Climate justice has no place for the powerful, says Amitav Ghosh

Dubai - The Indian author explains the fundamental conflict regarding the raging global climate change debate


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Thu 18 Nov 2021, 8:25 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 Nov 2021, 9:20 PM

Indian author Amitav Ghosh’s latest work The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables For A Planet In Crisis is a successor to The Great Derangement (2016), where he had first delved deeper into the global climate change crisis.

The twin pillars of the developed Western world — colonialism and capitalism — are under lens in Ghosh’s new non-fiction book that traces its origin to the medieval ages.

Ghosh attended the recently concluded annual Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), where his event was held at the Intellectual Hall on Friday (November 12).

wknd. spoke to Ghosh about the fundamental conflict regarding the global climate change debate. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Why has the arts failed to grapple with the biggest crisis that confronts our planet?

The general thrust of bourgeois culture over the last two hundred years has been towards a kind of triumphalism, a sense that the external world had been overcome and tamed. These attitudes are of course, intimately connected with issues of race, colonialism and conquest — for ‘Nature’ too was seen as a domain to be conquered, dominated and used. The prevalence of such attitudes is an obvious barrier to thinking about the environment and about climate change. It leads to a culture that is completely human-centred.

The human-centredness of contemporary literature is, to my mind, not a cause but a symptom of a broader cultural shift. Human-centredness seems to be largely an effect of what we call ‘development’ or ‘modernity’.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, for example, was not exclusively human centred in the way that most contemporary novels are. Even today, people who depend on farming, hunting and fishing for their living, must necessarily attend to the non-human aspects of their surroundings much more closely than city-dwellers. In other words, the very processes that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere seem also to blind us to the consequences by making us ever more closely focused on the human.

The Great Derangement makes us think whether we are deranged. Why do you think so?

We are teetering on the edge of a new era in which many of our past habits of thought and practice have become blinders which prevent us from perceiving the realities of our present situation. Writers, artists and thinkers everywhere are still struggling to find the concepts and ideas that will make it possible to engage with the unprecedented events of this new era. But to discover such modes of engagement takes time — and that is exactly what we don’t have.

Why does climate change have a much smaller presence in contemporary literary fiction than it does even in public discussion? Why is the topic relegated to the genre of science fiction?

Certain hierarchical gradations are common to all the arts, and also to the humanities and the sciences. In speaking of painting and sculpture, for example, we often distinguish between ‘pure’ or ‘high’ art and say, ‘craft’ or ‘artisanship’. Similarly, historians distinguish between academic and popular history and scientists draw lines between theoretical, experimental and popular science etc. In fiction there is a similar proliferation of categories: ‘literary’ or ‘serious’ fiction is often set apart from popular fiction and also from various fictional genres — for example, romance fiction, science fiction and so on. Underlying these distinctions is the idea that genre and popular fiction are constrained by certain conventions and expectations whereas ‘literary fiction’ is a pure product of the unconstrained imagination.

I should add here that I do not by any means subscribe to the reasoning behind these distinctions. And to many (such as yourself) these distinctions may well appear trivial. Yet it is incontestably the case that these categories are of great significance in the worlds of art and literature. And that significance is not just aesthetic: it has very important material implications (just think of the difference in the price of a work that is considered ‘art’ and one that is classified as ‘craft’). Moreover, these distinctions create certain ecosystems that include many structures and institutions, galleries, museums, journals, criticism, festivals, prizes, university courses etc.

It is this ecosystem that I had in mind when I wrote that: “Climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena...”. Anyone who looks at the ecosystem of literary fiction (journals, reviews etc.) will soon discover that climate change has a very small presence within it. Indeed, when climate change figures at all in ‘serious’ literary journals it is usually in relation to non-fictional accounts of the subject. Novels and stories that are attentive to climate change are almost automatically relegated to genres such as science fiction, apocalyptic fiction and so on.

How serious is the politics of the carbon economy and why has it created a schism between developed and developing nations?

Climate change is often framed as an economic problem, caused by consumption, production, distribution and the emissions that these processes entail — ‘capitalism’ in other words. The dominance of this framework may be a consequence of the fact economistic ways of thinking have come to pervade every sphere of contemporary life. But in my view these economistic framings of the issue frequently serve to mask other, equally important aspects of it, such as military competition, relationships of domination and subordination between and within countries, and indeed, the dynamics of Empire, broadly conceived. This masking happens at multiple levels and in many different ways. Consider, for example, the idea of capitalism as the principal driver of climate change — a view articulated by Naomi Klein and many others. The trouble is that capitalism is not one thing: we know now that East Asian capitalism for instance, was labour rather than resource-intensive and that it had a much smaller ecological footprint than the version of capitalism that was prevalent in Britain and the United States. Yet, it was the Anglo-American version of capitalism that became dominant around the world — and this cannot be understood without considering the history of imperialism and global conquest. As for ‘climate justice’ it is increasingly clear that the powers-that-be in the world are determined to close the door on this issue: it was barely mentioned in the Paris Agreement in 2016.

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