The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Part I: Stories

  • Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive? As, for example, when an arabesque in the pattern of a carpet is revealed to be a dog’s tail, which, if stepped upon, could lead to a nipped ankle? Or when we reach for an innocent-looking vine and find it to be a worm or a snake? When a harmlessly drifting log turns out to be a crocodile?
  • To this day, when I think of the circumstances that have shaped my life, I remember the elemental force that untethered my ancestors from their homeland and launched them on the series of journeys that preceded, and made possible, my own travels. When I look into my past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, Do you recognize me, wherever you are?
  • 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’.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. They are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.
  • Yet now our gaze seems to be turning again; the uncanny and improbable events that are beating at our doors seem to have stirred a sense of recognition, an awareness that humans were never alone, that we have always been surrounded by beings of all sorts who share elements of that which we had thought to be most distinctively our own: the capacities of will, thought, and consciousness. How else do we account for the interest in the non-human that has been burgeoning in the humanities over the last decade and over a range of disciplines, from philosophy to anthropology and literary criticism.
  • I understood also that what I had seen in the Nicobars was but a microcosmic expression of a pattern of settlement that is now dominant around the world: proximity to the water is a sign of affluence and education; a seafront location is a status symbol; an ocean view greatly increases the value of real estate. A colonial vision of the world, in which proximity to the water represents power and security, mastery and conquest, has now been incorporated into the very foundations of middle-class patterns of living across the globe.
  • it was not till the seventeenth century that colonial cities began to rise on seafronts around the world. Mumbai, Chennai, New York and Charleston were all founded in this period. This would be followed by another, even more confident wave of city building in the nineteenth century, with the founding of Singapore and Hong Kong. These cities, all brought into being by processes of colonization, are now among those that are most directly threatened by climate change.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • But the earth of the era of global warming is precisely a world of insistent, inescapable continuities, animated by forces that are nothing if not inconceivably vast.
  • We have entered, as Timothy Morton says, the age of hyperobjects, which are defined in part by their stickiness, their ever firmer adherence to our lives: even to speak of the weather, that safest of subjects, is now to risk a quarrel with a denialist neighbour.
  • Global warming’s resistance to the arts begins deep underground, in the recesses where organic matter undergoes the transformations that make it possible for us to devour the sun’s energy in fossilized forms. Think of the vocabulary that is associated with these substances: naphtha, bitumen, petroleum, tar and fossil fuels. No poet or singer could make these syllables fall lightly on the ear.

Part II: History

  • In accounts of the history of the present climate crisis, capitalism is very often the pivot on which the narrative turns.
  • If it is the case that the climate crisis was precipitated by mainland Asia’s embrace of the dominant mechanisms of the world economy, then the critical question in relation to the history of human-induced climate change is this: Why did the most populous countries of Asia industrialize late in the twentieth century and not before?
  • Before the advent of the carbon-intensive economy, the populations of the ‘old world’ were not divided by vast gaps in technology. For millennia, trade connections were close enough to ensure that innovations in thought and technique were transmitted quite rapidly over long distances. Even ‘deep’, long-term historical processes sometimes unfolded at roughly the same time in places far removed from each other.
  • the one feature of Western modernity that is truly distinctive: its enormous intellectual commitment to the promotion of its supposed singularity.
  • In mainland Asia, the crucial 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.
  • our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but towards our self-annihilation.
  • 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.
  • 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’.
  • The phrase ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, frequently heard during the Paris climate change negotiations of 2015, is thus a rare example of bureaucratese that is both apt and accurate. Anthropogenic climate change, as Chakrabarty and others have pointed out, is the unintended consequence of the very existence of human beings as a species. Although different groups of people have contributed to it in vastly different measure, global warming is ultimately the product of the totality of human actions over time. Every human being who has ever lived has played a part in making us the dominant species on this planet, and in this sense every human being, past and present, has contributed to the present cycle of climate change.

Part III: Politics

  • 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’.
  • For the body politic, this vision of politics as moral journey has also had the consequence of creating an ever-growing divergence between a public sphere of political performance and the realm of actual governance: the latter is now controlled by largely invisible establishments that are guided by imperatives of their own. And as the public sphere grows ever more performative, at every level from presidential campaigns to online petitions, its ability to influence the actual exercise of power becomes increasingly attenuated.
  • 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 labour can exert pressure on corporations and the state. This is not the case with oil, which flows through pipelines that can bypass concentrations of labour. This was exactly why British and American political elites began to encourage the use of oil over coal after the First World War.
  • 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.’
  • ‘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.’
  • identity and performativity are now pivotal to public discourse,
  • ‘the most rational and considered response to the uncertainties of climate change can be found among military strategists.
  • That justice should be aspired to is widely agreed; it could hardly be otherwise since this ideal lies at the heart of all contemporary claims of political legitimacy. How such an end could be reached is also well known: an equitable regime of emissions could be created through any one of many strategies, such as ‘contraction and convergence’, for instance, or ‘a per capita climate accord’, or a fair apportioning of the world’s remaining ‘climate budget’. But the resulting equity would lead not just to a redistribution of wealth but also to a recalibration of global power—and from the point of view of a security establishment that is oriented towards the maintenance of global dominance, this is precisely the scenario that is most greatly to be feared;
  • Seen in this light, climate change is not a danger in itself; it is envisaged rather as a ‘threat multiplier’ that will deepen already existing divisions and lead to the intensification of a range of conflicts.
  • We are in an era when the body of the nation can no longer be conceived of as consisting only of a territorialized human population: its very sinews are now revealed to be intertwined with forces that cannot be confined by boundaries.
  • the populations of poor nations, because they are accustomed to hardship, possess the capacity to absorb, even if at great cost, certain shocks and stresses that might cripple rich nations.
  • It is not impossible, for instance, that in dealing with situations of extraordinary stress the very factors that are considered advantages in coping with extreme weather—education, wealth and a high degree of social organization—may actually become vulnerabilities.
  • In the text of the Paris Agreement, by contrast, 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 created the situation that the Agreement seeks to address. The current paradigm of perpetual growth is enshrined at the core of the text.
  • ‘professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power [who] being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population.’
  • ‘how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’.
  • ‘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’.

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