31 october 2016

Amitav Ghosh: where is the fiction about climate change?

The climate crisis casts a much smaller shadow on literary fiction than it does on the world. We are living through a crisis of culture – and of the imagination

Amitav Ghosh, The Guardian, Friday 28 October 2016 08.00 BST. Last modified on Monday 31 October 2016 17.37 GMT

It is a simple fact that climate change has a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion. As proof of this, we need only glance through the pages of literary journals and book reviews. When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

There is something confounding about this peculiar feedback loop. It is very difficult, surely, to imagine a conception of seriousness that is blind to potentially life-changing threats. And if the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the Earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over – and this, I think, is very far from being the case. But why?

Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world? Is it perhaps too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these waters, then they will have failed – and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.

Clearly, the problem does not arise out of a lack of information: there are surely very few writers today who are oblivious to the current disturbances in climate systems the world over. Yet, it is a striking fact that when novelists do choose to write about climate change it is almost always outside fiction. A case in point is the work of Arundhati Roy: not only is she one of the finest prose stylists of our time, she is passionate and deeply informed about climate change. Yet all her writings on these subjects are in various forms of nonfiction.

When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss; of literary novelists writing in English only a handful of names come to mind: Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle. No doubt many other names could be added to this list, but even if it were to be expanded to 100, or more, it would remain true, I think, that the literary mainstream, even as it has become more engagé on many fronts, remains just as unaware of the crisis on our doorstep as the population at large.

I have been preoccupied with climate change for a long time, but it is true of my own work as well, that this subject figures only obliquely in my fiction. I have come to be convinced that this discrepancy is not the result of personal predilections: it arises out of the peculiar forms of resistance that climate change presents to what is now regarded as serious fiction.


In his seminal essay “The Climate of History”, Dipesh Chakrabarty observes that historians will have to revise many of their fundamental assumptions and procedures in this era of the Anthropocene, in which “humans have become geological agents, changing the most basic physical processes of the Earth”. I would go further and add that the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our common sense understandings and beyond that to contemporary culture in general.

There can be no doubt, of course, that this challenge arises in part from the complexities of the technical language that serves as our primary view of climate change. But neither can there be any doubt that it derives also from the practices and assumptions that guide the arts and humanities. To identify how this happens is, I think, a task of the utmost urgency: it may well be the key to understanding why today’s culture finds it so hard to deal with climate change. Indeed, this is perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense – for let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.

Culture generates desires – for vehicles and appliances, for certain kinds of gardens and dwellings – that are among the principal drivers of the carbon economy. A speedy convertible excites us neither because of any love for metal and chrome, nor because of an abstract understanding of its engineering. It excites us because it evokes an image of a road arrowing through a pristine landscape; we think of freedom and the wind in our hair; we envision James Dean and Peter Fonda racing toward the horizon; we think also of Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov. When we see an advertisement that links a picture of a tropical island to the word paradise, the longings that are kindled in us have a chain of transmission that stretches back to Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the flight that will transport us to the island is merely an ember in that fire. When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water, in Abu Dhabi or southern California or some other environment where people had once been content to spend their water thriftily in nurturing a single vine or shrub, we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been sparked by the novels of Jane Austen. The artefacts and commodities that are conjured up by these desires are, in a sense, at once expressions and concealments of the cultural matrix that brought them into being.

This culture is, of course, intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world. But to know this is still to know very little about the specific ways in which the matrix interacts with different modes of cultural activity: poetry, art, architecture, theatre, prose fiction and so on. Throughout history these branches of culture have responded to war, ecological calamity and crises of many sorts: why, then, should climate change prove so peculiarly resistant to their practices?

From this perspective, the questions that confront writers and artists today are not just those of the politics of the carbon economy; many of them have to do also with our own practices and the ways in which they make us complicit in the concealments of the broader culture. For instance, if contemporary trends in architecture, even in this period of accelerating carbon emissions, favour shiny, glass-and-metal-plated towers, do we not have to ask, what are the patterns of desire that are fed by these gestures? If I, as a novelist, choose to use brand names as elements in the depiction of character, do I not need to ask myself about the degree to which this makes me complicit in the manipulations of the marketplace?

In the same spirit, I think it also needs to be asked, what is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?

In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as 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 can they do other than to 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.


On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, when I was 21, I was stuck in the middle of the first tornado to hit Delhi in recorded meteorological history. As is often the case with people who are waylaid by unpredictable events, for years afterwards my mind kept returning to my encounter with the tornado. Why had I walked down a road that I almost never took, just before it was struck by a phenomenon that was without historical precedent? To think of it in terms of chance and coincidence seemed only to impoverish the experience: it was like trying to understand a poem by counting the words. I found myself reaching instead for the opposite end of the spectrum of meaning –for the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the confounding. Yet these too did not do justice to my memory of the event.

Novelists inevitably mine their own experience when they write. No less than any other writer have I dug into my own past while writing fiction. It is certainly true that storms, floods and unusual weather events do recur in my books, and this may well be a legacy of the tornado. Yet oddly enough, no tornado has ever figured in my novels. Nor is this due to any lack of effort on my part. Indeed, I have returned to the experience often over the years, hoping to put it to use in a novel, only to meet with failure at every attempt.

