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The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

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Are we deranged? The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? In his first major book of nonfiction since In an Antique Land, Ghosh examines our inability—at the level of literature, history, and politics—to grasp the scale and violence of climate change.

The extreme nature of today’s climate events, Ghosh asserts, make them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining. This is particularly true of serious literary fiction: hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel; they are automatically consigned to other genres. In the writing of history, too, the climate crisis has sometimes led to gross simplifications; Ghosh shows that the history of the carbon economy is a tangled global story with many contradictory and counterintuitive elements.

Ghosh ends by suggesting that politics, much like literature, has become a matter of personal moral reckoning rather than an arena of collective action. But to limit fiction and politics to individual moral adventure comes at a great cost. The climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existence—a task to which fiction, Ghosh argues, is the best suited of all cultural forms. His book serves as a great writer’s summons to confront the most urgent task of our time.

196 pages, Hardcover

First published July 12, 2016

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About the author

Amitav Ghosh

49 books3,356 followers
Amitav Ghosh is one of India's best-known writers. His books include The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, Incendiary Circumstances, The Hungry Tide. His most recent novel, Sea of Poppies, is the first volume of the Ibis Trilogy.

Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956. He studied in Dehra Dun, New Delhi, Alexandria and Oxford and his first job was at the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi. He earned a doctorate at Oxford before he wrote his first novel, which was published in 1986.

The Circle of Reason won the Prix Medicis Etranger, one of France's top literary awards, and The Shadow Lines won the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar. The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 1997 and The Glass Palace won the Grand Prize for Fiction at the Frankfurt International e-Book Awards in 2001. The Hungry Tide won the Hutch Crossword Book Prize in 2006. In 2007 Amitav Ghosh was awarded the Grinzane Cavour Prize in Turin, Italy. Amitav Ghosh has written for many publications, including the Hindu, The New Yorker and Granta, and he has served on the juries of several international film festivals, including Locarno and Venice. He has taught at many universities in India and the USA, including Delhi University, Columbia, the City University of New York and Harvard. He no longer teaches and is currently writing the next volume of the Ibis Trilogy.

He is married to the writer, Deborah Baker, and has two children, Lila and Nayan. He divides his time between Kolkata, Goa and Brooklyn.

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Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,402 followers
September 5, 2019
This is an absolutely brilliant book. I’d describe it as something like “A People’s History of Climate Change.” There are three major reasons why I consider it so vital, which I will outline below.

“The Great Derangement” is our collective inability to come to terms, or even imagine, the catastrophe that is currently staring us in the face from climate change. Depending on how bad it gets, present generations will remember our failure to confront reality with bafflement and probably rage. Why can’t we collectively imagine the train hitting us — the first step in moving out of the way?

This is the first reason why I think this book is so important. Ghosh identifies our failure in the peculiar assumptions of bourgeois modernity. Modern people have been conditioned to see life as somehow predictable based on linear time. Our brains have been wired to think of the world as a giant clock. Even as individuals, most of us take comfort in “knowing” that the average lifespan is 81.4 years and planning our lives around that. It is similar to how we run our societies. We are unable to think in terms of a rapture or a catastrophe. We are wired to consider our societies as a going concern.

Premodern people thought in terms of catastrophism and black swan events. It is not that they constantly expected them (though they sometimes did) but they had factored them significantly into their thinking.

These two different modes of thinking are expressed in our different forms of storytelling. The novel is the quintessential modern medium of storytelling. It is based in linear time, compartmentalizes the world, has lots of “filler” and usually deals with individual moral adventure. It expresses the Enlightenment obsession with man or woman as an individual and specifically with their quest for freedom from the oppression of other men or women. Premodern storytelling was very different. It was more about grand catastrophes, less about individuals, and more elemental. There were raptures and great events where societies were shattered. That was the point. This is how in the Quran or the Bible for instance there are stories of “whole societies” destroyed for their waywardness. Our modern minds foolishly ask, “weren’t there some good individuals there too?”

Climate change fits more into the premodern story of the world. It doesn’t care if there are some good people or who did what. It is a non-human force, in a world where we have trained ourselves to think almost exclusively in terms of the human. Native Americans, South Asians and others used to emphasize that nature is as alive as us. Because we have drowned it out, ignoring all but mankind, we can only hear each other. We really might continue playing politics as the world that sustains us ceases to exist. After all, it's something that we can understand.

The second reason this book is vital is his masterful defusing of the Eurocentrism of the present climate discourse. Climate change is often portrayed as a drama in which the West is somehow the main actor. Not only does this ignore that Asians are going to suffer from it a lot more initially, but also that Asians also played a real role in creating the crisis. The people of Asia were co-creators of modernity, both philosophically and materially. They had been burning oil and coal for a very long time. The only reason they didn’t reach the Industrial Revolution first or at the same time as Europe is that it occurred during the colonial period, when their political power had been eradicated. As soon as colonialism ended, Asia industrialized. Had it ended sooner, the crisis caused by this industrialization would’ve happened sooner as well. Although the United States is the largest historical emitter of C02, it was the rise of Asia that has now made the disaster imminent. A small increase in the carbon output of a huge number of people is what finally tipped the world into its potentially fatal crisis.

Many Asians foresaw the impossibility and undesirability of industrialization on Western lines. Gandhi said that were India to industrialize as the West did, it would “strip the earth clean.” The Burmese statesman U Thant said similar. And, as they predicted, it has happened. Asian leaders like these who were more in touch with the traditional rhythms of life and not totally enamored with the machine society of the modern West slowed down the process of industrialization somewhat. But they’ve since been superseded by the new Asians, who are fixated on power, including industrial power. It was someone like that who shot Gandhi. The party his assassin was tied to now governs India. So Asia is also guilty and also has agency, it is in fact at the center of the story now. Asia the continent that disproved the idea that every human can live the life envisioned by modernity; doing so would destroy the earth. Any solution to our current crisis also now depends on the actions of huge numbers of Asians. Asia also deserves justice for the suffering it is likely to endure, but did not mainly create. That is unlikely to be volunteered to it however.

The third reason the book is so great is its brilliant exposition of the political crisis that prevents us from stopping this catastrophe. With the exception of the U.S. military, which is absolutely convinced that climate change is real, the Anglosphere is the global epicenter of climate denial. There are cultural, as well as material reasons for this. The modern cultural legacy of the Anglo world is a Humean one. People’s identity is built on the idea that individuals pursuing the greatest good for themselves will in aggregate produce a social good as well. If this turns out to not be true, as the climate crisis seems to be suggesting, the entire metaphysical basis of their understanding of themselves collapses. As Ghosh argues the Western world is not so disenchanted after all, as Max Weber suggested. There is a very powerful type of enchantment based on the value of the individual that people are clinging onto for dear life. This was a very astute and even mind-blowing observation. I think it rings true with many people’s steadfast resistance to acknowledge scientific study, while still declaring themselves supremely rational.

Ghosh brilliantly explains how power has drained away from its traditional places, partly through the rise of an oil-based economy. Whereas coal used to be a highly labor-intensive way of generating energy, oil doesn’t need much labor at all. All it needs from us is to be consumers. Since all we do is consume, we don’t really have any power. Even when we go into the streets we can be quickly dismissed since we don’t have any leverage. If people start to become violent in the future, there is a growing security apparatus waiting for us, as well as a powerful social stigma that goes back to the bourgeois assumption of order and linearity. We might expect soon now the politics of the “armed lifeboat.” Border walls, camps and guns to keep back the blood-dimmed tide of humanity, while we remain locked in combat with the earth itself. I think this is where we are headed, though attempts might be made to forestall the crisis with geoengineering, such that our present consumption trajectory can continue for a bit longer.

The world “neoliberalism” has been so overworked to become almost meaningless, but this book actually offered a deeply compelling restatement of its ills. Without hyperbole or cliche Ghosh laid out the urgent need for an emancipatory politics that is global. His writing burns with an undercurrent of injustice, but it does not naively assume that justice will come. He actually gives ownership of the crisis back to us, the ordinary people of the world, rather than making it the property of some elites that we are merely the victims of. We are indeed their victims to some degree, but framing it that way can be surprisingly disempowering. I cannot recommend this book enough, particularly but not exclusively for people who consider themselves on the periphery of mainstream society.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.2k followers
June 3, 2020
Most people seem to agree that humans are on the verge of climate disaster, with this decade a crucial one in making decisions about how the planet may survive, centrally by drastically reducing carbon emissions. Then we go and elect Trump, a climate denier, who removes any mention of climate change from the Presidential website, and one of whose first Presidential acts is to “deregulate” the process by which two major and hotly contested pipelines are allowed to go forward.

