Crisis of imagination

Print edition : September 16, 2016

Amitav Ghosh. Photo: V. Sudershan

On the lack of collective consciousness about climate change in literature.

WAR is the canvas for two of Ernest Hemingway’s novels. Fredric Henry romances Catherine Barkley during the First World War in A Farewell to Arms. Robert Jordan helps the cause of the republican guerillas during the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Whether it is fighting between countries or among communities within a country, the idea of war has attracted writers of fiction. Some, like Hemingway, have lived through them, entering it from outside. Others have been victims who have seen their families disintegrate, cultures disappear and economies collapse owing to the violence and death of war. A story thus set within this canvas becomes starker and stronger.

Just as war is a reality, so is climate change. Its impacts are being felt more frequently every year. Last year—2015—was said to be the hottest year since the time records were kept. There are more intense and frequent cyclones, storm surges and floods as well as droughts and famines. Our television screens are becoming a mosaic of reports of extreme weather events.

Parts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh that had suffered a severe drought a few months ago are now receiving excess rainfall. Islands have appeared and disappeared in the Sundarbans in the Bengal region over the years. Chennai was devastated by torrential rains and flooding in December 2015, while a decade ago in July 2005 Mumbai received nearly 100 centimetres of rainfall in a single day.

However, climate change has still not blended into the writers’ imagination, writes Amitav Ghosh in his non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Although realities of climate change are visiting every country time and again, their representation is always relegated to the genre of science fiction.

“There is something confounding about this peculiar feedback loop,” states Ghosh. “It is difficult, surely, to imagine a conception of seriousness that is blind to potentially life-changing threats. And if the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over—and this, I think is very far from being the case.”

Climate change has not caught the collective imagination of writers and artists. This is a dangerous situation as it will deny the need for collective action to deal with climate change. Ghosh makes a profound statement: “The scale of climate change is such that individual choices will make little difference unless certain collective decisions are taken and acted upon.”

For this writers and artists need to incorporate climate change into their works. The subject should move in from the peripheries of fiction writing to the avant-garde. “For let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination.”

The Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities but also to our common sense understandings and contemporary culture in general, notes Ghosh. This is partly due to the technical language that surrounds discussions on climate change and also due to the practices and assumptions that guide the arts and humanities.

The culture that writers portray are those guided by imperialism and capitalism, where images that dominate are of a car racing through the forests, a paradise island or lawns watered by desalinated water in Abu Dhabi. “From this perspective, the questions that confront writers and artists today are not just those of the politics of carbon economy; many of them have to do also with our own practices and the ways in which they make us complicit in the concealments of the broader culture.”

Strong words this, especially from a writer known predominantly for his fiction writing. Further, he looks back from future. “In a substantially altered world, when the sea level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first, and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered worlds of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they—what can they—do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight?”

And here comes the clincher. “Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

In August 2010, two events were happening simultaneously that had caught the attention of the world. The Indus Valley in Pakistan had flooded resulting in death and destruction in the crowded parts of the country, and there were large-scale wildfires in Russia, destroying habitations and crops and sending international wheat prices spiralling. The media reported the events separately. Journalists were making tentative linkages of these events to climate change. It was just a few months after the failure of the Copenhagen meeting to come to a climate change agreement. However, when journalists reached scientists for quotes on linkages, they got “maybe”, “could be”, “could likely be” statements.

Science took a long time to make connections on climate change. It still has not articulated itself clearly. However, the latest Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , whose reports collate all that science has uttered in recent years, makes more clear-cut connections between human actions, climate change, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events.

The language of science has limitations. It takes a long time to state its conclusions. Sometimes it never states its conclusions, for research on some subjects is unending. The language of journalism is freer than that of science. Journalists source their stories from the people on the ground. For a farmer who has lost his crops due to drought there is no ambiguity. Neither is there ambiguity for the resident of Chennai into whose house not only did the floodwater enter but also left a mark on the wall. However, journalists need to countercheck with scientists whether floods and droughts were due to climate change or some other freak phenomenon. This puts certain limitations on journalese.

Fiction should be beyond these limitations. Anything that the writer has experienced or what his characters have experienced is truth that can be articulated by the fiction writer. And it is impossible to have lived in Chennai in December 2015 or in Mumbai in July 2005 and have not experienced the floods. For a writer from Latur in Maharashtra, it would have been impossible to have not experienced the drought of this summer. Then why has fiction buried its head in the sand when it comes to climate change?

This is what Ghosh seeks to explain in The Great Derangement. Climate change events are resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to nature: they are too powerful, grotesque and dangerous. It cannot be contained by the kind of literature that the Romantic poets created. Neither is it an imagined world other than ours, thus defying science fiction treatment.

Climate change can be addressed only if there is a collective consciousness about it. Interestingly, Ghosh observes that acceleration in carbon emissions and a turn away from the collective happened simultaneously. They are both, in one sense, effects of that aspect of modernity that sees time as an irreversible arrow, as capitalisation, as progress. This kind of a creation creates winners and losers, and writers do not want to fall into the second category.

“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.”

Interestingly, Ghosh compares two famous texts on climate change that came out in 2015. The first is the Encyclical Letter by Pope Francis issued in May and the second is the text of the Paris Agreement on climate change developed in December. While the first is a direct, from the heart, message from the pontiff titled “On care for our common home”, the second is lost in official and technical language.

Ghosh has to be commended for bringing the lack of collective consciousness about climate change in literature into the public sphere. He turns the scanner on to himself and his peers. The voice is from inside rather than from outside the community, and therefore, should be more acceptable to other writers of fiction.

Writers carry in their hands powerful torches. If they shine it on climate change then there will be a greater collective effort to mitigate and adapt. If they opt not to shine the torch, then they will have to bear witness to climate change destroying our habitable world.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.

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