Why can't literature deal with climate change?

Jonathan Hiskes

August 23, 2017

In March of 1979, Amitav Ghosh witnessed a bizarre storm in Delhi, India. The sky darkened, unseasonable rain squalls turned to hail, and a funnel-shaped whirlwind appeared. Ghosh ran for cover. He emerged to find buses overturned, scooters wedged in trees, and walls torn from buildings. The lethal event, which killed at least 30 people, was so rare that newspapers didn’t correctly identify it for two days — a tornado, the first in the region’s recorded history.

Ghosh became an accomplished, celebrated novelist, and he wondered why he never drew from the tornado in his fiction, which frequently incorporates significant weather events. He concluded that it was too improbable. Serious contemporary fiction, he realized, relies on a pact with readers that they can expect a “realistic” world.

The trouble is that reality no longer behaves in realistic ways. Our expectations haven’t kept pace with the increase of freak occurrences driven by climate change. Storms, droughts, floods, and heat waves occur with greater intensity and frequency than in the past. The supposedly rare events that we call thousand-year-floods now happen at a rate of five per year.

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh examines why contemporary fiction struggles so mightily to respond to climate change. The title phrase explains how future historians will regard writers and literary tastemakers of our current era, Ghosh says. The sort of fiction that wins prizes, appears in literary journals, and draws invitations from high-minded festivals acts as if climate warning signs don’t exist. Merely mentioning the subject risks being relegated to the lower-prestige world of science fiction, as if “climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.”

The Great Derangement is a strange book, with multiple jarring leaps and an impressive breadth of ideas packed into 162 pages. (It was originally delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015.) For long stretches it leaves the topic of literature entirely to delve into history, politics, and religion. The fragmented, disjointed structure is a bit frustrating, but it serves a purpose. Ghosh’s ambitious, globe-spanning argument embodies exactly the sort of expansiveness that mainstream literature needs to rediscover if it’s going to tackle a problem as massive as climate change. Jarring readers out of their comfort is part of the point.

Ghosh begins at the dawn of the modern novel in the 19th century, the same era that gave us industrialization and the notion of statistical probability. Earlier stories like Arabian Nights and The Odyssey had no trouble leaping from one fantastical event to another. But in 19th century Europe, novelists sought the trust of readers by embedding plot and characters into everyday material life. No more Calypsos and sea serpents.

Victorian novels created settings that were self-contained ecosystems, sometimes literal manses or estates. Ghosh compares the vast time and space conjured in the Chinese folk epic The Journey to the West, about the creation of the world, with the bounded worlds of contemporary fiction: “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.”

As serious fiction became less fantastical and immense, it also became more human-centered. Non-human actors like Moby-Dick disappeared. Werewolves, zombies, and mutants made fewer appearances, even as Hollywood found an abiding hunger for them. The arts and sciences diverged as fields of knowledge, and writers who integrated both, like Goethe, Melville, Tolstoy, and Steinbeck, became a thing of the past. The novel’s inward turn continued in the 20th century, with the hero’s quest becoming an interior journey of self-discovery.

These conventions are especially ill-suited to the effects of climate change, which span continents and unfold over centuries. Quiet domestic fiction confined to, say, suburban Connecticut cannot reckon with the floodwaters troubling the Bengal Delta and Miami Beach, or the wildfires burning in both Australia and the Methow Valley. Stories confined to the human world cannot show how our lives depend on a biological web.

The book’s second section brings a sharp turn, to the history of colonial Asia. Ghosh describes surprisingly elaborate fossil-fuel systems that predate the English industrial revolution. In 18th century China, natural gas ran through bamboo tubing to power industrial uses and household lighting. Burma’s oil industry at the time was likely the largest in the world. England became the center of the industrial revolution not through technology but through violence — it suppressed development elsewhere and used Asia as a source of cheap raw materials.

The point is that climate change won’t be solved without dealing with problems of empire and the oppression on which it feeds. Ghosh argues that Asia is conceptually critical to climate change, for its sheer scale, for understanding how empire works, and for its future as a site of possible mobilization. Perversely, the people who have the strongest moral claim to gaining modern lifestyles — former colonial subjects in the developing world — cannot acquire air-conditioned homes, refrigerators, family cars, etc., without torching our hopes for preventing the worst of climate change. This dilemma is another dimension of the great derangement.

In the book’s third and final section, Ghosh laments the way that politics, like art, has become a forum of myopic self-expression. “Political energy has increasingly come to be focused on issues that relate, in one way or another, to questions of identity: religion, caste, ethnicity, language, gender rights, and so on,” he writes, “ ... the political is no longer about the commonweal or the ‘body politic.’” He’s referring to South Asian politics, but the critique travels well. A feeble sense of the common good lies at the root of much political division. This devolves into what Ghosh calls the “politics of the armed lifeboat,” in which the rich protect themselves from the poor through militarized borders, aggressive anti-immigrant policing, and the carceral state, a continuation of empire ideology.

