The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh

Book Summary by Ms. Sanika Potnis, Research Assistant, PIC-EECC

In the aptly titled non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh raises an alarm about the violence and scale of the climate crisis. The author, best known for his work in fiction, departs from his literary path to address the invisible yet potentially “life-changing threat” of climate change.

He explores the profound disconnect between the urgency of climate action and society’s collective inability to grasp its implications. To sound the alarm about the climate crisis, he asks if this era “will come to be known as the time of the “Great Derangement”.

Taking an unconventional approach, Ghosh provides fresh insights into the issue of climate change, shifting the discourse away from the scientific jargon, seeks answers in stories, history and politics, and questions the dominant models of culture, politics and power that have isolated man from the environment to the extent that they have failed to address the problems of rising temperatures, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and warming oceans.

Ghosh begins by addressing his ancestors as “ecological refugees”, recalling a catastrophic event in the 1850s when the river Padma changed course and destroyed all human settlements that came in its way. His ancestors were among the few survivors and were forced to move by nature’s elements. Through this incident, he highlights the presence of nature’s elemental force in shaping human lives and the trajectory of humanity.

To illustrate the effects of climate change, Ghosh compares them to the Sunderbans’ tigers that are “everywhere and nowhere”. Just like the folklore from the world’s largest swamp forest, the impacts of climate change, though invisible, give rise to an “uncanny” feeling. This feeling is dealt with in-depth with the author’s experience of the 1978 tornado in Delhi, which shaped his thought process about climate change.

A common thread binding the three parts of the book is the notion of disassociation from nature and non-human elements in literature, history and politics of the Anthropocene man. Drawing on personal experiences, he highlights a lack of affinity with the natural world until it stares man in the eye in the form of an extreme weather event.

The first part, ‘Stories’, explores the role of stories in shaping our understanding of climate change. He criticises the limited role of literary novels in covering the “potentially life-changing threats” of a warmer planet.

The second part, ‘History’, goes into the genesis of the climate crisis and highlights the role of the “empire and imperialism” in shaping the dynamics of the current carbon economy. Ghosh provides a plethora of incidents from recent history that deliberately undermined the non-Western advancements to make the Western world appear superior and unique.

He questions the notions of Western modernity and links it to the continued Eurocentric approach to global warming. He looks at the role of nation-states, industrialisation, and colonial rule in the evolution of the carbon economy and their contribution towards a culture of dissociation from the climate crisis. He links the historical events with the contemporary debates around common but differentiated responsibilities and climate justice and highlights the stark differences between Eastern and Western thought.

In the third part, ‘Politics’, Ghosh delves into the making of the modern political systems that lack consideration of the natural world and suggests that the very notion of a nation-state is being challenged by the climate crisis, which is rendering the world borderless. He identifies the imbalance in the distribution of power among nations as “the greatest obstacle to mitigatory action”.

He compares two publications produced in 2015: Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si, and the Paris Agreement, and highlights the divergent approaches towards climate action. The latter reinforces the “sovereignty of Man and his ability to shape the future” and the former acknowledges that “humanity has lost its way”.

The book was released in 2016 after the signing of the Paris Agreement of 2015 and the title captures the “deranged” reality we have created. It’s a clarion call for our generation to act. From the perspective of the future generation, our carbon economy, nation-state politics and literary novels will all be culprits in the derangement of the planet.

With the first-ever Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement in 2023, the book pushes for collective climate action. Not only does it describe the improbable nature of climate change but also makes a strong case for dealing with the challenge and urges for debates on climate change to move beyond the confines of international forums. Overall, the author leaves no stone unturned in delivering the central message of sounding the climate alarm without using scientific jargon. The book is a wake-up call to authors, policymakers and scholars to change the dominant modes of thinking about the unthinkable challenge that humanity faces today.