Where’s the Great “Climate Change Novel”? A Conversation with Amitav Ghosh

There was a terrible rain bomb event in Mumbai some years ago. It’s a discourse almost completely centered on the West. Other people were huddling against a glass door under an awning. Even a Category Two or Three storm, if it were to make a direct hit on Mumbai, would have a devastating effect. Yes, that’s right. I mean, that’s the whole point. You have to think about a whole history and culture of people reading, perhaps, Jane Austen and imagining English greensward all around them. It’s affecting and impacting our lives very powerfully. That was really the only word I had for it at that time, because such phenomena were completely unprecedented in northern India in those days. He described that novel as insufficiently Westernized, so he believed the novel by definition is supposed to have this Western value of the individual moral adventure. And yet if you ask yourself or your friends, has anyone responded to the actual drowning of New York City in 2012 with a novel or story or film or a painting? But one good thing that’s come out the book is that a major climate scientist, Adam Sobel at Columbia — who’s written a very important book about Hurricane Sandy — got involved with Mumbai. Of course. So I think people would be completely unprepared. For the most part, we assume that what happens in nature is gradual. It’s a nuanced and often dazzling argument. And suddenly you realize that so much of it is completely hollow in relation to the world we face, a complete turning away from what is actually pressing upon our lives so urgently. Yet that’s exactly what makes Moby-Dick such a transcendent piece of writing. It was because they were actively forced out. Think of what happened with Fukushima. So much of their assets consist of their apartment and their car that they don’t want to leave those things. Very much so. Yet everybody wants to think this crisis grows entirely out of the West, whereas historically it’s perfectly possible to demonstrate that it’s not. But as he admits, his fiction has only indirectly tackled climate change. That’s right. If we’re living in a different age now and we need a new mindset, a different imaginative space, what would it mean to write about a universe that is animated by nonhuman voices? Because the occupying colonial powers didn’t allow certain kinds of development. The news keep getting grimmer, and once you really take in the worst-case scenarios of the next few decades, it’s hard not to feel numb. To come back to your native country, India, you lay out a scenario of what could happen in Mumbai, a city of 20 million people, if a Category Four or Five storm swept through it. We have the sciences, which deal with nature, and we have the humanities, which deal with the human. So someone is walking down a road and at just that moment this completely unprecedented thing happens. When we project these things so much into the future, we actually give people a way of not trying to cope with these issues as they unfold around us. It’s located in your mind, your body, your soul. If you take the first chapter, it’s really what I would call a climate novel before its time. But if global warming is the most pressing problem facing the planet, why do we see so few references to it in contemporary novels, apart from post-apocalyptic science fiction? In The Great Derangement, you say Asia is central to the story of climate change, but those of us in the West don’t realize that. Well, you might as well say, “To hell with them.”
