The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Berlin Family Lectures) by Amitav Ghosh

by | Jan 3, 2017 | Blog, News and Updates | 0 comments

Why does literature not deal with climate change or global change, except rarely or in the outposts of climate/science fiction, set in the future?  What does Laudato Si’ tell us about a way forward?

Excerpts from The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Berlin Family Lectures) by Amitav Ghosh, published in Sept. 2016. References are all to the kindle edition.

Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge. To recognize, then, is not the same as an initial introduction. Nor does recognition require an exchange of words: more often than not we recognize mutely. And to recognize is by no means to understand that which meets the eye; comprehension need play no part in a moment of recognition.59 

It arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.65 

When inflamed lungs and sinuses prove once again that there is no difference between the without and the within; between using and being used. These too are moments of recognition, in which it dawns on us that the energy that surrounds us, flowing under our feet and through wires in our walls, animating our vehicles and illuminating our rooms, is an all-encompassing presence that may have its own purposes about which we know nothing.71

The grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.95

The artifacts and commodities that are conjured up by these desires are, in a sense, at once expressions and concealments of the cultural matrix that brought them into being.142

Why, then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to their practices? From this perspective, the questions that confront writers and artists today are not just those of the politics of the carbon economy; many of them have to do also with our own practices and the ways in which they make us complicit in the concealments of the broader culture.146

Do I not need to ask myself about the degree to which this makes me complicit in the manipulations of the marketplace? In the same spirit, I think it also needs to be asked, 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 like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museumgoers 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 should they—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 recognizing 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.151

(Amitav Ghosh was present, by chance, in the path of) the first tornado to hit Delhi—and indeed the entire region—in recorded meteorological history. And somehow I, who almost never took that road, who rarely visited that part of the university, had found myself in its path. Only much later did I realize that the tornado’s eye had passed directly over me. It seemed to me that there was something eerily apt about that metaphor: 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 that I had been in and the destruction that I had witnessed; something that was not a property of the thing itself but of the manner in which it had intersected with my life.198

In reflecting on this, I find myself asking, What would I make of such a scene were I to come across it in a novel written by someone else? I suspect that my response would be one of incredulity; I would be inclined to think that the scene was a contrivance of last resort. Surely only a writer whose imaginative resources were utterly depleted would fall back on a situation of such extreme improbability? Improbability is the key word here, so we have to ask, What does the word mean? Improbable is not the opposite of probable, but rather an inflexion of it, a gradient in a continuum of probability.219

But what does probability—a mathematical idea—have to do with fiction? The answer is: Everything. For, as Ian Hacking, a prominent historian of the concept, puts it, probability is a “manner of conceiving the world constituted without our being aware of it.” Probability and the modern novel are in fact twins, born at about the same time, among the same people, under a shared star that destined them to work as vessels for the containment of the same kind of experience. Before the birth of the modern novel, wherever stories were told, fiction delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely.223

…how storytelling must necessarily proceed, inasmuch as it is a recounting of “what happened”—for such an inquiry can arise only in relation to something out of the ordinary, which is but another way of saying “exceptional” or “unlikely.” In essence, narrative proceeds by linking together moments and scenes that are in some way distinctive or different: these are, of course, nothing other than instances of exception. Novels too proceed in this fashion, but what is distinctive about the form is precisely the concealment of those exceptional moments that serve as the motor of narrative. This is achieved through the insertion of what Franco Moretti, the literary theorist, calls “fillers.” According to Moretti, “fillers function very much like the good manners so important in [Jane] Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the ‘narrativity’ of life under control—to give a regularity, a ‘style’ to existence.” It is through this mechanism that worlds are conjured up, through everyday details, which function “as the opposite of narrative.” It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background . . . while the everyday moves into the foreground.” Thus was the novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.229

Compare this with the following lines from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: “We leave the high road . . . whence the valley is seen. . . . The meadow stretches under a bulge of low hills to join at the back with the pasture land of the Bray country, while on the eastern side, the plain, gently rising, broadens out, showing as far as eye can follow its blond cornfields.” In both these passages, the reader is led into a “scene” through the eye and what it beholds: we are invited to “descry,” to “view,” to “see.” In relation to other forms of narrative, this is indeed something new: instead of being told about what happened we learn about what was observed. Chatterjee has, in a sense, gone straight to the heart of the realist novel’s “mimetic ambition”: detailed descriptions of everyday life (or “fillers”) are therefore central to his experiment with this new form. Why should the rhetoric of the everyday appear at exactly the time when a regime of statistics, ruled by ideas of probability and improbability, was beginning to give new shapes to society? Why did fillers suddenly become so important? Moretti’s answer is “‘Because they offer the kind of narrative pleasure compatible 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: a process that begins in the economy and in the administration, but eventually pervades the sphere of free time, private life, entertainment, feelings. . . . Or in other words: fillers are an attempt at rationalizing the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all.”256

Through much of the era when geology—and also the modern novel—were coming of age, the gradualist (or “uniformitarian”) view held absolute sway and catastrophism was exiled to the margins. Gradualists consolidated their victory by using one of modernity’s most effective weapons: its insistence that it has rendered other forms of knowledge obsolete.282

Unlikely though it may seem today, the nineteenth century was indeed a time when it was assumed, in both fiction and geology, that Nature was moderate and orderly: this was a distinctive mark of a new and “modern” worldview. Chatterjee goes out of his way to berate his contemporary, the poet Michael Madhusudan Datta, for his immoderate portrayals of Nature: “Mr. Datta . . . wants repose. The winds rage their loudest when there is no necessity for the lightest puff. Clouds gather and pour down a deluge, when they need do nothing of the kind; and the sea grows terrible in its wrath, when everybody feels inclined to resent its interference.” The victory of gradualist views in science was similarly won by characterizing catastrophism as un-modern. In geology, the triumph of gradualist thinking was so complete that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which posited upheavals of sudden and unimaginable violence, was for decades discounted and derided. It is worth recalling that these habits of mind held sway until late in the twentieth century, especially among the general public. “As of the mid-1960s,” writes the historian John L. Brooke, “a gradualist model of earth history and evolution  . . . reigned supreme.” Even as late as 1985, the editorial page of the New York Times was inveighing against the asteroidal theory of dinosaur extinction: “Astronomers should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the causes of events in the stars.” As for professional paleontologists, Elizabeth Kolbert notes, they reviled both the theory and its originators, Luis and Walter Alvarez: “‘The Cretaceous extinctions were gradual and the catastrophe theory is wrong,’  . . . [a] paleontologist stated. But ‘simplistic theories will continue to come along to seduce a few scientists and enliven the covers of popular magazines.’” 