I awake as well to read the list of Academy Award nominations, after just finishing this book, noting no films about climate change, just as there were no novels or plays or books of poems on lists of award nominees in the past year. Non-fiction books and documentaries, a few, yes. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is written by a novelist and essayist, Amitav Ghosh, and was shaped in the process of four talks he delivered at the University of Chicago. He has several concerns in the book, addressed in three sections: Stories, History and Politics. Primarily he sees that the purveyors of late capitalism (or industrial capitalism, embodied by corporate interests) is destroying the planet, as maybe most of us acknowledge now. One of his questions, as a novelist, is why it is there has been so little attention to climate change in the world of literary fiction, a Goodreads staple. He notes that many novelists historically and at present have had political and social purposes in their writing, but he has seen almost no “literary fiction” focus on climate change, for him (and me) definitely the most important global issue we all have to address today.

In the history and politics sections of his book Ghosh makes his case for climate change and that we are “deranged” as a culture to watch something happen and not address it in significant ways. In the first section he theorizes why this is so and why it may be so for literary fiction in the last quarter century. His idea is that the novel is like global culture itself largely a product of modernism, a fantasy of progress wedded to a focus on individual identity and morality.

The basic reason Ghosh thinks the novel has not in the last quarter century addressed climate change is that it is strictly in keeping with its traditional focus of the novel, on individual morality over collective needs. Marxist or socialist books, explicitly political aims, have been shunned by the literary establishment. The study of the novel in the academy is more about language than it is any content, much less one of the human as aggregate. So for Ghosh it’s a question of the self-imposed limits of the imagination to possibilities. The acceleration of carbon emissions and the turn away from the collective is linked. In some ways the neo-liberal capitalist economy is also linked to the direction of the novel in the past quarter century. The novel has always been linked to the modernist project of continual progress and growth. Ghosh hopes to argue for reversing this trend.

And yes, he does admit that science fiction (and even specifically graphic novels as one form of science fiction--read Duncan the Wonderdog, Show One, by Adam Hines as one sophisticated example) is addressing climate change more than literary fiction, which is one of his most obvious points. But I say: in a sense, who cares whether “literary fiction” doesn’t address it so long as science fiction and graphic novels and some of the other arts do? In this way he reinforces the snobbery/hierarchies of English departments everywhere in suggesting Hemingway is more “important” than Heinlein. I have no stake in the literary establishment—I think Ghosh should just switch to science fiction and comics and let literary fiction go its own way—but with him I hope that the arts will be a greater force—and soon—in the political movement to save the planet from climate disaster.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,631 reviews601 followers
June 19, 2017
I have been lamenting the lack of novels about climate change for a long time, so was delighted to see that Amitav Ghosh had written a book on the subject. Although the reasons for this deficiency in modern literature are the central enquiry of ‘The Great Derangement’, there is a great deal more to it than that. Ghosh advances a resolutely Asian-centric perspective on climate change, which is refreshingly different from the US and European narratives that dominate climate change writing. As he points out, this dominance is not only because the US and Europe have been disproportionately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions; anglophone countries are home to most of the climate change deniers and the climate scientists. Yet, as he points out, the extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change have a much greater impact in Asia. Ghosh illustrates this with the example of Mumbai’s vulnerability to cyclones and storm surges.

Ghosh’s thesis about the lack of climate change novels has multiple overlapping facets. One concerns the ‘partitioning’ of nature from culture, a second the separation of science fiction from literary fiction, a third the centring of ‘human consciousness, agency and identity’ in the arts. The latter point is developed specifically with regard to modern novels, which according to John Updike must involve ‘individual moral adventure’. As Ghosh explains, this emphasis on individual interiority over community and disregard for nature is heavily linked to Western political economy more generally. It doesn’t necessarily apply in Asia, although literature is becoming increasingly globalised. Like me, Ghosh finds so-called ‘cli-fi’ unsatisfactory and articulates why very neatly:

But cli-fi is made up of disaster stories set in the future, and that, to me, is exactly the rub. The future is but one aspect of the age of human-induced global warming: it also includes the recent past and, most significantly, the present. [...]

[Climate change] is precisely not an imagined ‘other’ world apart from ours; nor is it located in another ‘time’ or ‘dimension’. By no means are the events of the era of global warming the stuff of wonder tales; yet it is also true that in relation to what we think of as normal now, they are in many ways uncanny; and they have indeed opened a doorway into what we might call a ‘spirit world’ - a universe animated by non-human voices.

Ghosh’s analysis helped me to consolidate my own thoughts about those novels I have read that are concerned with climate change, few as they are. The good: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver, The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and The Carbon Diaries 2015 and sequel by Saci Lloyd. All four extrapolate the effects of climate change in the near-present and how they alter people’s lives. Each is compelling, thought-provoking, distinctive, and narrated by a relatively vulnerable person (an under-educated woman in rural America; a social worker and her charge; a teenage girl). These novels are not about people who can buy themselves out of the effects of climate change, as current culture often seems to assume we all will.

The bad: The Lamentations of Zeno by Ilija Trojanow and Solar by Ian McEwan (which I couldn’t finish) are about middle aged men’s collapsing marriages and say nothing meaningful about the effects of climate change on anyone, let alone the vulnerable. They use it as set-dressing, perhaps to disguise the extreme conventionality and tedium of the actual plots. I felt tricked by both, as the blurbs led me to believe that they were novels about climate change.

The best climate change novel I’ve read is technically sci-fi as it’s set in the future: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. What distinguishes it from cli-fi is both its systematic world-building, continuity with the present, and refusal to treat climate change as hopeless. The plot concerns a diverse group of people who live in the same block of flats and co-operate to fight against structural neoliberal forces, rather than an insular group saving only themselves from apocalyptic collapse. The main character is a city damaged but not destroyed by sea level rise. Not only does New York 2140 portray daily life in a climate changed world rather than using it a generic disaster background (cf The Water Knife), but it demonstrates that there is hope for improvement. I wish more literary or science fiction did this! I fear that ‘speculative’ fiction, anything not concerned exclusively with the emotional lives of middle class Western families, is increasingly getting pushed onto the sci-fi (or crime/thriller) shelves. Yet the current conventions of sci-fi favour thriller plots centred on individual survival and/or futuristic settings with little applicability to the present day.

In addition to lamenting the lack of climate change-centric fiction, Ghosh presents a very interesting angle on responsibility for climate change. He argues that it is capitalism and imperialism are of equal importance and that ‘while [they] are certainly dual aspects of a single reality, the relationship between them is not, and has never been, a simple one’. I found this very thought-provoking as I, admittedly, have always blamed capitalism for climate change and considered imperialism to be one of capitalism’s especially vicious manifestations. Although a detailed history of empire and capital’s entwined links to industrialisation and fossil fuel based economies would take up a much longer book than this concise one, Ghosh summarises his point convincingly in India’s case. It was imperialism that dictated the nature and tempo of India’s engagement with global capitalism, and thus the trajectory of its carbon emissions. These particular chapters reminded me of my impatience for the sequel to Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm, likely to be titled ‘Fossil Empire’, which is expected to explain how coal-based industrialisation came to be exported from Britain to the world.

Amitav Ghosh is an articulate, wise, and incisive writer and this book repaid careful reading. Among his analyses are some notable comments on politics:

...the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics, as thus practised, is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness. Contemporary culture in all its aspects (including religious fundamentalisms of almost every variety) is pervaded by this expressivism, which is itself ‘to a significant degree a result of the strong role of Protestant Christianity in the making of the modern world’ [writes Roy Scranton].

This reminded me of the current drive for more inclusive characters in fiction, because a wider range of people wish to see themselves represented. I am very sympathetic to this desire, however personally I am much more eager for novels about climate change than novels in which people like me are represented. As things stand, there are hardly any of either. Ideally I’d like both, but to me ignoring the existential threat to humanity’s survival is a more immediate issue, especially as it is the vulnerable and underrepresented that will suffer most as a consequence of climate change. And the two desires are the very opposite of mutually exclusive; the wealthy, white, able, cis, heterosexual men of this world are most likely to be able to avoid confronting climate change. (This was part of the reason why The Lamentations of Zeno and Solar proved so disappointing - they centred on men who suffered none of its effects and could thus waste all their energy on extramarital affairs.) It also occurs to me that during the Cold War nuclear destruction was not as rare and exceptional a topic for fiction as climate change is today.