I would say climate change really dissolves this completely false distinction between the human and the natural. And I’ve often tried but I was never able to do it simply because the very bizarreness of the experience, the very improbability of it, was such that it was really impossible to put it in a book. No, I don’t really think that’s the case. Why is Asia so important? But if you look at the actual impacts that are unfolding around us, they’re anything but abstract and dull. Mumbai is a city with a huge film industry. They are unfolding on a day-to-day basis all around us. You can be sure that several million would actually stay behind to experience this storm. It appears that the traditional carbon sinks — the oceans, forests, and soils — have actually passed their absorption point and are now emitting carbon dioxide. That is exactly the point. And if you think of the way our universities are set up now, what do we have? The Day After Tomorrow, that famous Hollywood film that came out over 10 years ago, was actually a very good film. We need radically new ways of thinking, even a new paradigm, to see how the Anthropocene is already transforming our lives. There is just not a single program that will lead you there. And we know from the experience of Katrina and Sandy and other storms that many people don’t actually leave. In my view science can only tell us about the symptoms. Already many times of the year at exceptionally high tides, many roads and some neighborhoods are subject to floods. It’s hard to wrap your head around this concept of very gradual change that will have catastrophic consequences. What changes if we bring Asia more centrally into this story? A sea level rise, for example, can’t be halted at this point. In his book he returns time and time again to telling us what whales do, what whales are. It’s happening all around us. It seems to me that if you take the world that we are going into now, it’s very hard to treat it as an individual moral adventure. For me, it’s troubling and distressing because after all I’m very much a part of that world. And where will they go? It’s a very strange thing. The weather suddenly got worse. What happened? Their house was flooded. I can give you so many examples of that, but just to take a small example:   if you travel to the Middle East or to water-stressed parts of Australia, you’ll see people trying to grow lawns. It’s not sudden and huge. Yet when California hit this drought a couple of years ago, they instituted water rationing and people didn’t really complain. But Mumbai is actually connected to the mainland only by a couple of arterial roads. And the technological fixes aren’t going to solve the matter for us. It’s called Flight Behavior. Truth is much, much stranger than fiction. How could you possibly call that an “individual moral adventure”? It’s something more essential. And when I saw what Hurricane Sandy did to the New York region, it occurred to me to ask what would happen if a similar storm hit Mumbai. And really, why? It was a tornado — the only tornado in the recorded meteorological history of Delhi. Again, let me let me return to Moby-Dick. But to the contrary, they actually use a great deal more. I don’t know of a single story in which Hurricane Sandy plays a part. But what is so interesting to me is that Updike’s statement really comes at exactly the same time that we have this invention of neoliberal economics, where everything is really about individual choices. ¤
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. That’s actually what precipitated the crisis we’re in. We’ve emitted too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and we need a technological fix. In fact, most of the time fiction is a very watered-down version of the world. I recently met a friend and his wife, who are two of India’s most important artists. People who had to respond to nature constantly were thought to be without consciousness, without history, without art. You’re speeding down an open road with your hair blowing in the wind. It’s really me trying to cope with my own inability to grapple with climate change. One reason why Moby-Dick   really is such an extraordinary novel is because it doesn’t make the separation between the human and the nonhuman. And let me just say here that this book I’ve written, The Great Derangement, is an introspection in a way. I’m a novelist, and novelists like to put stuff like this in their books. It’s certainly true that there is a lot being written about projections of what might happen. It was a disaster scene like I’ve never witnessed. Yes. We are. For him, every part of the world of man and nature was animated by forces that were divine. How do you do that well in a novel? We’re responding to all these crises around us. Yet there has been a recent surge in what’s been called “cli-fi” — climate fiction. I asked them if this trauma had ever shown up in their work and again, they just were completely astonished. I don’t think I can offer any kind of program. The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps the single most influential novel written by an American in the 20th century. If you sit around trying to write the big climate change book, you’re almost inevitably going to end up writing a kind of apocalyptic science fiction. You see, Mumbai was originally six or seven islands. I’ll tell you why. When our only way of dealing with these issues is by projecting them into a landscape of fantasy, what