Friday, August 26, 2016

The inability to think of the unthinkable

Public response to climate change is caught between the polarities of widespread denial and overt activism.

Like tigers in the Sundarbans, where the beast remains elusive but not its footmarks, climate change is seemingly everywhere and yet found nowhere. Despite its improbable though astoundingly real occurrences, the climatic events have been restricted to our fleeting consciousness. So far, only 19 countries have inked the non-binding Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C. All this is taking place while social media has made climate change research a part of the public discourse. The aim is to trigger action towards a credible policy response. Far from it. Discomforting as it may be, the eerie silence around the dangers of climate change has come to rest on the skewed awareness that we are all living in a ‘new normal’.

Amitav Ghosh questions this notion and our inability to think about the lurking dangers of climate change, and challenges the uniform expectations rooted in the ‘regularity of bourgeois life’. Need it be said that unstinted faith in such perceived regularity has driven the modern world to the point of derangement. It follows that we cannot recognize the environmental problems created by our way of life. As every individual is incentivized to improve his or her standard of living and the state is driven by the capitalist model of double-digit growth, what will drive us to exit the comfort zone of this ‘new normal’ remains a vexed question.

Being a celebrated story-teller himself, Ghosh wonders why climate change has not been taken seriously by fiction writers and literary journals. Although the subject has figured obliquely in his own writings, he contends that a broad imaginative failure arising out of a personal predilection to climate change has prevented writers from negotiating the currents of global warming. The Great Derangement is thus a call for writers to pull climate change out from the realm of scientific research into the literary domain such that contemporary culture may find it easy to deal with it. After all, the climate crisis is as much a crisis of culture as a crisis of the imagination, an inability to think about the ‘unthinkable’.

There is a difficulty in accepting such consideration. Research shows that people do not learn about climate change through personal experience or act on the issue unless it evokes strong visceral reactions. Why would people think about climate change, which involves thoughts on death and their own mortality? Most individuals rarely take seriously even predictions on water scarcity. No wonder then that a film like The Day After Tomorrow, with its depiction of glacial meltdown leading to a submerged Manhattan, served merely as action-movie entertainment and did not lead to serious climate discourse among movie-goers.   

The literary mainstream too has remained on the margins of the crises and has been restrained on the forest fires, cloudbursts, tornadoes and tsunamis that have been pounding our world with ferocious regularity. As public response to climate change is caught between the polarities of widespread denial and overt activism -- which is also under surveillance by the military-industrial complex -- literary minds do have the power to free society from the shackles of cultural cognition and motivated reasoning. Ghosh argues that there can be no compelling period in human history to recognize the urgency for such an engagement.

The Great Derangement views the history and politics of climate change through personal stories. It is a refreshing take on a subject that has just about moved from the post-scientific consensus stage to a pre-social one. Scientific knowledge in itself is never socially or politically inert, particularly when it prompts changes in people’s beliefs or actions. However, it takes time for social acceptance to emerge. Only by acknowledging and addressing this underlying subtext of climate change can the cultural schism be bridged.

The author’s anxiety on the subject of climate change comes through clearly in this erudite narrative. But science does not have the final word when it comes to bringing about a shift in our culture practices. Even the scientific ‘proof’ of a causal connection between smoking and lung cancer has been hard to establish. Science can only describe the problem; it is for cultural processes to guide social and political change. Rather than forcing people to acquiesce, the better goal would be to prepare society to address the full scope of the climate change issue.

Written with ecological passion and literary flavour, The Great Derangement is an absorbing narrative on the subject, the impact of which is getting closer with each passing day. Shorn of scientific jargon, it is an interesting exposition on the most urgent task of our time.

First published in The Hindustan Times dated Aug 27, 2016.

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