Amitav Ghosh: We are living our lives as though we are mad
The author on climate change, Paris Agreement and more
Writer Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is an extended essay of sorts on climate change, the catastrophe unfolding around us and the conspiracy of silence around the dangers of it. He was in Delhi last week as a writer-in-residence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, from where he tweeted photographs, largely of its grounds, including the drought-resistant millet being grown there. “I feel bad I have very little good news to convey,” he laughed after a conversation about his book. Apocalyptic the world may seem to be, yet in the near future, we will have another Amitav Ghosh to read, a non-fiction book—on India-China connections in the 19th century—based on research for his recently concluded Ibis trilogy. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Evidently you follow the climate change phenomenon quite intensely.
Yes, I do follow the actual climate change impact very closely, the scientific findings, what we see unfolding around us, inasmuch as the layman can follow climate science. And actually, even though climate science is a very advanced and complex science, it’s not conceptually as difficult as, say, string theory is. Climate science is based largely on empirical findings so anybody, even a layman, can understand that an ice-free Arctic is going to be a very, very serious development. We just don’t really realize the extent of the changes around us.
The changes don’t happen uniformly around the planet; they are concentrated on certain places. And one of the places is in what is called the Third Pole, which is the Himalayas. And if you think of what this means for us, and really all of Asia, I think people just haven’t taken on board the catastrophe that is looming. Glaciers are what make human lives possible. Rainfall comes and goes, but glaciers give you a steady source of water through the years, which is why you have the Ganges, the Yamuna, Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Mekong, Irrawaddy—all of them start in this one small area. Now the glaciers are melting so rapidly, who knows what we’ll be left with in a few decades? And once that happens, just think, these are the most densely populated areas in the world.
There’s a sense of futility, hopelessness in your book.
You see, the 20th century was this great carbon-fuelled party. And we arrived at that party very late. So, in a sense, we are still in party mode. Most of us, the Indians, Chinese, we Asians, we arrived at this party late, so we want it to go on. So I suppose we just aren’t looking at the reality, which is that this party is now on its last legs. That there are natural limits in this world which won’t allow it to continue.
For the last two days, just getting up in the morning and looking at the news has been so shocking. You know that this great derangement is ultimately going to lead to a great unraveling, but to see it working itself out, day after day, in the news, it’s so terrifying. I mean, it’s here, it’s happening. You may not see it a direct connection between the events happening in the world today and the climate in general, but that relationship does exist. In Syria, everything started with a great drought. The Middle East, this entire Mediterranean region, is going through a historic drought. And if you think about how this tumult in the Arab world began, it was with protests over food in Tunisia. So what we’re facing really, if you like, is a catastrophic convergence of natural impacts and human impacts.
You believe writers have a moral responsibility to write about climate change?
I certainly would never place myself in a position where I’m telling other writers what to write about. What I’m reflecting on is writers today do respond to the circumstances around them, to political circumstances. I mean, how many books do you see which talk about, say, terror, or 9/11, or things like that. So the question for me becomes really, why is it writers who are very aware of what’s happening in the world around them are unable to write about this one phenomenon which is actually a meta-phenomenon, within which every other phenomenon is encased?
Take the case of Indian fiction. I mean so much is now written about so many political subjects. Writers are really proud of being political; they are constantly getting involved in politics in one way or the other. And yet, this thing, which is perhaps much more important than any day-to-day politics, they are completely, as it were, indifferent to.
As you write, they are, in a sense, complicit in the silence around climate change.
You could say that in fact, what we have come to think about as politics is, in a sense, actually a great distraction from all that is really important in the world. That’s really become my feeling about what we call politics today, which is that it is really just a form of entertainment that is completely complicit with industry and a certain kind of economic structure. Just think about it, we’ve always historically been a water-stressed area. Water is what life depends on. So historically, in India and China, any state structure, its first duty was to provide water, to plan for water. If you go to any water-stressed part of India, say the Deccan or Tamil Nadu, all of history we see that there is this enormous effort dedicated to maintaining tanks, to keeping irrigation systems going, to maintaining this entire hydrological structure, which is actually an artificial structure.
It’s a historic drought that’s happened this year. Thousands of farmers have died, hundreds of thousands of people have abandoned their land and moved to cities. And when the Lok Sabha held a session on the drought, only a fraction of the MPs turned up. We have even lost that ancestral wisdom that tells us this is the first and most important duty of the state.
Would another kind of political system be better oriented towards making the kind of tough, and speedy, decisions needed to tackle this catastrophe-in-the-making. You write of the one-child policy in China, which, although harsh, was of great significance when seen from the perspective of climate change.
...I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of the political system. It’s more a question of how that political system is oriented. I won’t say this just about India, it’s also true of America. The American response in relation to climate change is completely dysfunctional, anyone can see that. So, for example, one of the parts of the world that is disappearing most rapidly is Florida, most of all Miami beach. So they already have regular flooding, many buildings on the seafront actually see the floods advancing, yet every year, more and more buildings go up right on the sea, and they command extraordinary prices. The same is true of Mumbai, or Chennai. When I see this happening, the first question that comes to my mind is who is doing this, who is pushing this? Presumably they must know what’s happening. You see at once that these are very powerful industrial lobbies, that is construction lobbies, cement, and they are the ones who are actually creating this forward movement. So if you are talking about climate adaptability, the question really that arises is are the people who are buying these properties aware of the risks? Certainly insurance companies are aware of the risks; many have stopped insuring beachfront properties. The moment you ask that, you realize no, they are not. And why are they not? Because companies would not allow them to be informed. If we tried to put in place a system to inform those people, those property prices would fall drastically. So we have this kind of disastrous nexus, which far from preparing us for what is coming down the way, is making us more and more exposed to the dangers and the risks. That is what I mean by this great derangement. We are living our lives as though we are mad.