we’re really doing is denying the reality of our lives because climate change is not in the future. Or are you talking about something even more fundamental? But again, let me just come back to the example that I started with. And even if we make all the necessary changes today — if today we were to stop emitting fossil fuels altogether — we know that some of the impacts are inevitable. One doesn’t want to put a number on it, but yes, I think it would result in very serious casualties. It’s the stuff we put into the atmosphere that is actually creating these incredible perturbations all around us, like Hurricane Sandy. We really don’t know how to talk about cataclysmic events. So the inability of the rest of the world to tune into the fossil fuel economy wasn’t because of any lack of interest or capacity on their part. If you just think of images of freedom, what does freedom mean to us today? It was an estuarine landscape just like New York. Where’s the culture? Fiction very powerfully shapes our desires and our imagination. It’s about a collective predicament. It’s the same phenomenon as the paperless office paradox. But let me say that Updike’s description is correct in relation to his own practice and the practice of the great majority of writers around the world today. And who’s best equipped to show us this reimagined landscape? Nothing. I don’t think we have a choice. You said novelists don’t write about cataclysmic storms and natural events because they don’t seem to be the stuff of fiction. For many years I did try to write about that experience. Isn’t there also a nuclear facility in Mumbai? We have to look at the other end. We’re   flooded with apocalyptic stories! Two nuclear facilities. If it were today, I’d probably stop to take a selfie and would not live to tell the tale, but I did have the sense to go and hide. Yet if you go back in the history of the novel — and I guess we’re talking about the Western novel — isn’t that what happens in novels? It really troubles me. He was famous for finding the Jevons Paradox, which demonstrates that greater energy efficiencies actually lead to greater consumption of energy. For example, California is perhaps the ultimate example of a place where people were always encouraged to think of absolute freedom, to buy and consume as they pleased. We need to imagine our lives in a completely different way. It’s very strange because nobody would deny that the climate crisis has been precipitated by the very rapid growth of China, India, and Indonesia over the last 20 years. So the economic system filtered into what was expected of a novelist? And if the scientists weren’t out there telling us about this, we would want to ignore them, because all these things go so profoundly against our intellectual makeup, our history, our education. I would say it’s really a problem of culture. I certainly believe that. What we see now is an environment, a nonhuman world, which is completely animated by human actions. So we really have to think about these things. Suddenly I saw this thing whipping down directly at me and I had the presence of mind to look for a place to hide. That’s not actually the reality of the world that we live in. Hurricane Sandy hit the Chelsea part of New York, which has been a major arts neighborhood for the last 20 years. So these impacts are upon us. And that’s consumption. They’re incredibly powerful, overwhelmingly powerful. That’s when these divisions were put in place. In what way would you describe this as an individual moral adventure? Before that, these distinctions never applied. So just logistically to evacuate everybody out of Mumbai would be very difficult. And I happened to be there on that road that day, just at that time. Let’s remember that although Hurricane Sandy was a superstorm, it wasn’t an incredibly powerful storm by the time it actually hit New York. There are other very scary phenomena. They don’t have the means. Where is the great Climate Change Novel? If you ask any artist or writer what their work is about, or what the sphere of art or literature is, the first thing they would say is that it’s a sphere of absolute freedom. I spend part of my time in India, not far from Mumbai. All of this literally took about a minute, though in my memory it lasted forever. It’s a problem of our desires. It’s very abstract. Yet if you ever ask an artist, have you produced any kind of work in relation to this, most of them will look at you in astonishment. So where does this desire for the lawn come into being? This isn’t a problem that you can just ascribe to one part of the world and say all the rest of the world figure merely as victims. I think the world of the arts and culture will not have a very convincing response. If the climate crisis is not essentially a science problem, what is it? It’s really about the humanistic philosophy that most of us have come to believe in the contemporary era. Ghosh is steeped in the cultural and political dimensions of literature. And various citizens groups have also started responding. It probably had none, because it projected all of these events into a future. That’s the traditional definition of culture. They are writing about people’s individual lives. So all of this is very troublesome. So I ran around the corner and managed to find a little balcony to shelter under. In India, people were incredibly eager to take up the carbon economy in the early 19th century. Do we need a totally different idea