If on a winter’s night a cyclone

Thomas Jones

  • The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
    Chicago, 176 pp, £15.50, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 226 32303 9

Reading Amitav Ghosh’s book, I realised something that I feel naive for not having thought of before: trying to convince ‘climate sceptics’ of the reality of anthropogenic climate change is a waste of time. By ‘climate sceptics’ I don’t mean the apparently growing number of people who don’t believe in climate change because they were freezing cold this winter and trust what Donald Trump or Nigel Farage tells them on Fox News or the BBC. I mean the people who stand to gain from the Trump administration’s America First Energy Plan, which will increase US dependence on fossil fuels: more fracking, more coal-mining, more pipelines. There’s nothing to convince them of: nobody who has worked in the hydrocarbon business can be in any real doubt that carbon dioxide causes global warming – a fact first demonstrated more than 150 years ago – or that burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide. They already know all that, but it doesn’t bother them. On 28 March, Trump signed an executive order – ‘On Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth’ – to rescind the modest legislative advances against climate change made in the last years of the Obama administration.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s reluctant secretary of state and until last year the CEO of ExxonMobil, is routinely described as a ‘climate sceptic’, but he has long acknowledged that climate change is ‘going to have an impact’. He isn’t worried, though: as he put it in 2012, ‘it’s an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.’ That’s a reasonable enough way of rephrasing the question, though the indicative mood in his answer is hardly justified. Yes, you can look at it as an engineering problem, but engineering solutions – i.e. ways to supply our energy needs without filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases – will be found only if rich and powerful governments invest in them. And the government that Tillerson is part of – still the richest and most powerful of all – shows little interest in doing so.

Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is a more committed climate change denier, though even he is circumspect. Last May, when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, he wrote a piece in the National Review attacking Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which he was in the process of suing the EPA over when Trump nominated him to lead it: ‘Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged.’ He’s still plugging that line, saying recently that he ‘would not agree’ that carbon dioxide is a ‘primary contributor to the global warming that we see … We need to continue the debate.’ There is nothing to be gained from trying to persuade the likes of Pruitt and Tillerson of the reality or the seriousness of climate change. It’s exactly what the deniers want. The longer ‘that debate’ goes on, the more those who profit from the status quo can plausibly deny the need to do anything. Still, Pruitt may be out of a job in two years’ time: a bill was introduced in Congress on 3 February that ‘terminates the Environmental Protection Agency on 31 December 2018’. At the end of April, the EPA removed the pages on climate change from its website, untroubled by the fact that the World Meteorological Organisation reported in March that last year was ‘the warmest on record’, with ‘exceptionally low sea ice, and unabated sea level rise and ocean heat … Extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017.’

The US is responsible for around 15 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. That figure has been in decline, but looks set to go up again over the next four years: partly because of the Trump administration, and partly because the world’s biggest polluter, China, currently responsible for around 30 per cent of emissions, is gradually reducing its dependence on coal and massively expanding its renewable energy infrastructure. As a result, global emissions have been flat since 2014, though that’s little cause for celebration. The hope, still, is that the average global temperature won’t rise more than 2°C above its pre-industrial level, and there’s no chance of that happening unless emissions not only level off, but start to come down. On 21 April, Britain had its first working day without burning coal for electricity since 1882 (though it may become reliant on coal again if Brexit means losing access to nuclear fuel). Europeans have no reason to feel smug: emissions from the EU rose 1.4 per cent between 2014 and 2015. In India, the fourth biggest polluter (after China, the US and the EU), emissions went up 5.2 per cent in 2015. Delhi says it has invested $1.8 billion of the taxes levied on coal since 2010 in renewable energy production. Will that make a difference? Ridhima Pandey, a nine-year-old girl who is suing the Indian government for failing to ‘take effective, science-based action to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change’, clearly thinks it isn’t enough.

