just asking questions

Amitav Ghosh: ‘We Are Living in a Reality That Is Fundamentally Uncanny’

Amitav Ghosh. Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer is publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus, interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

With his book-length essay The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian-born novelist Amitav Ghosh became something beyond the renowned author of Sea of Poppies — perhaps the most penetrating cultural critic of a new age defined by climate change and the strange, inadequate, and often self-deluding ways we process its transformations in our storytelling. His new novel, Gun Island, is a climate-change epic, one that fulfills many of the failings and missed opportunities he identified in the dizzying essay. In early September, we spoke about both books and what’s changed in between them.

You wrote The Great Derangement in 2016, diagnosing a broad failure in literature, but also in our political culture, to face up to this story that we were all living in and yet unable to really process properly. Putting aside for a moment the subject of climate change itself and the changing nature of climate politics, how do you see climate storytelling having changed since you wrote that book?
I think since 2016 there’s been a dramatic change. And, well, your article was the inflection point. Before that, it wasn’t that the studies didn’t — or that people didn’t — try to tell these stories. It’s almost as much to do with the reception. How often did you see a book about climate fiction in The New York Times Book Review? Or The New York Review of Books. Almost never. They were just treated as marginal. I do think that Richard Powers’s Overstory was a major turning point — not just because it is a great book, which it is, but because it was taken seriously by the literary mainstream.

What do you think explains that?
I think in part it’s just his own personal reputation. But it’s not just that. Because if you look at the response to Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, it’s quite instructive. Look at the reviews, it’s “Why is she doing this? It doesn’t match up to the other books.”

And she’s a giant, too.
By the time The Overstory was published the ground had somewhat seriously shifted.

So what did change? Is it because the public has learned to think of this as a front-and-center story, rather than a fringe concern?
Going back to 2016 and Bernie Sanders saying right then that this is a major existential crisis, and then that voice being amplified. Extinction Rebellion has been a very major turning point. Greta Thunberg has been a very major turning point. The Sunrise movement. Just the fact that you know the activists could force the democratic party to actually agree to this CNN debate.

Seven hours.
Seven hours. Unbelievable. I think some sort of threshold has been crossed, but it’s not just any one thing. I mean, you just look like an idiot if you just deny the reality.

I think the California wildfires were a major turning point.
Yeah. But I don’t think anybody did a very good job actually of telling the Paradise story. These perfectly ordinary people, waking up in the morning, getting their kids ready for school … And how long did it take, a half hour?

And we can all identify with it.

You could imagine it being a great Paul Greengrass movie, in the line of United 93.
Another turning point was that movie about the priest.

First Reformed.
I can’t say I was such a fan of it.

It’s funny, I had a list of books and movies to ask you about — The Overstory was one, First Reformed was another. What didn’t you like about it?
It sort of brings the whole thing down to a personal crisis. I feel that that’s not really a productive way of doing it. But, look, it’s a minor criticism compared to how glad one feels that it’s there. And that it will do something, it will be in the mainstream. It will be watched.

And reviewed. Even more than being watched. It was written about a lot.
It was being reviewed. That’s it, that’s it. See, that’s the thing. When these films start being taken seriously in that way, that’s what marks an inflection point. The work has to be made. But then also the work has to be read and received in a certain way.

In The Great Derangement, you seem to want to see fiction that treats nature as a protagonist — that tells the story not just of a single character but of how the natural world is an active force in the lives of those characters.
I think that’s exactly what Overstory is. That’s to me what is really so exciting about the book. Climate change is such a vast thing. It can be approached in thousands of ways. But in a literary sense this is the real challenge that it poses: How do you give voice to the nonhuman? The Overstory poses it in a very interesting way, though I think in a way he’s not able to bring himself to face the true implications of what he’s posing.

What would that mean?
Look, you know, an interesting thing about Richard Powers’s imagination, and Barbara Kingsolver’s, and for that matter Annie Proulx — I was talking to her — is that for them nature is science. In a sense it’s exhausted by science.