Returning to politics, Ghosh makes this specific point which echoes Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, if I recall correctly:

The public politics of climate change is itself an illustration of ways in which the moral-political can produce paralysis. Of late, many activists and concerned people have begun to frame climate change as a ‘moral issue’. This has become almost a plea of last resort, appeals of many other kinds having failed to produce concerted action on climate change. So, in an ironic twist, the individual conscience is now increasingly seen as the battleground of choice for a conflict that is self-evidently a problem of the global commons, requiring collective action: it is as if every other resource of democratic governance had been exhausted, leaving this residue - the moral.

By comparing the Pope’s encyclical on climate change with the 2016 Paris Agreement, Ghosh then demonstrates that this morality truly is a mere residue. What power can it command against the weight and complexity of the carbon economy? Towards the end of the book, Ghosh turns to the arena in which climate change’s seriousness is not contested: the military-security establishment. This makes for an unsurprisingly downbeat ending, concerned as it is with ‘the politics of the armed lifeboat’. Nonetheless, I have read more depressing and much less thoughtful books about climate change. The impact of this one is disproportionate to its short length and I hope it will spur further discussion on the treatment of climate change in fiction. Novelists don’t necessarily have a duty to write about issues of contemporary concern, but why wouldn’t they? Surely there is more inspiration to be found in drought-induced migrations, extreme weather events, and eroding coastlines than the tired topic of marital difficulties? It isn't as if there is binary choice between human stories and those concerned with nature; that dichotomy has been fundamentally undermined by the advent of the Anthropocene. Where are the novels that explore how people feel about climate change? The ambivalent, paradoxical, fatalistic, confused, and frightened emotions evoked by something so much larger than our minds can easily encompass deserve analysis by gifted novelists, and soon.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
972 reviews1,182 followers
July 22, 2017
This extended essay is both huge in scope - giving detailed attention to topics from the Victorian view of nature as reflected in Madame Bovary to the Chinese industrial revolution of the 11th century, to the forecast effects of sea-level rise on Mumbai and New York - and very narrow in its ultimate focus, which is the culture of "literary fiction", i.e. the Booker-and-broadsheet-review sort, more so than the experimental oddities popular in vocal circles of GR. If you enjoy seeing the results of a polymathic mind at work - even if you aren't especially into books about environmental issues and/or have reservations about litfic - this would be a satisfying novella-length read.

Literary Fiction
Last year, I became frustrated whilst involved in frequent discussion about litfic, how utterly separate it seemed from the topic I was reading most about in non-fiction, climate change. (And Richard Powers' reported novel-in-progress, about trees, was nowhere near publication.) So this book came along at just the right time. However, because Ghosh is himself so enmeshed in the litfic fraternity, he doesn't have, or rather doesn't transmit, a sense of how small a field it is in sales and readership terms, or in the eyes of the many readers who have other preferences, and oddly never even alludes (for his focus on literary is implicitly related to cultural prestige) never alludes to the more experimental and highbrow, as if litfic were the apex and not seen as a dull middlebrow by some who prefer more obscure or trashier works, or both. (On Goodreads, various readers of experimental fiction mingle in the best-reviewer rankings with readers of popular genre novels; litfic has always seemed to less prominent on here and more the province of the newspapers).

I also thought he neglected to address the partisanship, over a century old, about political and issue-led fiction versus the aesthetic, artistic and amusing. (There are frequent skirmishes over the topic on Goodreads, framing it as an either/or; a false dichotomy in my view, many of the most interesting novels managing to incorporate both.) However, it was refreshing that Ghosh did not delineate everything in the same old terms - because he is calling for both more realism about the issue of climate change in literary fiction and for greater attention to the fantastical and non-human, as is found in folktales from times when human life was more directly subject to nature. It felt as invigorating as a new paradigm. But because his argument is quite subtle, it could quite easily read to the art-for-art's sake team as entirely a denigration of their viewpoint. That isn't helped by his rather sweeping, example-free statements about Modernism and its focus on language and human internality, and less on politics, as being even more pronounced than those of recent litfic. These rang hollow to me because, since I became aware of Ghosh's book nearly a year ago, by far the best example of serious fiction I've read which fulfils its suggested remit is the section 'Time Passes' in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, in which a holiday home is abandoned for years, encroached upon by animals and plants, whilst its upper-class intellectual owners are affected by the First World War. It shows that the experimental may be an easier place to introduce the non-human and the slipperiness of a material reality once assumed to be secure than is yet another realist novel about infidelity in Hampstead.

For the benefit of those who view issues in fiction as oppositional to aesthetics, Ghosh could have emphasised more that contemporary literary fiction frequently features other sociopolitical topics, especially class and wealth divisions between people, and experiences of war, but that climate change, and nature as a force to which humans are subject (other than via common serious diseases such as cancer) is distinctively missing. (A point which, as I read The Great Derangement, I realised was the source of my frustration mentioned above.) Experimental fiction may be less inclined to foreground "issues", but they are often present in the background, perhaps in characters' living conditions.

Yet when one is hanging out in [online] crowds in which literary fiction is the favoured form, Ghosh's critique of its neglect of a major issue of our time and of imminent times, and especially of how this indicts its claim to seriousness when other topics are addressed over and over, is absolutely relevant; I wanted to nag some people to read this book even before I'd looked at anything more than the Amazon preview.

A common response to mentioning the lack of reference to climate change in litfic - whether among people I know, or among BTL Guardian commenters - is to just read SF instead FFS. (Here is a good recent article about climate change in fiction including SF.) The neglect of the issue is seen by some friends as merely one symptom of litfic's backwaterish irrelevancy and dullness outside the newspapers-and-prizes merry-go-round. It is indeed a form with a far smaller audience and a diminishing contribution to the wider cultural conversation compared with what it had in, for example, the 1950s and 1960s. Its genre-snobbishness (although this I see far more among GR hardcore-experimentalist circles now, as litfic readers, writers and critics who grew up on comics hit their 40s and gain significant influence) looks particularly archaic and ridiculous when compared with film. Among cineastes, it's form and presentation that counts towards respect, no topics circumscribed, and there is plenty of arthouse SF. (Perhaps proportionally more than experimental speculative fiction in book form?) Yet literary fiction does still count as both measure of and signal to what does or should really matter to the broadsheet-inclined audience, which includes the political classes and other significant decision makers. If Ghosh thinks the near-absence of climate change in literary fiction is symptomatic of society's unwillingness to face up to the future and the effects of its own actions - noting that future settings are as uncharacteristic of litfic, just as much as historical fiction is a staple of prize longlists - I would say that, as other forms have addressed it more, it is perhaps more related to the neglect of it, and to general short-termism and unwillingness to seriously contemplate what will happen, among the comfortable chattering classes. (My view may be skewed because, over the past year, I have returned to reading more about the environment than I had for over a decade, but it does seem as if there are more serious stories getting more public attention now than there used to be, even a couple of years ago.) Ghosh notes that in 2015, two highly significant international documents about climate change appeared: the Paris Agreement, and the papal encyclical Laudato si' - whilst the Booker longlist was entirely devoid of the subject. (I would argue that the following year's The North Water, however, does address human despoliation of the environment in a historical setting.) Anna's excellent review of this book explains other reasons why literary fiction matters specifically in covering this topic, including its artistic approach.

Ghosh sees the situation of "serious fiction" as flowing from Enlightenment and C19th views of nature, in which nature was (surprisingly to us now) seen as stable, ordered and subject to only gradual change. (An opposition of catastrophism versus gradualism, in which the former was seen as primitive, existed in geology from Lyell's time, and was still around among 1980s doubters of the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction.) This sense of stability in nature mirrored the increasing stability of western bourgeois life as industrial society grew up and medicine advanced, such stable lives being seen as ideal subject matter: Emma Bovary's love of melodramatic romances and foolish rejection such stability, being quoted in support. (However, this idea was there in the novel at least a couple of hundred years earlier, with Don Quixote, written when modernity was emerging, but life (including Cervantes' own) was still highly turbulent. Is that because it's a bourgeois idea? Because a certain leaning towards the 'prosaic' is inherent in the novel?) And given the reservations many people I know have about the middlebrow, middle-classness of literary fiction, this aspect of the critique, of the subgenre being too concerned with stable bourgeouis life, was an easy sell.

