I have always believed that success in business as well as in life relies in part on being a “life-long learner”. As I have become older, this conviction has become stronger and have worked to make space in my professional and personal life for reading. Whether a journey taken through a well-crafted novel, insights gained through a book on business and leadership, or new understandings derived from any number of non-fiction topics, reading never fails to refresh me, to awaken me to new perspectives and ideas, and ultimately to enrich my life. In this spirit, New Energy Equity is launching with this post a monthly featured book review in hopes of fostering discussion, debate, and through it, a greater community. https://www.amazon.com/Great-Derangement-Climate-Unthinkable-Lectures/dp/022652681X

For the past 10 years or so, more than half of the reading I have done outside of work has concerned global warming – the science, the social and economic implications, the history, the politics, the psychology, and the messaging. surrounding it. To my mind, it is the seminal challenge of our lifetimes, and possibly in the entire history of our species. As such, I think that every business must be engaged with climate change and incorporating it into their strategies and planning. Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest shareholder, BlackRock, has single-handedly brought this issue into the Boardroom with his March, 2020 letter to BlackRock shareholders, which gathered momentum this year with his follow-up letter to CEOs of the companies in which BlackRock invests. Engagement by the broader business community has generally lagged even the narcoleptic engagement by government, but actions such as Fink’s bring needed momentum and attention to the severity of the climate crisis when it is needed most.  

Individual engagement on global warming likewise seems to have turned a corner finally, with the massive 2019-2020 wildfires around the world, the 2020 hurricane season, and most recently the nearly unprecedented polar vortex; jarring us loose from our comfortable optimism and waking us up to the realization that we really are facing something different here. But this information is not new. We have understood the broad outlines of the climate emergency for 40 years now. The science has been refined, but it has not fundamentally changed. So then, why has it been so hard to penetrate our minds and disrupt our thinking? In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Univ. of Chicago, 2016), Amitav Ghosh seeks to unravel this mystery and help us to understand the thought-challenge that global warming represents. 

This is my first time reading work by Ghosh, although he is quite prolific. While best known as a fiction writer and literary theorist, Ghosh’s non-fiction writing has also proved influential. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh poses the question of why climate change, as such a fundamental challenge and threat, has made so few inroads as a subject of fiction. His exploration of the question winds deftly through literary criticism, history and politics, providing us a rich backdrop against which to consider this question and how to overcome its implications. Spoiler alert – Ghosh’s conclusion, at the risk of vastly oversimplifying the book, is that as a fundamental challenge to humanity, climate change requires a fundamental shift in how we think, communicateand ultimately act if we are to successfully address it. 

First, to the premise. While the treatment of climate change in literature has accelerated recently, it is much like the penetration of wind and solar into the energy mix – high rates of growth from a base close to zero so that total penetration remains low compared with where we need it to be. Despite acknowledging a few notable exceptions such as Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior and Ian McEwan's Solar, (to which I would add a few subsequent titles , such as The Overstory by Richard Powers) that were broadly reviewed, Ghosh laments that in the highest realms of the literary world, in journals and reviews such as the New York Review of Books, the Literary Journal, the London Review of Books, etc., discussion of global warming occurs almost exclusively in respect of nonfiction. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is to be taken seriously by serious literary journals; the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or short story to the genre of science fiction.” As he points out, these forums seem to equate global warming with aliens and UFOs. This is a problem. How can we solve a crisis (actually a complex web of crises) that we can’t even seem to discuss seriously in our culture? The irony would be delicious if not so tragic – “There is something confounding about this particular feedback loop,” writes Ghosh. “It is very difficult, surely, to imagine a conception of seriousness that is blind to potentially life-changing threats.” It is almost as though the cultural elite are in a suicide-pact version of The Emperor's New Clothes, by which continued membership requires studiously ignoring the growing and increasingly dire threat of global warming. What is it about us that allows this to happen and to continue? What is wrong with us? 