You also believe the Paris Agreement was an eyewash.
I don’t want to be completely dismissive of the Paris Agreement because, in some ways, it is an achievement. After the Paris Agreement, no one can seriously question climate science. It represents a global agreement that the findings of climate science are true, the present cycle of global warming is caused by human activity, by greenhouse gas emissions, all of this is now agreed. That is a significant thing. We should not in any way trivialize the importance of that. Equally it is an achievement to get 179 nations to come together and agree on something of this magnitude.
So one should not really (only) consider it in terms of what it has achieved, but rather consider it even in terms even of the ambitions the world had earlier. If you compare it, with say, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, this is a significant departure. Even if you consider the language of it in relation to earlier documents produced by the UN, this one is a very watered-down document. Just think about it, in the first place it never actually even addresses the magnitude of the issue we are facing. The words ‘catastrophe’, ‘disaster’ never occurs in it. Secondly, the words that do occur in it, over and over again, is ‘technological solution’. And we know what that means—basically they are opening the door for industry. They are trying to, as it were, neo-liberalise climate change. That is what it is. It’s like when you are on a speeding train that is heading towards a cliff, you just change the fuel. That actually makes it go faster.
So how should we address the issue?
That’s for experts to address and I’m not an expert. But certain things are clear to me. We can’t in any way address this issue until we address the causes of it. Which is the economic model we’re now pursuing, a model that is solely oriented towards perpetual growth. That is the first issue that we have to confront. That we can’t carry on living as though everybody can expand their carbon footprint or their energy footprint. If you don’t acknowledge that how can you even begin to have a serious conversation about this? And that is exactly what this document is about. It is about perpetual growth. It’s just trying to find the different means of perpetual growth.
For example, all this talk of alternative energy. The other day I saw in one of the newspapers, a big sign proclaiming 143 airports solarised. And this was presented as good news. Now just think about it, what is the good news here, that the airports are solarised? What you are actually pointing to is a huge growth in the number of flights across the country. And think even about this use of the word ‘solarised’ as a kind of a mantra. But what does it actually imply? Does it not take energy to produce solar panels. Actually it is a very energy-intensive process.
Secondly think about wind energy. And of course wind energy is a good thing. But to actually build powerful wind turbines, you need to first install them on a secure platform. Those platforms are gigantic towers of steel and concrete. What is actually happening here is (with) all the talk of alternative energy, we’ve started approaching this thing as though it is a question of little fixes, little technological fixes. Yet we never ask of ourselves the question of what are the ways in which we can live differently. And that is the whole point of it. In that sense, something like COP 21 (Conference of Parties 21) is really to my mind a concealment of the real issues.
You write that religious groups are our best bet for mass mobilisation. This conviction arose post Pope Francis’ document on climate change?
Absolutely. I really think the Pope’s encyclical is the most important document ever written on climate change. It’s a completely marvelous work. It deals with extremely complex issues with an unbelievable lucidity of language. It is everything that COP 21 is not. It is talking precisely about this, about finding new ways to live your life. New ways to find meaning in people’s lives. That is exactly the conversation we need to have. But that conversation will never occur under this COP 21 sort of aegis. I really think the Pope’s encyclical is an astonishing work.
So yes, in that sense, the Pope reaches 1.2 billion people. Whereas the international climate bureaucracy which produces COP 21 is like a few thousand who basically want to establish ownership of this issue. So no two initiatives could be more different. On the one hand the Pope’s is trying to open this subject, trying to bring people in, trying to address the real issues. Whereas, in my view, what this climate bureaucracy is doing and experts are doing is really trying to move it away. They are creating this gigantic structure of concealment.
What about individual action?
Look, obviously people feel compelled to do something individually, but I think it’s very important not to capitulate to the view that individuals can solve this problem. It can’t be. It’s a collective problem, it’s a question of collective action, we’re talking about a global commons. These can only be addressed through collective institutions. This whole neo-liberal sort of push for the last 30-40 years has been towards trying to reduce everything towards individual actions and initiatives. In fact, it prevents the whole imagining of problems in terms that are amenable to collective action. In that sense, I would say that every time we meet this question of individual initiatives, we should just turn away from it, we should refuse to succumb to that logic. How are you or I , for example, going to solve the question of how much water is withdrawn from the Upper Ganga acquifer. We can’t.
Your book is terrifying to read. Following climate change as closely as you obviously do, how can you not be paranoid?
If you follow the stuff, it is absolutely terrifying. And you know many of the scientists who deal with this stuff are deeply… I mean there is this whole phenomenon known as climate despair. They are depressed just seeing what is happening in the world around. Most of all, I suppose the indifference of people, their unwillingness to… Somehow, this denial phenomenon, there have been many studies of it, it’s strongest amongst those who are actually affected. Say, after Hurricane Sandy, they did a study and they found that the people who actually lost their homes, they didn’t want to talk about climate change. They wouldn’t recognize the link, they didn’t want to acknowledge it. I think it is particularly American, that phenomenon, because in America this phenomenon has become very politicized, it has become an identity issue. What identity has to do with it, I can’t figure out. So that’s why people don’t want to think about it or address it. But you would imagine that if you have actually suffered this catastrophe that you would actually think about it, but no, quite the contrary. And the New Jersey government is now literally subsidizing them to rebuild their houses in exactly the same places.
In one sense, one of the major industries which is very resistant to the whole climate issue is actually the real estate industry. So in that way there is nothing accidental that a real estate mogul like Donald Trump rises to the fore in this.
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