On the face of it there is no reason why such an event should be difficult to translate into fiction; after all, many novels are filled with strange happenings. Why then did I fail, despite my best efforts, to send a character down a road that is imminently to be struck by a tornado?

In reflecting on this, I find myself asking, what would I make of such a scene were I to come across it in a novel written by someone else? I suspect that my response would be one of incredulity; I would be inclined to think that the scene was a contrivance of last resort. Surely only a writer whose imaginative resources were utterly depleted would fall back on a situation of such extreme improbability?

Before the birth of the modern novel, wherever stories were told, fiction delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely. Narratives such as those of The Arabian Nights, Journey to the West and The Decameron proceed by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another. Novels too proceed in this fashion, but what is distinctive about the form is precisely the concealment of those exceptional moments that serve as the motor of narrative. This is achieved through the insertion of what Franco Moretti, the literary theorist, calls “fillers”. According to Moretti, “fillers function very much like the good manners so important in Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the ‘narrativity’ of life under control – to give a regularity, a ‘style’ to existence”. It is through this mechanism that worlds are conjured up, through everyday details, which function “as the opposite of narrative”.

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background ... while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

This regime of thought imposed itself not only on the arts but also on the sciences. That is why Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Stephen Jay Gould’s brilliant study of the geological theories of gradualism and catastrophism is, in essence, a study of narrative. In Gould’s telling of the story, the catastrophist recounting of the Earth’s history is exemplified by Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1690) in which the narrative turns on events of “unrepeatable uniqueness”. As opposed to this, the gradualist approach, championed by James Hutton (1726‑97) and Charles Lyell (1797–1875), privileges slow processes that unfold over time at even, predictable rates. The central credo in this doctrine was: “Nothing could change otherwise than the way things were seen to change in the present.” Or, to put it simply: “Nature does not make leaps.”

The trouble, however, is that Nature does certainly jump, if not leap. The geological record bears witness to many fractures in time, some of which led to mass extinctions and the like: it was one such, in the form of the Chicxulub asteroid, that probably killed the dinosaurs. It is a fact that catastrophes waylay both the Earth and its individual inhabitants at unpredictable intervals and in the most improbable ways.

Distinctive moments are no less important to modern novels than they are to any other forms of narrative, whether geological or historical. It could not, of course, be otherwise: if novels were not built upon a scaffolding of exceptional moments, writers would be faced with the Borgesian task of reproducing the world in its entirety. But 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 recognisably modern novel.

Here, then, is the irony of the “realist” novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real. What this means in practice is that the calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which obtains outside it; this is why it is commonly said, “If this were in a novel, no one would believe it”. Within the pages of a novel an event that is only slightly improbable in real life – say, an unexpected encounter with a long-lost childhood friend – may seem wildly unlikely: the writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive.

If that is true of a small fluke of chance, consider how much harder a writer would have to work to set up a scene that is wildly improbable even in real life. For example, a scene in which a character is walking down a road at the precise moment when it is hit by an unheard-of weather phenomenon?

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.


So far as I know, climate change was not a factor in the tornado I experienced. But the thing it has in common with the freakish weather events of today is its extreme improbability. And it appears that we are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normality, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred-year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides, raging torrents pouring down from breached glacial lakes, and, yes, freakish tornadoes.

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. Indeed, it has even been proposed that this era should be named the “catastrophozoic” (others prefer such phrases as “the long emergency” and “the penumbral period”). It is certain in any case that these are not ordinary times: the events that mark them are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.
An Indian woman pulls a prawn fishing net from the mud embankment on the Matla river, in the Sundarbans delta.

Poetry, on the other hand, has long had an intimate relationship with climatic events: as Geoffrey Parker points out, John Milton began to compose Paradise Lost during a winter of extreme cold, and “unpredictable and unforgiving changes in the climate are central to his story. Milton’s fictional world, like the real one in which he lived, was ... a ‘universe of death’ at the mercy of extremes of heat and cold.” This is a universe very different from that of the contemporary literary novel.

I am, of course, painting with a very broad brush: the novel’s infancy is long past, and the form has changed in many ways over the last two centuries. Yet, to a quite remarkable degree, the literary novel has also remained true to the destiny that was charted for it at birth. Consider that the literary movements of the 20th century were almost uniformly disdainful of plot and narrative; that an ever greater emphasis was laid on style and “observation”, whether it be of everyday details, traits of character or nuances of emotion – which is why teachers of creative writing now exhort their students to “show, don’t tell”.

Yet fortunately, from time to time, there have also been movements that celebrated the unheard-of and the improbable: surrealism for instance, and most significantly, magical realism, which is replete with events that have no relation to the calculus of probability.

There is, however, an important difference between the weather events that we are now experiencing and those that occur in surrealist and magical realist novels: improbable though they might be, these events are neither surreal nor magical. To the contrary, these highly improbable occurrences are overwhelmingly, urgently, astoundingly real. The ethical difficulties that might arise in treating them as magical or metaphorical or allegorical are obvious.

But there is another reason why, from the writer’s point of view, it would serve no purpose to approach them in that way: because to treat them as magical or surreal would be to rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling – which is that they are actually happening on this Earth, at this time.

• Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is published by University of Chicago.

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