Between 2012-2016, when the online social justice movement was at its height, among my frustrations with it was the total neglect of environmental issues in favour of aggressive minutiae of identity politics. Ghosh agrees; however, he seems not to have noticed that the idea of 'speciesism' was, recently, slowly gaining ground in some quarters of it, and the way this ties in with the rise of veganism. (As a Guardian reader, my current impression from the paper is that about 30-40% of people are now vegan, not, what, 1-2%... that's how prominent it's becoming. And that another 10% are trying obsessively to avoid buying plastic.) One of the book's big questions - how will people in a future, climate-changed world view literature of the C20th and early C21st? - parallels the social-justice reading of older fiction. Assuming that book distribution, leisure time and literature study are still as plentiful as today (I really don't think it will be in 150 years, and probably sooner), I would think that, as with slavery and casual racism and sexism in books from our past, some readers will see resource profligacy and obliviousness to this to be defining features of these novels, reasons why they should be consigned to the sidelines, whereas many others will see them as unfortunate, with plenty else to enjoy in the stories regardless. (And surely some will wish they were living in times of such everyday luxury - a decadence cult.)

Asia & Climate Change
Ghosh critiques the idea that Asian countries are entirely [future] victims of climate change, in a complex argument. He mentions that western environmentalists, such as Naomi Klein, neglect to mention imperialism as a cause of climate change alongside capitalism itself. Or rather, of the particular patterns of climate change which are occurring now. Essentially, he considers that imperialism may have delayed significant climate change, but that colonial powers are still significantly responsible for global environmental changes as they are experienced.

Major Asian countries had industrial expansions and extractive industries that are little known to the average Westerner. I managed to do a whole history degree - albeit not very recently - without having heard of the Chinese industrial revolution of the C11th; it led to significant deforestation and, once coal was discovered, its adoption as a fuel in some areas. However, as the deposits were not very accessible with medieval technology, topography meant that large-scale fossil-fuel based indistrialisation didn't begin in medieval China, and instead had to wait until Europeans started it in the C18th.
Most accounts of the history of oil trace its initial drilling to the C19th USA; however, many countries used oil on a smal scale where local deposits (little understood) were available; and the Burmese had been using oil with the widest-spread trading network Ghosh suggests that nineteenth century Burma would have been the world's first petrostate if it had not been crushed by British colonial wars. India, for a while, developed a formidable shipbuilding industry and copied British-built steamships. However, the Empire stymied this by banning Indian-built ships from its ports. So, had history progressed only slightly differently, global industry would have had rather a different distribution - and carbon emissions would have been much higher, much earlier. (Ghosh considers there to have been two significant eras for emissions: the West in the early twentieth century, and Asia in the 1980s onwards, the latter although it was not so densely industrialised, had a huge impact due to sheer human numbers.)

A signficant difference from the West was that in major Asian countries, there was always greater opposition to industrialisation from religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism) and from public intellectuals. Nineteenth century novels may sometimes lament the coming of the railways and the changes they wrought to the countryside, but no-one truly influential spoke up against industrialisation itself as opposed to, say, conditions in factories. However, as colonial powers packed up and went home, political leaders became keen to start trying to catch up with the West; Gandhi, before his assassination, was accused of trying to hold India back - and Chinese Communism pushed religious belief to one side in favour of punishing regimes of agricultural and industrial progress.

Ghosh considers that on balance, the West still owes the rest of the world, including Asia, for damage wrought by climate change, but that Asia in particular is not purely a victim.

A Dystopian Future
Ghosh has a particularly gloomy view of the future. (Is that why he's frustratingly blase about the issue of individual action versus collective action, assuming they are an either/or, and that readers aren't going to be rolling their eyes at his international arts lifestyle living - and evidently flyinh quite frequently between - New York and India? I posted more about this subject here.)

The outright collapsitarian vision - whilst alarming to some - has a strong element of freedom to it, and for physically tough people with certain viewpoints, it may even be invigorating. But the world envisaged here, dominated by the politics of the armed lifeboat has no such primitivist, libertarian appeal. Delineating plausible and pessimistic reasoning for military planners' careful study of climate change, he considers how climate change and the instability it will wreak to be an excuse for increasing authoritarian militarisation, especially of countries that are likely destinations for millions of refugees from regions stricken by famine and unbearable heat. The countries where the refugees originate may, in turn, have punitive policies of their own, introduced to appease Western powers. The poor everywhere, but especially those in the Global South, end up worse off than ever. (I think this increased authoritarianism is, very sadly, more plausible in densely populated countries like Britain, whereas the US is more spread out and contains many recalcitrant armed citizens - it does seem more likely to fragment and collapse.) There even appears to be an implication that some actors in the deep state may not want to do much to mitigate climate change, precisely because they see global turbulence as an opportunity to strengthen their stranglehold, which is considerably more depressing than, as usual, assuming they only care about making money in the short term. Ghosh tries to end the book on a sudden hopeful note, that current youngsters and the literature they have yet to write, may help to create a better world than that. He also has high hopes for world religions becoming ready-made pressure groups for lowering carbon emissions (no mention of the Catholic neglect of population as an issue). I was reminded of Mark Lynas' Six Degrees and his description of illogically optimistic conclusions many authors add to their environmental books because they feel they should. With a little more creative vision, and more words, that conclusion could have sounded more convincing and inspiring to action - as otherwise it doesn't sound like Amitav Ghosh wants to join Dark Mountain just yet.

There may be a few flaws in this book, but it's an original and interesting melange of topics. The issue it addresses with literary fiction may seem minor to some - especially those who don't read much litfic - but some of us, at least, had been frustrated by it already. Ghosh is saying something that needed to be said: how can this subgenre claim such seriousness and weight and relevance when it has its head in the sand? However, will many dedicated readers of literary fiction actually take a break from novels to read this critique?
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,090 reviews7,948 followers
December 24, 2021
[3.5 stars]

Amitav Ghosh examines why it is that there is quite a lack in literary fiction that explores the climate crisis. From a literary, historical and political perspective, he unpacks the issue of climate change and its presence, or lack their of, in contemporary literature.

I'll be the first to admit that a lot of this went over my head. It was recommended by my friend Kate, after we had a book club discussion about Bewilderment by Richard Powers, and I totally see why she suggested it!

My rating purely reflects my experience with this book. I think the contents are very well thought out and thought-provoking, however I did find it hard to access at times. This seems to be written more for an academic audience, as it is based on a series of lectures the author gave. However, that isn't to say it can't be read casually or by someone outside the academic realm; I read it in that context, it just took a bit more re-reading of certain paragraphs and doing research on the side to try and understand more.

Here are some quotes that stood out to me from the reading:

-“Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge. To recognize, then, is not the same as an initial introduction. Nor does recognition require an exchange of words: more often than not we recognize mutely. And to recognize is by no means to understand that which meets the eye; comprehension need play no part in a moment of recognition.”

- “Contrary to what I might like to think, my life is not guided by reason; it is ruled, rather, by the inertia of habitual motion. This is indeed the condition of the vast majority of human beings, which is why very few of us will be able to adapt to global warming if it is left to us, as individuals, to make the necessary changes; those who will uproot themselves and make the right preparations are precisely those obsessed monomaniacs who appear to be on the borderline of lunacy.”

-“In short, the great, irreplaceable potentiality affection is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities. And to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be. But I with much else that is uncanny about the Anthropocene, this challenge has appeared before us at the very moment when the form of imagining that is best suited to answering it – fiction – has turned into radically different direction.”
Profile Image for Harshad Sharma.
43 reviews21 followers
October 28, 2016
Naomi Klein has this to say about this book-"On very rare occasions, a writer marshals such a searing insight and storytelling skill that even a well-trodden subject is blown wide open. Ghosh is that kind of writer, and this is that kind of book."

I cannot agree more, I consider Amitav Ghosh to be one of the greatest fiction writers India has ever produced, his IBIS Trilogy and "The Glass Palace" are one of the greatest works of fiction, and that is because he has always kept the social narrative in his books. His fictions are not according to popular belief of how a novel should be, individual centrist, there is always a community, and the struggle of that community against the onslaught of capitalistic hubris as was the case in both IBIS trilogy based on Opium Wars and "The Glass Palace" based on the Oil Wars.