In other words, gradualism became “a set of blinders” that eventually had to be put aside in favor of a view that recognizes the “twin requirements of uniqueness to mark moments of time as distinctive, and lawfulness to establish a basis of intelligibility.” Distinctive moments are no less important to modern novels than they are to any other forms of narrative, whether geological or historical. Ironically, this is nowhere more apparent than in Rajmohan’s Wife and Madame Bovary, in both of which chance and happenstance are crucial to the narrative. In Flaubert’s novel, for instance, the narrative pivots at a moment when Monsieur Bovary has an accidental encounter with his wife’s soon-to-be lover at the opera, just after an impassioned scene during which she has imagined that the lead singer “was looking at her . . . She longed to run to his arms, to take refuge in his strength, as in the incarnation of love itself, and to say to him, to cry out, ‘Take me away! carry me with you!’” It could not, of course, be otherwise: if novels were not built upon a scaffolding of exceptional moments, writers would be faced with the Borgesian task of reproducing the world in its entirety. But the modern novel, unlike geology, has never been forced to confront the centrality of the improbable: the concealment of its scaffolding of events continues to be essential to its functioning. It is this that makes a certain kind of narrative a recognizably modern novel. Here, then, is the irony of the “realist” novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real. What this means in practice is that the calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which obtains outside it; this is why it is commonly said, “If this were in a novel, no one would believe it.” Within the pages of a novel an event that is only slightly improbable in real life—say, an unexpected encounter with a long-lost childhood friend—may seem wildly unlikely: the writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive. If that is true of a small fluke of chance, consider how much harder a. 304

So far as I know, climate change was not a factor in the tornado that struck Delhi in 1978. The only thing it has in common with the freakish weather events of today is its extreme improbability. And it appears that we are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normalcy, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred-year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes, and, yes, freakish tornadoes. The superstorm that struck New York in 2012, Hurricane Sandy, was one such highly improbable phenomenon: the word unprecedented has perhaps never figured so often in the description of a weather event.340

never before had a hurricane veered sharply westward in the mid-Atlantic. In turning, it also merged with a winter storm, thereby becoming a “mammoth hybrid” and attaining a size unprecedented in scientific memory. The storm surge that it unleashed reached a height that exceeded any in the region’s recorded meteorological history. Indeed, Sandy was an event of such a high degree of improbability that it confounded statistical weather-prediction models. Yet dynamic models, based on the laws of physics, were able to accurately predict its trajectory as well as its impacts. But calculations of risk, on which officials base their decisions in emergencies, are based largely on probabilities. In the case of Sandy, as Sobel shows, the essential improbability of the phenomenon led them to underestimate the threat and thus delay emergency measures. Sobel goes on to make the argument, as have many others, that human beings are intrinsically unable to prepare for rare events. But has this really been the case throughout human history? Or is it rather an aspect of the unconscious patterns of thought—or “common sense”—that gained ascendancy with a growing faith in “the regularity of bourgeois life”? I suspect that human beings were generally catastrophists at heart until their instinctive awareness of the earth’s unpredictability was gradually supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism—a regime of ideas that was supported by scientific theories like Lyell’s, and also by a range of governmental practices that were informed by statistics and probability.347

work in New York during Sandy, where, as Sobel notes, it was generally believed that “losing one’s life to a hurricane is . . . something that happens in faraway places” (he might just as well have said “dithyrambic lands”). In Brazil, similarly, when Hurricane Catarina struck the coast in 2004, many people did not take shelter because “they refused to believe that hurricanes were possible in Brazil.” But in the era of global warming, nothing is really far away; there is no place where the orderly expectations of bourgeois life hold unchallenged sway. It is as though our earth had become a literary critic and were laughing at Flaubert, Chatterjee, and their like, mocking their mockery of the “prodigious happenings” that occur so often in romances and epic poems. This, then, is the first of the many ways in which the age of global warming defies both literary fiction and contemporary common sense: the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability. Indeed, it has even been proposed that this era should be named the “catastrophozoic” (others prefer such phrases as “the long emergency” and “the Penumbral Period”). It is certain in any case that these are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.362

Milton’s fictional world, like the real one in which he lived, was  . . . a ‘universe of death’ at the mercy of extremes of heat and cold.” This is a universe very different from that of the contemporary literary novel. I am, of course, painting with a very broad brush: the novel’s infancy is long past, and the form has changed in many ways over the last two centuries. Yet, to a quite remarkable degree, the literary novel has also remained true to the destiny that was charted for it at birth.s Consider that the literary movements of the twentieth century were almost uniformly disdainful of plot and narrative; that an ever-greater emphasis was laid on style and “observation,” whether it be of everyday details, traits of character, or nuances of emotion—which is why teachers of creative writing now exhort their students to “show, don’t tell.”374

(Tsunami, Sundarbans, flooding, storms, Mumbai)…Unlike the Andamans, which rise steeply from the sea, the Nicobars are low-lying islands. Being situated close to the quake’s epicenter, they had been very badly hit; many settlements had been razed. I visited a shoreside town called Malacca that had been reduced literally to its foundations: of the houses only the floors were left, and here and there the stump of a wall. It was as though the place had been hit by a bomb that was designed specifically to destroy all things human—for one of the strangest aspects of the scene was that the island’s coconut palms were largely unaffected; they stood serenely amid the rubble, their fronds waving gently in the breeze that was blowing in from the sparkling, sun-drenched sea. I wrote in my notebook: “The damage was limited to a half-mile radius along the shore. In the island’s interior everything is tranquil, peaceful—indeed astonishingly beautiful. There are patches of tall, dark primary forest, beautiful padauk trees, and among these, in little clearings, huts built on stilts. . . . One of the ironies of the situation is that the most upwardly mobile people on the island were living at its edges.” Such was the pattern of settlement here that the indigenous islanders lived mainly in the interior: they were largely unaffected by the tsunami. Those who had settled along the seashore, on the other hand, were mainly people from the mainland, many of whom were educated and middle class: in settling where they had, they had silently expressed their belief that highly improbable events belong not in the real world but in fantasy. In other words, even here, in a place about as far removed as possible from the metropolitan centers that have shaped middle-class lifestyles, the pattern of settlement had come to reflect the uniformitarian expectations that are rooted in the “regularity of bourgeois life.”481

As always in military matters, the protocols of rank were strictly observed: the higher the rank of the officers, the closer their houses were to the water and the better the view that they and their families enjoyed. Such was the design of the base that when the tsunami struck these houses the likelihood of survival was small, and inasmuch as it existed at all, it was in inverse relation to rank: the commander’s house was thus the first to be hit. The sight of the devastated houses was disturbing for reasons beyond the immediate tragedy of the tsunami and the many lives that had been lost there: the design of the base suggested a complacency that was itself a kind of madness. Nor could the siting of these buildings be attributed to the usual improvisatory muddle of Indian patterns of settlement. The base had to have been designed and built by a government agency; the site had clearly been chosen and approved by hardheaded military men and state appointed engineers. It was as if, in being adopted by the state, the bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world had been carried to the point of derangement. A special place ought to be reserved in hell, I thought to myself, for planners who build with such reckless disregard for their surroundings. Not long afterward, while flying into New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, I looked out of the window and spotted Far Rockaway and Long Beach, the thickly populated Long Island neighborhoods that separate the airport from the Atlantic Ocean. Looking down on them from above, it was clear that those long rows of apartment blocks were sitting upon what had once been barrier islands, and that in the event of a major storm surge they would be swamped (as indeed they were when Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012). Yet it was clear also that these neighborhoods had not sprung up haphazardly; the sanction of the state was evident in the ordered geometry of their streets. Only then did it strike me that the location of that base in the Nicobars was by no means anomalous; the builders had not in any sense departed from accepted global norms.497

These cities, all brought into being by processes of colonization, are now among those that are most directly threatened by climate change.527

Altogether two hundred kilometers of road were submerged; some motorists drowned in their cars because short-circuited electrical systems would not allow them to open doors and windows. Thousands of scooters, motorcycles, cars, and buses were abandoned on the water-logged roads. At around 5 p.m. cellular networks failed; most landlines stopped working too. Soon much of the city’s power supply was also cut off (although not before several people had been electrocuted): parts of the city would remain without power for several days. Two million people, including many schoolchildren, were stranded, with no means of reaching home; a hundred and fifty thousand commuters were jammed into the city’s two major railway stations. Those without money were unable to withdraw cash because ATM services had been knocked out as well. Road, rail, and air services would remain cut off for two days. Over five hundred people died: many were washed away in the floods; some were killed in a landslide. Two thousand residential buildings were partially or completely destroyed; more than ninety thousand shops, schools, health care centers, and other buildings suffered damage. While Mumbai’s poor, especially the inhabitants of some of its informal settlements, were among the worst affected, the rich and famous were not spared either. The most powerful politician in the city had to be rescued from his home in a fishing boat;647

