In recent days, as I have stood by and watched friends and family reeling over the Trump win, I can't help but think that global warming will be a disaster-of-denial just like this. Shell-shocked and busy blaming, who will be in a position to lead the way forward when the unthinkable happens then?
Why do we remain in denial?
For me, the most compelling description I have read of imagined things to come was the last chapter of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. By the time things fall apart in the world, it is too late for most people to protect themselves, as governments collapse and the world is divided into a few oil states with the rest of the world descending into pure chaos. In the novel, we find ourselves in rural Ireland, in 2043
as the electricity’s running out, the Internet seems about to crash for good and people are reduced to foraging for rabbits and eating dried seaweed.
Within months of what becomes known as the "global endarkenment," gangs are roving the countryside stealing and killing and even the most common medications are no longer available. It all happened so quickly so that no one had the time to really prepare before resource scarcity caused total collapse. Toward the end of the novel, a young gangster is robbing an old woman of her solar panels; and when she protests, he says,
"They had a better life than I did, mind. So did you. Your power stations your cars, your creature comforts. You lived too long. The bill; due today."
The old woman protests, "But it wasn't us, personally, who trashed the world. It was the system. We couldn't change it."
Not missing a beat, the young gangster retorts:
"Then its not us, personally, taking your panels. It's the system. We can't change it.
Like Trump, the end of the world kind of crept up on people.
Part of the problem is the media. Another problem is that we are living in what amounts to personal echo chambers. I am not convinced a lot of people even break bread anymore with those whose views they disagree with. Extended families and neighborly relations seems to be on the decline and social media really exacerbates the situation by enabling people to fine tune their filtering of other people. We pick and choose our friends in real life and further "curate" our interaction in social media. So, Trump's win took many people by surprise. It was a failure of imagination that has some strong similarities, I would argue, to the way we are behaving concerning global warming and the environment.
And, I can't get David Mitchell's novel out of my mind.
On the topic of climate change, the most thought-provoking book I read last year was by Amitav Ghosh. He is one of my favorite novelists, but this book was a work of non-fiction. Called The Great Derangement, in the book Ghosh explores the reasons why the extreme nature of climate change is hard for people to wrap their minds around.
He calls it, "climate change and the unthinkable" and begins asking why contemporary fiction is not taking this topic up. And it must be fiction, he says. Because science fiction is not equipped to connect emotionally and viscerally with readers on this topic. Magical realism won't cut it either. This is because science fiction and magical realism are, by nature, not filed in the same place in our brain as literary fiction. SF makes us think, but Ghosh argues, it doesn't stimulate our imaginations concerning our current human predicament in the way literary fiction can and should. That is because SF is largely taken up with what is not real. But, global warming is real. And given its almost daily mention in the media, what is it, Ghosh wonders, that makes global warming so resistant to the arts, specifically why are novelists not taking the topic up?
Ghosh points to Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Flight Behavior, as what fiction is capable of achieving in terms of stimulating an awakening in readers. Not set in the dystopian future, Kingsolver's book takes place in contemporary Appalachia, where countless monarch butterflies have mysteriously descended on a rural town in Tennessee. At first, people think the millions of fluttering butterflies are an act of God. A miracle. The Burning Bush. But it soon turns out that the butterflies have deviated from their usual migration path due to habitat destruction caused by climate change in Mexico. Yes, the beautiful butterflies are climate refuggees. It is not a happy ending for the butterflies.
Memory of Water is also a great example of literary fiction taking up the topic of climate change. Like David Mitchell, Emmi Itäranta does not see a rosy future--and she focuses on water scarcity. On the topic of water scarcity, at a dinner in Shanghai several years ago, I sat next to a fascinating academic, who told me about a novel he was planing to write. In addition to his research duties at his university, he works for the UN consulting on governance and his idea for a story was about people fighting and dying over diminishing water resources in Bangladesh. I have so often thought of his story over the years. Whether reading about climate change as a factor in the Syrian disaster or in news items about sea level rises and other climate change-induced human upheaval, my mind inevitably goes back to the story he described to me that night. We need stories like his.
For as Amitav Ghosh stresses again and again in the Great Derangement, fiction has a peculiar ability to touch us in ways that news reports might not be capable of doing. Climate change is a complicated issue and maybe not something we can even imagine, much less understand the reasons fr which we ourselves are responsible. Stories like Barbara Kingsolver's or David Mitchell's can help illuminate these uncomfortable truths that are perhaps too painful --or mind-boggling to face.
This is my third post on climate change. After Trump's win and all the talk of identity politics, I wondered if this wouldn't also be applicable to our total fecklessness concerning the environment. Ghosh's book is absolutely fascinating and I cannot recommend it enough. Starting off discussing failures in imagination and current fiction, he then detours into issues of self-expression and identity (politics). Much as Charles Taylor did in his A Secular Age, Ghosh argues that it was the Protestant Reformation that played one of the major roles in the creation of our modern world. And that this brought with it a strong focus on personal expression--since Salvation was no longer given by Grace but by a person's authentic self expression of faith. This over-focus on self-expression is something, Ghosh writes, that permeates all aspects of modern life, including our political lives as well.
