The Great Derangement – Review
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh, 2017. University of Chicago Press, ISBN 97800226526812, 196 pages. RRP £11.50 (paperback)
I read this last month, after it had been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years. It isn’t about UK politics or elections or Brexit, but its thoughtful, wide-ranging and beautifully written analysis gave me hope when very little else was looking optimistic.
The book is divided into three parts: Stories, History and Politics. In the first Ghosh writes that the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture ‘and thus of the imagination’. He identifies the increasing self-reflexivity of art, and in particular the so-called ‘realist’ novel, which largely ignores the communal events of history, politics and nature, until the ‘very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. Such narratives are entirely incapable of equipping us with the imaginative resources which we need to face the climate crisis.
The major argument of the History section is that empire and imperialism have been as important as capitalism in driving both fossil fuel exploitation and contemporary climate discourse. Another central insight, relevant to ongoing campaigns and to the Just Transition, is that not all fossil fuel development is the same.
“The materiality of oil is very different from that of coal: its extraction does not require large numbers of workers, and since it can be piped over great distances, it does not need a vast workforce for its transportation and distribution. This is probably why its effects, politically speaking, have been the opposite of those of coal. That this might be the case was well understood by Winston Churchill and other leaders of the British and American political elites … indeed, fear of working-class militancy was one of the reasons why a large part of the Marshall Plan’s funds went toward effecting the switch from coal to oil”. (p. 74)
In the final section of the book, Ghosh identifies contemporary politics as ‘for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery’, facilitated by the ‘Protestantism without a God [which] commits its votaries to believing in perfectibility, individual redemption, and a never-ending journey to a shining city on a hill – constructed, in this instance, not by a deity but by democracy’. (p. 128)
He closes with something of an endorsement and a challenge for us at Green Christian, writing that ‘the most promising development, in my view, is the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change’. (p.159) He does not understate the intensity of the struggle we face, but offers a vision of a generation able to transcend our isolation and rediscover our relationships with one another and all living beings. We have work to do, as Ghosh and others have reminded us, not only on a political level, but by rooting deep and branching wide, including story, art, history and every other activity by which we define and celebrate our shared human identity. This book illuminates both the complexity of the task and the vital significance of what is at stake.