The Unthinkable in Climate Change: A View from Asia on Literature and Politics

In Indien gibt es im Sommer lang anhaltende Regenschauer: Monsunregen

Amitav Ghosh’s new book “The Great Derangement” examines climate change and climate policy from unusual perspectives. It is bound to get much international attention because it asks some fundamental new questions concerning the handling of climate change in literature and activist politics, and because it represents a well-known voice from Asia.

Amitav Ghosh is one of the most prominent English-language authors in India today. His fame is based on well-researched novels with strong historical references (The Glass Palace on relations India/Burma-Myanmar relations; the Ibis Trilogy about Bengal and the Opium War in China) or by The Calcutta Chromosome, a book that – besides many other things – constitutes a highlight of postcolonial science fiction.

A few weeks ago, Ghosh released a non-fiction book in India that examines climate change and climate policy from unusual perspectives: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (the international English edition is announced for 22 September 2016). The book, based on lectures held at the University of Chicago in 2015, has got many positive reviews and in India and is likely to attract much international attention, not only because represents an important voice from Asia – with specific Asian perspectives – but also because it raises fundamental questions about how literature and politics address a global crisis phenomenon such as climate change.

Ghosh makes two major points: First, he diagnoses a fundamental cognitive weakness that prevents “us” (as human beings) from adequately perceiving the relevance of non-human actors such as the phenomenon of climate change, and from reacting to it. Instead, in literature and politics alike, “we” remain in a mode of thinking and acting that Ghosh calls "individual moral adventure"; this is unlikely to prevent the climate catastrophe.

Secondly, Ghosh addresses the link between the history of European imperialism in Asia, driven by CO2 emissions, and the impending climate disaster: In the past, the West took for granted its right to fossil-based development and suppressed development elsewhere; even today it tries to secure its developmental status quo by means of climate policy. Meanwhile, however, Asia is growing, and by employing the same development model it drives the world further into climate disaster. Ghosh ends rather pessimistic: There is little progress in the international climate negotiations; perhaps there is more hope for saving the world by a mental turnaround, drawing on local traditions or religions.

(1) Climate Change as a Cognitive Problem: Individual Moralization in Literature and Politics

Like others before him, Ghosh is asking why the world does not take more decisive measures against catastrophic climate change, even though the threat is so obvious. Of course, Ghosh is well aware of the political blockades in climate politics, and of the problem that most people – including most political actors – (still) view the current situation as not serious enough to require the much larger investments and concessions that a solution would need.

But Ghosh looks deeper, viewing this behavior as a result of a more fundamental cognitive problem: Perhaps we can deal with familiar, everyday risks (even though psychology and accident statistics cast doubt about the rationality of many common risk assessments). But we lack, says Ghosh, the instruments (or "mental infrastructures", to employ a term coined by Harald Welzer) and the capacity to really imagine large-scale disasters and their impact on us, and to prepare accordingly. This is true even if we rationally know about the risks. Ultimately we lack, according to Ghosh, the ability to capture the often dramatic, surprising and even violent acting of non-human forces, entities or processes.

Profound singular or extreme events are difficult to predict, only statistically at best. For each such occurrence categorical doubts remain (is the heat of this summer still normal or already a climate change impact?). This line of thinking prevents individual and social action and adaptation. Despite all publicly available knowledge about climate change the real drama of the impending future threat cannot be seen; even critics of current developments are affected by this (individual and social) “derangement", i.e. an inability to see.

“Social Derangement”

Amitav Ghosh identifies the phenomenon of "social derangement" in two areas literature, and activist politics. Both share a common element, he says: the emphasis on human agency (or its representation, in literature), reducing it to an "individual moral adventure".

Ghosh dedicates the first half of his book to the modern novel. Since the 19th century, and increasingly so in the last few decades of the "great acceleration", large parts of modern novel-writing  focus on the increasingly intense representation of individuals, their actions, thinking, their scope for decision-making etc. The very "credibility" of psychologically complex constructed characters has almost become the yardstick of measuring the quality of the modern novel.

By contrast, the collective – "men in the aggregate" (p. 105) – as well as macro-level processes disappear from view, are pushed aside or do not play any role at all. Important exemptions from this picture, extending from Leo Tolstoy to Chinua Achebe, only prove the rule. With this attitude, Ghosh argues, the mainstream of modern novel-writing is unable to come to terms with the actions of non-human factors, i.e. with what he calls "non-human agency". Literary works that still do so are usually relegated to the special department of science fiction.

