June 18, 2019
Expressing our climate reality
Published on The Glacier Trust blog

Based on the work by Amitav Ghosh – The Great Derangement

The last thing I read about climate change was in a book of nonfiction. That sentence seems obvious, and even further, it seems like the only way it can be. Other than in some works of the science fiction genre, serious contemporary literature does not easily, or normally, deal with the largest environmental shift of our lifetimes.

This seems strange when I think about the role of art to reflect shifts in culture – when modern problems are frequently the catalyst of expression that leads to great work. As artists and writers so often pull from their own, and our collective experiences, to bring a story to life, shouldn’t the recurring extreme weather events and life-altering temperature shifts play a role? As we are increasingly aware of extinctions, plastic shorelines and rising rivers, it seems that contemporary fiction can’t adequately show up to talk about it.

This is the trend that Amitav Ghosh noticed and meditated on in his book The Great Derangement, Climate Change and the Unthinkable, published in 2016. It is a book I just read with fresh eyes to the present moment, a book that made me rethink how we communicate climate change. It accentuated the need for more vernacular language on a topic so often seeped in scientific terminology.

As I now know from Ghosh’s work, the modern novel is a work of plausibility and discontinuities. Climate change is a problem of improbability and continuity. The novel likes to narrow down the scene, to create boundaries in space and time that allow a reader to connect. Climate change is of an unthinkable scale, global and interconnected. These misalignments don’t mean the two are incompatible, it means we need to shift how we write and read. As Ghosh writes, “- for let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”

In a recent conversation at the RSA in London, Ghosh gave an example: Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York City, a hub of creative output, and yet he has read no novels that deal with the event. I am not convinced this is for lack of authors interested in the topic, but more for the intonations that climate change places on any spoken or written work– an expansion from a single storm into something much more unruly and unsolvable. 

I noticed this trend in recent news articles about the extreme flooding in the Midwest this spring. As the Mississippi River poured over retention walls, farms were submerged in Wisconsin and levees were broken in Missouri, public officials and citizens spoke about creating more permanent barriers and 50-year plans. They did not frequently or actively speak about the role of climate change in the region, and the shifts that will uniquely impact them in the years to come. It reminds me that we have a disposition to protect ourselves from the next flood, not to talk about the last one. As these extreme weather events occur more frequently and with more force, not talking about their relation to climate change is becoming more notably an avoidance. And in the realm of the novel, why would artists of the region be keen to take on the topic, to have a conversation, that society isn’t?

I think this lines up well with Ghosh’s argument for creating a vernacular language of climate change. Instead of talking about climate change as something far beyond our front door, we need to talk like it is, in fact, right outside it. There is an urgency to broaden and accept the numerous ways we can talk about climate change – at times without political implications, at times without scientific data, but at all times in acknowledgement that it is changing our planet at this present moment.

Ghosh’s book was satisfying in its meandering reflections that by the end laid clear the urgent necessity to embed climate change in all forms of art and literature. By not overcoming the hurdles that climate change poses to the contemporary novel, a major form of expression is not advancing understanding, adaptations or solutions. And in this way, Ghosh’s ideas ultimately expand the responsibility of artist of the Anthropocene.

Ghosh argues we don’t need novels about climate change; we don’t need a new genre. We just need novels about the world we live in.