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JAS Round Table on Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

  • Julia Adeney Thomas (a1), Prasannan Parthasarathi (a2), Rob Linrothe (a3), Fa-ti Fan (a4), Kenneth Pomeranz (a5) and Amitav Ghosh (a6)...
Extract

Amitav Ghosh, perhaps Asia's most prominent living author, moves among many genres and across vast territories. His fiction—The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988), The Glass Place (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004), and The Ibis trilogy—takes us from Calcutta where he was born in 1956 to the Arabian Sea, Paris, London, and back again to the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and beyond. His nonfiction—In an Antique Land (1992), Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma (1998), and Countdown (1999)—rests on a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford. He went to Alexandria, Egypt, for his dissertation research. His science fiction, The Calcutta Chromosome, won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1997. His essays—published in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The New York Times and collected in The Iman and the Indian (2002)—address major issues such as fundamentalism. Indeed, most of his work addresses big questions, exploring the nature of communal violence, the traces of love and longing across generations, manifold religious manifestations, and the systematic pain of colonial oppression. The deep and abiding theme of many works is anthropogenic environmental damage, now boldly and directly addressed in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Married to accomplished fellow author Deborah Baker, whose work traces the Asian peregrinations of Allen Ginsberg, the literary milieu of Laura Riding, and the complexity of Islamic conversion, Ghosh has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Queens College, and Delhi University. He has won more prizes and honorary doctorates, and been a fellow at more famous institutions and a distinguished visitor in more far-flung places, than you can shake a stick at. He even has two homes: Brooklyn and Goa. In short, Ghosh's profile makes you wonder if there might not be more than one of him.

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References
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1 For more on Ghosh's anthropological interests, see Stankiewicz, Damien, “Anthropology and Fiction: An Interview with Amitav Ghosh,” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3 (2012): 535–41.

2 Amitav Ghosh, “China and the Making of Modern India,” Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference, Toronto, 2012.

3 See, among much else, Ghosh, Amitav and Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “A Correspondence on Provincializing Europe ,” Radical History Review 83 (2002): 146–72.

4 McNeill, John R. and Engelke, Peter, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014), 45 .

5 See, e.g., Kathleen D. Morrison, “Provincializing the Anthropocene,” http://www.india-seminar.com/2015/673/673_kathleen_morrison.htm (accessed June 6, 2016).

6 Hamilton, Clive, “The Anthropocene as Rupture,” Anthropocene Review 3, no. 2 (2016): 93106, doi:10.1177/2053019616634741 ; Rockström, Johan et al. , “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Ecology and Society 14, no. 2 (2009). Rockström et al. have developed the idea of nine critical planetary boundaries or thresholds that should not be crossed related to (1) climate change, (2) ocean acidification, (3) stratospheric ozone depletion, (4) the biochemical flow in nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, (5) freshwater overusage, (6) changes in land use, (7) biodiversity loss, (8) atmospheric aerosol loading, and (9) chemical pollution. The term “Anthropocene” encompasses rapid environmental changes on all these levels. See also Rockström, Johan et al. , “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461 (September 24, 2009): 472–75. This research was updated in Steffen, Will et al. , “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science 347, no. 6223 (February 13, 2015), doi:10.1126/science.1259855 .

7 Ghosh, Amitav, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 9 .

8 Ibid ., 87.

9 Ibid .

10 Ibid ., 110.

11 Ibid ., 145; emphasis in original.

12 See Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (New York: Pantheon, 1987).

13 See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).

14 See Ferguson, Niall, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2003); Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York: Penguin, 2005).

15 Landes, David S., The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Others So Poor (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 516 .

16 Romney, Mitt, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness (New York: St. Martin's Press), 264 ; emphasis in original.

17 Torres, Mariano and Boyce, James K., “Income, Inequality, and Pollution: A Reassessment of the Environmental Kuznets Curve,” Ecological Economics 25, no. 2 (1998): 147–60.

18 Jorgenson, Andrew K., “Inequality and the Carbon Intensity of Human Well-Being,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 5, no. 3 (2015): 277–82.

19 Jorgenson, Andrew K., Schor, Juliet B., Huang, Xiaorui, and Fitzgerald, Jared, “Income Inequality and Residential Carbon Emissions in the United States: A Preliminary Analysis,” Human Ecology Review 22, no. 1 (2015): 93105 .

20 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 146.

21 Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, “Carbon and Inequality: From Kyoto to Paris,” Paris School of Economics, November 3, 2015, 6.

22 Jorgenson, Andrew K., Clark, Brett, and Kentor, Jeffrey, “Militarization and the Environment: A Panel Study of Carbon Dioxide Emissions and the Ecological Footprints of Nations, 1970–2000,” Global Environmental Politics 10, no. 1 (2010): 729 ; Jorgenson, Andrew K., Clark, Brett, and Givens, Jennifer E., “The Environmental Impacts of Militarization in Comparative Perspective: An Overlooked Relationship,” Nature and Culture 7, no. 3 (2012): 314–37.

23 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 161.

24 Ghosh, Amitav, Flood of Fire (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 509–10. See also AHR Forum: Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy and Indian Ocean Studies,” American Historical Review, forthcoming February 2017 .