This comes from the fact that they’ve been brought up in and have always lived in a society in which science is exhaustive of nature — in which nature exists almost exclusively for scientists. So in both books, and I’m a great admirer of both books, but what you can see is that they can only ventriloquize nature through the scientists. But Richard Powers takes a step further than Barbara Kingsolver. You can see him straining at the very limits of what is possible for him.

I found it interesting actually to see his YouTube videos. Because he often says that you know, “I’ve done as much as I can. I wish I could be an animist. But I can’t bring myself to cross that line.” He’s brought himself to vitalism. But he can’t cross the border beyond that. And that’s an interesting thing for me, because I’m very much deep within the scientific literature, too, but I wasn’t brought up in this world. I was brought up as a pantheist.

And how would you define your worldview now?
You know, all of that comes back to me now. For me, nature has never been dead. It’s filled with voices. It’s filled with agency. It’s filled with the uncanny. And you know, I think, actually, that is the case for most people. It’s just that they can’t find ways of articulating it. You think of, say, Japan, and the part that the supernatural plays in the Japanese world. They’re so hypermodern, and so hypertechnological. But that aspect of the agency of the nonhuman is constantly present among them.

They’re producing, on the one hand, all these horror movies, but at the same time I think they have always produced very interesting work about human agency. You must know that great book about cats. The speaking cat.

The Traveling Cat Chronicles. And in the U.S., they have to reduce all of our horror movies to fables about human action. Or it’s like some retribution for some sin created in the past. Even the supernatural is reduced to the human in the sort of meaning package delivered at the end. We’re really uncomfortable with the idea of a messy or truly inhuman supernatural.
But it’s interesting — you pick up a newspaper in the U.S. and you look for the bestseller lists, and there are so many supernatural books. But most of all you look at the films. They’re all about zombies, and vampires, and werewolves. But as you say all of those are ultimately tied to some idea of an extrahuman agency. Not a nonhuman agency.

When I look at the climate crisis, I see it both ways. I mean, I’m able to think, Of course, there are now things going on which beguile and terrify us and which are beyond our control. And I think thorough, comprehensive understanding of what’s unfolding requires some perspective that puts that natural uncanny at the center. On the other hand, and this may be just the American in me, I also think it is ultimately a story about human behavior in the sense that we have kicked off these cascading changes. Some of them are now unfolding beyond our control, but from a narrative perspective I also revert back to seeing it as something that we’ve created.
You know, I think it’s not that simple. And that’s really the point. When you wake, let’s say, a sleeping tiger, you’ve woken him. You haven’t created him.

The tiger has its agency and it’s going to come after you. That’s what you have to recognize. That you have no control over it. And that’s what’s so interesting even about the science. The science is always one step short. It’s almost a meme: Scientists are surprised. Scientists are puzzled. Models didn’t predict. So what you can see there is that, in fact, it’s like we were watching Gulliver. We were Lilliputians watching Gulliver, you know, and watching him wake up and trying to describe him in some kind of language, without recognizing the agency of Gulliver. So we haven’t created it. We just, as it were, spurred something into motion, which is now violently striking back at us.

Yeah. I saw a headline the other day, something like, a string of unprecedented hot days strikes the American Southwest, comma, puzzling scientists. And I think, What’s the puzzle?
It really is a meme. You encounter it constantly.

On the other hand, I think there is something sort of useful narratologically — to be signaling to people all the time that this is unprecedented.
Yeah, absolutely. But in terms of this whole idea of nonhuman agency, I think actually some of the most interesting work that’s being done on that is being done in nonfiction by historians, anthropologists, and so on.

Who were you thinking of?
Well, I don’t know if you read Bathsheba Demuth’s new book?

She’s this young historian at Brown University. She did, I must say, what was to me I think the most brilliant talk I’ve ever heard. She grew up with intuits in Bering Strait. And she’s a very highly trained historian, fluent in Russian. So in this talk especially she demonstrated that in the mid 19th century, when whalers started going after whales in this region, the whales responded. How intelligently they responded. How they crafted their withdrawals. But even more interesting than that is how among all hunting and gathering people, the belief is always that you don’t kill the animal, the animal gives itself to you. And she actually charts it. She gives examples of how she’s been with these Inuit whale hunters and one after another the bullhead whales will come out, they look at the boat, they look at the harpoonist, and then they go away. But one will stay, and it will wait until it’s harpooned.