There’s one last turn, in the final pages: a comparative reading of Pope Francis’ climate encyclical, Laudato si, and the text of the Paris Climate Treaty (both from 2015). Ghosh praises the Pope’s critique of greed, overconsumption, and economic injustice, while noting that the treaty involves no such challenge to the dominant “technocratic paradigm.” He contrasts the Pope’s simple, poetic language with the treaty’s dense jargon, which involves complex preambles, annexes, and a sentence that runs for 15 pages. In the Pope’s text, “the words poverty and justice keep close company with each other,” while the treaty contains no collective soul-searching.

The Pope makes no mention of divine intervention, but Ghosh accuses the treaty authors of magical thinking in their hopes of curbing greenhouse-gas pollution without confronting our ideology of wasteful consumption. The non-binding nature of the Paris treaty amounts to hoping for miracles, he says.

It’s an interesting comparison — but a mistaken one. First, the non-binding mechanism is more valuable than it sounds (see climate journalist David Roberts on the Paris treaty’s “conceptual breakthrough,” which may spur more action than 20 years of stalemate in pursuit of a binding treaty). Second, I don’t mind if international technocrats fail to write graceful prose: Their job is to produce good policy. We can go elsewhere for inspiring moral visions.

As far as the Pope’s message, it’s worth noting that his clarion call had little discernible effect on white American Catholics, who voted overwhelmingly for a climate-denying president in 2016. It’s not clear that religion transcends partisan or racial identity.

Ghosh nonetheless devotes his closing pages to the possibility that religion can provide a transformative force in the climate change fight. Religions, he says, span the boundaries of nation-states. They acknowledge inter-generational responsibilities. They can imagine non-linear change. They can accept limits and limitations through their faith in the sacred, however they define it. Ghosh’s ultimate hope is that “religious groupings around the world can join hands with popular movements ...,” creating a generation with a vision to “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.”

This is a surprising ending, landing a long way from the literary questions that launched the book. It’s not very satisfying, though maybe that’s inevitable, given the scale of the problem. The sharp turn into politics and religion is a reminder that art should be about more than itself.

It also raises the question of why Ghosh has so little to say about science fiction, the literary form that’s grappled most successfully with climate change. Ghosh protests that science fiction is dismissed by literary tastemakers, yet he participates in this dismissiveness himself. He mentions Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury approvingly, but has little to say about their work. He notes the growing subgenre of climate fiction, but argues that it’s mainly concerned with dystopian stories. What we need is neither dystopian visions of the future nor inward journeys of self-realization, he says, but visions of a better future. The historian Jill Lepore makes the point even more forcefully in a recent New Yorker piece about this year’s bumper crop of dystopian fiction:

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination ...

The Great Derangement is gesturing toward the same problem, calling on writers to reclaim a sense of moral imagination, a sense of the sacred and the epic that bears light on a world both fantastical and stubbornly realistic. One of the few novels that Ghosh praises, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), shows why this is so difficult. Kingsolver’s scenes of swarms of wayward tropical butterflies showing up in Appalachia provide a visceral, unsettling sense of the weirdness that climate change generates. I loved the way Dellarobia Turnbow rages against shitty dollar-store merchandise, remembering the furniture that her family used to make. Yet I cringed when Kingsolver explained why an atmospheric concentration of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide is a crucial biomarker. She does her best to weave it gracefully into dialogue, but it still feels lifted from 350.org or another activist website.

But is that Kingsolver’s problem or mine? Ghosh argues that climate disasters are difficult to render in literature because they are “too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous, and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, or elegiac, or romantic vein.” I like lyrical and elegiac writing! But it’s just one of the things that literature can do. It shouldn’t be the only thing. Re-unifying science and literature will require writers — and readers — to develop an expanded sense of the “literary,” one that has room for powerful, grotesque, accusatory writing — as well as visions of new ways of living.

Ghosh can’t prescribe exactly how to bring about these new kinds of storytelling, but that’s no fault of his. That’s not how stories work. They don’t arise from prescriptions. That’s the source of their mystery, which is also their power.

Books in this review:
  • The Great Derangement
    by Amitav Ghosh
    University of Chicago Press
    September 14, 2016
    176 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Jonathan Hiskes is a writer in Seattle and communications director at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities. Jonathanhiskes.com

Follow Jonathan Hiskes on Twitter: @jhiskes

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