Originally PUBLISHED ON DEC 12, 2016
Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, associate professor of British history and the conceptual and historical studies of science, discusses Amitav Ghosh’s recent book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, in an extensive article in the Guardian. The following is an excerpt.
One of the most striking effects of climate change is its power to unsettle our basic understanding of the modern world. Our planet is changing into a strange and unstable new environment, in a process seemingly outside technological control. The fossil fuels that once promised mastery over nature have turned out to be tools of destruction, disturbing the basic biogeochemical processes that make our world habitable. Even the recent past is no longer what we thought it was. Scientists are telling us that the whole territory of modern history, from the end of World War II to the present, forms the threshold to a new geological epoch.
Our new planet is emerging quickly. The global climate is only one of nine earth system processes under threat. Land use is changing rapidly thanks to urbanization, agriculture, and population pressure. The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing. Acidification is affecting marine biodiversity as well as the capacity of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. The supply of fresh water is deteriorating. Aerosol loading and ozone depletion threaten the stability of the earth system's atmosphere. Industrial agriculture has perturbed the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Finally, chemical pollution may pose a risk not just at the local or regional level but worldwide. Indeed, the planet’s biosphere bears so many marks of anthropogenic influence that it no longer possible to uphold the age-old distinction between the realm of wilderness and the world of human habitation.
In 2000 the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer proposed a new name for the geological epoch we inhabit: the Anthropocene. For the first time, humans have become the prime drivers of the planetary climate. We have left behind the relatively stable pattern of natural variability that governed the environment in the Holocene epoch, beginning some 11,700 years ago. In the original formulation, Crutzen and Stoermer picked 1784 as the origin of the new epoch: the year of James Watt's patent for a steam engine with a separate condenser. Britain's early transition into the fossil fuel economy marked the end of the Holocene. More recently, the Working Group on the "Anthropocene," established to validate the epoch in formal stratigraphic terms, has shifted the chronology of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution to the "Great Acceleration"—the economic boom after World War II.
Climate scientists have warned that carbon emissions above 350 parts per million (ppm) represents unacceptable danger to the welfare of the planet and humanity. While the origin of fossil fuel burning goes back to the Industrial Revolution (which set us on an emissions path beyond the Holocene's natural variability of 260 to 285 ppm), the truly dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions, from 310 to 400 ppm, has occurred between 1950 and 2015. The concept of the Great Acceleration encourages us to conceive of postwar capitalism as a biogeochemical process [that] contributed to the upward trend of emissions and the increasing disequilibrium of the carbon cycle.
A dark picture of the present moment emerges in the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh's recent book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Why is it, he asks, that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence? By failing to engage with climate change artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation. The arc of [Ghosh's] argument carries him from the birth of the novel to the industrialization of Asia, from the environmental politics of the military security state to an examination of how organized religion might take the lead in promoting future mitigation efforts.
According to Ghosh the cause of the "great derangement" is a certain kind of rationality. The authors who invented the bourgeois novel relied on probability to win the trust of their readers. Plots and characters were embedded in accounts of material life that gave them the sheen of ordinary experience, reflecting the regularity of middle-class life. The literary effect of bourgeois probability was to banish the extraordinary or bizarre to marginal genres like the Gothic tale, romance novel, and science fiction. This externalization of the strange and unlikely explains the failure of modern novels and art to wrestle with anthropogenic climate change.
Bourgeois reason takes many forms. The uniformitarian geology of [Charles] Lyell had affinities with classical political economy. In Adam Smith's economic vision the natural world was fundamentally stable and benign. The self-regulating properties of the free market were supposed to reflect the homeostatic balance of the natural order. Here political economists were indebted to eighteenth-century natural history and the concept of an economy of nature. This conceit about a fundamental fit between the economy and the natural world has enjoyed a long afterlife in classical liberal thought. The small variability of temperature and carbon dioxide levels for more than 11,000 years has given rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the harmony of the natural world. In the Holocene, it made quite a bit of sense to idealize the environment as a stable envelope for the economy. Ironically, the new 1945 start date for the Anthropocene implies that such Promethean optimism reached its peak just as the Holocene world came to an end.
For Ghosh, the entry of Asia into the Great Acceleration drives home a bitter truth about the environmental foundation of the modern economy. As a latecomer on the stage, Asia has "unwittingly stumble[d] upon the secret that is the key to the plot." By driving up worldwide demand for energy and resources while at the same time increasing the amount of waste and pollution in the system, Asian growth is pushing the economy closer to the critical boundaries that must be maintained in order to keep the planet habitable. The lesson of this "revelatory experiment is that the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world's population." The promise of the Great Acceleration cannot be universalized: "Every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator—not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process."
If this is a correct assessment, then the basic aims of economic development and social justice will need to be redefined in order to accommodate the realities of growth on a finite planet. In theory, a transition to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture would provide much-needed ecological relief, yet the task of scaling up new technologies to meet growing demand is truly monumental. Despite the lip service given in the Paris Agreement to a maximum of 2.0°C, emissions are likely to exceed this goal by a significant amount. To make things worse, the calendar of emissions leaves little time for popular mobilization. Ghosh admits that the "horizon in which effective action can be taken is very narrow." On the political side, we also have to reckon with the power of entrenched interests. Ghosh rightly suggests that fossil fuel growth is at the heart of the dominant system of power. Will the richest nations voluntarily give up their positions of preeminence in the name of climate justice? Defenders of the modern state have for centuries embraced economic growth as the key to maintaining territorial and military power. An "equitable regime of emissions" aimed at "contraction and convergence" directly challenges this global distribution of power and wealth. Far more likely than voluntary degrowth and climate justice is a strategy of "open-ended counter-insurgency, militarized borders, [and] aggressive anti-immigration policing"—what Christian Parenti calls the "politics of the armed lifeboat."
Despite Ghosh’s dark sense of realism about our political options, he still manages to find hope in surprising places. "The very speed with which the crisis is now unfolding," he notes, might save many parts of the world from the destructive social and cultural consequences of the Great Acceleration. Ghosh proposes that religious traditions might offer the most effective social basis for popular resistance. Ghosh observes that religious movements could "mobilize people in far greater numbers" than secular organizations. Religious belief reaches beyond the boundaries of nation states and embraces "intergenerational, long-term responsibilities" that "do not partake of economistic ways of thinking." Indeed, the "idea of the sacred" involves an "acceptance of limits and limitations" that strongly resembles the ethos of stewardship and simple living central to radical forms of climate justice.
Some of us might worry that religious tradition is just as likely to subvert earth system science as it is to support it. But I take Ghosh's broader point to be salutary. The magnitude of environmental change we now face will demand a fundamental reorientation of modern politics, economics, and culture. This is the only way to make a home on our new planet.