The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

Ghosh, Amitav

~ orientalism:literature; here, climate change:fiction

hurricane sandy on coney island, memories of neighbours, spoken and unspoken

colonialism & (unprotected) port cities

people used to build cities only in protected ports. since the colonial era, the pre-eminent cities of the world have been sited in unprotected ports.

Only then did it strike me that the location of that base in the Nicobars was by no means anomalous; the builders had not in any sense departed from accepted global norms. To the contrary, they had merely followed the example of the European colonists who had founded cities like Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), New York, Singapore and Hong Kong, all of which are sited directly on the ocean. I understood also that what I had seen in the Nicobars was but a microcosmic expression of a pattern of settlement that is now dominant around the world: proximity to the water is a sign of affluence and education; a seafront location is a status symbol; an ocean view greatly increases the value of real estate. A colonial vision of the world, in which proximity to the water represents power and security, mastery and conquest, has now been incorporated into the very foundations of middle-class patterns of living across the globe.

oil scalability >> coal

The materiality of oil is very different from that of coal: its extraction does not require large numbers of workers, and since it can be piped over great distances, it does not need a vast workforce for its transportation and distribution. This is probably why its effects, politically speaking, have been the opposite of those of coal. That this might be the case was well-understood by Winston Churchill and other leaders of the British and American political elites, which was why they went to great lengths to promote the large-scale use of oil. This effort gained in urgency after the historic strikes of the 1910s and ’20s, in which miners, and workers who transported and distributed coal, played a major role; indeed, fear of working-class militancy was one of the reasons why a large part of US aid to Europe, after the Second World War, went towards effecting the switch from coal to oil. ‘The corporatised democracy of postwar Western Europe was to be built,’ as Mitchell notes, ‘on this reorganisation of energy flows.’

running out of gas

Here, then, is another reason why something more than mere chance appears to be at play in the turn that fiction took as emissions were rising in the late twentieth century. It is one of the many turns of that period that give, in retrospect, the uncanny impression that global warming has long been toying with humanity (thus, for example, the three post-war decades, when emissions grew sharply, saw a stabilization of global temperatures). Similarly, at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike.

Inasmuch as contemporary fiction is caught in this thraldom, this is one of the most powerful ways in which global warming resists it: it is as if the gas had run out on a generation accustomed to jet skis, leaving them with the task of reinventing sails and oars.