One of the many virtues of Ghosh’s book is its focus on Asia rather than the nations on either side of the North Atlantic. ‘Asia’s centrality to global warming rests, in the first instance, upon numbers,’ he writes. ‘The great majority of potential victims are in Asia.’ He describes the threats they face in stark terms: 125 million people in India and Bangladesh could be displaced by rising sea levels, along with 10 per cent of the population of Vietnam; 24 per cent of India’s arable land is turning to desert. Worst of all, considering that 47 per cent of the world’s people depend on water that flows from the Himalayas, ‘if the glaciers continue to shrink at the present rate, the most populous parts of Asia will face catastrophic water shortages within a decade or two.’

But ‘the vulnerability of Asia’s populations is only one aspect of their centrality to global warming.’ The surge in carbon emissions since 1980 is a result of the rapid industrialisation of China and India, which leads Ghosh to ask: ‘Why did the most populous countries of Asia industrialise late in the 20th century and not before?’ He looks for an answer in the history of Western imperialism, finding in empire (and the British Empire especially) a perhaps surprising agent of delay in the onset of the climate crisis: ‘The imperatives of capital and empire have often pushed in different directions, sometimes producing counterintuitive results.’

Oil had been extracted in Burma – though it didn’t take much extracting, as it bubbled up through the ground at Yenangyaung – for centuries before the British arrived two hundred years ago. (Ghosh described the Burmese oil wells in his 2000 novel The Glass Palace, which he quotes from here.) After losing territory to the British in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852-53, King Mindon took control of the Yenangyaung oil fields – ‘effectively nationalising the industry’ – and did a deal with Price’s Patent Candle Company Ltd of London and Liverpool, selling them two thousand barrels of Burmese oil a month. In 1885, the British conquered what remained of independent Burma; the following year, the Rangoon Oil Company was established in Glasgow. Later renamed Burmah Oil, it was eventually absorbed into BP in 2000.

‘There is no reason to suppose that Burma would have been unable to navigate the emerging petroleum economy had it been free to do so,’ Ghosh writes. But the precolonial Burmese oil industry has been largely written out of Western history books, which usually date the beginning of the oil era to 28 August 1859, when Edwin Drake’s steam drill hit pay dirt in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Ghosh cites this as an example of ‘the one feature of Western modernity that is truly distinctive: its enormous intellectual commitment to the promotion of its supposed singularity’. (Exhibit B: the ‘detailed history’ of Price’s Candles on the company’s website refers to ‘the discovery of oil in Burma in 1854’.)

Ghosh himself almost falls into a similar trap when he writes that ‘the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practised by a small minority.’ If every household in the world had a washing machine, a fridge and two cars, ‘humanity would asphyxiate’. Yes and no: it depends on the means of energy production. The haves insisting that the have-nots be denied the ‘patterns of life’ they themselves take for granted in order to ‘save the planet’ (by which we perhaps mean, more often than we are prepared to admit, to preserve our patterns of life) is one of the uglier faces of environmentalism, perpetuating the injustices of colonialism that Ghosh eloquently lays bare. ‘Who could possibly make a convincing case,’ he later asks, ‘for the poor to make sacrifices so that the rich can continue to enjoy the fruits of their wealth?’

The first steamship to make the voyage between England and India was called the Enterprise. It left Falmouth on 16 August 1825 and reached Calcutta nearly four months later. It was built in Deptford, but the incentive came from a group of wealthy Indians, including the Nawab of Awadh, who promised a prize of £10,000 to the first vessel to make the journey in under seventy days. Ghosh describes the steamship’s arrival in Calcutta in his novel Flood of Fire: ‘The arrival of the Enterprise had set off a great race amongst the shipowners of Calcutta.’ It spurred Dwarkanath Tagore to set up the Calcutta Steam Tug Association. In 1836 he bought the Raniganj coalfields in Bihar, but without the support of the East India Company, he found it hard to make them pay. In Bombay, meanwhile, Indian shipbuilders were hamstrung by protectionist British legislation that unfairly disadvantaged them, for example by restricting access to English ports. As Ghosh argues, ‘it was the very fact that India’s ruling power was also the global pioneer of the carbon economy that ensured that it could not take hold in India.’