In other words, the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied if content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world as church. Politics as thus practices is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness.
Real power and governing, then; rather being held by politicians, is being wielded by an interlocking association of powerful corporations and institutions. This is known as "deep state." The politicians that we see on the TV function more as a kind of performative display. This is why, for example, our political sphere has taken on what can only be described as a reality TV aspect and personality cults. And we, "the viewers" are involved only in terms that relate to our personal journeys toward authenticity and personal expression.
Well, I do think it is safe to suggest that our political lives have taken on a TV show-quality. And, what is much more worrisome is that in this spectacle, rather than working together toward collective action, as citizens, we are more like consumers, exercising our "free choice" in terms of self expression. Citizenship as consumer. This perhaps can explain why, now we will be seeing more and more people decrying climate change in terms of the personality of who is in the White House--rather than in how the global capitalistic systems that we ourselves are participating in and enabling are destroying the planet.
Amitav Ghosh happens to be one of my favorite novelists. And his Ibis Trilogy is my own go-to source for understanding the problems of unregulated capitalism and colonialism. You can read a thousand news items or works of nonfiction, but nothing will illuminate the big issues like fiction. And Ghosh is very good at it. I would argue, one of the best.
In his novels (like in real life), it's like there was a big party called empire. And there are those who were invited to the party and those who were not. Not only are there winners and losers (a topic that came up a lot in the aftermath of the Trump win) but there are also necessary dark areas in our consciousness. Indeed, the system functions precisely by creating these dark spots, where we choose not to look. Ghosh spends some time in the Great Derangement linking global warming to imperialism, since “the patterns of life that modernity engender[ed could] only be practiced by a small minority of the population.” For echoing Gandhi, he then cautions: if “every family in the world” acquired “two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator,” we’d all be asphyxiated. Whether it is the "slave labor" force in China or in Africa that mines the earth and builds our stuff or the rivers in Africa or South America that are being poisoned: these are the dark places we choose not to see. We know that the world cannot support more than one North America--and yet not only do we not change our own hyper-consumerism at home but we turn away from the effects that it is having in these dark areas--as if that is all China's fault.
In Roy Scranton's must-read Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, he describes what he saw in the 2014 Climate March in New York. Without clear aims or proposed concrete steps, the march was staged, he says, to raise awareness and for the personal self-expression of the participants. Raising awareness and self-expression are not ad things, by any means, but in our current predicament something seems to be getting confused. This lack of focus, he says, was reflected in the UN Climate Summit --which was what the march was ostensibly organized around. According to Scranton, the speakers were basically "mouthing vacuities and volunteering to toothless voluntary emissions reductions that were all too little too late;" while China was a no-show. The summit ended with President Obama taking the stage. Scranton was put off by Obama's indirect blaming of China without any mention of America's own growing 2.9% that year (6% since 1990) and worse of America's role in pushing an economic system and hyper consumerism that is directly behind the growing crisis.
The Great Derangement ends with a close examination of the two major publications devoted to climate change to come out of 2015. Those are the Paris Agreement and the Pope's encyclical letter, Laudato Si. Ghosh criticizes the very ambiguous language contained in the Paris Agreement, which basically serves only to invoke what is impossible. That is, limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Centigrade is something that is widely considered to be impossible; and certainly will be impossible since the Agreement is not binding. This is a fair criticism, I think. And Ghosh is not the first person to make it. He then goes on to do something far more thought-provoking by disparaging the way the Agreement is embedded in the fundamental values and notions of the neoliberal capitalist system, the very framework that caused the problems in the first place. By placing our hopes in "innovation" and government-corporate associations that never even question the idea that limitless growth is the answer to our problems. This is a document, he says, that is very much a part of the world of behind-the-scenes bargains and "climate entrepreneurs"; as well relying way too much on terms such as "good practices," "insurance solutions" "stakeholders," and "technology development," which he quite rightly accuses of being jargon that is in fact part of the problem--not part of the solution.
In contrast to this, the Pope's Encyclical takes a truly ecological approach. In much the same way that I described in my last post on deep listening, the Pope in his letter, is asking us to really listen to the non-human voices of the planet; as he continuously reminds us that a "true ecological approach always becomes a social approach." For it "must integrate questions of justice in debates o the environment so as to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. This line really struck me. We need to hear each other and listen to the earth. But if we are so busy in self-expressing and surrounding ourselves with those who support our own projects, how will we be able to ever listen? Much less be called to action?
Whatever we do, in some sense it will be too late. But Ghosh is surely right that the future must see human beings leave behind their isolated understandings of being to join together in group efforts to focus on addressing the needs of the poor and the cry of the earth. Very surprisingly, he calls religious groups to join together to do this. It is not a prescription that many people will be comfortable with--but I guess we really are going to have to open our eyes to the idea that no one will be able to change the world through personal self-expression working from within the current mid-set on their own. For in transcending the current isolation that characterizes this "time of derangement," we might, Gosh suggests, re-discover a sense of kinship with other human beings and with animals and the world.
It's a wonderful read: Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (great review from The Hindu here)