of freedom? Asians were denied the fruits of the fossil fuel economy through acts of power. They are writing about individual moral adventures. Within the Enlightenment you have this deification of humanity, the centrality of the human and the exclusion of the nonhuman from everything. The small country of Burma had an oil economy going back a millennium. What do you think of those novels? These questions haunt the acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh. I often find myself asking my friends — many of whom are writers and artists — how they respond to events that have a clear climate change fingerprint. That’s absolutely the case. It’s on us. The novel has its own conventions of probability and believability. That’s really what freedom has come to mean to us. Yes. I can’t make projections about what’s going to happen in the future but it’s perfectly clear that at an experiential level, human beings just have to be ready. Life on the road, when you’ve chucked the trappings of civilization and you’re off on your own wild ride. Melville was in a sense a pantheist. They managed to adjust their lives around it. ¤
STEVE PAULSON: You tell a story from 1978 when you were a student in Delhi and a storm came whipping through the city. Ghosh draws on a wide range of sources — climate scientists, philosophers like Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, postcolonial theorists. It’s in every way a novel about a collective predicament. Besides, many people are afraid of having their belongings looted, especially middle-class people. And the challenge is daunting. They are not something that we could call “natural.” They are something on which we have left our own fingerprints and they’re coming back to visit us in these ways. It’s just not what the modern creative imagination is about. This neoliberalism that started in the late ’80s has had a profound effect on all our thinking in so many ways. And it went down that one road for a quarter of a mile or so. He’s got a team now doing impact studies on what a major storm would mean for Mumbai. AMITAV GHOSH: It was really something much stranger than a storm. We have to look at it through the prism of our desires and our modes of living. I could tell that there wouldn’t be much shelter for me there. For one thing, the history of it changes. When I looked down the road, buses had been carried into colleges, whole sides of buildings had been ripped out. It’s something even stranger than that. It’s so interesting that Hurricane Katrina resulted in so many important documentaries and nonfiction books. Science is very important because it’s alerting us to these symptoms. When we try to think of this thing in terms of a single object, it does in fact become very abstract and dull. One was just dumbstruck. It’s much, much deeper than that. Even cataclysmic events like floods and hurricanes — what Ghosh calls the “fingerprints of climate change” — present their own artistic problems. One thing that became apparent to me while writing this book is that I went through all the disaster preparation scenarios of the local governments and it’s perfectly clear that they’re not prepared for a major cyclone. That first part is such a powerful piece of writing. Barbara Kingsolver has written a wonderful novel in which climate change plays a part. In his recent nonfiction book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, he makes the case that climate solutions can’t be left to scientists, technocrats, and politicians. But isn’t climate change hard to turn into a compelling story? You know, I’m not a scientist. But even more powerfully, when fiction is translated into film. But when I look around the world now and see the impacts that are actually unfolding around us in such profound and important ways, how is it possible that I have not paid enough attention to this? And yet do you think it had any impact at all in alerting people to climate change? There are any number of novels and films about the possible drowning of New York. I mean, how do you really cope with that? This is quite a bleak assessment. We can see this scenario play out on a daily basis in Mumbai. I was, I think, 21, and I decided to pack up my books and head back to my room in the university. They were separated from their daughter for several days and were traumatized by this event. In fact, humans have always dealt with these issues. But where is the fiction? They decide they’ll take the risk and try and ride it out. After the tornado had passed, I went back and looked, and those people had been sucked through the door. It’s not entirely the case. Yet we never consider that this kind of freedom is dependent on the road, on the machine that some giant corporation produces for you, and on the gas that an even more enormous corporation produces for you. People in India and elsewhere were very eager to take up the fossil fuel economy, but they were literally kept out of it through administrative, financial, and military means. Absolutely. Freedom doesn’t consist of how much you consume or buy. SEPTEMBER 22, 2017

