The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

Ghosh, Amitav

An author, from the East, lambastes the genre he works in—for its myopia and long association with imperialism. One hopes one can be forgiven for the reflexive comparison to Orientalism; it is meant in flattery. What Said accomplished with literary treatments of the Orient, Ghosh re-animates here in examining the exclusion of climate change from the modern novel.

There is much to be said about the intrinsic relation between imperialism and climate change: how the hubris of modern episteme bleeds through to contemporary fiction, demanding that novels reflect that orderly, clockwork universe of the Holocene. This places all the weirdness that climate change wrecks—the freak hurricanes, the fires and the floods—beyond the ken of the novel; indeed, it exiles the uncanny even from that which is unreal.

Ghosh nods to the acknowledged link between unfettered capitalism and the climate crisis—and then goes even further to single out the relation to imperialism as a separate aspect from the whole shebang. I'm not so convinced that these two faces of the same coin are so readily cleft, as if capitalism had ever translated so cleanly from ideology to practice without the distortions and contradictions of human motivations. True, we would do well not to overlook that China had long known of coal, that the Burmese had long exploited their oil reserves, that India could well have had its steam ship revolution were it not for the British colonial masters. But the false dichotomy between capital and empire here smells oddly like absolution for just the one face of that two-sided coin.