Amitav Ghosh with "The Great Derangement" has put forth a work of Non-Fiction which will be remembered till eternity. His critique of failure of main-stream fiction in producing significant works on climate catastrophe, his research at how the colonialism has disrupted the common sense against the greed by creating waterfront cities of Mumbai, HongKong, Singapore while all the harbors of old be it Amsterdam, London, Rotterdam,Surat all were inland situated on rivers, the Anglosphere(USA,UK,AUS and NZ) has in fact on one hand stopped the rest of the world(Its Colonies- Asian and African states) to achieve much rapid development right with Europe in 18th century while also unwittingly but fortunately have delayed the onslaught of Carbon Emission as would have been the case if whole world would have had Industrial Revolution simultaneously.

This book has its attention on India, how dangerous it is for our west coast to cope with any of the natural disasters that plague our eastern coast. 2015 has been the first year in the recorded history that Arabian Sea has produced more cyclones than Bay of Bengal and if god forbid a cyclone originating in Arabian Sea hits Mumbai, it would be a catastrophe unparalleled in the history of the world.

There are few books that completely alters your thinking, the time divides between the time before you read that book and after. I have had two of those experiences when first i read "The Fountainhead" a decade or so ago, the idea of altruistic pursuit of individualism got my attention. The second was "To kill a Mockingbird" where the unabashed morality of Atticus Finch inspired me to have a world in black and white, right and wrong, no shades of grey.

This is the third book which i have read that creates the demarcation in my lifetime. The absolute foolishness that we are showing in the face of such a eminent disaster, playing the millennium old blame game of "its him not me" is really something unique to humanity. This is a book which bares open how foolish, stupid and utterly deranged we are with our belief in our ingenuity. The future generations, plagued by all the horrors of climate change, will look at the 21st century with such a loathing that is UN-imaginable right now. The world's most advanced country has half the population and a presidential candidate believing that Climate Change is a Hoax created by Chinese, developed nations want developing nations to lower the carbon footprint while abdicating there responsibility to the cause.

This, the time we are living in, if something unprecedented is not done within next few decades would always be know as the era of utter foolishness when we knowingly destroyed the Earth, this era we are living in, it really is the Era of "The Great Derangement".
601 reviews37 followers
August 15, 2016
History will judge this as the age of derangement, because collectively we have chosen to ignore the greatest challenge of our times - climate change. When Ghosh paints the frightening picture he does, it amazes us that this has remained so much in the periphery of our current discourse. We experience catastrophic floods, we know rivers that have dried up, heat waves kill thousands... yet there is so little of it in literary fiction; and there is so little pressure on politicians and governments to take note. Ghosh is dismissive of the Paris Accord and appreciative of people like Pope Francis and Gandhi, both of whom acknowledged that the push for infinite growth is unsustainable. Current power structures and a prevailing mind set that celebrates individual freedom, make it virtually impossible to address the massive changes needed. And though he ends on a hopeful note, it is a bleak picture he paints. A must-read.
92 reviews12 followers
November 21, 2017
The biggest problem I had with Ghosh's latest foray is not that it is nebulous about its message. There are several important and even valuable insights in this long piece of journalism that are worth the read. Much of this is, of course, well-worn material by now, and there is not much novel that Ghosh can say on the issue. The biggest difficulty I had with the book is that Ghosh arrogates to himself (as member of the tribe of novelists) too much importance in his ability to alter the course of civilisational thinking. The time is far gone when the social commentaries of a Dickens could make people sit up and think about the condition of the urban poor. The literary novel occupies an increasingly irrelevant space in the public psyche, and to believe that novelists are not doing their duty by embracing the cause of climate change in the telling of their tales is not to understand how limited an influence the novel has today as an agent of social change.
Profile Image for Zaki.
77 reviews52 followers
December 24, 2019
Fiction, History and Politics of Climate Change

Some months ago, I saw my Goodreads friend's review of this book. His review and rating made me buy this book. Meanwhile, I finished another book of Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines. I became a fan of his prose after reading that novel. Same thing is true for this book.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first part through different stories, he tells the relationship between fiction and climate change, the development of realist novel and modernity, the journey of the subject matter of novel from collective to individual, uncanny nature of climate change, reintroduction of unpredictability in human life and other forms of writing that deal with climate change.

The most interesting thing to read was why there is deficiency of serious fiction on climate change and why novel is inherently incompatible to deal with this subject. Unlike epics, there is discontinuity of space and time in novel. The 'setting' of a novel is a self-contained ecosystem and it usually requires a 'period'. This self-containment of novel goes against the vastness of global warming. Global warming isn't limited to a single country. Nor can it be contained in some period of time.

The second part deals with the history of climate change. Apart from dealing with the shocking effects of climate change on Asia, he tells why Western concept of modernity is impracticable here. The early modern era nurtured multiple modernities in different parts of the world. The usage of natural gas in China about a thousand years ago, the inception of oil industry from Burma, the early coal industry in India, all of these things show Asia was modernizing in its own way. But the global south was not allowed to take its own course and colonialism hampered the progress in those areas. It was only after colonialism, in 1980s, industrialization took place in those areas but it also brought climate change along with it. It can be said colonialism delayed climate crisis, but it was the eventual outcome of that kind of modernization. This is why the question of climate justice is discussed in conferences on climate change.

The third part deals with the politics of climate change. There is denialism of climate change in Anglosphere, as those countries are getting most benefits from the policies which are accelerating climate crisis. Climate change can only be tackled by moving from individual to collective approach. But there are reservations that climate change politics can be used for imperial designs, as it can provide a pretext to interfere in the matters of other counties and the maintenance of status quo is always a priority of the imperial world.
Profile Image for Katie Long.
267 reviews56 followers
November 13, 2019
Interesting insights, but I think there was a bit too much repetition and speculation. Perhaps it would have worked better at essay length rather than book length.
Profile Image for Mike.
297 reviews134 followers
January 4, 2019

The world was void,
The populous and the powerful- was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless-
A lump of death- a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths.
- Lord Byron, ‘Darkness’, written in 1816- sometimes referred to as 'the year without a summer.'

Amitav Ghosh's general idea here is to try to explain why it is so difficult to tackle- but not exactly tackle, to conceptualize, to accept- the problem of global warming. On second thought, ‘problem’ doesn’t feel like the right word either. Maybe we need a new word, or an entirely new vocabulary- but there may not be time for that.

In the first section, the book’s longest, Ghosh suggests the irony that it was during the era that human beings started to radically change the environment, setting the stage for future volatility and what he calls the 'uncanny', the novel, according to Ghosh, settled into discussing "the bourgeois conventions of everyday life", habituating readers away from the possibility that life could contain sudden, violent upheavals. This is an issue, because “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.” One of the most powerful tropes of modernity, Ghosh writes,
envisages time as an irresistible, irreversible forward movement. This jealous deity, the Time-god of modernity, has the power to decide who will be cast into the shadows of backwardness…and who will be granted the benediction. It is this conception of time…that allows the work of portioning to proceed within the novel, always aligning itself with the avant-garde as it hurtles forward in its impatience to erase every archaic reminder of Man’s kinship with the non-human.
Ghosh has a really interesting point about the difficulty human beings face in engaging with volatility, in accepting that non-human forces have roles in determining our fates as well, in our collective tendency towards habit, inevitability and teleology. I guess it makes sense to me that the 19th century novel may have been one factor that habituated this mode of thinking (then again- Moby-Dick? There were some pretty volatile events in War and Peace...), but I find his assertion that 21st century literary fiction (whatever that is, exactly) needs to get its act together on climate change to be really puzzling. I’m sorry, but literary fiction, however you define it (I guess it’s supposed to mean good, but I’ve always assumed it referred to books written in a certain overly elaborate MFA style that signals group affiliation), doesn’t need to do anything, because not enough people read it to make it electorally significant. As far as forms of entertainment go, literary fiction can’t even begin to compete, in terms of individual consciousnesses reached and influenced (or is it mirrored?) with, say, superhero movies. Is this because superhero movies take on the pressing issues of our day in realistic ways? Of course not- just the opposite. It’s pretty clear that as a society we prefer stories in which there’s always some planetary, existential crisis, and benevolent superhuman beings to rescue us from it- in other words, escapism. Even the very predictability of plot and banality of dialogue seem to serve the purpose of sheltering us from the improbable, the volatile, the uncanny.