Or Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. It’s amazing. A truly heartbreaking and amazing book. But she’s working with these Matsutake mushrooms — these huge complex organisms that underlie forests. She’s looking at how they allow trees to communicate — the whole ensemble communicates, you know. But what is interesting is that, in Western thought, the whole idea of agency is tied to your idea of history — who has the history-making power? That’s how you judge agency. And she shows you that forests have this agency.

In a certain sense, with climate change we’ve given them even more power to shape our history.
If you think about it, all of this idea that emerges in the first place, out of this mechanistic theorizing, but most of all in the late 18th century — this Hegelian idealism that human beings all have spirits and we’re advancing to a world where we disappear into spirit and God, divinity, and so on. How deeply rooted this idea has become in western thinking! It’s something to really, truly marvel at. Because you know, you think about poetry and we’re always told about the romantics and how much Wordsworth loved nature and so on. But you know the iconic poet of that age was not Wordsworth, it was Tennyson. I remember as a child in India being made to learn Tennyson. And Tennyson, in one work, he basically says, for man to move upward toward spirit, the tiger and ape must wither and die.

Can you imagine? It’s almost impossible for us to imagine today a poet calling for the extinction of tigers and apes.

On the other hand, our culture is sort of calling that into being collectively.
Exactly. And in a sense, what is this whole idea of Kurzweil’s, escaping into the singularity? Essentially that idea. You escape the bonds of earth.

Do you see a more sophisticated understanding of these systems evolving in the U.S., or do you think we’re still largely stuck in an inappropriate and insufficient paradigm that still foregrounds the individual and the human?
I think it’s impossible to generalize. Because within the U.S. there are so many people who have alternate faith systems, belief systems. And we’ve seen in the U.S. most of all a sort of rebellion, an inchoate rebellion against a mechanistic modern. But that inchoate rebellion has never had anywhere proper to go. They go from New Age to something else to something else. But it is a rebellion.

But those people — are they necessarily able to change attitudes toward the world? I don’t know. Because if you look at the people who wield power, if you look at the industrial, intellectual, cultural elite, I think it’s impossible to imagine that they can ever take on the full burden of climate change. It affects everything they know. Everything they stand for is wrong. And it’s they who led us down this path.

I can both see the total inadequacy of our existing elite in addressing and reckoning with this problem, and also just have a really hard time seeing that elite being toppled at the same time.
It won’t be; it can’t be. They’re much more prepared than their adversaries. I mean, they’re completely prepared. The idea that the elites deny climate change, I think it’s just a complete red herring. You think someone like Peter Thiel doesn’t work out climate change? Is he really quietly buying a place in New Zealand? You think Steve Bannon doesn’t know about climate change? He was one of the funders of that eco project …

We shouldn’t kid ourselves. They know perfectly well. Does Trump not know? Why’s he buying insurance? Of course he knows.

Or wanting to buy Greenland.
What they’re saying is that our systems are caught up in this, we have too much wealth involved in this, so let other people suffer.

That’s not really climate denial.
If I were to think of a catchy phrase for this, I would say it’s the climate unsayable. Because you can’t, within the constraints of common public discourse today, say “let them die.” It’s not sayable. But it is implicit.

Do you think we can stop warming before we get to that point? I don’t think that it’s possible that we stop before 1.5 degrees.
I’m afraid two is optimistic. In India, the public discourse is all greenwashing, but what they’re actually doing is opening up the forests, doing away with regulations, funding Adani’s coal mine in Australia. And Australia is in the grip of major climate denialism, if you like.

India’s place in this story is harrowing to me, as an outsider. How do you think about it?
It’s really overwhelming. I just can’t bring myself to think about the worst aspects of it, really. Because it’s not just that it’s going to happen in the future — in fact it’s happening right now. For example, the dead zones in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Literally hundreds of thousands of fisher folk have already been displaced. They’ve had to abandon their traditional occupations. They’re moving inland into other kinds of occupations. Some are just escaping as well.

