4 february 2017

From Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable

1) “Among Gandhi’s best-known pronouncements on industrial capitalism are these famous lines written in 1928: ‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 millions [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’
“This quote is proof that Gandhi, like many others, understood intuitively what Asia’s history would eventually demonstrate: that 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.”
(p. 111-112)

2) “As we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: ‘With all their genius and all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,’ or, ‘They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.’” (U Thant, Secretary General of the United Nations, 1962-1971. quoted by Ghosh, p.114)

Amsterdam, February 5, 2017

Dear Friends,

This letter is the promised sequel to the newsletter of February 2. In it, I explore the fresh perspectives on climate change offered by novelist Amitav Ghosh.

Ghosh is Indian by birth and most of his novels are situated in the South Asia he knows so well. These novels, often drawn from major events of the last two centuries, reveal the intricate tangle of Western imperialism and commercial interests in the life stories of the Indian, Burmese and Chinese characters that populate them. He is perhaps best known for his “Ibis trilogy”, which highlights the combination of British and Anglo-Indian mercenary interests behind the mid-19th century opium wars that broke the back of the Chinese Qing dynasty and opened China to Western penetration.

Some of Ghosh's fiction relects contemporary environmental concerns. The Hungry Tide, a novel of 2006, details the ecological problems of the Sunderbans, the coastal mangrove forest of Bangladesh, from which Ghosh’s parents emigrated to India. Indeed, the Sunderbans have for several years been the site of popular protest against the plans of an Indian coal company to locate a massive coal plant there. These protests continued in 2016 and were supported by a 350.org campaign “Save Sunderbans forest from the threat of coal” in January of this year. (Bangladesh itself is so endangered by rising seas that, as my previous letter reported, millions of its citizens are expected to migrate westward, many of them to Europe.)

Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is not a novel but an exploration of global warming’s sources in human mentalities. It differs from most other studies of climate change in three major respects: It takes a distinctly South Asian view of the problem, and especially of the importance for Asia of the Kyoto Protocol clause that is also in the Paris Accord: “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR). It ties Ghosh’s Asian point of departure to a trenchant critique of the individualist ethic that underlies not only today’s dominant neoliberal economics but also the consumerist conceit (increasingly shared in Asia) that more is always better. Finally, and from the same point of departure, Ghosh examines critically the evolution of the Western literary imagination, particularly in the many European and American novels that reflect the same values of middle class liberalism that sanctioned both European colonialism and industrialism’s rape of the earth's natural resources.

Supporting Ghosh’s analysis of the climate problem, then, is a shrewd appreciation of the hubris of today’s dominant individualist-economic interests. Mostly, but not entirely, European and American, these interests have made industrial growth the sine qua non of government policy for two centuries. Ghosh sees, as have few others, the blindness to planetary endangerment in the fetishizing of growth and the commercialization of global society.

In a few pages that tie his critique of growth to the climate-denying mentality of the new American President, he discerns this religion of increase in the indifference to ecological risk of the Western-financed build-up of coastal urban entrepôts all over the South and East Asian coastlines. For example (p.48):
“One consequence of the last two decades of globalization is that real estate interests have acquired enormous power, not just in Mumbai but around the world; very few civic bodies, especially in the developing world, can hope to prevail against construction lobbies, even where it concerns public safety. The reality is that ‘growth’ in many coastal cities around the world now depends on ensuring that a blind eye is turned toward risk."

Ghosh highlights the increasing danger of warming-related cyclones and hurricanes to coastal cities. Most of these were constructed – like Mumbai and Calcutta and the New York that superstorm Sandy flooded five years ago - in the last few centuries. They were expected to be nodal points in international trade networks. Added to the risks of massive coastal flooding are the dangers of nuclear catastrophe – as happened in Fukushima – from the construction of atomic energy centrals next to oceans.

Ghosh’s focus on real estate’s willful ignorance of climate risk, published six months before the election of one of the world’s richest real estate magnates to the presidency of the United States, takes on a special poignancy since November 8, 2016. The indifference to nature and natural limitations underlying so many profitable real estate ventures has rarely been more sharply illustrated than in Trump’s golf courses along the Scottish and Irish coasts: Trump, who had earlier called global warming a hoax, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the construction of offshore wind turbines visible from his Scottish property because they would spoil the golfers’ view of the sea. At the same time, his application for a permit to build a sea wall to protect his Irish coastal golf course “explicitly cites global warming and its consequences — increased erosion due to rising sea levels and extreme weather this century — as a chief justification for building the structure.” []

Ghosh repeatedly recurs to the theme of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972): the self-destructiveness of economies striving for infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. Ghosh understands well that the prevailing economic system still, 45 years later, assumes that growth is the standard by which success or failure of a company or a country is assessed. As long as ruling economic and political elites subordinate action against climate change – where accepted as necessary – to the paradigm of GDP growth, an effective defense against global warming and its catastrophic consequences can hardly be found. This is an important reason why attempts to use market-based rules in the struggle against global warming, as in the European Union’s Emissions Trading System(ETS), often have foundered.

Despite Ghosh’s emphasis on the need for mentality change, he is highly critical of the attempt to make climate change an individual moral issue. He sees this as a reflection of the same isolation of the individual from both nature and the social that permeates Western culture’s rise to world domination since the triumph of Protestant moralism. He understands well how this moralistic individualism has shaped both the mentalities needed for the development of capitalism and the literary imagination. Accordingly, he disagrees with efforts by “activists and concerned people…to frame climate change as a ‘moral issue’”, a problem of individual conscience.