Through all of this the people of Mumbai showed great generosity and resilience, sharing food and water and opening up their homes to strangers. Yet, as one observer notes, on July 26, 2005, it became “clear to many million people in Mumbai that life may never be quite the same again. An exceptional rainstorm finally put to rest the long prevailing myth of Mumbai’s indestructible resilience to all kinds of shocks, including that of the partition.” In the aftermath of the deluge, many recommendations were made by civic bodies, NGOs, and even the courts. But ten years later, when another downpour occurred on June 10, 2015, it turned out that few of the recommended measures had been implemented: even though the volume of rainfall was only a third of that of the deluge of 2005, many parts of the city were again swamped by floodwaters.658

Mumbai has been lucky not to have been hit by a major storm in more than a century; perhaps for that reason the possibility appears not to have been taken adequately into account in planning for disasters. Moreover, here, “as in most megacities, disaster management is focused on post-disaster response.”672

Unlike Chennai and Mumbai, Kolkata is not situated beside the sea. However, much of its surface area is below sea level, and the city is subject to regular flooding: like everyone who has lived in Kolkata, I have vivid memories of epic floods. But long familiarity with flooding tends to have a lulling effect, which is why it came as a shock to me when I learned, from a World Bank report, that Kolkata is one of the global megacities that is most at risk from climate change; equally shocking was the discovery that my family’s house, where my mother and sister live, is right next to one of the city’s most threatened neighborhoods. The report forced me to face a question that eventually confronts everybody who takes the trouble to inform themselves about climate change: what can I do to protect my family and loved ones now that I know what lies ahead? My mother is elderly and increasingly frail; there is no telling how she would fare if the house were to be cut off by a flood and medical attention were to become unavailable for any length of time.745  Bottom of Form

After much thought I decided to talk to my mother about moving. I tried to introduce the subject tactfully, but it made little difference: she looked at me as though I had lost my mind. Nor could I blame her: it did seem like lunacy to talk about leaving a beloved family home, with all its memories and associations, simply because of a threat outlined in a World Bank report. It was a fine day, cool and sunlit; I dropped the subject. But the experience did make me recognize something that I would otherwise have been loath to admit: contrary to what I might like to think, my life is not guided by reason; it is ruled, rather, by the inertia of habitual motion. This is indeed the condition of the vast majority of human beings, which is why very few of us will be able to adapt to global warming if it is left to us, as individuals, to make the necessary changes; those who will uproot themselves and make the right preparations are precisely those obsessed monomaniacs who appear to be on the borderline of lunacy. If whole societies and polities are to adapt then the necessary decisions will need to be made collectively, within political institutions, as happens in wartime or national emergencies. After all, isn’t that what politics, in its most fundamental form, is about? Collective survival and the preservation of the body politic? Yet, to look around the world today is to recognize that with some notable exceptions, like Holland and China, there exist very few polities or public institutions that are capable of implementing, or even contemplating, a managed retreat from vulnerable locations. For most governments and politicians, as for most of us as individuals, to leave the places that are linked to our memories and attachments, to abandon the homes that have given our lives roots, stability, and meaning, is nothing short of unthinkable.753

But in time, sure enough, there was a collective setting aside of the knowledge that accrues over generations through dwelling in a landscape. People began to move closer and closer to the water. How did this come about? The same question arises also in relation to the coast around Fukushima, where stone tablets had been placed along the shoreline in the Middle Ages to serve as tsunami warnings; future generations were explicitly told “Do not build your homes below this point!” The Japanese are certainly no more inattentive to the words of their ancestors than any other people: yet not only did they build exactly where they had been warned not to, they actually situated a nuclear plant there. This too is an aspect of the uncanny in the history of our relations with our environments. It is not as if we had not been warned; it is not as if we were ignorant of the risks. An awareness of the precariousness of human existence is to be found in every culture: it is reflected in biblical and Quranic images of the Apocalypse, in the figuring of the Fimbulwinter in Norse mythology, in tales of pralaya in Sanskrit literature, and so on. It was the literary imagination, most of all, that was everywhere informed by this awareness. Why then did these intuitions withdraw, not just from the minds of the founders of colonial cities, but also from the forefront of the literary imagination? Even in the West, the earth did not come to be regarded as moderate and orderly until long after the advent of modernity: for poets and writers, it was not until the late nineteenth century that Nature lost the power to evoke that form of terror and awe that was associated with the “sublime.” But the practical men who ran colonies and founded cities had evidently acquired their indifference to the destructive powers of the earth much earlier. How did this come about? How did a state of consciousness come into being such that millions of people would move to such dangerously exposed locations? The chronology of the founding of these cities creates an almost irresistible temptation to point to the European Enlightenment’s predatory hubris in relation to the earth and its resources. But this would tell us very little about the thinking of the men who built and planned that base in the Nicobars: if hubris and predation had anything to do with their choice of site, it was at a great remove. Between them and the cartographers and surveyors of an earlier era there was, I think, a much more immediate link: a habit of mind that proceeded by creating discontinuities; that is to say, they were trained to break problems into smaller and smaller puzzles until a solution presented itself. This is a way of thinking that deliberately excludes things and forces (“externalities”) that lie beyond the horizon of the matter at hand: it is a perspective that renders the interconnectedness of Gaia unthinkable.775

The discontinuities that I have pointed to here have a bearing also on the ways in which worlds are created within novels. A “setting” is what allows most stories to unfold; its relation to the action is as close as that of a stage to a play. When we read Middlemarch or Buddenbrooks or Waterland, or the great Bengali novel A River Called Titash, we enter into their settings until they begin to seem real to us; we ourselves become emplaced within them. This exactly is why “a sense of place” is famously one of the great conjurations of the novel as a form.823

In novels discontinuities of space are accompanied also by discontinuities of time: a setting usually requires a “period”; it is actualized within a certain time horizon. Unlike epics, which often range over eons and epochs, novels rarely extend beyond a few generations. The longue durée is not the territory of the novel. It is through the imposition of these boundaries, in time and space, that the world of a novel is created: like the margins of a page, these borders render places into texts, so that they can be read. The process is beautifully illustrated in the opening pages of A River Called Titash. Published in 1956, this remarkable novel was the only work of fiction published by Adwaita Mallabarman, who belonged to an impoverished caste of Dalit fisherfolk. The novel is set in rural Bengal, in a village on the shores of a fictional river, Titash. Bengal is, as I have said, a land of titanic rivers. Mallabarman gestures toward the vastness of the landscape with these words: “The bosom of Bengal is draped with rivers and their tributaries, twisted and intertwined like tangled locks, streaked with the white of foamy waves.” But almost at once he begins to detach the setting of his novel from the larger landscape: all rivers are not the same, he tells us, some are like “a frenzied sculptor at work, destroying and creating restlessly in crazed joy, riding the high-flying swing of fearsome energy—here is one kind of art.” And then, in a striking passage, the writer announces his own intentions and premises: “There is another kind of art. . . . The practitioner of this art cannot depict Mahakaal (Shiva the Destroyer) in his cosmic dance of creation and destruction—the awesome vision of tangled brown hair tumbling out of the coiled mass will not come from this artist’s brush. The artist has come away from the rivers Padma, Meghna, and Dhaleswari to find a home beside Titash. “The pictures this artist draws please the heart. Little villages dot the edges of the water. Behind these villages are stretches of farmland.” This is how the reader learns that the Titash, although it is a part of a landscape of immense waterways, is itself a small, relatively gentle river: “No cities or large towns ever grew up on its banks. Merchant boats with giant sails do not travel its waters. Its name is not in the pages of geography books.” In this way, through a series of successive exclusions, Mallabarman creates a space that will submit to the techniques of a modern novel: the rest of the landscape is pushed farther and farther into the background until at last we have a setting that can carry a narrative. The setting becomes, in a sense, a self-contained ecosystem, with the river as the sustainer both of life and of the narrative. The impetus of the novel, and its poignancy, come from the Titash itself: it is the river’s slow drying up that directs the lives of the characters. The Titash is, of course, but one strand of the “tangled locks” of an immense network of rivers and its flow is necessarily ruled by the dynamics of the landscape. But it is precisely by excluding those inconceivably large forces, and by telescoping the changes into the duration of a limited-time horizon, that the novel becomes narratable.834