Britain made sure to grab the raw materials that were grown in its colonies. There were steam mills in India – Tagore owned half a dozen in Bengal – but if the Indian cotton industry, say, had been allowed to develop on the scale that Britain’s did, there would have been precious little left for the mills in Lancashire. By keeping the profits of the carbon economy to itself, Britain was able to expand the power that allowed it to reap those profits in the first place, and double down on its advantage. Victory against China in the First Opium War (1839-42) was due in no small part to Britain’s fleet of armoured steamships. Then, as now, carbon emissions were an index of power.

The rise of oil in the place of coal as capitalism’s primary fuel in the 20th century was in part a front in the Cold War or, more broadly, the class war. Drawing on Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011), Ghosh points out that the West’s dependence on coal empowered the men who dug it out of the ground. ‘It is no coincidence,’ he says, ‘that coal miners were in the front line of struggles for the expansion of political rights from the late 19th until the mid-20th century, and even afterwards.’ Oil, by contrast, once it’s been tapped, more or less pumps itself, freeing capital from its reliance on a large labour force. ‘Fear of working-class militancy was one of the reasons a large part of the Marshall Plan’s funds went toward effecting the switch from coal to oil.’

Ghosh makes a valiant effort to argue that the affluent and educated are at as great a risk from the effects of climate change as the poor and unschooled. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, he flew to the Nicobar Islands to write about the destruction, landing at the Indian air force base on Car Nicobar. ‘The higher the rank of the officers,’ he writes, ‘the closer their homes were to the water … When the tsunami struck … the likelihood of survival was small, and … in inverse relation to rank: the commander’s house was thus the first to be hit.’ But four months later, the BBC reported that the base was ‘fully restored’. And although more than 140 people there were killed, the commander ‘was one of the few air force officials who survived the waves’. Flying into New York not long afterwards, Ghosh looked down at ‘the thickly populated Long Island neighbourhoods that separate the airport from the Atlantic Ocean’ and thought how easily ‘they would be swamped (as indeed they were when Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012).’ But the death toll from Sandy was low: 48 people were killed as a direct result in New York (Hurricane Katrina claimed more than 1800 lives); the New York Metropolitan Area has a population of more than 23 million. And as the power failed across most of New York City, the lights burned on around the World Trade Center (including, notoriously, the Goldman Sachs Tower) and the Empire State Building.

Ghosh draws attention to the similarities between New York and Mumbai – both port cities built on the edge of an ocean, both developed by the British in the late 17th century – and asks: ‘What might happen if a Category 4 or 5 storm, with 150 mph or higher wind speeds, were to run directly into Mumbai?’ His conjectures are detailed, plausible and terrifying: severe floods, widespread devastation, nuclear meltdown. In the all too real floods of July 2005, two million people in Maharashtra were stranded and more than five hundred died. ‘The rich and famous were not spared either,’ Ghosh writes. ‘The most powerful politician in the city had to be rescued from his home in a fishing boat.’ But doesn’t that mean that he was in fact spared, however humble the means of his delivery?

