|Amitav Ghosh at the Wilson Center|
Ghosh's talk on "The Great Derangement: Global Warming and the Unthinkable" took place on April 26th at the Wilson Center in D.C. at a meeting of the Washington History Seminar, just a few days before the Global Climate March planned for April 29th. Situated in a building across a narrow public walkway from the doors of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, an institution now intently oblivious to all talk about human-caused GCC, the Wilson Center provided a telling venue for Ghosh's theme. He began his talk by sharing the history of his own family, displaced by a massive flood in Bangladesh a few generations back, an event that killed the majority of the persons living in a village that now no longer exists. The theme of forced migration then is personal for him.
Perhaps most probing philosophically was Ghosh's discussion near the opening of his talk on the plight of a global culture framed by the European Enlightenment and, as a result, no longer capable of even recognizing catastrophic changes of the environmental variety, let alone amending one's practices to allow for them. The modern novel is symptomatic of this situation, Ghosh argues, in which the natural world is repeatedly rendered as a mass of static details against which the singular actions of individual humans then emerge, heroically or otherwise, to be recognized as such. This manner of proceeding is a new phenomenon, one that ends up locating the uncanny, if it is to be found at all, in the solely-human rather than in the world surrounding us. But the tiger's gaze and the course of a flood are uncanny in ways that call for a different manner of conceiving the issue of how one is to be aware and to act. We are, Ghosh argues, surrounded by animate others, more-than-human forces and realities that are capable of intervening in human thought and life, and have been doing so all along, regardless of our own obliviousness to them. Earth is, it turns out, not so different from the planet of Solaris, as it is pictured in Stanislaw Lem's novel by the same name, over-brimming with protean energy and intent on its own ways.
That the manner in which one writes of the world becomes determinative of how one understands oneself capable of acting in it is an important insight. During the emergence of an era of Global Climate Change, the political state has repeatedly assumed the non-exceptionality of the earthly, that mass of inert and uniform details against which the magnificence of human activity, its technological capacity to effect change and regulate its surroundings, purportedly shows its stuff. This is what gives us atomic power plants and middle class housing developments located on the very lip of oceans. exposed willy nilly to voracious forces that eventually come calling. Earlier peoples would not have been so presumptuous, Ghosh argues. Or at the very least they would have recognized more quickly the folly of building a civilization as if the planet were its plaything.
At the core of Ghosh's lecture then was a plea for a discursive retooling of our modes of recognition, for our adopting manners of speaking and writing that stand ready to attend to that which exceeds our own all-too-human capacity to have anticipated it. "The tiger's gaze is invisible - and then it is not!," Ghosh reflects. So too is global warming. In this wise, Ghosh is grateful for the gravity and straightforwardness found in the lucid prose of Pope Francis's Laudato Si, as opposed to the intricate indirection and celebratory claptrap of the recent Paris Climate Accords. The pope speaks of a "catastrophe," but the nations insist on rendering the situation as a set of "adverse impacts." Further, the hunger for miracles, whether they be supernatural ones fashioned by the Most High or technological ones fashioned by humans, must be kept in check, if we are to attend soberly to the plight in which we are entangled. If the Pope already knows this, Gosh wonders, why is this insight so difficult to attain for the secular authorities to whom the fate of an entire planet has been entrusted?
In the time after Ghosh's talk reserved for questions, a member of the audience observed in regard to the overwhelming forces unleashed by Global Climate Change, "people are paralyzed by what they have created," and wondered whether Ghosh might offer some small shred of hope, or at least a word of advice, that might move us beyond our intransigency. Ghosh's response was characteristically sober: "This thing we think of as paralysis is not really paralysis. Rather we know, and we have a plan - to do nothing and let others die." These are not soothing sentiments. A bit later in response to yet another questioner asking in a similar vein "What words would you leave us with that are not simply succumbing to despair?." Ghosh again resisted any easy reply. He spoke instead against a teleological view of history in which human actions inevitably lead to universal contentment and liberation. "The arc of history has moved again toward strife," he observed and reflected on Carl Schmidt's notion of history as a "labyrinth," in which "we do not see where the exits and entrances lie." He continued: "For Buddha human life is sorrowful. Why do we insist on an inevitable movement to a happy ending?"
Precisely the sobriety of Ghosh's response, of his refusal to participate in magical thinking in the throe of radical emergency, is the example called for in a time all too often characterized by its inattentiveness, misdirection and even delusion. Ghosh reminds us in the words of Jean-Pierre Dupuy: "We attack and harm nature, not because we hate it, but because we hate each other." The Great Derangement is finally a product of our own selfishness and hardened hearts, indeed, of our knowing complicity, even as it remains astutely unacknowledged, in a world in which others are eaten as if they are merely our daily dole of bread. Generosity begins at home, but so too violence. These are likely more helpful sentiments to carry us into a difficult future than those provided currently by the technocratic imperium, obsessed as it is with interpreting catastrophe as a set of adverse impacts, wth promoting the virtue of overcoming the intractable rather than learning to live uneasily with it.