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Amitav Ghosh: What the West doesn't get about the climate crisis

06.11.2019

Amitav Ghosh says for some people climate catastrophe has already happened

The new novel by award-winning Indian author Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island, uses climate change as a backdrop. He tells DW about the different perceptions of the climate crisis in the East and West.

When he was a boy, Amitav Ghosh always knew where pineapples came from. "They came from the garden, I would watch people chopping them up," he says, as if that wasn't anything special. 

His garden was in Kolkata, India, whereas my garden was in the suburbs of Manchester, England, and all it had in it was some grass, a tree, and an old football. Yet I still had pineapples — albeit usually chopped up in cans. I hardly ever thought about where they came from.

Read more: Citizens' Assemblies: Time for the people to take control of the climate crisis? 

It'd take a while to explain how we got onto these fruit memories when I met the Indian author in his kitchen in Brooklyn this September. But that disjunction is one of the things behind The Great Derangement, Ghosh's book-length essay from 2016, subtitled Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

The book starts out by wondering why it is so difficult to get climate change into a modern English-language novel that isn't science fiction. It concludes that Western literature has, in the past 200 years or so, become trapped in a world where human comedy and tragedy is separated from nature. Along the way, Ghosh considers the power dynamics that make the climate debate so different in the Eastern than the Western hemisphere.

Read more: Cities key to tackling climate crisis – global climate group 

Western novels, he believes, are mainly bound by two constraints: plausibility and human agency. Could this happen? And can our hero fight his way through his moral adventure? In some ways, his new novel, Gun Island, full of freak typhoons and unlikely coincidences, is a conscious attempt to break free of those conventions, and so finds room to use climate change as a backdrop. 

Amitav Ghosh says for some people the climate catastrophe has already arrived

Crisis and realization

The Great Derangement is different from the other books about environmental doom that have come out in the last few years. David Wallace-Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) and Paul Kingsnorth's Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (2017), for example, are vital books, but they're written by American and British men who have made a terrible realization and are now trying to figure out a way to cope. 

But Ghosh, no less aware of the existential threat, seems to be free from their anxiety. This is mainly because he thinks the current predicament says more about the continuities with colonial history than it does about some ruptured future. For some people in the world, the catastrophe has already happened. 

Read more: India's ghost villages: Food and water scarcity forcing many to leave 

"I have a philosopher friend who says: All projections of the future are fundamentally projections of power," he says. "This is why it's almost always the white guys who make those projections, because they're really projecting a disappearance of power into the future. I don't know anything about the future."

"I come from a part of the world where we didn't have very rosy expectations of the world or the future," says Ghosh. "We knew there would be a lot of upheavals, and we witnessed these upheavals at first hand, so in that sense I think Westerners had a belief in stability and the promise of the future that I didn't share."

The West has also come to rely on what Ghosh calls "an expert discourse" from scientists. The result, he believes, is that science is giving fearful westerners a hope in business-friendly "sustainable development," biofuels, or carbon-capture technology, which they think will save the system before it collapses. 

Increased wildfires, flooding, and drought are hitting poorer countries hardest
Ghosh says farmers, fishermen, Inuit, indigenous peoples have seen climate change first-hand

The alternative, a massive-scale economic adaptation to a new distribution of resources, is too scary to consider: The end of capitalism would be as bad as the end of the world. 

"The people who saw the climate crisis first are at the absolute other end: farmers, fishermen, Inuit, indigenous peoples, forest peoples in India, and they've already had to adapt, mainly by moving, finding new livelihoods," says Ghosh. "And indigenous peoples have already lived through the end of the world and found ways to survive."

Empire

Ghosh thinks it's no coincidence that the constraints of the bourgeois novel began to form at the same time as the West began to use fossil fuels to project its power around the world.

Read more: Saving Mumbai's natural mangrove buffer against rising tides 

"Climate change is absolutely an aspect of empire," he says. "The British Empire was essentially built on fossil fuels: It was the British mastery of coal that gave it a huge military advantage over the rest of the world."