It may be true, as Ghosh says, that ‘the rich have much to lose; the poor do not.’ It may even be true that the poor are better prepared for disruption because they’re used to it, though you don’t have to follow that argument very far before it gets nasty. But the rich – Ghosh and I included – have so far shown ourselves adept at not losing what we have. Richer cities are better prepared to withstand natural disasters than poorer ones, and richer citizens are more likely to survive than poorer ones. We may all be in this together, but some of us are more in it than others. And Ghosh knows that ‘the poor and the disempowered’ will ‘bear the brunt of the suffering’. Still, he’s refreshingly uninterested in blaming individual citizens of wealthy nations for our callousness or hypocrisy because we use aeroplanes as well as energy-saving light bulbs. ‘Individual choices will make little difference unless certain collective decisions are taken and acted upon.’ He holds Gandhi up as an example, not in the way you might expect but as proof ‘that the industrial, carbon-intensive economy cannot be fought by a politics of sincerity.’ India threw off British rule but accepted its economic model.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t villains, however. Ghosh quotes Christian Parenti’s description, in Tropic of Chaos (2012), of the ‘politics of the armed lifeboat’: ‘open-ended counterinsurgency’, ‘militarised borders’ and ‘aggressive anti-immigrant policing’. The Pentagon ‘devotes more resources to the study of climate change than any other branch of the US government’. From a military perspective, climate change need not be a problem if it hurts the other guy more than it hurts ‘us’. Point out to Trump and his cronies that 214 million people in China are threatened by permanent drought, compared to the mere two million people in America’s Great Plains who depend on the drying-up Ogallala Aquifer, and see if the president and his circle honestly think that’s a bad thing. From the point of view of ‘national security’, it’s the equivalent of having more nuclear bombs.

But Ghosh isn’t addressing the presidential junta (for one thing, his book began life as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015). Trump’s constituencies – the ‘large sections of the media … controlled by climate sceptics like Rupert Murdoch’ and the ‘corporations that have vested interests in the carbon economy’ – aren’t the people Ghosh is trying to jolt out of complacency. Eight of the 14 books he’s written are novels, and in The Great Derangement he shows himself peculiarly concerned with the delusions and misplaced priorities of readers and writers of fiction.

‘At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament,’ he writes, ‘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.’ There’s no bathos intended in that tricolon diminuendo (and it is a diminuendo; ‘literature’ here doesn’t mean the Iliad or the Bhagavad Gita). Ghosh doesn’t see fiction’s failures as merely a symptom of the dominant culture’s self-destructive individualism but as a significant cause of it. Speculating on the reasons for ‘global warming’s resistance to the arts’, Ghosh looks first to vocabulary: ‘naphtha, bitumen, petroleum, tar … no poet or singer could make these syllables fall lightly on the ear,’ he writes. Lightly? Perhaps not. But his list isn’t far off being a line of blank verse, and Milton wrote in Paradise Lost of ‘starry lamps and blazing cressets fed/With naphtha and asphaltus’. Still, poetry aside:

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 museum-goers 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 conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising 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.

Possibly it will, though only if this book is one of the few to survive the floods. But do novelists therefore have a duty to write what Ghosh calls ‘serious fiction’ that deals explicitly with climate change? For one thing, who wants to read a dutiful novel? For another, what difference, really, would it make? It’s a safe bet that, among readers of ‘serious fiction’ (an insignificant subcategory of people if ever there were one), belief in both the reality of climate change, and the need to tackle it, is pretty high, however impotent we may (rightly) feel ourselves to be. But to think serious thoughts about climate change all the time would be unbearable. A certain level of denial – not the Pruitt kind but that of all of us who go about our daily lives as if there weren’t a cataclysm looming on the horizon – is inescapable. Sometimes it’s all right to think frivolous thoughts about things like novels. And Ghosh’s analysis of the limitations of the ‘literary mainstream’, which account for the ‘banishment’ of climate change ‘from the preserves of serious fiction’, is clarifying.

He quotes a disparaging review by John Updike of the English translation of Abdel Rahman Munif’s Mudun al Malh, or Cities of Salt (in his own review, Ghosh called it a ‘work of immense significance’; here, as throughout the book, his shift of focus away from the West is both salutary and enlightening). ‘There is almost none of that sense of individual moral adventure,’ Updike wrote in the New Yorker in 1988, ‘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.’ As counterexamples (from seven languages) Ghosh cites War and Peace, Moby-Dick and the work of Zola, Upton Sinclair and half a dozen Indian writers: Adwaita Mallabarman, Mahasweta Devi, Sivarama Karanth, Gopinath Mohanty, Vishwas Patil. (He could also have quoted Henry Fielding, who claimed in Tom Jones to ‘describe … not an individual, but a species’.)