Ghosh views the growth of emissions and the shift away from the collective as just two sides of the same coin. Overcoming this “derangement” requires not only a conscious turn by authors to collectives, but moving away "from our accustomed logocentrism" (p. 112), an attempt at letting “speak” what was once viewed as mere "natural forces". In short, other forms of communication, mediation and translation are necessary, e.g. the mixing of text, visuality and possibly other forms of experience. In this discussions Ghosh refers to some posthumanist concepts (especially the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn’s book How Forests Think), but hardly provides examples of artistic practice that would pioneer such an approach.

Limits of Moral Protest Politics

However, focusing on the "individual moral adventure," according to Ghosh, does not only concern the world of literature. It is "a broader cultural phenomenon" (p. 170) that extends into politics. Democratic states today are ruled by technocrats and by pragmatic politicians who say that "there is no alternative". At the same time, broad protest politics –particularly, but not exclusively in the Anglo-American world – becomes more and more a display and presentation of moral principles.

Following Protestant traditions, political action is converted into a "moral journey" that bares the soul: "Politics, as thus practiced, is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness," (p. 175), a matter of one’s own faith and behavior: May I use an aircraft for holiday? How many bulbs does Al Gore light up at home? Will veganism save the world and create a paradise for 10 billion people and the environment, if only we all convert to it? Such questions come to the fore, but they have little impact in decision-making structures dominated by technocrats and corporations.

Ghosh’s diagnosis is unlikely to please either lovers of the modern novel literature or the "conscious consumers" within the Green political world. It meets a sore spot, even if Ghosh is somewhat unfair: Of course, it is the very objective of organized Green (and other sustainability) politics to transcend the politics of mere individual morality, and to exert influence on macro-structures. In some areas it actually has succeeded to do so – at least in parts of Europa, one keyword is "energy transition". In this respect, Ghosh’s skepticism about the blockages in democratic politics simplifies too much and is likely too pessimistic.

Still, his critique of the moralization of political issues that focuses on the individual and his or her individual "responsibility" remains valid. It describes patterns of thought and forms of popular politics on which great amounts of energy are being spent, sometimes ending in sectarianism, and often with little social-political impact.

(2) An Asian Perspective: Empire, Fossil Fuels and "Climate Justice"

Ghosh devotes the second part of his book to history and politics. He thinks that the popular idea of the fundamental relationship of capitalism and climate crisis (e.g. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything) does not reach far enough because it overlooks the role of European imperialism. The use of fossil fuels, especially coal, made the rapid capitalist development of Britain (and – later – other Western countries) possible and thus laid the foundation of the North’s global dominance over the last two or three centuries.

But this is not all to the story. Ghosh stresses that fossil fuels were used early in Asia: Example are coal in medieval China; petroleum production in 19th century Burma; a steam ship construction industry in colonial Bombay. But ultimately, Ghosh argues, the Empire prevented the development of a fossil-fuel based industrial society in Asia, by means of trade, law and violence, if necessary. Thus, industrial development in Asia began only a few decades after the end of European imperialism in Asia.

Of course, all of this is a variation of the idea that British Empire actively “underdeveloped” Asia (and especially India) in order to exploit it even more. This idea continues to prevail in historical consciousness and teaching in India, although it is a distorted picture of a far more complex historical reality that is full of ambivalences.

Imperialism and Indian Industrialization

Although specific interest groups in the UK clearly worked to suppress some industrial production in colonial India (especially textiles), other industrial sectors, and industrial production in general, grew significantly during the colonial period. The "developmental" failure of British colonialism in India lay elsewhere: In order to secure political control over the rural world, the British colonial government accepted the stagnation of agricultural production and the rural economy (as the economic historian Tirthankar Roy recently summarized).