There was a point a couple of years ago when this huge megadrought gripped Central India. When it was really at its worst, there’s this region called Bundelkhand, a very water-stressed region, where close to a million people were leaving every week. The Indian parliament was in session. They held only one debate on the drought. Not even a tenth of the MPs showed up.

So I think of India as both a parable and a principle. What it shows us most effectively is the complete failure of modern government. That is to say, post-19th century institutional government. Just completely and catastrophically failing. And we see more and more evidence of this every single day. But it’s not just the government. It’s the entire civic culture if you like. Indian newspapers hardly pay any attention to this. Within the media it’s hardly spoken of, within literature it’s hardly spoken of. And the idea that this can be solved in the U.S. or in the West is an illusion. That boat has sailed. Fundamentally, this is going to be decided in Asia and in Africa. But the minister of environment in India recently said that these droughts had nothing to do with climate change. What can you say? At that point it’s not even irresponsibility or anything. It just means they’re living in some other alternative universe.

Do you think of them like you think of Thiel and Bannon, that they understand but choose not to address it?
I think a large number of them are exactly like that. The other aspect of it is just throughout Asia and Africa, the climate issue is completely subordinate to the narrative of development.

Which gives a kind of postcolonial or anticolonial cast as well.
What they will say to you straight away is, “Let them give up their cars.”

Well, which is a perfectly defensible position morally.
But it was not Gandhi’s position. I think one always has to remember that. It was not Gandhi’s position. And that such a position was possible then is a truly miraculous thing. He was able to say that I would rather that my country be poor than that we destroy the world. Today such a position would be … Any politician with such a position would be hounded to death.

Let’s talk about your novel, Gun Island. Is it possibly true that you didn’t begin writing this until after The Great Derangement?
You know, once you start thinking about these issues, they’re never absent, you can’t put them away, they’re just there. So I guess it didn’t begin necessarily as a book about all that’s in it right now. But it was impossible that it wouldn’t impress those things, simply because they were so urgent to me.

Does that mean you think all of your future books will be shaped by those concerns too?
Absolutely. They’ll always be present. Because it’s what’s present.

I think of this as being a book about reality. That’s really what it is. It’s a book about reality.

But the book also involves some kind of mythological, magic realist elements too. How did you sort of come to deploying those? Or did they seem to you just similarly a way of depicting reality?
Exactly that. Because I think we are living in a reality that is, in itself, fundamentally uncanny. I think it’s impossible. I mean by the time I finished writing The Great Derangement, there were two or three things that were clear to me about the only ways we can write about today’s world. They cannot be these individual stories of adventure. That they cannot be local. And they have to confront the aspect of the uncanny in a literary sense really. That is our great resource, the uncanny, which somehow has come down to us even through the 19th century.

You also have to remember this frog-in-the-boiling-water analogy. And one sees evidence for that all the time. Young fisherman no longer know what their grandfathers used to catch. So they think this is normal to get tiny little fish 200 miles out. They just don’t remember. Farmers don’t remember.

I come at this from a different perspective from really thinking about it in terms of nonfiction storytelling primarily, but I just think it’s both the case that we’re likely to normalize and adapt beyond what today we might believe is possible. And yet at the same time, the suffering is still going to likely be so much more intense than we imagine.
I think it’s probably going to be much worse than we expect. That’s certainly clear. And it’s not just in relation to climate. You know how scientists speak about climate sensitivity? I think we should also start talking about social and political sensitivity for climate.

But the fact that 50 or 70 years from now civilization probably will not have totally collapsed, is not an argument against alarmism. In fact, it’s sort of an argument for the urgency of raising the alarm now because if we wait until 2050 to be thinking about what life is going to be like in 2060 we’ll have already normalized so much additional suffering that we won’t be able to see the next ten years of suffering as horrifying, as it should be by any moral logic.
That is the difference between nonfiction and fiction. Fiction about something more than just telling. Because in fiction also there is consolation. It also provides meaning. It can suggest to you forms of meaning that might emerge out of you. And when you say suffering, yes you’re right. But really if you think about ways in which people have thought about the world, it’s only in the sort of modern era that people have come to think of suffering of being extraneous to life.

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‘We Are Living in a Reality That Is Fundamentally Uncanny’