The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

The headline above is the title of a fascinating book with an original take on climate change. The author,  Amitov Ghosh was born in India and now lives New York. He is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.

He pleads for a truly global view on climate change since it is the first truly global phenomemon. He thinks the West has mostly a Eurocentric view and, specifically, neglects Asia with its huge population and its attempt to catch up with us and emit today the carbon which we have been spewing forth for decades. Because the density of population is so much greater than, for example, Canada’s, the lethal consequences for flooding, heat waves, drought and famine are also much greater. We should cut Asia some slack – Western imperialism is in part why Asian development runs so far behind Western development – and ourselves make up that slack by limiting carbon emissions more.

The “Great Derangement”as a description of the era of climate change has many dimensions

The improbable becomes probable. Catastrophe is common rather than uncommon  Regularity of life becomes a thing of the past. Nature becomes unnatural.

We have come to think of nature as separate from ourselves, of ourselves as separate from nature. Now, in the time of the Anthropocene, we have learned how to have huge effects on nature, and nature is striking back, taking on a life of its own, demanding respect.

Ghosh writes brilliantly of the relationship between the customary view of nature and ourselves, and the novel. Nature is neglected by fiction except as background. Ghosh thinks that literature – the novel though not poetry – has difficulty giving a central role to nature, and particularly its catastrophic side. In telling a story, if the author resorts to the improbable the reader may seen this as a contrivance. This leads to a lack of imagination in culture that feeds into a lack of imagination in thinking about climate change. The unthinkable results from the unthinking.

Where does this most imaginative thinking about climate change leave us, lead us. Where is the hope that something can be done. Ghosh appeals to two documents issued in 2015: the Paris Agreement and the  Encyclical of Pope  Francis.

The Paris Agreement, though less than perfect, is a great achievement of diplomacy. 195 countries signed it, only two refused. In a world of nation-states the impossible – a good impossible – has happened.

Since Ghosh wrote, Trump has pulled the United States out of the Agreement. There can be no pretending that this is other than a big step backwards, though it is likely that the U.S. will meet its goal for cutting emissions in spite of Trump. It is encouraging that at the G-20 gathering where Trump behaved so irresponsibly no other country of the remaining 19 chose to join him but rather reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. China may decide to assume the leadership role that the U.S. is no longer willing to play, an outcome that would seem to fit Ghosh’s notion of the necessary, even of the good. We were also reminded that state and local governments – including the large state of California – have been doing much more than Washington and will continue to do so. In fact the U.S. is on track to meet it emission commitments for 2017 under the Paris Agreement in spite of Trump.

Where Ghosh is critical of the Paris Agreement is that it is, by its nature, a technocratic document. It cannot rise above a narrowly “rational” view of what must be done. It can use no language other than the bureaucratic language of the state. It does not inspire. It can make no mention of morality nor of a transcendent hope.

This where the Pope comes in. His Encyclical, in effect, accepts the detailed analysis of the Paris Agreement, and stands the criticisms of it on their head. He is, of course, the head of the Catholic church, but he seems here to be speaking to all people. Including Donald Trump who dropped in to see the Pope who used the occasion to talk about climate change.(I am not myself a Catholic. In the small town in rural Ontario where I lived as child, there was a parade by the Protestant anti-Catholic Orange Lodge each year on July 12 which is coincidentally the date as I write this. Proof that progress is possible!)

Ghosh is clearly of the view that in a secular world of globalization and pervasive present mindedness we need to transcend these, and that religion as a great time bound institution can be a solace of help to humanity.

The Pope’s message is love. It is happily our love for our grandchildren that brings us together and compels us to act.

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