Some initial thoughts on reading Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’

One of the many challenges thrown up by reading Amitav Ghosh’s extraordinary book: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is that it shows very clearly the quite extraordinary degree to which ‘we’ (those who inhabit the dominant culture of the Anglosphere) have been either misled or just plain lied to. It is true that much of what he writes brings forward into full view as fact material that have been present in my own peripheral vision as an ill-focused sense of unease, even dread. But his ability to link apparently disparate areas of knowledge makes the causes of that dread both graspable and crystal clear. 

The challenge closest to me, perhaps, is that Ghosh’s book requires me to reconsider everything I have done professionally; that is as someone who has spent a working lifetime engaged in education and the cultural field. While the principle thread Ghosh follows might be said to be the novel’s failure to address critically the imaginative world of an economic system not only predicated on isolation, but designed to produce further isolation, the implications of his argument for all the arts seem to me to need particularly urgent consideration just now, however unpalatable they will be to many people. While it is profoundly uncomfortable, at the age of sixty-nine, to be faced with the task of revising a great many of assumptions, many of them personal but considerably more in the field in which I work, there have been plenty of indicators that this would need to be done.    

In 2014 the performance artist Andrea Fraser claimed that artists are not part of the solution to our current crisis, as many in the cultural are beginning to assume, but contribute to it. Ghosh’s argument suggests that she is very likely right in the vast majority of cases. The art world has, in consequence, yet to acknowledge, let alone adequately respond to, Bruno Latour’s suggestion that we cannot start to address our current situation until ‘progressives’ begin to acknowledge the reality of those they previously viewed as ‘outsiders’, as outmoded, reactionary, traditionalist, or parochial. Yet to do so would be to undermine the whole modernist cultural project on which contemporary art is predicated. There was, of course, nothing particularly new about Andrea Fraser’s claim. It echoes, for example, issues that had been raised twenty years earlier by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, and the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley. Issues that Ghosh now firmly locates within the culture, history and politics of The Great Derangement. 

Ghosh concludes by expressing the hope that the struggle we now face in addressing that Derangement will result in an ability to see the world more clearly and to transcend the isolation in which that derangement has trapped us. And, almost as an afterthought it sees to me, his final sentence expresses the hope that the resulting vision will be set out by a transformed and renewed art and literature. It’s a hope I can only share, but one tempered by the knowledge that there is an enormous amount of work – particularly our own psycho-social re-education – that will need to be done first.