THE EVIDENCE of climate change is all around us — record temperatures, superstorms, the crack in the Larsen B Ice Shelf. Human beings are at the center of everything, and what we come up with in our own minds is what matters. He believes artists of all kinds — but especially writers — have a moral responsibility to confront the issue, and so far, they’ve failed abysmally. It was only possible to settle Phoenix because of air conditioning. It’s not just novelists who don’t want to deal with these extreme events. It’s not. I started thinking about Mumbai’s vulnerability because of Hurricane Sandy. As soon as you conceive of your object as something called “climate change,” your work dissolves. It’s been left to fantasy and science fiction. This whole question has become very pressing for me, especially in the context of contemporary climate change. Only people who are free of nature were thought to be capable of creating their own history, creating their own art. Now, if a major storm were to hit Mumbai — which is not an entirely unlikely scenario because of intensifying cyclonic activity in the Arabian Sea — it would be absolutely catastrophic. So it’s not entirely absent, but if you look at the mainstream of literary fiction today, it’s carrying on much as it was 20 or 30 years ago and there seems to be absolutely no recognition of the profound rupture that divides the world of today from the world of 1990. How do you manage when the outside temperature is over 50 degrees [Celsius] as it was recently in Kuwait? These tend to be stories about how individual lives change over time. You’re saying it’s much more than that? The list is endless, actually, of novels that are really about collective predicaments. For any number of reasons, but it’s actually been very interesting to immerse myself in this whole climate change literature. But again let me say that Updike’s summation of the novel was correct for his time, for his practice, for the practice of the great majority of his contemporaries. So people tend to lump climate change in the same box as extraterrestrials and visitations from vampires. Bill McKibben pointed to this decades ago, asking where is the culture that reflects our changing reality. You can listen to his interview with Ghosh here. You look at Les Misérables, for example. “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination,” he writes. So what we call “serious fiction” — literary fiction — has pretty much stayed away from climate change. Many of the major galleries lost stuff. That really is the problem. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science. So the very idea that someone like Updike, who was not only a novelist but also an American critic — the sort of authoritative voice speaking on behalf of American literature — that he could make such a statement is itself a kind of absurdity. Look at some of the great novels of the Western canon. And even Hurricane Sandy has resulted in some good nonfiction work. You know, people of my generation used to ask our parents, what did you do in World War II? You take another great iconic American novel, Moby-Dick, which to me is perhaps the greatest novel of the 19th century, if not of all time. It was a time of year when there aren’t any storms in that part of the world. At a certain point even air conditioning is not going to serve you. It just hasn’t entered their minds. Many had been terribly hurt. That’s so hard to imagine in the world of today’s literature. We have to rethink the centrality that freedom has within our conceptions of modern culture and the good life, and we have to start thinking about alternative ways of imagining our lives. Updike was reviewing the 1984 novel Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif. So often the imagery of freedom has to do with an automobile or a motorcycle. At the same time it’s important for people in Asia and Africa to acknowledge that this is a common human problem. What you have to be writing about is actually your changed reality. I’m saying this about New York, but the same is true of Mumbai. Because the nonhuman has no place within novels, a genre that really grew out of this whole process of separating the human from the nonhuman. But that day there was a hailstorm. So it’s something one really doesn’t want to think about. Sure, there’s the occasional major storm or earthquake, but those are usually written off as unique occurrences. Once the internet came into being, everybody thought people would use less paper. To Melville the whale is very much a creature with intention and perhaps with even greater agency than the human beings that it’s dealing with. It just shows an utter blindness to what in fact an American tradition has produced over the years. It’s such an extraordinary thing that you’ll see any number of books and films that visualize the projected drowning of New York City at some point in the future. It really does change our thinking about these things. And yet there’s nothing about the actual drowning of New York. That is exactly the case. Take an iconic, really great American novel like The Grapes of Wrath. That becomes the model of the good life. There’s a darkness in his writing. Culture is what is not nature. