In Public Books, Stacey Balkan reviews The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh is best known as a novelist, but The Great Derangement is a nonfiction book that explores the convergence of the rise of literary realism in Europe, the spread of European imperialism, and the explosion in the carbon content in our atmosphere. As Balkan writes, Ghosh draws a crucial connection between Western empire-building and climate change that most commentators on the Anthropocene have failed to note. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
We cannot ignore the coincidence of European imperialism and the so-called great acceleration in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. At the same time as Britain’s premier trading company acquired an exclusive writ of free trade for the purpose of growing and selling opium, Western imperialist projects became increasingly reliant on new modes of transport and production. This includes, of course, plantation agriculture. The cultivation of cotton, for example, would far outstrip the impact of poppy production: even beyond the American South, Manchester’s Cotton Supply Association was laying the groundwork for the horrors we are now witnessing in India’s cotton belt.6 Since 1998, approximately 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide because of debt incurred from free trade policies between the Indian government and agricultural companies like Monsanto. It is worth mentioning that sugar would also play a critical role. Sidney Mintz’s 1985 Sweetness and Power offers a remarkable glimpse into its destructive path.
Ghosh argues, therefore, that we should expand our indictment of “capitalism”—a common protagonist “on which the narrative [of the Anthropocene] turns”—to include “an aspect of the Anthropocene that is of equal importance: empire and imperialism.” Indeed, he notes, the uneven effects of climate change are the “result of systems that were set up by brute force to ensure that poor nations remained always at a disadvantage in terms of both wealth and power.”
The burden of the book’s two shorter chapters, “History” and “Politics,” is to demonstrate just this. In “History,” Ghosh offers an exhaustive portrait of the material impact of our modern worldview. With a nod to his 2000 novel The Glass Palace, he begins with a critique of the petroleum industry, citing Burma (now Myanmar) and not Titusville, Pennsylvania, as the site of its prodigious birth. He then links the above-mentioned epistemological shifts to economic models that also emerged during the colonial era and that laid the groundwork for what former World Bank president Larry Summers would call an “impeccable economic logic.” In a shockingly explicit endorsement of accumulation by dispossession, Summers actually suggested that it made perfect economic sense to sacrifice the third world for the prosperity of the first. As if responding directly to Summers, Ghosh notes quite rightly that “the patterns of life that modernity engender[ed could] only be practiced by a small minority of the population.” He then cautions: if “every family in the world” acquired “two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator,” we’d all be asphyxiated.
Image: A man stands by the sea during the heavy rains that flooded Mumbai, 2013. Via Public Books.