Novels, on the other hand, conjure up worlds that become real precisely because of their finitude and distinctiveness. Within the mansion of serious fiction, no one will speak of how the continents were created; nor will they refer to the passage of thousands of years: connections and events on this scale appear not just unlikely but also absurd within the delimited horizon of a novel—when they intrude, the temptation to lapse into satire, as in Ian McEwan’s Solar, becomes almost irresistible. But the earth of the Anthropocene is precisely a world of insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are nothing if not inconceivably vast. The waters that are invading the Sundarbans are also swamping Miami Beach; deserts are advancing in China as well as Peru; wildfires are intensifying in Australia as well as Texas and Canada. There was never a time, of course, when the forces of weather and geology did not have a bearing on our lives—but neither has there ever been a time when they have pressed themselves on us with such relentless directness.866

The Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us; it is they who confront most directly what Thoreau called “vast, Titanic, inhuman nature.” Nor is it any longer possible to exclude this dynamic even from places that were once renowned for their distinctiveness.882

Behind all of this lie those continuities and those inconceivably vast forces that have now become impossible to exclude, even from texts. Here, then, is another form of resistance, a scalar one, that the Anthropocene presents to the techniques that are most closely identified with the novel: its essence consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel—forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space.888

The Anthropocene has forced us to recognize that there are other, fully aware eyes looking over our shoulders—then the first question to present itself is this: What is the place of the nonhuman in the modern novel? To attempt an answer is to confront another of the uncanny effects of the Anthropocene: it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.924

To ask how science fiction came to be demarcated from the literary mainstream is to summon another question: What is it in the nature of modernity that has led to this separation? A possible answer is suggested by Bruno Latour, who argues that one of the originary impulses of modernity is the project of “partitioning,” or deepening the imaginary gulf between Nature and Culture: the former comes to be relegated exclusively to the sciences and is regarded as being off-limits to the latter.964

 

Nor was it only in England, but also throughout Europe and North America that partitioning was resisted, under the banners variously of romanticism, pastoralism, transcendentalism, and so on. Poets were always in the forefront of the resistance, in a line that extends from Hölderlin and Rilke to such present-day figures as Gary Snyder and W. S. Merwin. But being myself a writer of fiction, it is the novel that interests me most, and when we look at the evolution of the form, it becomes evident that its absorption into the project of partitioning was presaged already in the line of Wordsworth’s that I quoted979

Western writers remained deeply engaged with science through the nineteenth century. Nor was this a one-sided engagement. Naturalists and scientists not only read but also produced some of the most significant literary works of the nineteenth century, such as Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Alfred Russell Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago. Their works, in turn, served as an inspiration to a great number of poets and writers, including Tennyson. How, then, did the provinces of the imaginative and the scientific come to be so sharply divided from each other? According to Latour the project of partitioning is supported always by a related enterprise: one that he describes as “purification,” the purpose of which is to ensure that Nature remains off-limits to Culture, the knowledge of which is consigned entirely to the sciences. This entails the marking off and suppression of hybrids—and that, of course, is exactly the story of the branding of science fiction, as a genre separate from the literary mainstream. The line that has been drawn between them exists only for the sake of neatness; because the zeitgeist of late modernity could not tolerate Nature-Culture hybrids. Nor is this pattern1000 

But climate fiction or cli-fi is made up mostly of disaster stories set in the future, and that, to me, is exactly the rub. The future is but one aspect of the Anthropocene: this era also includes the recent past, and, most significantly, the present.1019

This lays out with marvelous clarity some of the ways in which the Anthropocene resists science fiction: it is precisely not an imagined “other” world apart from ours; nor is it located in another “time” or another “dimension.” By no means are the events of the era of global warming akin to the stuff of wonder tales; yet it is also true that in relation to what we think of as normal now, they are in many ways uncanny; and they have indeed opened a doorway into what we might call a “spirit world”—a universe animated by nonhuman voices. If I have been at pains to speak of resistances rather than insuperable obstacles, it is because these challenges can be, and have been, overcome in many novels: Liz Jensen’s Rapture is a fine example of one such; another is Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel Flight Behavior. Both are set in a time that is recognizable as our own, and they both communicate, with marvelous vividness, the uncanniness and improbability, the magnitude and interconnectedness of the transformations that are now under way. 17.1024

This effort gained in urgency after the historic strikes of the 1910s and ’20s, in which miners, and workers who transported and distributed coal, played a major role; indeed, fear of working-class militancy was one of the reasons why a large part of the Marshall Plan’s funds went toward effecting the switch from coal to oil. “The corporatised democracy of postwar Western Europe was to be built,” as Mitchell notes, “on this reorganisation of energy flows.” For the arts, oil is inscrutable in a way that coal never was: the energy that petrol generates is easy to aestheticize—as in images and narratives of roads and cars—but the substance itself is not. Its sources are mainly hidden from sight, veiled by technology, and its workers are hard to mythologize, being largely invisible. As for the places where oil is extracted, they possess nothing of the raw visual power that is manifest, for example, in the mining photographs of Sebastião Salgado. Oil refineries are usually so heavily fortified that little can be seen of them other than a distant gleam of metal, with tanks, pipelines, derricks, glowing under jets of flame.1048 

Long after the publication of The Circle of Reason, I wrote a piece in which I attempted to account for this mysterious absence: “To the principal protagonists in the Oil Encounter (which means, in effect, America and Americans, on the one hand, and the peoples of the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf, on the other), the history of oil is a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic. It is perhaps the one cultural issue on which the two sides are in complete agreement. . . . Try and imagine a major American writer taking on the Oil Encounter. The idea is literally inconceivable.” The above passage figures in a review of one of the few works of fiction to address the Oil Encounter, a five-part series of novels by the Jordanian-born writer Abdel Rahman Munif.1065  Here is what he had to say about Cities of Salt: “It is unfortunate, given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif . . . appears to be . . . insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer; his characters are rarely fixed in our minds by a face or a manner or a developed motivation; no central figure develops enough reality to attract our sympathetic interest; and, this being the first third of a trilogy, what intelligible conflicts and possibilities do emerge remain serenely unresolved. There is almost none of that sense of individual moral adventure—of the evolving individual in varied and roughly equal battle with a world of circumstance—which since ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ has distinguished the novel from the fable and the chronicle; ‘Cities of Salt’ is concerned, instead, with men in the aggregate.”1080

My own disagreement with it hinges upon the phrase that Updike uses to distinguish the novel from the fable and the chronicle: “individual moral adventure.”1089

Updike draws this boundary line with great clarity: the reason why Cities of Salt does not feel “much like a novel,” he tells us, is that it is concerned not with a sense of individual moral adventures but rather with “men in the aggregate.” In other words, what is banished from the territory of the novel is precisely the collective. But is it actually the case that novelists have shunned men (or women) in the aggregate? And inasmuch as they have, is it a matter of intention or narrative expediency?1101