Some writers have pointed to biology to explain our failure to rally a credible response to climate change, insisting, for example, that the evolution of our brains has made us far better at reacting to near-term threats than long-term ones. Fair enough, but this argument has always been dissatisfying to me. Hasn’t this always been true? It is in fact the essence of the foundation of collective action and the non-military functions of government, generally. It was much easier to continue walking along a rocky path in ancient Rome than to spend hundreds of years and unfathomable treasure building a network of passable roads. But it was easy to conceive of the utility, and with enough political will, the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, was able to rise to the challenge, the same being true of the aqueducts and other forms of sewage and water treatment, any number of public health initiatives, broad-based education and more, ad infinitum. The only obvious difference is that while these others are examples of things that would improve quality of life, increase the efficiency of the exercise of political power and control, or boost the economic fortunes of key constituencies, acting in the name of catastrophic climate change is foremost a matter of simply preserving those things that we have already achieved, rather than risk an inexorable slide towards poverty, instability, and decline. Surely even our reptilian brains can see these threats that grow and intensify year by year! No, this is not primarily a biology problem. Ghosh illuminates that this is a culture problem, and so we must look at culture to understand it. 

What follows in the book is a three-part analysis of literature, history, and politics in the English-speaking world. This is an important point for Gosh, not simply because he writes predominantly in English – having been born in Kolkata, India and raised in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, following which he was educated in England and is now resident in the United States, he is fluent in several languages including non-Western languages – but rather because the English-speaking world has been the dominant economic, political and military force since the Industrial Revolution and thus, its rise and power are inextricably linked to the history of and problem of anthropogenic climate change. Going back to these reptilian brains in fact, it is notable that many non-English speaking cultures have embraced the science of climate change readily and are fully prepared to make the changes necessary to address it, but simply lack the power and influence to do so; the primary difference being that they have not benefited so fully from the petroleum economy. 

In each of these tracks, Ghosh lays out his argument for why the proper consideration and any consequential action in light of global warming are impossible given the current premises under which we collectively operate. Climate fiction struggles to find acceptance because it directly contradicts the fundamental ideas behind the modern, English-speaking novel – namely, the primacy of individual narrative arcs in place of discussions of anything having to do with nature. Ghosh describes in this regard a book series by Abdel Rahman Munif, the first of which is Cities of Salt. The book and the series concern the societal, economic and natural effects of the rise of petroleum in the Middle East; what Ghosh refers to as the “Oil Encounter.” Ghosh compares his review of the book, in which he expressed fascination that this book was almost unique as an effective work of fiction that was able to give literary voice to this transformational part of our history, with that of literary titan John Updike’s review of the same book, which, while admiring the sweep of the book, nonetheless concluded that it did not pass as literature. Updike wrote, “…Mr. Munif…appears to be … insufficiently Westernized to produce a text that feels much like what we call a novel…his characters are rarely fixed in our minds…there is almost none of that sense of individual moral adventure…which has distinguished the novel from the fable and the chronicle. Cities of Salt is concerned, instead, with men in the aggregate.” Which is to say, we like stories about individual people, not about sweeping crises of nature in the face of which any individual voice is necessarily lost, and the fate of “men in the aggregate” is in fact the very point. It is not so much that we do not want to think about the climate emergency, it’s more that we are conditioned to think that the only stories that matter, in a real sense, are stories of individuals and their unique individual experience, whether funny, dramatic or tragic. 

The next two sections of the book follow similar threads of a history and a politics that rely on this path we have traveled since the early 19th century to survive themselves. It is a history and politics that are inherently intertwined with the history of colonization for example and its legacy. Some of the most fascinating parts for an American reader, in fact, are the pieces of history that rarely, if ever, intrude on our consciousness. I, for example, grew up an oil brat and worked myself in and around the oil industry for nearly twenty years, but I had no idea that there was a bustling petroleum industry in Burma at least 100 years before Colonel Edwin Drake’s well in Titusville, PA that Americans are taught was the dawn of the petroleum age. Another fascinating discussion concerns the early steamship industry in India in the first years of the 19th century.  

The politics are more familiar to us, but still are punctuated by important vignettes that have been conveniently forgotten by Western writers and which remind us that over half of human history exists in Asia and that we risk handicapping ourselves when we consider as possible outcomes only those that we are conditioned to imagine in the English-speaking West. Another useful discussion is how the shift from coal – widely distributed among most countries and historically very labor intensive so that those who worked the mines wielded real political power – to oil that is concentrated in far fewer places and needs a fraction of the labor to extract, represented a huge economic and political concentration of power into the hands of the English-speaking economic and political elite. 

It is a truism of optimistic climate writing that we got ourselves into the problem of climate change and so we can necessarily get ourselves out of it. But Ghosh makes a compelling case that while that is undeniably true, we cannot expect to do so using the same tools, the same ideas, and the same methods. We will have to find new ways to live and to make ourselves happy. And we will need to start by telling new stories.


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References:

  1. "The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable", Amitav Ghosh, University of Chicago Press, 2016