That's also one reason why renewable energy is a threat to a system that the West has spent centuries building up and defending. "One thing you can be sure of," Ghosh says. "If renewables really were adopted at scale, it would completely shake up the global political order." He argues that oil and gas have to flow through maritime chokepoints controlled by the US, Australia, Britain and Canada, giving them a complete geopolitical advantage.

Ghosh sees climate change as an aspect of empire

Power and justice

Looked at this way, it's no wonder the Western anxiety about climate change is focussed on social collapse and extinction. "I think Western people sense that the entire order is changing in ways that are extremely threatening to them," says Ghosh.

That's also why in the Eastern hemisphere, the issue of historical injustice is central to the issue of climate change. "If you go to any Indonesian, or Indian, or Chinese, even people who are perfectly well aware of the climate threat, and say to them: 'why don't you immediately cut all your emissions?' What will you hear? The answer is always profoundly political, it's: 'The West made this problem, let them give everything up first. This is the terrible dilemma in which we're caught."

Read more:  Climate change reinforces the world's inequalities

Despite all the devastation that climate change is causing in the developing world, the assumption is that, when an ecological collapse comes, the wealth built up over centuries will provide a cushion. 

"We're always told that rich countries will adapt better: I don't think that's actually true. I think countries with very complex systems, like the United States and in Europe, are in many ways much more fragile. Just consider food distribution."

And that's how we got onto pineapples. It's easier to get them if they're in your garden.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
Transient treasure

Of the 2 million-odd people who visit the Great Barrier Reef annually, a 2016 survey found that 69 percent were coming to see the UNESCO World Heritage site "before it's too late." And no wonder. The IPCC says that even if we manage to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, 99 percent of the world's coral will be wiped out. Tourists can hasten their demise by touching or polluting reefs.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
Bearly there

And what's the carbon cost of flying to remote natural wonders under threat? A 2010 study found that the business of polar-bear safaris in Churchill, Canada, had an annual CO2 footprint of 20 megatons. Most visitors arrived by plane, and while 88 percent of them said humans were responsible for climate change, only 69 percent agreed that air travel was a contributing cause.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
Art of the apocalypse

Along with the polar bear, one of the most iconic images of climate change must be the dramatic curves of an iceberg sculpted by the warming atmosphere. Gliding between the melting giants on a cruise ship is a haunting experience that tourists will pay huge sums for. In the early 1990s just 5,000 people visited Antarctica each year, compared to over 46,000 in 2018.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
Peak season

You don't have to go to the poles to see vanishing ice. Kilimanjaro's snowy peaks are a striking sight above the equatorial savannah of the national park, which generates €44 million ($50 million) from tourism annually. Many visitors climb to the Furtwängler Glacier — where 85 percent of the ice has vanished over the last century. The rest is unlikely to survive much beyond mid-century.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
King without a crown

When Montana's Glacier National Park opened in 1910, it boasted over 100 of the ice features from which it took its name. Now, there are fewer than two dozen. So dramatic is their retreat, that the park has become a center of climate science research. Some 3 million hikers and holidaymakers also visit the "crown of the continent" each year, soaking in the dying days of its ice-capped glory.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
Paradise lost

The Maldives are the archetypal tourist paradise: 1,200 coral islands with white beaches rising just 2.5 meters above the turquoise waters. In 2017, the president decided to build new airports and megaresorts to accommodate seven times as many tourists, and use the revenue to build new islands and relocate communities. He has since been voted out of office and faces corruption charges.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
Saltwater swamps

It's not just islands that are going under as sea levels rise. Wetlands like Florida's Everglades are disappearing too. Over the last century, around half the Everglades have been drained and turned over to agriculture. Now, saltwater is seeping into what's left, making it the only critically endangered World Heritage site in the United States.

Doomsday tourism and climate change: Visiting natural wonders before they disappear
Disturbing the peace

The Galapagos will be forever associated with Darwin, who realized their unique wildlife had evolved over countless generations in isolation. Today, they are besieged by visitors and environmental changes are happening too fast for species to adapt. Ocean warming has left iconic creatures like the marine iguana starving, while UNESCO lists tourism among the greatest threats to the archipelago.

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Ben Knight