In a perceptive discussion of Updike’s review, the critic Rob Nixon points out that Munif is “scarcely alone in working with a crowded canvas and with themes of collective transformation”; Émile Zola, Upton Sinclair, and many others have also treated “individual character as secondary to collective metamorphosis.” Indeed, so numerous are the traces of the collective within the novelistic tradition that anyone who chose to look for them would soon be overwhelmed. Such being the case, should Updike’s view be summarily dismissed? My answer is: no—because Updike was, in a certain sense, right. It is a fact that the contemporary novel has become ever more radically centered on the individual psyche while the collective—“men in the aggregate”—has receded, both in the cultural and the fictional imagination. Where I differ from Updike is that I do not think that this turn in contemporary fiction has anything to do with the novel as a form: it is a matter of record that historically many novelists from Tolstoy and Dickens to Steinbeck and Chinua Achebe have written very effectively about “men in the aggregate.” In many parts of the world, they continue to do so even now. What Updike captures, then, is not by any means an essential element of the novel as a form; his characterization is true rather of a turn that fiction took at a certain time in the countries that were then leading the way to the “Great Acceleration” of the late twentieth century. It is certainly no coincidence that these were the very places where, as Guy Debord observed, the reigning economic system was not only founded on isolation, it was also “designed to produce isolation.” I say it is no coincidence for two reasons. The first is that the acceleration in carbon emissions and the turn away from the collective are both, in one sense, effects of that aspect of modernity that sees time (in Bruno Latour’s words) as “an irreversible arrow, as capitalization, as progress.”

I’ve noted before that this idea of a continuous and irreversible forward movement, led by an avant-garde, has been one of the animating forces of the literary and artistic imagination since the start of the twentieth century. A progression of this sort inevitably creates winners and losers, and in the case of twentieth-century fiction, one of the losers was exactly writing of the kind in which the collective had a powerful presence. Fiction of this sort was usually of a realist variety, and it receded because it was consigned to the netherworld of “backwardness.” But the era of global warming has made audible a new, nonhuman critical voice that forces us to ask whether those old realists were so “used-up” after all. Consider the example of John Steinbeck, never a favorite of the avant-garde, and once famously dismissed by Lionel Trilling as a writer who thought “like a social function, not a novelist.” Yet, if we look back upon Steinbeck now, in full awareness of what is now known about the future of the planet, his work seems far from superseded; quite the contrary. What we see, rather, is a visionary placement of the human within the nonhuman; we see a form, an approach that grapples with climate change avant la lettre. Around the world too there are many writers—not all of them realists—from whose work neither the aggregate nor the nonhuman have ever been absent. To cite only a few examples from India: in Bengali, there is the work of Adwaita Mallabarman and Mahasweta Devi; in Kannada, Sivarama Karanth; in Oriya, Gopinath Mohanty; in Marathi, Vishwas Patil. Of these writers too I suspect that Updike would have said that their books were not much “like what we call a novel.”1107

Similarly, at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike. Inasmuch as contemporary fiction is caught in this thralldom, this is one of the most powerful ways in which global warming resists it: it is as if the gas had run out on a generation accustomed to jet skis, leaving them with the task of reinventing sails and oars.1140

Merely to trace the evolution of the printed book is to observe the slow but inexorable excision of all the pictorial elements that had previously existed within texts: illuminated borders, portraits, coloring, line drawings, and so on. This pattern is epitomized by the career of the novel, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often included frontispieces, plates, and so on. But all of these elements gradually faded away, over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until the very word illustration became a pejorative, not just within fiction but in all the arts. It was as if every doorway and window that might allow us to escape the confines of language had to be slammed shut, to make sure that humans had no company in their dwindling world but their own abstractions and concepts. This, indeed, is a horizon within which every advance is achieved at the cost of “making the world more unlivable.” But then came a sea change: with the Internet we were suddenly back in a time when text and image could be twinned with as much facility as in an illuminated manuscript. It is surely no coincidence that images too began to seep back into the textual world of the novel; then came the rise of the graphic novel—and it soon began to be taken seriously. So if it is the case that the last, but perhaps most intransigent way the Anthropocene resists literary fiction lies ultimately in its resistance to language itself, then it would seem to follow that new, hybrid forms will emerge and the act of reading itself will change once again, as it has many times before.1186

The Opium War of 1839–42 was the first important conflict to be fought in the name of free trade and unfettered markets; yet, ironically, the most obvious lesson of this period is that capitalist trade and industry cannot thrive without access to military and political power. State interventions have always been critical to its advancement. In Asia, it was military dominance that created the conditions in which Western capital could prevail over indigenous commerce. British imperial officials of that period understood perfectly well the lesson contained in this: it was that the maintenance of military dominance had to be the primary imperative of empire.1508

Linkages between economy, political sovereignty, and military power were not restored till the paired processes of decolonization and the (temporary) retreat of the erstwhile colonial powers were set in motion by the end of the Second World War. It is surely no coincidence that the acceleration of mainland Asian economies followed within a few decades. As Dipesh Chakrabarty points out, the period of the Great Acceleration is precisely “the period of great decolonization in countries that had been dominated by European imperial powers.” Such being the case, another essential question in relation to the chronology of global warming is this: What would have happened if decolonization and the dismantling of empires (including that of Japan) had occurred earlier, say, after the First World War? Would the economies of mainland Asia have accelerated earlier? If the answer to this were yes, then another, equally important question would arise: Could it be the case that imperialism actually delayed the onset of the climate crisis by retarding the expansion of Asian and African economies? Is it possible that if the major twentieth-century empires had been dismantled earlier, then the landmark figure of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have been crossed long before it actually was?1513

The history of the carbon economy is not in any way to diminish the force of the argument for global justice regarding greenhouse gas emissions. To the contrary, it places that argument within the same contexts as debates about inequality, poverty, and social justice within countries like Britain and the United States: it is to assert that the poor nations of the world are not poor because they were indolent or unwilling; their poverty is itself an effect of the inequities created by the carbon economy; it is the result of systems that were set up by brute force to ensure that poor nations remained always at a disadvantage in terms of both wealth and power. Inasmuch as the fruits of the carbon economy constitute wealth, and inasmuch as the poor of the global south have historically been deprived of this wealth, it is certainly true, by every available canon of distributive justice, that they are entitled to a greater share of the rewards of that economy. But even to enter into that argument is to recognize how deeply we are mired in the Great Derangement: our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but toward our self-annihilation. “Money flows toward short term gain,” writes the geologist David Archer, “and toward the over-exploitation of unregulated common resources. These tendencies are like the invisible hand of fate, guiding the hero in a Greek tragedy toward his inevitable doom.” This is indeed the essence of humanity’s present derangement. 9. Imperialism was not, however, the only obstacle in Asia’s path to industrialization: this model of economy also met with powerful indigenous resistances of many different kinds. While it is true that industrial capitalism met with resistance on every continent, not least Europe, what is distinctive in the case of Asia is that the resistance was often articulated and championed by figures of extraordinary moral and political authority, such as Mahatma Gandhi.

