Amitav Ghosh’s latest book—The Great Derangement—is an exploration of why contemporary culture, imagination and political systems have failed to prevent global warming, despite its cataclysmic long-term effects and disruptive short-term outcomes.
His choice of the book’s title reflects the conundrum facing poor nations. They are not the ones who benefited from the carbon economy. But to aspire to do this now, when there is no carbon space left, is a one-way ticket to self-annihilation. Hence, the derangement of the modern world, racing towards a future, where consuming itself becomes the only option. Curbing global warming means debunking the fundamental values on which the modern world is built. Central to this artifact is the notion that man is the centre of the universe. Non-human forces, like nature, have no place in this calculus of liberty and modernity.To recognise global warming as a problem, you first have to reject the paradigm that the unconstrained liberty of man is a leitmotif of human progress. Hence the unwillingness and the inability to face or deal with the problem.
This is a cleverly crafted book, as would be expected from a novelist extraordinaire. Divided into three parts, it starts with “Stories”. This segment situates humans as powerless, organic sub-systems of a larger force—restless and dynamic nature. Stories of his family—climate refugees from Bangladesh; of self-doubt after a sudden, destructive tornado in Delhi; of raw beauty and sudden death in the muddy, torpid, densely tangled greenery of the Sundarbans reinforce that we are not masters of the universe.
Inequality and the urge to splurge
The second section on History, draws together three defining strands of the late 17th to the early 20th centuries. First, the availability and use of fossil fuels which were an important precondition for wealth and power. Second—the use of technology to improve productive capacity. Third—the growth of modern empires as the political mechanism for extracting the supply of raw materials; controlling access to technology and keeping overseas markets open for exported manufactured goods. Empires faded in the late 20th century but the extractive process continued. The elite—foreign and domestic—comprise not more than one fourth of the world population, but continue to become wealthy at the expense of the bottom three fourths.
The third section is on Politics. Ghosh argues cynically that so little has been done to mitigate climate change because the rich world will be able to insulate itself from the horrific outcomes. The shock will primarily be borne by the poor. Littoral countries like Bangladesh, Seychelles and Vietnam and poor communities, within countries, will be the worst affected.
A captive media
Ghosh believes the deafening silence in the media around climate change is because it has been bought out by the huge corporates who own fossil fuel assets. The silence in literature is because his peers—writers, poets and intellectuals—are bludgeoned into conformity by the formulaic path to success of shunning the unpredictable and situating a story within the predictable activities of everyday life, with the individual as the central character.
Can religion help where politics has failed?
Not much can be expected from politicians either. They are so immersed in “bio-politics”—catering to the short-term interests of a defined population of voters—that they have little appetite for long-term global risks. For what it is worth, differences in economic ideology across parties have become minimal in India. All the political parties which have ruled India since 1991 have adhered to the broad neo-liberal construct of economic development. So, quite possibly, the devil lies in the incentives created by this economic model to produce and consume in larger volumes. He cites the December 2016 Paris Agreement as subterfuge and doublespeak, promising to do much without, in effect, doing anything.
He compares this shallow and evasive, politically negotiated international agreement with the direct and forceful Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis issued at the same time. The latter fingers the ruling “technocratic paradigm” and the objectification of endless growth as the problem rather than the solution. It calls for tempering individualism with the balm of social and ecological justice. Ghosh notes that similar voices are being heard within the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths. This leads him to believe that greater community activism led by religious leaders could be the answer to mobilize opinion for definitive steps to abate global warming.
Ghosh’s stand is unusual for a secular rationalist. But this is consistent with an approach which absolves religion of its divisive outcomes. He speculates (page 150) that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a former member of a Hindu party because he was perceived as weakening India by opposing industrialisation and consumerism. No references are quoted to support this “economic” explanation. The more usual view is to attribute the killing to Hindu apprehensions that the Mahatma was too politically accommodating of minority interest.Ghosh also seems to step lightly away from the conundrum that using religion for secular purposes is akin to riding a tiger, particularly in India’s surcharged environment, perpetuated by religious faultlines. Indira Gandhi paid the price for doing just that.
The world is increasingly more not less sustainable
Ghosh’s rhetoric is elegant and elegiac. His reasoning is impeccably logical. But his morbid assessment of where we are today and of our future prospects does not triangulate with reality. The world is becoming less carbon-intensive. Every incremental unit of output requires less energy than the previous one. It is true that explosive economic growth in Asia since 1980 has negated this advantage and the global mean temperature continues to increase. But renewable energy options are being developed for air, road and marine transportation, thereby further diluting the link between the use of fossil energy and economic growth. Similarly, technology developments like LED lighting have vastly improved the efficiency of energy services. Climate risk is increasingly being factored into the cost of insurance and the hurdle rate of return for investors. This will drive smart green investments.
We are winning the war on poverty
International aid agencies, governments—of which China is the exemplar, and communities, all working in tandem, have successfully reduced poverty and are on track to eliminate it by 2030. Yes, inequality is on the rise but at a significantly elevated base income level. The opening up of international trade has diluted the link between political domination and market access. Even small nations like Vietnam or Mauritius have benefited from international markets. International trade has democratised resource endowment by making petroleum, minerals and metals available to resource-poor countries. Three out of the four largest economies today—China, Japan and India—are natural resource-poor. They have grown over the last half century by importing fossil fuel and technology. None of the three tops the charts in military might.
Choice and progress
The spread and deepening of democracy has expanded opportunities for the disadvantaged and smashed earlier glass ceilings, including for women. Adoption of the open economy model has expanded imported competition while deregulation has nurtured domestic competition, for the benefit of consumers. There is more choice today than at any point in history.The world is a more peaceful place than a century ago. That this holds true despite growing sectarian violence in India’s near abroad and an increase in the number of nations armed with nuclear weapons, illustrates the high stakes everyone has in an enduring peace.
Today, plural models for progress exist. These models are not country or culture specific. They are instead domain specific. Of the top 20 corporates in the world which accumulated the maximum value over the period 2009-2015, not a single company was in oil or gas; as many as eight were in technology or health care. All of them excelled at the capacity to innovate, communicate and compete. It’s a new world out there which defies explanation using traditional paradigms.
None of this means that we are on top of the problem of global warming, yet. But just as surely, there is more light visible, at the end of the tunnel, than has ever been seen before.
Adapted from the authors essay in Swarajya October 7, 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/its-not-that-scary