The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

Frances Oliver

Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement is a short book, pithy in the best sense of that word, which began as a series of four lectures.  It was published in 2016; a review of a later book on a similar topic, The Nutmeg’s Curse, made me eager to read the first.

The Great Derangement, at least as it begins, might be classified as a work of literary criticism.  Ghosh’s theme is the failure of literary fiction, since the novel became its dominant form, to engage with the critical issue of our age, climate change and the exhaustion of the earth.  Just when human activity was beginning to dangerously change the atmosphere of the planet, literary activity became focused on the human, the individual.  The 19th century, with its assumption that nature was orderly and predictable, and with the readership of a growing secure middle class, took fiction away from adventure and extreme events into the realm of personal relationships.  “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.”

Ghosh believes therefore that the books of our era which posterity may actually remember and admire, barring a few exceptions, are those not categorised as ‘serious’ fiction but the only ones dealing with the extraordinary, unimagined and cataclysmic, the works of science fiction and the paranormal.

This little book however goes far beyond questions of literature.  Ghosh makes so many sharp observations about the crisis we are in that it is hard to choose which to cite; so I will confine myself to what I regard as most insightful and have seldom found in other climate catastrophe commentary.

Given its huge population and rapid industrialisation, Ghosh states that no climate solution is possible without the agreement of Asia.  He also attacks the myth of development, the empty promise the rich West makes to the poor East and South.  Aspiration to Western living standards for all or even many more is a pipe dream.  Asia, says Ghosh, could have taken another path, the path of Gandhi.  Gandhi understood that “a consumer mode of existence if adopted by large numbers would consume the planet.”  His movement advocated 

Frances Oliver


simplicity, community, a turning away from worldly goods.  Unfortunately Asia has veered, inspired also by the newly industrialised nations’ fear of ‘backwardness’, toward the self-destructive paradigm of consumerism and endless growth.  Oil has made our growth possible and also added to growing inequality.  Ghosh believes that the oil dependency of the industrialised world has stripped power from the working public; oil, the major driver, does not need many workers for its production.

Unique in my climate reading experience is Ghosh’s observation that seeing climate change in terms of an individual moral issue (don’t fly, etc.) brings it back again to the singular, the individual, the place where our culture and politics is stuck.   This is not to say that individual actions are not worthy but in the big scheme of things they are a last fallback when all else appears to be failing.  It is only a total aggregate shift away from the present political and economic system that could really cope with the crisis of the world.

Ghosh compares the weak, woolly and obfuscating climate declaration produced by the Paris conference to the Pope’s bold and realistic Encyclical on climate change.  Nowhere does the Paris Agreement question the paradigms which threaten to doom us, whereas the Pope’s document is “fiercely critical” of “the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology.”

There are of course some notes of hope in our grim scenario (and what climate change book can end without them?  I might say dare end, but that is by the way.)  Gosh mentions, among other things, the “growing sense of urgency and widening activism around the world”.  What he finds most promising however is “the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in climate change politics”.  This sign of hope is important because, says Ghosh, “it is increasingly clear to me the formal political structures of our time are incapable of confronting this crisis on their own.”  Another unorthodox thought with which to leave this provocative and far-sighted book.