Among Gandhi’s best-known pronouncements on industrial capitalism are these famous lines written in 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” This quote is striking because of the directness with which it goes to the heart of the matter: numbers. It is proof that Gandhi, like many others, understood intuitively what Asia’s history would eventually demonstrate: that the universalist premise of industrial civilization was a hoax; that a consumerist mode of existence, if adopted by a sufficient number of people, would quickly become unsustainable and would lead, literally, to the devouring of the planet. Of course, Gandhi was not alone in being granted this insight; many others around the world were to arrive at the same conclusion, often by completely different routes. But Gandhi occupied a position of unique social and cultural importance, and, what was more, he was willing to carry his vision to its logical conclusion by voluntarily renouncing, on behalf of his nation, the kind of power and affluence that is conferred by industrial civilization. This was perfectly well understood by Gandhi’s political enemies on the Hindu right, who insistently characterized him as a man who wanted to weaken India. And indeed it was for this very reason that Gandhi was assassinated by a former member of an organization that would later become the nucleus of the political formation that now rules India. This coalition came to power by promising exactly what Gandhi had renounced: endless industrial growth.1527

Japan diverged from the West in another way as well: an awareness of natural constraints became a part of its official ideology, which insisted that “nature is consciousness for the Japanese people.” It is a striking fact also that many leading figures from Asia voiced concerns even at a time when environmentalism was largely a countercultural issue in the West. One of them was the Burmese statesman U Thant, who served as the secretary-general of the United Nations from 1962 to 1971 and was instrumental in establishing the United Nations Environment Programme. In 1971, he issued a warning that seems strangely prescient today: “As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: ‘With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,’ or, ‘They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.’”1565

In any reckoning of climate justice, this history too needs to be taken into account: that in both India and China, the two nations that are now often blamed for precipitating the climate crisis, there were significant numbers of people who understood, long before climate scientists brought in the data, that industrial civilization was subject to limitations of scale and would collapse if adopted by the majority of the earth’s people. Although they may finally have failed to lead their compatriots in a different direction, they did succeed in retarding the wholesale adoption of a consumerist, industrial model of economy in their countries. In a world where the rewards of a carbon-intensive economy are regarded as wealth, this must be reckoned as a very significant material sacrifice, for which they can, quite legitimately, demand recognition. The demand for “climate reparations” is therefore founded on unshakeable grounds, historically and ethically. Yet the complexity of the carbon economy’s genealogy holds a lesson also for those in the global south who would draw a wide and clear line between “us” and “them” in relation to global warming. While there can be no doubt that the climate crisis was brought on by the way in which the carbon economy evolved in the West, it is also true that the matter might have taken many different turns.1578

Is it possible that the arts and literature of this time will one day be remembered not for their daring, nor for their championing of freedom, but rather because of their complicity in the Great Derangement? Could it be said that the “stance of unyielding rage against the official order” that the artists and writers of this period adopted was actually, from the perspective of the Anthropocene, a form of collusion? 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.” If such a judgement—or even the possibility of it—seems shocking, it is because we have come to accept that the front ranks of the arts are in some way in advance of mainstream culture; that artists and writers are able to look ahead, not just in aesthetic matters, but also in regard to public affairs. Writers and artists have themselves embraced this role with increasing fervor through the twentieth century, and never more so than in the period in which carbon emissions were accelerating.1630

The increasing hegemony of the English language, on the other, made it possible for writers like myself to enter the global literary mainstream in a way that had not been possible in the preceding two centuries. At the same time, changes in technologies of communication, and a rapid growth in networks of translation, served to internationalize both politics and literature to a point where it could be said that Goethe’s vision of a “world literature” (Weltliteratur) had come close to being realized. I can attest from my own experience that this period—when an exploding rate of carbon emissions was rewriting the planet’s destiny—was a breathtakingly exciting time in which to launch upon a career as a writer. As I’ve noted before, not the least aspect of this was the promise of “being ahead” (en avant, of being a part, in effect, of an avant-garde), and this conception has been one of the animating forces of the literary and artistic imagination since the start of the twentieth century. “Modernism wrote into its scripture a major text,” goes Roger Shattuck’s wry observation, “the avant-garde we have with us always.” To want to be ahead, and to celebrate and mythify this endeavor, is indeed one of the most powerful impulses of modernity itself. If Bruno Latour is right, then to be modern is to envision time as irreversible, to think of it as a progression that is forever propelled forward by revolutionary ruptures: these in turn are conceived of on the analogy of scientific innovations, each of which is thought to render its predecessor obsolete. And obsolescence is indeed modernity’s equivalent of perdition and hellfire. That is why this era’s most potent words of damnation, passed down in an unbroken relay from Hegel and Marx to President Obama, is the malediction of being “on the wrong side of history.”1654

And for modern man, terror is exactly what is evoked by the fear of being left behind, of being “backward.” There is perhaps no better means of tracking the diffusion of modernity across the globe than by charting the widening grip of this fear, which was nowhere more powerfully felt than in the places that were most visibly marked by the stigmata of “backwardness.” It was what drove artists and writers in Asia, Africa, and the Arab world to go to extraordinary lengths to “keep up” with each iteration of modernity in the arts: surrealism, existentialism, and so on. And far from diminishing over time, the impulse gathered strength through the twentieth century, so that writers of my generation were, if anything, even less resistant to its power than were our predecessors: we could not but be aware of the many “isms”—structuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism—that flashed past our eyes with ever-increasing speed. This is why it comes as a surprise—a shock, really—to look back upon that period of surging carbon emissions and recognize that very few (and I do not exempt myself from this) of the literary minds of that intensely engagé period were alive to the archaic voice whose rumblings, once familiar, had now become inaudible to humanity: that of the earth and its atmosphere. I do not mean to imply that there were no manifestations of a general sense of anxiety and foreboding in the literature of that time; nor do I mean to suggest that mankind had ceased to be haunted by intuitions of apocalypse. These were certainly no less abundant in the last few decades than they have been since stories were first told. It is when I try to think of writers whose imaginative work communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment that I find myself at a loss; of literary novelists writing in English only a handful of names come to mind: J. G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and T. Coraghessan Boyle. No doubt many other names could be added to this list, but even if it were to be expanded a hundredfold or more, it would remain true, I think, that the literary mainstream, even as it was becoming more engagé on many fronts, remained just as unaware of the crisis on our doorstep as the population at large. In this regard, the avant-garde, far from being “ahead,” was clearly a laggard. Could it be, then, that the same process that inaugurated the rising death spiral of carbon emissions also ensured, in an uncannily clever gesture of self-protection, that the artists, writers, and poets of that era would go racing off in directions that actually blinded them to exactly what they thought they were seeing: that is to say, what lay en avant, what was to come?1672

The divergence between the common interest and the preoccupations of the public sphere points to a change in the nature of politics itself. The political is no longer about the commonweal or the “body politic” and the making of collective decisions. It is about something else. What, then, is that “something”? A similar question could be posed in relation to the literary imaginary: Why is it increasingly open to certain conceptions of the political while remaining closed to an issue that concerns our collective survival? Here again the trajectory of the modern novel represents, I think, a special case of a broader cultural phenomenon. The essence of this phenomenon is again captured by the words that John Updike used to characterize the modern novel: “individual moral adventure.” I have already addressed one of the implications of this conception of the novel: the manner in which it banishes the collective from the territory of the fictional imagination. I want to attend now to another aspect of it: the implications of the word moral.1710

This is not a politics that is principally concerned with the ordering of public affairs. It is rather a politics that is also increasingly conceived of as an “individual moral adventure” in the sense of being an interior journey guided by the conscience. Just as novels have come to be seen as narratives of identity, so too has politics become, for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery. Although the evolution of the term moral has brought it squarely into the secular domain, the term continues to be powerfully marked by its origins, which clearly lie within Christianity and particularly Protestantism. The moral-political, as thus conceived, is essentially Protestantism without a God: it commits its votaries to believing in perfectibility, individual redemption, and a never-ending journey to a shining city on a hill—constructed, in this instance, not by a deity, but by democracy. This is a vision of the world as a secular church, where all the congregants offer testimony about their journeys of self-discovery. This imagining of the world has profound consequences for fiction as well as the body politic. Fiction, for one, comes to be reimagined in such a way that it becomes a form of bearing witness, of testifying, and of charting the career of the conscience. Thus do sincerity and authenticity become, in politics as in literature, the greatest of virtues. No wonder, then, that one of the literary icons of our age, the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, has publicly admitted to “being sick of fiction.” As opposed to the “falsity” of fiction, Knausgaard has “set out to write exclusively from his own life.” This is not, however, a new project: it belongs squarely within the tradition of “diary keeping and spiritual soul-searching [that]  . . . was a central aspect of Puritan religiosity.” This secular baring-of-the-soul is exactly what is demanded by the world-as-church. 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; what fiction—and by this I mean not only the novel but also epic and myth—makes possible is to approach the world in a subjunctive mode, to conceive of it as if it were other than it is: in short, the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be. But as with much else that is uncanny about the Anthropocene, this challenge has appeared before us at the very moment when the form of imagining that is best suited to answering it—fiction—has turned in a radically different direction.1723