Against this view, Ghosh posits climate change as “self-evidently a problem of the global commons requiring collective action…” Although individualist framing of the issue has the virtue “that it breaks decisively with the economistic cost-benefit language that the international climate change bureaucracy has imposed on it”, he strongly opposes
a ‘politics of sincerity’ that may ultimately work to the advantage of those on the opposite side….When framed in this way, authenticity and sacrifice become central to the issue, which then comes to rest on matters like the number of lightbulbs in Al Gore’s home and the forms of transport that demonstrators use to get to a march

Quite to the contrary, Ghosh argues that
the scale of climate change is such that individual choices will make little difference unless certain collective decisions are taken and acted upon. Sincerity has nothing to do with rationing water during a drought, as in today’s California: this is not a measure that can be left to the individual conscience. To think in these terms is to accept neo-liberal premises." (Ghosh, p.133)

In the last chapter of The Great Derangement, Ghosh illustrates the gap between even the most enlightened political approaches to climate change, as in the Paris Accord of December 2015, and the mentality change he believes to be necessary by comparing the text of the Accord with that of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si. Although the Paris agreement purports to limit the effects of climate change through such a collective decision, Ghosh sees it in reality as a bureaucratic document intended to reconcile necessary action against catastrophic warming with a slightly tweaked model of neoliberal business as usual. Rather than using terms like “catastrophe” or “disaster”, the Accord speaks of “adverse impacts or effects of climate change” (p.154). Two pages later, Ghosh cites the terminology of the Paris Accord, which replicates that of neo-liberal free trade agreements: “references to ‘accelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation’” and “terms…such as stakeholder, good practices, insurance solutions, public and private participation, technology development, and so on”.

As is often the case with texts, the Agreement’s rhetoric serves to clarify much that it leaves unsaid: namely that its intentions and the essence of what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching each other.”

Ghosh suggests that the Paris agreement might have had a different character had the French government not had the pretext of the December 2 terrorist attacks to forbid popular demonstrations. Many of these had long been planned by environmentalists from every part of the planet to pressure the delegates to act in accord with the extreme urgency of the moment. Suppression of such protests, writes Ghosh, “is one area in which governments and corporations around the world have grown extraordinarily skilled, and there is every reason to believe that the investments that they have made in surveilling environmental activists would have paid off, once again, to enforce the exclusions that are hinted at in the Agreement’s text.” These hinted exclusions, according to Ghosh, are meant to keep the world of international agreements safe from the populations not benefitting from the “implicit bargains, unspoken agreements, and loopholes visible only to those…billionaires, corporations and ‘climate entrepreneurs’ [who] played an important part in the Paris negotiations.”

In contrast to the rhetoric of the Paris agreement, writes Ghosh, “exclusion is a recurrent theme in Laudato Sì for exactly the opposite reason, because poverty and justice are among the Encyclical’s central concerns. The document returns over and again to the theme of ‘how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace.’….Laudato Sì excoriates… ‘green rhetoric’ and insists that ‘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.’ This in turn leads to the blunt assertion that ‘a true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between global north and south.’”

One might think that the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, enshrined on the first page of the Paris agreement, would also commit the signatories of the accord to the notion of an ecological debt owed by the wealthy countries to the poor. But in fact, as Ghosh points out, the notion of “climate justice” is not accepted as a responsibility of all signatories, and the Paris accord explicitly says that “the Agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”

Ghosh’s adumbration of Laudato Sì’s combination of ecology and religion as an alternative way of conceptualizing the challenge of climate change reveals the inner bond between the Pope’s Franciscan roots and Ghosh’s Gandhian point of departure. There are many in the environmental movement from the wealthier parts of the world who will agree with his basic premises: that the claim of climate justice is valid and imposes an ethical obligation on all those in wealthier countries. If those countries are unwilling to share their wealth and technology with the millions in Asia and Africa who have been the first to suffer from the climate disasters, and whose inability to cope with climate change is in good measure the result of centuries of colonial domination, then there is really no way out.

However, climate activists need to realize that implementation of global climate justice should, in those richer countries, also be concurrent with a redistribution of wealth. In other words, climate justice – “the cry of the earth” – is inseparable from social justice – “the cry of the poor”. The great inequalities and insecurities that maldistribution of wealth and welfare imposes today on most nations must not be exacerbated by the most rapid possible devotion of resources to replacing carbon-based energy systems by renewable ones. This applies to the global North as well as to the global South.

Failure of well-meaning political forces in Europe and America to confront and diminish such inequalities and insecurities have led far too many to accept the false mantra that their miseries are caused by “radical Islamic terrorists,” and that only parties promising a xenophobic walling off of their borders from the world’s poor offer salvation. But the toxic results of empowering xenophobes are not unrelated to our inability to cope with the oncoming climate disaster.

Trump’s glaring atrocities since his inauguration – his walling off of immigrants from the global South and from the tormented Middle East, his promotion of far-right xenophobes and climate deniers to the top of the executive branch, his subordination of environmentalism to the golden calf -- exemplify the suicidal indifference to humankind’s natural environment that Ghosh sees as inherent in our values of individual material acquisitiveness and consumer capitalism. Trump’s celebrity status and lucrative career as real estate mogul are linked via widely held values in the United States and other affluent societies to the reactionary barbarism of his policies. Only a social consciousness that empathizes with suffering humankind and that accepts and lives by our embeddedness in nature can save the human species from a catastrophic end.

This consciousness will evolve, but slowly. In the meanwhile, it would appear (as of noon Sunday, February 5) that one of the most contested of Trump’s actions, his ban on Moslem immigrants from seven countries, may be countermanded by the U.S. constitution’s prohibition against religious discrimination and the independence of the judiciary.

Warm regards from Amsterdam,
Arthur Mitzman, coordinator, Concerned Citizens against Climate Change

PS We are always interested in our readers' reactions to these newsletters, especially from those who have joined us in the past year.

>>> Back to list