The next section shifts gears to an idea that I had never quite put together- the intimate relationship between the maintenance of power and a carbon-based economy.
The boost that fossil fuels provided to Western power is nowhere more clearly evident than in the First Opium War, in which armored steamships…played a decisive role. In other words, carbon emissions were, from very early on, closely related to power in all its aspects; this continues to be a major, although unacknowledged, factor in the politics of contemporary global warming.
This maintenance of power, naturally enough, required those countries with power to prevent others from developing it. In the case of the British in India, for example,
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, at that point in time…The appetites of the British economy needed to be fed by large quantities of raw materials. Had a carbon economy developed synchronously in India and elsewhere, these materials would have been used locally instead of being exported.
This dynamic may have delayed both the climate crisis and a broader understanding of the limits of modern, industrial society. Even back in the 1950s, Ghosh writes,
the carbon footprint of the West was growing rapidly enough to ensure that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would continue to increase. But that rise would not have been so steep if mainland Asia had not launched upon a period of sustained economic expansion in the late 1980s. It is this acceleration that has dramatically shortened the time available to adapt…what we have learned is that the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every human being.
What would happen to a leader who suggested to his or her people that “the universalist premise of industrial civilization was a hoax”, and that maybe our country should take one for the team (the opposite of Donald Trump, essentially)? Gandhi not only seems to have understood this, but
…he was willing to carry his vision to its logical conclusion by voluntarily renouncing, on behalf of the nation, the kind of power and affluence that is conferred by industrial civilization. This was perfectly well understood by Gandhi’s political enemies on the Hindu right, who insistently characterized him as a man who wanted to weaken India. And indeed it was for this very reason that Gandhi was assassinated by the former member of an organization that would later become the nucleus of the political formation that now rules India. This coalition came to power by promising exactly what Gandhi had renounced: endless industrial growth.
This has ominous implications. I don’t know if transitioning to a non-carbon based economy necessarily means a loss of modernity- I suspect some people disagree with that, but it will mean changes in lifestyle and changes in leaders. Putin, for example, would be nowhere without Russia’s oil and gas revenue; the implicit contract he’s made with the Russian people- higher standard of living, safety and security, in exchange for political freedom- would have been broken long ago. The leadership of the United States, meanwhile, recently joined Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait at the U.N. Climate Summit in refusing to endorse a new landmark study on global warming, which seems like a statement of intention of planetary suicide pact- whether the rest of us like it or not. We’re going to ignore reality and ride in the armed lifeboat for as long as possible. I think Hollywood can safely bank a few more Avengers movies.
Profile Image for Andrea McDowell.
558 reviews301 followers
March 29, 2021
I decided to reread this book after encountering yet another interview with a literary author including climate in their novels who cited Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement as seminal in their approach a main inspiration. (Here it is, if you're curious: https://lithub.com/how-contemporary-n... )

What a delight to discover that this book is one of the rare ones to not only hold up as time passes, but improve as the world catches up with it. My perspective on Part I (about climate change in novels) is unchanged (Ghosh's take is brilliant), but my perspective on Part III has undergone a seismic shift. Largely because I now understand better what he was getting at in 2016. What I took then as mainly a critique of identity politics (which may hinge on individual identities but largely deal with collective injustices) is more about political positions as a form of identity creation (eg. "I vote Democrat, therefore I support Policy X, even though I don't really understand it, and I will bond with my social group by deriding those dumb Republicans who don't support Policy X"--not that this example was used in the book, but that's the overall dynamic).

Ghosh is, incidentally, talking at an online event early in April 2021. If you're interested, link is here: https://www.umass.edu/english/event/a...

Regardless, if you're interested in climate change in literary or mainstream fiction, this book is a must read.


The Great Derangement is Amitav Ghosh's attempt to understand why we make such terrible decisions when it comes to dealing with climate change. His thesis, if it can be summed up, is that both capitalism and colonialism created global inequities of power and wealth that would need to be dismantled for climate action to succeed, at least without compromising the freedom-and-progress narrative that legitimizes them.

I enjoyed the book greatly and his writing is beyond gorgeous, but I'm not entirely persuaded. I think, in sections, he is on to something: Part 1, dealing with literary fiction, which he suggests as having excluded the improbable as a valid subject for exploration and therefore is poorly equipped for dealing with an era in which the improbable has become a daily occurrence, was compelling. I couldn't help but think of counter-examples while I was writing ( Fifteen Dogs , Not Dark Yet etc.) so I don't know if I think it's as universal as he states, but I do think there's truth to the claim that literary fiction deals so closely with daily minutiae and interior states that something like a hundred-year-storm or drought would be difficult to turn into a literary work.

But then Part 3, in which he deals with politics, is not as compelling. His analysis of global politics and inequities I think is quite accurate, but his inability to see activism on behalf of identities as being grounded in collectives rather than the individual person was frankly strange (there's a lot of women, Ghosh).

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life and Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change were both more scientific, and more quantitative explorations of personal and societal (rather than economic) climate denialism, and made more compelling overall arguments. That said, Ghosh's critiques of western/american exceptionalism and the arguments that give their empires legitimacy was fantastic and he made a lot of excellent points. Maybe someone else can collect the data in support of his arguments.
Profile Image for Parag.
16 reviews3 followers
February 2, 2017

We should not wait till the time entire mumbai city is washed away. Mumbai is sitting on the edge. It is like a time bomb ticking to explode at any moment...
This might of nature is evident to you as you read the book.

The reason I stumbled upon this book is probably because I was looking for some fiction written by Amitav Ghosh. This title grabbed my attention more than the other books. I am glad I chose this one.
Honestly speaking, I did not expect such an in-depth analysis and review from a fiction writer. While I was more interested in the science part of the climate change, what the book offers is a perspective on the literature, history and politics of climate change. Yet, I must say I was not disappointed. The author delves deep into the topics when he discusses all three. The author argues the reasons why the contemporary literature fails to address climate change. The part on history of climate change is such a revelation. It was really interesting to read about the coal and petroleum economies. The politics of climate change although a little familiar to me is still interesting. This makes an interesting reading in the backdrop of the recent event of all references to climate change being removed from the Whitehouse website with the 45th president coming in.

For someone like me who is a novice at reading books, many pages especially at the start of the book were found to be heavily laden with the literary jargon and hence a bit difficult to understand. I needed a dictionary at my hand constantly. But, overall it turns out to be a wonderful reading on a relevant topic.
Profile Image for Ashish.
254 reviews45 followers
October 13, 2017
Amitav Ghosh takes a break from fiction to write this non fictional account on a topic that is close to his heart. The looming threat of climate change due to human activity, and the dire consequences that humanity and nature is probable to face in the near future as well as currently facing is something that he brings to the forefront. More prominently, he showcases the lack of discourse about it in literature and fiction and how it would be seen in hindsight as an avenue where we were left lacking.

Ghosh is an eminent and supremely talented writer, there is no question about it. Its heartening to see him in a different role where he dons the hat of a socia-ecological activist.

The book puts across a lot of current events and literary references which are very relevant to the topic at hand. He provides adequate context and research based facts but doesn't dwell too much on them; he knows his strength is more in storytelling rather than hard science and he makes the most of it. A few of the analogies that he makes to connect literature to global climate change seem a bit far fetched but overall it's a really coherent piece of work focusing on one of the most serious threats that we as a race, and nature as a whole, is facing right now.
15 reviews1 follower
August 24, 2021
Maybe 2.5 for the ambitious venture. Annoying mostly because I ̶f̶i̶n̶d̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶v̶e̶r̶y̶ ̶h̶a̶r̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶a̶g̶r̶e̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ strongly disagree with the fundamental assumptions of most of the arguments presented. Primary disagreement: the "outhouse" genres are and have always been challenging both the "novel as representation of bourgeoise everyday experience" and normative standards of literariness. Want to say much more but my tone will give away my utter irritation with hottakes that use a term like "serious literature" unironically.

Genres are not serious or unserious; readings are. Read SF (or any other "unserious" genre) with attention and there'll be no need to announce the "need" for representing the "unthinkable".