It is now perfectly clear that in the West political processes exert very limited influence over the domain of statecraft—so much so that it has even been suggested that “citizens no longer seriously expect . . . that politicians will really represent their interests and implement their demands.” This altered political reality may in part be an effect of the dominance of petroleum in the world economy. As Timothy Mitchell has shown, the flow of oil is radically unlike the movement of coal. The nature of coal, as a material, is such that its transportation creates multiple choke points where organized labor can exert pressure on corporations and the state. This is not case with oil, which flows through pipelines that can bypass concentrations of labor. This was exactly why British and American political elites began to encourage the use of oil over coal after the First World War. These efforts succeeded perhaps beyond their own wildest dreams. As an instrument of disempowerment oil has been spectacularly effective in removing the levers of power from the reach of the populace. “No matter how many people take to the streets in massive marches,” writes Roy Scranton, “they cannot put their hands on the real flows of power because they do not help to produce it. They only consume.” Under these circumstances, a march or a demonstration of popular feeling amounts to “little more than an orgy of democratic emotion, an activist-themed street fair, a real-world analogue to Twitter hashtag campaigns: something that gives you a nice feeling, says you belong in a certain group, and is completely divorced from actual legislation and governance.” In other words, the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics as thus practiced is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness. Contemporary culture in all its aspects (including religious fundamentalisms of almost every variety) is pervaded by this expressivism, which is itself “to a significant degree a result of the strong role of Protestant Christianity in the making of the modern world.”

There could be no better vehicle for this expressivism than the Internet, which makes various means of self-expression instantly available through social media. And as tweets and posts and clips circle the globe, they generate their mirror images of counterexpression in a dynamic that quickly becomes a double helix of negation. As far back as the 1960s Guy Debord argued in his seminal book The Society of the Spectacle: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” The ways in which political engagements unfold over social media confirm this thesis, propounded long before the Internet became so large a part of our lives: “The spectacle is by definition immune from human activity, inaccessible to any projected review or correction. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule.” The net result is a deadlocked public sphere, with the actual exercise of power being relegated to the interlocking complex of corporations and institutions of governance that has come to be known as the “deep state.” From the point of view of corporations and other establishment entities, a deadlocked public is, of course, the best possible outcome, which, no doubt, is why they frequently strive to produce it: the funding of climate change “denial” in the United States and elsewhere, by corporations like Exxon—which have long known about the consequences of carbon emissions—is a perfect example of this. In effect, the countries of the West are now in many senses “post-political spaces” that are managed by apparatuses of various kinds. For many, this…1759

People have begun to frame climate change as a “moral issue.” This has become almost a plea of last resort, appeals of many other kinds having failed to produce concerted action on climate change. So, in an ironic twist, the individual conscience is now increasingly seen as the battleground of choice for a conflict that is self-evidently a problem of the global commons, requiring collective action: it is as if every other resource of democratic governance had been exhausted leaving only this residue—the moral. This framing of the issue certainly has one great virtue, in that it breaks decisively with the economistic, cost-benefit language that the international climate change bureaucracy has imposed on it. But at the same time, this approach also invokes a “politics of sincerity” that may ultimately work to the advantage of those on the opposite side. For if the crisis of climate change is to be principally seen in terms of the questions it poses to the individual conscience, then sincerity and consistency will inevitably become the touchstones by which political positions will be judged. This in turn will enable “deniers” to accuse activists of personal hypocrisy by pointing to their individual lifestyle choices.

When framed in this way, authenticity and sacrifice become central to the issue, which then comes to rest on matters like the number of lightbulbs in Al Gore’s home and the forms of transport that demonstrators use to get to a march. I saw a particularly telling example of this in a TV interview with a prominent activist after the New York climate change march of September 2014. The interviewer’s posture was like that of a priest interrogating a wayward parishioner; her questions were along the lines of “What have you given up for climate change? What are your sacrifices?” The activist in question was quickly reduced to indignant incoherence. So paralyzing is the effect of the fusion of the political and the moral that he could not bring himself to state the obvious: that the scale of climate change is such that individual choices will make little difference unless certain collective decisions are taken and acted upon. Sincerity has nothing to do with rationing water during a drought, as in today’s California: this is not a measure that can be left to the individual conscience. To think in those terms is to accept neo-liberal premises.  Second, yardsticks of morality are not the same everywhere. In many parts of the world, and especially in English-speaking countries, canons of judgment on many issues still rest on that distinctive fusion of economic, religious, and philosophical conceptions that was brought about by the Scottish Enlightenment. The central tenet of this set of ideas, as John Maynard Keynes once put it, is that “by the working of natural laws individuals pursuing their own interests with enlightenment, in condition of freedom, always tend to promote the general interest at the same time!” The “everyday political philosophy of the nineteenth century” (as Keynes described it) remains an immensely powerful force in the United States and elsewhere: for those on the right of the political spectrum, this set of ideas retains something of its millenarian character with individualism, free trade, and God constituting parts of a whole. But by no means is it only the religiously minded whose ideas are shaped by this philosophy: it is worth noting that the dominant secular paradigms of ethics in the United States—for example, as in John Rawls’s theory of justice—are also founded upon assumptions about individual rationality that are borrowed from neoclassical economics.1795

Climate change is often described as a “wicked problem.” One of its wickedest aspects is that it may require us to abandon some of our most treasured ideas about political virtue: for example, “be the change you want to see.” What we need instead is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped. When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement 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. 4.1834

U.S. intelligence agencies, and personnel associated with them, have produced some of the earliest and most detailed studies of the security implications of climate change. In 2013, James Clapper, the highest-ranking intelligence official in the United States, testified to the Senate that “extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.”1899

The geologist David Archer reckons that to reach a genuinely fair solution to the problem of emissions would “require cuts in the developed world of about 80 percent. For the United States, Canada and Australia, the cuts would be closer to 90 percent.” Will an abstract idea of fairness be sufficient for people to undertake cuts on this scale, especially in a world where the pursuit of self-interest is conceived of as the motor of the economy? Let’s just say there is much room for doubt.