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw this sort of strange finger extruding from a cloud. I talked with Ghosh about the failure of contemporary art, why culture cannot be separated from nature, and his own traumatic experience of severe weather. We need a leap of the imagination. Look at earlier novels. So to really come to grips with climate change, we need a whole new way of thinking about fundamental values, whether it’s freedom or this notion that humans are at the center of everything. Similarly, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a Category Four or Five storm that could have a devastating impact on Mumbai. You write that you almost stopped to seek shelter in a place that was destroyed by the tornado. How is the life of someone running away from some terrible hurricane, how can you treat that as an individual moral adventure? In some very important respect it’s freedom from nature. They use these fossil fuels to make water. Every writer has to try and reimagine their work and think about their craft in a different way. Do we need an entirely different way of thinking about art? You’re saying truth really is stranger than fiction. It profoundly affected the ways that artists and novelists think about their work. This is what novelists have always done. Melville never makes a distinction in that sense between the world of the human and the nonhuman. I have written about climate change obliquely. But the reason we can’t just depend on alternative energy is because of what we learned in the mid-19th century. These are called reclamations, but in a world of sea level rise, it’s the sea that’s going to do the reclaiming. What we are all chasing is a model of the good life that comes to us from culture. But just traditional since the late 18th century. Of course, technology can help. In a novel you try to create a world that will make sense to the reader and somehow events that have such an extreme degree of improbability don’t seem to belong within those parameters. In his own novels like The Glass Palace and Sea of Poppies, he has chronicled the lives of the dispossessed and the powerless. We have to cope as best we can. When you look back at that experience, what do you make of it? [Laughs.] I struggle to explain it. The most exposed part of Mumbai has a population of perhaps 10 or 11 million people but to remove all of them would be a Herculean task. We often think of climate change as a science problem. This is the changed reality that we have to try to confront. It’s not that human beings have not in the past dealt with these issues. These are only symptoms that we see around us. Climate change is now. Has climate change figured in your own fiction? That’s none of my business. That’s really the problem, isn’t it? So I’m not pointing the finger at anyone nor is it in any way my intention to reprove other writers for what they choose to write about. Are you saying there are many other kinds of novels? I think the most important thing is that novelists shouldn’t write about climate change. There was an economist named Samuel Jevons, one of the earliest energy economists. Many of them told me that this is a place that should never have been settled. How do you explain this? We really have not come to grips with what might happen. They purify seawater and create, through very energy intensive processes, very expensive water to create lawns. How do you make a compelling story out of an abstract idea like gradual climate change? People who lived in these areas 200 or 300 years ago didn’t know about lawns, didn’t care about lawns, didn’t want lawns. How do you put that into a novel? Hurricane Sandy did not spawn a lot of novels? It’s our larger intellectual culture. It was extraordinary. Many artists live there. And what does freedom mean in the Western tradition? That’s right. He believes the inward turn of modern art has cut it off from the natural world, and that we desperately need a new approach. Think of the part that storms and clouds play in the Odyssey. Absolutely zero. Novelists have written about war, about famine, about all sorts of things. So it’s really not freedom at all. So I’m trying to explore my own limitations. The city is literally jammed between two major nuclear facilities, both of which sit directly on the water. So what about all those things that are not human? Many of them lost work. Think of the cataclysmic weather events that are in the Bible or even in Milton’s writing at a time of great climatic perturbation. Is it a matter of writing stories where, say, Hurricane Katrina figures into the plot? How would you assess our prospects for surviving the climate crisis? But unlike New York, Mumbai has been built up into this promontory by filling in huge stretches of land. Are you talking about millions of people dying? I think dozens were killed. So we can’t depend on efficiencies. And our children are going to say to us, how did you respond to this? It has in oblique ways. So yes, it makes the arguments for climate justice even stronger. But you recently saw the heat wave in Phoenix. You said that your goal is not to point fingers, but you do point a finger at John Updike, who in a book review once defined the purpose of the novel as an “individual moral adventure.” You take issue with that idea, right? And that’s an extraordinary thing because New York City has an incredible concentration of writers, filmmakers, and artists of all kinds, and many of them were very badly affected by Hurricane Sandy. Secondly, it also makes us very aware of issues of climate justice. And that’s why it’s so strange that we only treat this as something that’s projected into the future. Artists, of course. I was in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this year, where they have a very good climate change group. With cyclone warnings as we have nowadays, we have perhaps four or five days to evacuate Mumbai. Many writers, artists, and painters live there. There’s nothing. Ian McEwan has written about climate change in his book Solar. Your critique is not just about the modern novel.