This book would make a lot more sense if Ghosh was exclusively addressing the practitioners of "realist" fiction. As it stands, it can only annoy writers and scholars of genre fiction.
Profile Image for Ashish.
12 reviews1 follower
July 18, 2016
A searing analysis of how the turn to individualism in literature - specifically in the dominant literary form of the novel - and its feedback loop imprint on culture and politics during the last century leaves humanity unprepared to deal with the gravest problem of the commons we face; climate change. Ghosh wonders whether historians of the future from some other planet might look back upon our times as an age of the great derangement. Although the tone is despondent , Ghosh ends on a positive note hoping that if mass organizations especially those with religious affiliations can join hands with popular movements we might just gain the momentum needed to tackle our self-destruction as a species.
Profile Image for Vartika.
343 reviews583 followers
February 21, 2020
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is perhaps the most underrated and urgent piece to fount from Ghosh's pen. This book, meticulously researched and painstakingly reasoned, undertakes a study of the climate crisis we face today through the way it is explored — or omitted — in literature, history and politics.

In this slim volume, Ghosh manages to articulate the culpability of capitalism and empires as drivers of both inequality and climate change, factors which he demonstrates as reinforcing each other. Further, he expands on neoliberalism, bourgeoisie morality and modernity as forces that falsely point towards linear progress. The central thesis here is that our instinctive response and responsibility towards nature has been dulled by a viewpoint dominated by a position of being separate from it, so that in all realms — from fiction to politics — an expression of the real threat (or even the existence) of climate change is rendered nearly impossible.

While The Great Derangement lends articulation to some relatively lesser known ideas (such as the counter-intuitive nature of urban settlement in cities such as New York and Mumbai, which are situated on reclaimed waterfronts), it also busts the myth of eurocentricism in climate change activism; and brings forth the nexus between megacorporations that spearhead the carbon-based economy and the climate-denial lobby, and links it to the crisis of adequate political response and action. Through his arguments about climate change, Ghosh also sheds light on the present manifestations of the surveillance state and on the very ineffectiveness of liberal democracy.

Ghosh's writing in his extended essay is an incisive and thought-provoking urge towards a sentiment of justice, without the empty symbolism or naïvete of the bureaucratese of documents like the 2015 Paris Agreement. As a sort of people's history of Climate Change, this book posits to us, amongst other immediate threats, that of history remembering our incapacity and incomprehension as a great derangement.
Profile Image for Venky.
928 reviews327 followers
November 10, 2019
Very rarely does a book appear with the quintessential element of relevance crying out from every page. Amitav Ghosh's"The Great Derangement" is exactly one such book. In a time characterised by an undesirable and unfortunate transmogrification where Riparian states wreak vengeance upon one another over what has been contrived into a contentious issue such as water sharing, and where fossil fuels are recklessly and rampantly exploited to the point of abuse, this work by Amitav Ghosh serves as an empathetic, elementary and essential reminder not to view the consequences of Climate Change as yet another set of an Emperor's New Clothes.

Ghosh's perpetual lament that threads its way throughout the contours of his book seems to be the 'unjustified' neglect accorded to the topical issue of Climate Change by litterateurs (himself included in the offending phalanx), artists and filmmakers. He attributes this defect to a tendency of 'uniformization of the bourgeois life' where exceptions to stereotypical norms are decreed as belonging to the realms of surrealism and magical realism. The carefully structured form of the novel has a general tendency, in the view of the author to preserve and protect the typical and not dwell too deep into the probability of the atypical. In the words of the author himself "Making a difference isn’t the point; the point is to examine the meaning of the arts. If we believe that the arts are meant to look ahead, open doors, then how is this huge issue of our time, absent from the arts? It’s like death, no one wants to talk about it."

Ghosh also has an axe to grind on the economies that are carbon dependent and whose carbon footprints have the potential to wreak wanton ecological damage. He also mulls in despondency the future fossil fuel consumption patterns that might characterise the functioning of two of the largest economies in the Planet today - India and China. He also takes a very skeptical and scathing view of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, viewing it as an irascible and irrelevant fall out that is the contrivance of a handful of economic super powers that are bent on manipulating outcomes to suit their selfish needs. The poorer countries in Ghosh's opinion are the real sufferers who are forced to bear the brunt of the avoidable consequences arising out of the perils of global warming.

Mulling about the preparedness (or the lack of it) of a mega city such as Mumbai to tackle the effects of climate change, Ghosh concentrates more on the preventive rather than the post mortem efficiency. Bringing the reader to the fact that the acts of reclamation and ursurpation of space from the seas have put the city of Mumbai in a perilous position vis-a-vis a probable natural disaster in the form of a Force 4 or 5 Cyclone, the author proceeds to detail the inefficient preventive measures that are currently in place for avoiding a catastrophe of gargantuan proportions. He also lays the blame on unscrupulous real estate developers who harrumph the luxuries of plots and condominiums that boast a magnificent sea front view to boost the value of properties when in reality these structures of opulence would be the ones that would be directly in the path of destruction of a venomous tsunami or a remorseless cyclone.

In summary, The Great Derangement serves as a clarion call for all the 'denialists' of climate change who instead of facing up to the real and present threat of global warming, bury their heads into the sands of complacency and callousness. This Ostrich like behaviour in the opinion of Amitav Ghosh will only ensure to blacken and blotch our maturity and sensibility in the eyes of a future generation which will look back startlingly at the anodyne and inane foibles of a populace that stood by their attitudes of tepidity and stupidity instead of heeding to an umpteen number of timely warnings that was delivered to them by Mother Nature.

Before that happens though there is still time for us to rouse ourselves from this self imposed slumber of negligence and act to save a Planet which is under a real threat of destruction.
Profile Image for Easton Smith.
276 reviews9 followers
September 11, 2018
If I had to suggest to anyone a single book about climate change, it would be the Great Derangement. I have never read someone so succinctly, eloquently, and urgently explain the roots-- capitalism and imperialism-- of the climate crisis and how those roots grow up into the forest of our culture/popular imagination. Ghosh locates the birth of climate change and climate denialism in a single nexus of concurring cultural and economic phenomena; a view of history that is, to me, brand new and very illuminating. Ghosh confirms my worst fears-- i.e. that the politics of the spectacle have no power to end the systems that perpetuate climate crisis-- with a clear, moral force. Then, once I was enwrapped in his brilliant and devastating blanket of prose, Ghosh also managed to insert a tiny, tiny bit of hope.

I don't have any idea how such a great writer settled on the word "derangement" for his title of this era and this book. It's such a bulky and ugly word that made me wince every time I read it...
Profile Image for Leanne.
570 reviews42 followers
December 22, 2016
Ok, I think I will have to mark this down as my top #1 nonfiction book of the year. I love Ghosh. This is my first non-fiction by him though.... was not disappointed. He writes so intelligently and so elegantly. What does current fiction have to do with global warming? And how does one approach the idea that imperialism is as fundamental to this issue as neoliberal capitalism? There is also a fascinating discussion of how politics has become a forum for the secular venting of opinions, “a baring-of-the soul” (while power to act is with "deep government"). And then the surprise ending where he contrasts the two great climate documents of last year: The Paris Agreement and the Pope's Laudato Si.... this book is full of things to think about.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
412 reviews403 followers
August 14, 2017
52nd book for 2017.

When climate change really starts biting, the most vulnerable groups will be the global poor located closer to the equator. As such it's very refreshing to read about climate change from someone writing from an Indian perspective as opposed to the more standard US/European voices that populate the literature at the moment.

His ultimate point is that it has become very difficult to effectively address a collective problem like climate change, as modern societies have placed the individual front-and-center, not only culturally, but also economically and politically. He ends with a very interesting comparison between the legalistic wording of the Paris Climate Accord with the Pope's lucid moral clarity on the same issue.
Profile Image for Jessica DeWitt.
347 reviews69 followers
June 3, 2019
I devoured this book in two evenings. Ghosh took me on an emotional and intellectual ride that artfully challenged my assumptions and broadened my understanding of climate change, while simultaneously reaching into the depths of my own personal experience and sense of self. I particularly appreciated the way in which Ghosh breaks down the way in which climate change is often presented as a problem of the Anglosphere and how this blindness to Asia and other parts of the world limit the way in which we can effectively tackle climate change. Ghosh presents the ugly reality of our current moment, its origins and its possible outcomes, and yet still ends on a positive note. Must read for anyone interested in climate change, climate writing, and climate activism.
November 25, 2017
Author unable to focus

The author has good insights on climate change,and if he had focused on that alone this would have contributed greatly to the discourse. However, he attempts to mix a commentary on the lack of climate change in novels and other artistic endeavors. Not only is his point largely unproven;it is largely irrelevant to the solution of this dilemma. An unfortunate wasted opportunity
Profile Image for Caleb.
92 reviews10 followers
February 11, 2018
"The Great Derangement" is an insightful and sometimes provocative engagement with climate change and culture. Ghosh's main concern is to figure out why climate change seems to elude the sustained cultural attention and serious political consideration that he thinks it merits. Indeed, he thinks the situation is so dire that the historians of the future (if there any any...) will wonder if the humans of the early 21st century were deranged.

