asia will be the most vulnerable continent to environmental disaster simply because of the “numbers game” stating that, “the brute fact is that no strategy can work globally unless it works in Asia.” I have yet to read such a distilled and cogent telling of the risks and statistics posed to the region. Cyclones hitting the low lying lands of the Bengal Delta have killed people in the hundreds of thousands for the past half century. Bangladesh and Vietnam are two of the countries most jeopardized by rising sea levels with necessary migrations from those lands estimated between 50–75 million people.
Desertification in Pakistan and India could cause famine and agricultural disaster with China’s desertification problem causing annual losses of about $65 billion. The water crisis in Asia, in particular water sources in the form of ice in Tibet and the Himalayas, “sustain 47 percent of the world’s population,” yet this region is “warming twice as fast as the average global rate.” The statistics are paralyzing. With the industrial expansion of Asia from the 1980’s onwards, Ghosh posits an important argument about imperialism, decolonization, and the myth of Western modernity as singular.
The truth is that “every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator — not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.” We know this, but the rhetoric of our foreign policy and supposed geopolitical allyship seems to continue to make promises that are more than impossible, they are outright dangerous and misdirected. As Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, the Great Acceleration is itself linked to decolonization.
China and India are now major competitors in the carbon economy and, as Ghosh illustrates in his book, despite the fallacy of Western exceptionalism, they have always been intellectual authorities of energy invention and politics. The truth is that before decolonization, much of the financial gain and raw resources went to serving imperial powers and that perhaps now countries in Asia and Africa justifiably feel entitled to the wealth of the carbon economy. As Ghosh states, “The argument about fairness in relation to per capita emissions is, in a sense, an argument about lost time.”
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is a timely book in the era of a Trump presidency precisely because it investigates gaslighting and accountability. It is no coincidence, I think, that Ghosh chooses “derangement” as an apt pathology of the zeitgeist in a moment when facts are rendered meaningless and instead, the clumsy, misleading, and dangerous interpretations of scientific evidence are recreational fodder for the highest political office in the United States.
There was a protest after the election at the small liberal arts college where I teach. Professors and students could “walk out” during class and meet on the quad in the middle of campus for a demonstration. Of course, I participated as did many of my colleagues in the humanities. But it was my colleague in engineering that surprised me the most. He stood in front of his classroom and said, “I am also walking out. I am walking out because I believe in science.” A small, simple, seemingly obvious gesture that in our current moment, feels so bizarrely radical. And while some of Ghosh’s critiques of contemporary fiction may come across a little damning, the lesson to learn here from Ghosh is that what we are doing in the name of climate change, as writers and artists, is still not enough. Perhaps it has never been more important than it is now for scientists and artists to collaborate and politicize together. I wish I had said something similar to my students as I led some of them out to the quad, so they could understand the consequences of the very derangement that allows for a continual repression of fact.
This is an administration in which climate data will literally disappear. I should have also said to my students: I believe in science and science is telling us (again and again and again) that the sky is falling.
Ghosh’s incredulity is not precious. He is telling us to look up.