This, of course, does not exclude the possibility that Asian industrial development could not have been faster without European imperialism. If we allow for counterfactual thinking, this may well have been possible, but the opposite may have occurred as well: Industrial development may have failed as well, because it cannot just be explained merely by the factor of access to coal and steel. Modern industrial development was spawned not merely access to fossil fuels, but by a whole bundle of political, social and ecological factors, extending from the coincidental presence of coal reserves to existing human capital, technology and infrastructure, and to government policies in favour (or discouraging) industrial production. If merely control over fossil fuels would have been decisive for (modern) development, as Ghosh seems to suggests, one would wonder why China did not become the leading world power as early as 1750.

Ghosh does not miss out on the involuntary irony of his thesis about the imperialism-induced underdevelopment of Asia: If imperialism reduced potential CO2 emissions in Asia for at least a century, Asia may have developed much earlier, and the global climate crisis would have emerged much earlier as well.

But what follows from all this? Ghosh does not take a very clear stand, and his position may be called "clueless-aggressive" – clueless, because he also has no coherent political recipes on offer; and aggressive, because, at some point, his anger about what he sees as inhuman mindset and behaviour of the North appears to become boundless, and going over the top.

The Issue of Climate Justice

On the one hand, Ghosh sees historical responsibility for climate change solely with the West. So do many people in Asia. But does this justify, as some representatives of the “climate justice” principle think, that the rest of the world would has a basically unrestricted right to use fossil fuels to catch-up with industrial development? Formulated even more pointedly: Does the historical experience of European imperialism in Asia justify the right to build any number of new coal power plants in India today? Or should the U.S. have to close down one coal power plant each for every new plant built in India today, until emission "convergence" is achieved? Ghosh describes this line of thinking as a "logical and equitable response", even though he knows it is politically unrealistic (p. 200).

In the international climate negotiations since the 1990s, and based on their view of the "historical responsibility" of the West, China and India have long rejected any restrictions on their emission as this would endanger their "right to development". This position has gradually changed in recent years, and even India accepted emission targets at the 2015 Paris COP.

In any case, the global discussion about "historical responsibility" – conducted as a simplistic distributive justice debate between the global North and the global South – is becoming increasingly irrelevant. China’s per capita emissions have reached EU levels (2014), and even its accumulated historical emissions since 1990 (i.e. China’s " historical responsibility ") are about to surpass those of the U.S. It is only as a matter of (probably a few) years until China's accumulated "historical responsibility" will reach that of the U.S. on any baseline – whether you choose 1950, 1900 or even 1850. Admittedly, India lags still far behind this, and thus the “climate justice” argument resounds more strongly from there. But this is merely because the country today still has only about a quarter of China's per capita GDP, and correspondingly low per capita emissions. But all economic and emissions trends in India point strongly upwards.

Economic Development in Asia is Key Issue

On the other hand, Ghosh is fully aware that due to the continent’s huge population figures, the economic development of Asia represents the global key issue in the fight against catastrophic climate change. It is obvious that the population of China and India cannot produce the same per capita emissions like those of the U.S. or Dubai today, without destroying the world.

Ghosh recalls traditions of Asia that propagate alternative development paths – or perhaps: alternative forms of survival – including, of course, India’s icon of frugality, sufficiency and self-restraint, Mahatma Gandhi. However, in pointing to this, Ghosh appears neither really convinced nor convincing. Throughout South Asia and probably China as well, the idea of progress through economic growth and industrial development continues unabatedly; Ghosh hardly mentions this, perhaps because his text was originally addressed to a U.S. audience. There is little public debate on climate change in both India and China. At the same time, people in these countries are not unconcerned: India and China see numerous protests and popular action on immediate environmental issues, especially air and water pollution. Oddly enough, Ghosh does not elaborate on this.

He also does not really pursue, as a policy option, the idea of sufficiency and self-restraint for a "good life" – perhaps such an option would be "unjust" by the standard criteria of the climate justice debate. Furthermore, it is not really clear how Ghosh looks at those who actually try to build alternative development models, for example in India; are they also merely actors pursuing an "individual moral adventure", instead of making a difference collectively? Ghosh's somewhat surprising twist at the end of the book – turning for hope towards traditional practices of the poor as well as to religion, by referring to Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si – remain less than convincing.

Climate Crisis Merely a North-South Conflict?