The book has three parts of varying strengths: stories, history, and politics. Ghosh is a novelist and the first section is by far the strongest. In it, Ghosh asks why literature seems incapable of writing about climate change. Why have most of our writers and artists been so resistant or unable to fit climate change, the collective, and the nonhuman into our literary canon? Ghosh offers an answer by tracing the parallel histories of the novel and carbon economies. The imaginative failure of the literary novel lies with its historic concern with individuals rather than collectives, which is an artifact of a certain kind of carbon-based economy. Ghosh has a lot of important things to say here and this first section is worth reading.

The history section is weaker, though it does ask an interesting question: did western colonialism delay the onset of climate change by preventing non-western nations from industrializing? The implications that he draws from that history, however, are both morally challenging and unrealistic. At other times, the sentiments are overwrought: "The event of today's changing climate, in that they represent the totality of human actions over time, represent also the terminus of history..."

The final section, about politics, combines the strengths and weaknesses of the preceding sections. There are many striking insights here, particularly about the nature and shortcomings of modernity, though most of them come from academic writers like Timothy Mitchell and Bruno Latour. What worries me is the frankly totalitarian implications of what people like Ghosh are proposing. They are essentially historicizing contemporary democratic ideas of freedom and the individual as mere products of carbon that are no longer tenable. Thanks to climate change, freedom as we once conceived of it is a dangerous apparition. There is some truth to this, but taken to 20th century style extremes, the possibilities of following through are not pleasant. Ghosh mostly seems aware of the moral quandaries that climate change poses and he redeems the section with an inspired comparison between the text of Pope Francis' Laudato Si and the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Ghosh's conclusion is likely to scandalize many readers, but he's right.
Profile Image for Subhayan.
13 reviews2 followers
February 13, 2018
A deep and though provoking book on the alleged derangement that plagues the human civilization - its unpreparedness for climate change. Ghosh writes on climate change from three angles, and the book is thus divided into three parts - story, history and politics.

In the first part, he writes about the absence of climate change as a subject in arts and literature, and argues that the modern concept of fiction, in its demand for the individual moral adventure, precludes the possibility of a narrative on climate change. This is the most abstruse part in the book, as it delves into serious literary theory and the philosophy of nature having an almost "sentient" gaze on humans - which I felt bordered on the supernatural.

In the second part on History, Ghosh is back in his forte of expertly blending historical facts to build a compelling story of the history of climate change. His most fascinating stories are those in and around the Indian Ocean - from the first oil fields in Burma to the oil refineries of the middle east. He substantiates the role of western imperialism as an agent in the setting up of the modern civilization as particularly carbon intensive.

Ghosh dives into the politics of climate change in the third part, which I felt is the most enthralling among all the sections in the book. He argues that the modern body politic has turned the political consciousness of masses into a "spectacle" (think Twitter activism) instead of dialogue and the democratic institutions have turned into intransigent "deep states" where the common people have hardly any say in the running of the system. He also demonstrates how the notion of modern nation states are built upon the premise of limitless human freedom (not unlike modern literature and arts, as he argues) and laissez-faire (the doctrine that government shouldn't involve in commerce), and are thus incapable of addressing the issue of climate change. He thinks that the involvement of organized religion in mobilizing communities to combat climate change holds more promise than the the 2015 Paris agreement. In talking about the concept of climate justice, he claims that while capitalism (the infinitude of economic growth etc) is the usual culprit, the agency of empire (the supposed power supremacy of certain nations over others) is often overlooked.

Overall, it's a necessary read for our times, a period which might as well be considered the age of the great derangement by a civilization of the future.
Profile Image for Sanjay Varma.
337 reviews28 followers
September 20, 2017
This is such a beautiful book, and a dazzling display of knowledge and wisdom by the author, who is clearly a great man. The experience of reading this book reminds me of reading Jared Diamond's early books, in which he drops brilliant insights every few pages.

But I have to say, this book is not for everyone. The title suggests that the author is more of a lateral thinker. Frankly, unless you have pre-formed ideas about literature, history, colonialism, industrialization, and climate, then you will be frustrated by the author's style. He does not tell you what to believe in this book, and that is unfortunately the default writing style in the 21st century. Many people can only understand straightforward books, and assume that a straight path leads to the truth. They don't realize that a straight path also leads to dogma. The beauty of a winding path is that it offers the reader freedom of choice. This is true both for literature and for our lives.

This book has three sections: Stories, History, and Politics. Stories contains a literary analysis of treatment of climate. As an English Lit major, I loved and appreciated the way he teased out truths in this section. The next section, History, examines climate change in light of colonialism.

The final section, Politics, is the most ambitious. Ghosh coldly analyzes the reasons for our political helplessness, deftly weaving in his points about literature and history. He concludes with a brilliant comparison of two texts: The 2015 Paris Agreement and Laudato Si', the Pope's encyclical about global warming. He reveals that the Paris Agreement is trapped within the economic and geopolitical thinking that got us into this mess, while Laudato Si' shows that the religious viewpoint is at least capable of "nonlinear" thinking, meaning it can accept that disasters happen, and can link ecology with social justice. Ghosh suggests that the future might bring a union between environmental and religious activists. I personally would welcome this future.
Profile Image for Randhir.
324 reviews4 followers
May 8, 2020
The Author brings his intellect and erudition into the issue of climate change. He is scathing of people in power and like many others feels that a climate disaster is upon mankind and it's unlikely to escape without great damage to itself and the Earth. He is particularly devastating on the Paris Climate Accord and bluntly tells that it's just a can kicked down the road; a clever obfuscation of issues in its desperate efforts to please everyone. On the other hand, he is laudatory of the Pope's Encyclical. He examines how literature, especially fiction, has failed in addressing this issue, which despite the extreme danger facing mankind has not been able to raise awareness. He feels vested interests are particularly responsible for confusing the danger so that the consumer culture is cannibalising human kind. The rich will have the least to lose while the poor will suffer the most. Contrarily, because poor nations consume less they may come out of this less damaged than what waits the rich West. Ghosh has some surprising interesting vignettes to offer, like colonialism actually delayed the onset of climate change and Mahatma Gandhi understood what direction consumerism will lead the world and tried to change India's social and economic trajectory. The Author is not hopeful of the future as selfish attitudes will remain pre-dominant and individual efforts are likely to come to naught because by now it's too late. Surprisingly, the growing involvement of religious groups, according to him, is the only way mankind may be able to arrest the climate juggernaut. Sometimes I found the Author's digression into literature and philosophical intellectualism confusing but that perhaps is my fault. A book worth reading.
Profile Image for Sookie.
1,124 reviews79 followers
November 8, 2016
Ghosh highlights on lack of fictional works addressing this (climate change) issue and evaluates the concept of derangement in literature: a form of escapism, romanticizing ignorance (Madam Bovary) and purposeful misinterpretation of a serious issue. He starts the book by narrating natural disasters that he has experienced personally and those that has happened in our lifetimes.

Ghosh doesn't believe Paris accords is going to make a big difference because self interest and general disregard for future is going to out win the necessary sacrifices that will have to be made. The ending argument Ghosh makes comes as a surprise and highly debatable since the repercussions if it were to go wrong, is too high.

He is right. Literature has ignored climate change. Its time to change that.
351 reviews169 followers
November 11, 2020

The book took me by surprise, though I have read enough of Amitav Ghosh to know how he constructs narrative. But what he does in The Great Derangement is unlike anything I've read before: taking disparate strands from his scholarship of literature, culture, politics, history, and power, and launching a powerful, scathing critique of the global response to the climate crisis. The learning here is immense, the book weighs more than the slightness it masquerades in. I was stunned at some of the connections Ghosh makes, so evident once you see them for what they are, but invisible otherwise. It is also impassioned, you read the feeling he's writing with.

Read it to understand how much you don't understand. I will do so again.
Profile Image for Jatan.
92 reviews34 followers
July 11, 2017
Book-length essay about the limitations of contemporary cultural discourse in addressing climate change; a compelling read.
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