25 See especially Wark, McKenzie, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (New York: Verso, 2015); Moore, Jason W., Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (New York: Verso, 2015); Malm, Andreas and Hornborg, Alf, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (2014): 6269 ; Malm, Andreas, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016); and Bonneuil, Christophe and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (New York: Verso, 2016).

26 Ghosh takes up the problem of inserting “the improbable” into realist fiction through an anecdote of his own experience, a 1978 tornado in Delhi, that has never figured in his novels because “probability and the modern novel are in fact twins.” Ghosh, The Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 16. Science fiction, on the other hand, in being overtly fantastic does not, Ghosh argues, have the stature to help us confront reality. Heise, Ursula K. takes a diametrically opposite view of the value of science fiction in Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

27 Crutzen, Paul J., “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (January 3, 2002): 23 .

28 Ghosh, Flood of Fire, op. cit. note 24, 510.

29 Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W., Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002).

30 For ecomodernism, see Nordhaus, Ted and Shellenberger, Michael, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). For a critique of this “Promethean recklessness,” see Hamilton, Clive, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2014).

31 Amitav Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 87.

32 As Ghosh puts it, Western modernity's one truly distinctive feature is “its enormous intellectual commitment to the promotion of its supposed singularity.” Ibid., 103. For critiques of Eurocentrism, see Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000). For Japan's competing modernity, see Minichiello, Sharon A., Japan's Competing Modernities: Issues in Culture and Democracy, 1900–1930 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998); Austin, Gareth and Sugihara, Kaoru, Labour-Intensive Industrialization in Global History (New York: Routledge, 2013); and Thomas, Julia Adeney, ed., “Japan's Convergence with the West: How Similar Approaches to Nature Created Parallel Developments,” special issue, Japanese Studies 34, no. 3 (2014). For explorations of other modernities and their uses of natural resources, see Austin, Gareth, ed., Economic Development and Environmental History in the Anthropocene: Perspectives on Asia and Africa (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). For planetary systems, see Johan Rockström et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” op. cit. note 6, and Will Steffen et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” op. cit. note 6.

33 See, e.g., Pomeranz, Kenneth, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), and Marks, Robert, “Commercialization without Capitalism: Processes of Environmental Change in South China, 1550–1850,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 5682 .

34 Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, “Carbon and Inequality,” op. cit. note 21.

35 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 90.

36 Ghosh argues that Asia is a perpetrator of the Anthropocene in “the rapid and expanding industrialization of Asia's most populous nations” and home to “the great majority of potential victims.” Ibid., 91, 88.

37 Ibid ., 23.

38 Ibid ., 154.

39 Ibid ., 82.

40 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 8.

41 Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957).

42 Fan, Fa-ti, “The Global Turn in the History of Science,” East Asian Science, Technology, and Society 6, no. 2 (2012): 249–58; Modernity, Region, and Technoscience: One Small Cheer for Asia as Method,” Cultural Sociology 10, no. 3 (2016): 352–68.

43 Scarry, Elaine, “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People,” in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, eds. Nussbaum, Martha and Cohen, Joshua, 98110 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002); Ginzburg, Carlo, “Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 4660 .

44 On historicity and historical writing in the Anthropocene, see Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197222 ; Thomas, Julia Adeney, “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (2014): 15871607 .

45 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 16–17.

46 Ibid ., 109–10.

47 Ibid ., 98–100.

48 Ibid ., 110–12.

49 Ghosh takes for granted that technological breakthroughs offer no solution unless values change, too. Ghosh does not discuss developments in clean energy technology, but it does seem unlikely that they will be adopted fast enough and widely enough under current political conditions. Nor are carbon emissions the only way that endless growth threatens sustainability.

50 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 146.

51 Ibid ., 110–11.

52 Ibid ., 147–48.

53 Ibid ., 135–47.

54 Ibid ., 150–59.

55 Ibid ., 160–61. For instance, John Rawls explicitly concedes that his influential “difference principle” of justice does not apply to relations between the generations, in part because people in the future, whom Rawls expects to be better off than their forebears, can do nothing to compensate those forebears. The lack of a framework for considering these issues is thus directly linked to the assumption that endless material progress is not only possible but likely. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 284–93, especially 291.

56 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 34–37.

57 See, e.g., Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” op. cit. note 44; for my own take, see Pomeranz, Kenneth, “Teleology, Discontinuity and World History: Periodization and Some Creation Myths of Modernity,” Asian Review of World Histories 1, no. 2 (2013): 189226 .

58 Duara, Prasenjit, The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), is an important recent example.

59 One collection that I think does this thoughtfully and is relevant to the concerns of Ghosh's book is Tetlock, Philip E., Lebow, Richard Ned, and Parker, Geoffrey, eds. Unmaking the West: “What-If?” Scenarios that Rewrite World History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).

60 Ghosh, Great Derangement, op. cit. note 7, 120.

61 Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” op. cit. note 44.

62 See Cruikshank, Julie, Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005).

63 “Humanity reels blindly through a labyrinth that we call history, whose entrance, exit, and shape nobody knows.” Schmitt, Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. Schwab, George (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 59 .

64 This phrase is borrowed from Hamilton, Clive, Growth Fetish (Crows Nest, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2003).

65 Interview, Der Spiegel, 1966.

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