The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Berlin Family Lectures): Ghosh, Amitav


Are we deranged? The acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? In his first major book of nonfiction since In an Antique Land, Ghosh examines our inability—at the level of literature, history, and politics—to grasp the scale and violence of climate change.

The extreme nature of today’s climate events, Ghosh asserts, make them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining. This is particularly true of serious literary fiction: hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel; they are automatically consigned to other genres. In the writing of history, too, the climate crisis has sometimes led to gross simplifications; Ghosh shows that the history of the carbon economy is a tangled global story with many contradictory and counterintuitive elements.

Ghosh ends by suggesting that politics, much like literature, has become a matter of personal moral reckoning rather than an arena of collective action. But to limit fiction and politics to individual moral adventure comes at a great cost. The climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existence—a task to which fiction, Ghosh argues, is the best suited of all cultural forms. His book serves as a great writer’s summons to confront the most urgent task of our time.

Editorial Reviews

“Ghosh, who has previously broached environmental questions in fiction (The HungryTide, the Ibis trilogy, and elsewhere), here steps back from the role of storyteller to analyze modern literature, history, and politics. His purpose is to show that all three cultural modes share assumptions that render climate change unthinkable, occluding our view of its dangers rather than aiding our understanding. . . . To tackle climate change, we would need not only to overcome climate denialism and our reliance on fossil fuels, but also our commitment to moral uplift. The radical restructuring of global power requires more than a good conscience and respect for individuals. From this perspective, the humanities and human sciences confront their greatest challenge armed only with rusting tools forged for another age. ‘The climate crisis is,’ as Ghosh writes, ‘also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.’”

, Times Literary Supplement

“Ghosh is one of the most important living writers writing in English.”
, Los Angeles Review of Books

“In his first work of long-form nonfiction in over 20 years, celebrated novelist Ghosh ‘perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture’: how can writers, scholars, and policy makers combat the collective inability to grasp the dangers of today’s climate crisis? Ghosh’s choice of genre is hardly incidental; among the chief sources of the ‘imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,’ he argues, is the resistance of modern linguistic and narrative traditions—particularly the 20th-century novel—to events so cataclysmic and heretofore improbable that they exceed the purview of serious literary fiction. . . . In this concise and utterly enlightening volume, Ghosh urges the public to find new artistic and political frameworks to understand and reduce the effects of human-caused climate change, sharing his own visionary perspective as a novelist, scholar, and citizen of our imperiled world.”

, Publishers Weekly

“The exciting and frightening thing about Ghosh’s argument is how he traces the novel’s narrow compass back to popular and influential scientific ideas—ideas that championed uniform and gradual processes over cataclysms and catastrophes. One big complaint about science —that it kills wonder—is the same criticism Ghosh levels at the novel: that it bequeaths us ‘a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all.’ Lawfulness in biology is rather like realism in fiction: it is a convention so useful that we forget that it is a convention. But, if anthropogenic climate change and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to would predict. Indeed, if the world really were in a novel—or even in a book of popular science—no one would believe it.”

, New Scientist

“The Great Derangement . . . begins with a simple question—why have the arts (literature and fiction in particular) been unable and unwilling to grapple with the greatest crisis facing the planet, anthropogenic climate change?—and runs in thrillingly unpredictable directions with it. . . . The Great Derangement bristles with trenchant and dense ideas, expressed with exemplary lucidity and finesse. At a time when the idea of the engagé intellectual is not just unfashionable, but in full-blown retreat, here is a book that triumphantly ­announces its return.”

, New Statesman

“Ghosh’s latest book, The Great Derangement, is a j’accuse issued against all those literary writers who abdicated their social responsibility by being indifferent to the climate crisis—by far the greatest predicament facing humanity. . . . As The Great Derangement emphasises throughout, the crisis of language is at the heart of every human predicament. And now, if our writers are not leading the way, we’re more than doomed.”

, Sunday Guardian Live (New Delhi)

“In this elegant book, Ghosh explains how literary fiction came to avoid depicting the uncanny, the nonhuman, the improbable, and the aggregate. His exploration of the relationship between British imperialism and Asia’s carbon economy shows that our constructions of history are as deranged as our literature. In short, we are in denial. . . . Ghosh finds hope in art’s tendency to envision possibilities, as well as in the activism of religious communities.”

, Christian Century

“Resistance to the grim realities of climate change is so widespread that the crisis barely figures in literary fiction, notes writer Amitav Ghosh. Branding our era of denial and inertia the Great Derangement, Ghosh looks in turn at literature, history and politics to examine this failure, noting that extreme events such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy are so freakish that they seem inexpressible. The solution, he argues, lies in collective action as well as scientific and governmental involvement — and in a resurgence in our imaginative capacity to envision human existence anew.”

, Nature

“One of its central themes is that writers, artists and filmmakers, including himself, have largely ignored climate change—‘the great derangement’ of the title— simply because it seems too far-fetched and terrifying. But does it really make a difference if authors write about climate change? ‘Making a difference isn’t the point; the point is to examine the meaning of the arts. If we believe that the arts are meant to look ahead, open doors, then how is this huge issue of our time, absent from the arts? It’s like death, no one wants to talk about it.’”

, Guardian

“For a long time, we have been talking about climate change as a scientific question. In this magnificent book, Ghosh changes the conversation, moving it out of the narrow corridors of science and into the wide precincts of culture, politics, and power. Climate change, he argues, is the result of a set of interrelated histories that promoted and sustained our collective dependence on fossil fuels, and it is a kind of derangement to say we want a different world but act in a way that ensures the continuance of the present one. A clarion call not just to act on climate, but to think about it in a wholly new way.”
— Naomi Oreskes, author of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future

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About the Author

Amitav Ghosh is an award-winning novelist and essayist whose books include The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and the Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire.

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