Amitav Gosh—The Great Derangement

Amitav Gosh was born in Calcutta in 1956 and was educated in India, before moving to the United States where he has held professorships at Queens College, City University of New York and Harvard University. He has published many works of fiction, starting with his debut novel, The Circle of Reason in 1986.  His Ibis trilogy is set in the 1830s, just before the Opium War in China,  which encapsulates the colonial history of the East. Most of his work deals with historical settings, especially in the Indian Ocean periphery.

The Guardian review of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) suggests that Amitav Gosh provides us with a bracing reminder that there is no more vital task for writers and artists than to clear the intellectual dead wood of a vulgarly boosterish age and create space for apocalyptic thinking—which may at least delay, if not avert, the catastrophes ahead arising from climate change and its impacts, environmentally and geopolitically.  His book calls on us to re-evaluate the cultural forces that have shaped our world and its assumptions.  He writes not only from the perspective of the West, but also from Asia, which is home to India and China, the most populous nations on Earth and where the impact of climate change are likely to be very severe.

As the New Scientist says of The Great Derangement, “if anthropogenic climate change and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to, would predict.  Indeed, if the world really were in a novel—or even in a book of popular science—no one would believe it.”

The following  are short extracts taken from The Great Derangement, as Gosh explores this topic through the lens of literature, history and politics.

Somewhat ironically, Tony Abbot and John Howard’s championing of a university degree in Western Civilisation may open up a space for a critical examination of the legacy of Western Civilisation in the face of climate change and the rising voice of First Nations people around the world, offering a different vision of ‘civilisation’.  Rather than the Western legacy of belief in God’s command that ‘man have dominion over the Earth and all its creatures’ and the philosophical tenants of Cartesian dualism and the binary structure of Western modes of thought, First Nation’s people are inviting us to explore the lived experience of  ‘interbeing’ with the Earth and all its life forms.

Gosh: “The climate crisis exposes all the assumptions of a rational world order subject to human control and continual progress to be a form of enchantment, a fantasy. Thus it threatens to unravel something deeper (the belief in a rational world order with humans in control through technology and science), without which large numbers of people would be at a loss to find meaning in their history and indeed their existence in the world” p.138.

Gosh proposes that Climate Change is a crisis of Modernity, which was built on the foundations of the idea of Progress, continued economic growth and individualism that is rooted in the Enlightenment.  For example as John Maynard Keynes once put it, encapsulating the everyday political philosophy of the 19th century: “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!” This became the common-sense philosophy that has underpinned the marketisation of society, otherwise known as economism. With it came the idea of a continuous and irreversible forward movement, led by an avant-garde as the animating force of literary and artistic imagination as the signature of the 20th century.

Gosh also suggests that climate change poses a powerful challenge to what is perhaps the single most important political conception of the modern era: the idea of freedom, which is central not only to contemporary politics but also the humanities, the arts and literature.   For now the stirrings of the Earth have forced us to recognise that we have never been free of nonhuman constraints p119.

Another feature of modernity is the way in which the West claimed modernity as the mark of its cultural singularity, its own uniqueness—the triumph of ‘Western Civilisation’.

Gosh puts forward the idea that under modernity’s emphasis on the liberty of the individual at the expense of the collective and the idea of Progress is a “vision of the world as a secular church where all the congregants offer testimony about their journey of self-discovery” p.128.

As a result the vision of politics as a moral journey has had the consequence of creating an ever-growing divergence between the public sphere of political performance and the realm of actual governance: the latter now controlled by largely invisible establishments (the Deep State—the interlocking complex of corporations and institutions of governance) that are guided by imperatives of their own…  As the public sphere grows every more performative, at every level from presidential campaigns to online petitions, its ability to influence the actual exercise of power becomes increasingly attenuated p.129

Gosh suggests that a march or demonstration of popular feelings 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 to a certain group, and is completely divorced from actual legislation and governance

The emphasis on individualism is reflected on the arts, where the lens became more and more focused on interior landscapes of emotions that the wider landscape of what was happening to the planet. Gosh suggests that we need to find a way out of the individualising imaginary in which we are trapped, where even in Asia, modernity came to mean freedom as a way of transcending the constraints of material life—of exploring new regions of the human mind, spirit, emotion, consciousness, interiority: freedom became a quantity that resided entirely in the minds, bodies and desires of human beings—as opposed to all other life forms p.120.

Global warming poses a powerful challenge to the idea that the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good. It also challenges a set of beliefs that underlies a deeply rooted cultural identity, one that has enjoyed unparalleled success over the last two centuries and built the powerbase of the Anglosphere. It is given formal expression in the Five Eyes security alliance between the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Climate change has become enmeshed with the politics of self-definition p.136.

The formal political structures of our times are incapable of confronting the climate crisis on their own. The reason for this is simple: the basic building block of these structures in the nation-state, inherent to the nature of which is the pursuit of the interests of a particular group of people. Climate change represents, in its every nature, an unresolvable problem for modern nations in terms of their biopolitical mission and the practice of governance that are associated with it p.159.

For example, in the text of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, there is not the slightest acknowledgement 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 crated the situation the Agreement seeks to address. The current paradigm of perpetual growth is enshrined at the core of the text p.154.

Over the last few decades, the arc of the ‘Great Acceleration’ has been completely in line with the trajectory of modernity: it has led to the destruction of communities, to ever greater individualisation and anomie, and to the industrialisation of agriculture and to the centralisation of distribution systems. At the same time it has also reinforced the mind-body dualism to the point of producing the illusion, so powerfully propagated in cyberspace, that human beings have freed themselves from their material circumstances to the point where they have become floating personalities “decoupled from a body” p.161.

The cumulative effect is the extinction of exactly those forms of traditional knowledge, material skills, art and ties of community that might provide succour to vast numbers of people around the world—especially to those who are still bound to the land—as the impacts intensify.

If a significant breakthrough is to be achieved, if the secularisation and corporatisation of climate change is to be prevented, then already existing communities and mass organisations will have to be in the forefront of the struggle. And of such organisations, those with religious affiliations possess the ability to mobilize people… and 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. P.160

Climate change presents a profound challenge to all the assumptions of modernity and the triumph of Western civilisation and its project of Progress. Earth itself has intervened to revise these habits of thought that are based on the Cartesian dualism that arrogates all intelligence and agency to the human while denying them to every other kind of being p.31.

Accumulated wealth and material opulence stand no chance against the unleashed forces of nature in a hurricane or a prolonged drought. The orderly expectations of bourgeois life no longer can hold unchallenged sway. What was rare and happened far away, is now on our doorsteps.