The fact is that we live in a world that has been profoundly shaped by empire and its disparities. Differentials of power between and within nations are probably greater today than they have ever been. These differentials are, in turn, closely related to carbon emissions. The distribution of power in the world therefore lies at the core of the climate crisis. This is indeed one of the greatest obstacles to mitigatory action, and all the more so because it remains largely unacknowledged. This question will probably be even more difficult to resolve than economic disparities and matters like compensation, carbon budgets, and so on. We do at least possess a vocabulary for economic issues; within the current system of international relations, there is no language in which questions related to the equitable distribution of power can be openly and frankly addressed. It is for these reasons that I differ with those who identify capitalism as the principal fault line on the landscape of climate change. It seems to me that this landscape is riven by two interconnected but equally important rifts, each of which follows a trajectory of its own: these are capitalism and empire (the latter being understood as an aspiration to dominance on the part of some of the most important structures of the world’s most powerful states). In short, even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action.1982

I differ with those who identify capitalism as the principal fault line on the landscape of climate change. It seems to me that this landscape is riven by two interconnected but equally important rifts, each of which follows a trajectory of its own: these are capitalism and empire (the latter being understood as an aspiration to dominance on the part of some of the most important structures of the world’s most powerful states). In short, even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action.1992

Western food production, for instance, is dangerously resource intensive, requiring something in the range of a “dozen fossil fuel calories for each food calorie.” And Western food distribution systems are so complex that small breakdowns could lead to cascading consequences that culminate in complete collapse. Power failures, for instance, are so rare in advanced countries that they often cause great disruption—including spikes in rates of crime—when they do occur. In many parts of the global south, breakdowns are a way of life, and everybody is used to improvisations and work-arounds. In poor countries, even the middle classes are accustomed to coping with shortages and discomforts of all sorts;2003

The European heat wave of 2003 resulted in forty-six thousand deaths, while the 2010 heat wave in Russia had an estimated death toll of fifty-six thousand. These figures are far in excess of the toll of the 2015 heatwave in South Asia and the Persian Gulf region which registered heat index readings of as much as 163 degrees Fahrenheit (72.8 degrees Celsius). Moreover, ties of community are still strong through the global south; people who are completely cut off from others are relatively rare. This too is a safety net of a kind: recent experience shows that the absence of community networks can greatly amplify the impact of extreme weather events. After the 2003 heat wave in Europe, for instance, it was found that many of the dead were elderly people living in isolation. In short: the rich have much to lose; the poor do not.2011

Laudato Si’, by contrast, does not anywhere suggest that miraculous interventions may provide a solution for climate change. It strives instead to make sense of humanity’s present predicament by mining the wisdom of a tradition that far predates the carbon economy. Yet it does not hesitate to take issue with past positions of the Church, as, for example, in the matter of reconciling an ecological consciousness with the Christian doctrine of Man’s dominion over Nature. Even less does the Encyclical hesitate to criticize the prevalent paradigms of our era; most of all it is fiercely critical of “the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.” It returns to this theme repeatedly, insisting that it is because of the “technocratic paradigm” that “we fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological growth.” In the text of the Paris Agreement, by contrast, there is not the slightest acknowledgment that something has gone wrong with our dominant paradigms; it contains no clause or article that could be interpreted as a critique of the practices that are known to have created the situation that the Agreement seeks to address. The current paradigm of perpetual growth is enshrined at the core of the text.2094

the Agreement speaks only of the adverse impacts or effects of climate change. The word catastrophe is never used and even disaster occurs only once, and that too only because it figures in the title of a previous conference. It is as if the negotiations had been convened to deal with a minor annoyance. No wonder then that the Agreement’s provisions will come into force (if such a word can be used of voluntary actions) only in 2020 when the window for effective action will already have dwindled to the size of the eye of a celestial needle. In contrast to the Agreement’s careful avoidance of disruptive terminology, Laudato Si’ challenges contemporary practices not just in its choice of words but also in the directness of its style. In place of the obscurity and technical jargon that enshrouds the official discourse on climate change, the document strives to open itself, in a manner that explicitly acknowledges the influence of the saint who is the pope’s “guide and inspiration”: “Francis [of Assisi] helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.” In much the same measure that Laudato Si’ strives for openness, the Agreement moves in the opposite direction: toward confinement and occlusion. Its style as well as its vocabulary convey the impression of language being deployed as an instrument of concealment and withdrawal; even its euphoria is suggestive of the heady joy of a small circle of initiates celebrating a rite of passage.2109

 

The opacity of the Agreement, on the other hand, hints at the opposite intention: its rhetoric is like a shimmering screen, set up to conceal implicit bargains, unspoken agreements, and loopholes visible only to those in the know. It is no secret that various billionaires, corporations, and “climate entrepreneurs” played an important part in the Paris negotiations. But even if this were not publicly known, it would be deducible from the diction of the Agreement, which is borrowed directly from the free-trade agreements of the neo-liberal era: these clearly are the provenance of its references to “accelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation” and of many of the terms on which it relies, such as stakeholder, good practices, insurance solutions, public and private participation, technology development, and so on. As is often the case with texts, the Agreement’s rhetoric serves to clarify much that it leaves unsaid: namely, that its intention, and the essence of what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching each other.2131

If exclusion is a recurrent theme in Laudato Si’, it is for exactly the opposite reason: because poverty and justice are among the Encyclical’s central concerns. The document returns over and again to the theme of “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” In Laudato Si’ the words poverty and justice keep close company with each other. Here poverty is not envisaged as a state that can be managed or ameliorated in isolation from other factors; nor are ecological issues seen as problems that can be solved without taking social inequities into account, as is often implied by a certain kind of conservationism. Laudato Si’ excoriates this latter kind of “green rhetoric” and insists that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” This in turn leads to the blunt assertion that “a true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south.”2148

The (Paris Agreement) Annex merely takes note of “the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’ when taking action to address climate change.” The scare quotes that bracket the phrase “climate justice” and the description of the concept as being important only “for some” amount to nothing less than an explicit disavowal of the concept. But an implicit disavowal occurs much earlier, in one of the few passages in the text that is pellucid in its clarity: “the Agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” With these words the Agreement forever strips the victims of climate change of all possible claims to legal recompense for their losses; they will have to depend instead on the charity of a fund that developed nations have agreed to set up.2160

“We have forgotten,” goes the text, “that ‘man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. . . . He is spirit and will, but also nature.’” It is by this route that the themes of Laudato Si’ lead back to the territory that I explored earlier in trying to locate the fronts where climate change resists contemporary literature and the arts. Insofar as the idea of the limitlessness of human freedom is central to the arts of our time, this is also where the Anthropocene will most intransigently resist them. 9.2173

There are a few features in it that stand out in relief as signs of hope: a spreading sense of urgency among governments and the public; the emergence of realistic alternative energy solutions; widening activism around the world; and even a few signal victories for environmental movements. But the most promising development, in my view, is the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change. Pope Francis is, of course, the most prominent example, but some Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and other groups and organizations have also recently voiced their concern. I take this to be a sign of hope because it is increasingly2178

I would like to believe that a great upsurge of secular protest movements around the world could break through the deadlock and bring about fundamental changes. The problem, however, is time. One of the reasons why climate change is a “wicked” as opposed to a “normal” problem is that the time horizon in which effective action can be taken is very narrow: every year that passes without a drastic reduction in global emissions makes catastrophe more certain. It is hard to see how popular protest movements could gain enough momentum within such a narrow horizon of time:2188

If a significant breakthrough is to be achieved, if the securitization and corporatization of climate change is to be prevented, then already-existing communities and mass organizations will have to be in the forefront of the struggle. And of such organizations, those with religious affiliations possess the ability to mobilize people in far greater numbers than any others. Moreover, religious worldviews are not subject to the limitations that have made climate change such a challenge for our existing institutions of governance: they transcend nation-states, and they all acknowledge intergenerational, long-term responsibilities; they do not partake of economistic ways of thinking and are therefore capable of imagining nonlinear change—catastrophe, in other words—in ways that are perhaps closed to the forms of reason deployed by contemporary nation-states. Finally, it is impossible to see any way out of this crisis without an acceptance of limits and limitations, and this in turn, is, I think, intimately related to the idea of the sacred, however one may wish to conceive of it. If religious groupings around the world can join hands with popular movements, they may well be able to provide the momentum that is needed for the world to move forward on drastically reducing emissions without sacrificing considerations of equity. That many climate activists are already proceeding in this direction is, to me, yet another sign of hope.2194

But I would like to believe that out of this struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes than those that preceded it; that they will be able to transcend the isolation in which humanity was entrapped in the time of its derangement; that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature.2214

Laudato Si’ Movement
Laudato Si’ Movement

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