Instead, Ghosh describes international climate policy once more as a fundamental conflict between North and South. In the public debate of the "Anglosphere", according to Ghosh, environmental activists and climate change deniers may fight each other; but at the same time, technocrats and security specialists in those countries by no means doubt the fundamental threat posed by climate change. Interestingly, Ghosh rejects the argument – often made in Green and developmental circles – that the world's poorest who are least responsible for climate change, are going to be most affected by it. Instead, Ghosh thinks, the developed world of the North, due to the complexity of its economies, is more vulnerable than the South where local communities have greater resilience and more survival experience. (If that were really true, any “loss and damage” debate in climate policy would be superfluous.)

It is for that reason, Ghosh believes, that climate change is so important for Northern security specialists. Toward the end of his book, Ghosh even imputes a cynical political game to the political elite in the North, especially in the "Anglosphere": They merely pursue the objective of securing the status quo, i.e. securing forever the advantages from intensive fossil fuel use which the North has achieved over centuries of imperialism and global dominance, if need by military means. They don’t care about the populations of Asia and Africa; there are "many who believe that a Malthusian ‘correction’ is the only hope for the continuance of ‘our way of life’." (p.194)

Amitav Ghosh is a writer, not a climate negotiator, and certainly not a pragmatic politician; thus one may forgive him for such verbal escalations. His frustration about the political procrastination, not providing more comprehensive solutions to the climate crisis, is understandable, as is the fear of the magnitude of risks arising from the sheer size of Asian populations on the current path of development.

However, Ghosh is both wrong and unfair. First, his attack on (real or perceived) Malthusians in leadership positions of the North does not take account of the fact that an emission intensive development path in Asia will result, in the short and medium term, in catastrophic climate change, even if the North would massively cut its emissions immediately. Secondly, his no-hold-barred attack on the climate policies of the "Anglosphere" simply ignores the fact that substantial efforts at emission reduction and the development of renewable energies are going on since years, and have accelerated, both in the North and in the South. They provide a beacon as well as concrete technological and political support for all parts of the world.

No Mention of Renewables

Ultimately, the greatest weakness of Ghosh's book is to reduce climate policy and “climate justice” once again to a zero-sum game: In this simplistic logic, only CO2 emissions create development; in order to create "emission space" for Asia and other developing countries, the North must reduce its emissions, to create "development space" for the South. This debate is long outdated, and it is unfortunate that Ghosh merely reheats it for a wider readership. It is not CO2 emissions that provide (one of) the essential foundations for development, but energy; by now we know how to sustainably produce energy at reasonable prices. And we need to do this better, no doubt.

Due to the erupting climate crisis, industrial late-comers – and this includes China and India, despite all traditions these countries have in manufacturing and fossil resource use – do indeed have less emission space available than the North had a century or so ago. However, there are ever cheaper sustainable energy alternatives available today. Ghosh entirely neglects this; he mentions renewables only once throughout the entire book, when talking about the U.S. military investing into them because the security establishment takes climate change seriously. This is indeed extremely little that Ghosh has to say, given the fact that renewable technologies and related mindset and policy changes are rapidly expanding everywhere, including China and India.

International climate diplomacy will continue to deal with negotiating costs of, and contributions to, sustainable development strategies. Finding solutions to the resulting distribution conflicts will be difficult enough, and expensive. But to reduce the climate justice debate once more to a zero-sum game which puts China and India against the U.S. and Europe (while entirely neglecting other parts of the world, such as Africa) is not only outdated and factually incorrect. It is politically dangerous, as it may encourage popular ultranationalist narratives in Asia, which Ghosh – despite all his global experience – seems to have fallen victim to, inadvertently, I believe.

It is a great merit of Amitav Ghosh’s book “The Great Derangement” to direct our gaze, in a new way, at the fact that (and why) we still do not grasp enough the profound threat posed by climate change clearly, and still not respond adequately, in literary writing and in politics alike. Furthermore, his book should be read widely as it provides important perspectives from Asia that are far too little acknowledged and understood in the Western world. However, it is unfortunate that at the end of his book, Ghosh polemicizes by re-awakening long-worn-out “climate justice” debates, rather than providing constructive suggestions that would contribute to dialogue and solutions of the global climate crisis.

More on this:
The video recording of a conversation about “The Great Derangement” between Amitav Ghosh's and Sunita Narain (director of hbs partner organization Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi) can be found here. The World Resources Institute’s website has a brief overview of data on current and historically accumulated emissions worldwide.