Ghosh regrets the hiving off of so-called genre writing as the category of literary fiction narrowed and calcified, but he doesn’t much care for ‘disaster stories set in the future’ – it’s notable that in his own imagined future, though the world will be ‘substantially altered’, people will still go to museums and read old books – and considers science fiction inadequate to the task of addressing climate change because the Anthropocene is ‘precisely not an imagined “other” world apart from ours; nor is it located in another “time” or another “dimension”.’ But most of the ‘other’ worlds in science fiction aren’t ‘apart from ours’ either. One of the novel’s enduring strengths as a form is its elasticity, its lack of prescriptiveness. It can encompass the work of Munif, Updike and Philip K. Dick, and imposes no obligations on any of them, or anyone else, to write in any particular way, whatever the pressures imposed or assumptions made by the reviewing-prizegiving complex that Ghosh seems to have in mind when he talks about ‘serious fiction’.[*]

Some of those assumptions are about what counts as ‘realistic’, which in turn assumes that ‘realistic’ is something novels ought to be. The problem here, Ghosh says, is that in real life all sorts of improbable things happen all the time, but it’s impermissible to reproduce them in fiction. He tells an amazing true story about something that happened to him on 17 March 1978, when ‘the weather took an odd turn in north Delhi.’ Unusually heavy rain was followed by an even more unusual hailstorm. Heading home from the library via a friend’s house, not by his usual route, Ghosh ‘heard a rumbling sound somewhere above. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a grey, tube-like extrusion forming on the underside of a dark cloud: it grew rapidly as I watched, and then all of a sudden it turned and came whiplashing down to earth.’ He ran across the road and took shelter behind the parapet of a small balcony, from where he watched as ‘bicycles, scooters, lamp posts, sheets of corrugated iron, even entire tea stalls’ whirled past. The tornado, the first ever recorded in Delhi, killed 30 people and injured 700. ‘Yet oddly enough,’ Ghosh writes, ‘no tornado has ever figured in my novels,’ because if he read ‘such a scene’ in a novel by someone else, he wouldn’t believe it. The convention banning unlikely events from literary fiction is a bar to realistic depictions of the world in the grip of climate change, where extreme weather events are becoming ever more frequent.

The novel was ‘midwifed into existence’, Ghosh writes, ‘through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday’. The major culprits in Europe were Austen and Flaubert. In Bengal, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee ‘self-consciously adopted the project of carving out a space in which realist European-style fiction could be written in the vernacular languages of India.’ The ‘irony of the “realist” novel’, Ghosh says, is that ‘the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real.’ But it isn’t as if, in 19th-century representations of ‘the complacency and confidence of the emergent bourgeois order’ (Ghosh acknowledges a debt to Franco Moretti), the ‘traces and portents’ of upheaval are invisible, however hard writers and their characters may have tried, wittingly or not, to conceal them. The Napoleonic Wars and transatlantic slave trade haunt Mansfield Park; the Bennet sisters and their mother are doomed to penury after their father’s death, a fate from which they are only rescued by what amounts to an improbable fairy tale, however artfully Austen dresses it up. As Ghosh says, ‘what is distinctive’ about the novel ‘is precisely the concealment of those exceptional moments that serve as the motor of narrative’. It isn’t that unlikely events can’t happen in fiction; it’s just that readers have to be made to believe in them. As climate change accelerates, and as the timescale over which it unfolds contracts from the epochal to what Ghosh calls a ‘narratable’ span, so, presumably, readers will become more accepting of its violent effects appearing in novels. And much good may it do us.

[*] The LRB, incidentally, heads Ghosh’s list of magazines whose pieces on climate change are invariably reviews of non-fiction rather than fiction. Here we are, at it again.