Our progress towards managing climate change is often measured in kilowatt hours: the more energy we produce from solar and wind power, the greater our chances of keeping global heating below dangerous levels, or so the argument goes.
But for the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, this approach is wrong-headed. Technocratic speeches and technological solutions alone will not bring about change, and the West, he said, must face up to its colonial past and the long influence it has had on climate politics.
Ghosh, 66, has been writing about the power of nature and humanity’s destruction of the environment for much of his literary career. Born in Kolkata, he grew up in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, where the novelist Vikram Seth was a contemporary at school. Today, Ghosh lives in New York City, though we met in the lobby of his hotel in Brussels, where he had been invited to speak at an eco-literary festival.
Ghosh’s novels explore the impacts of colonialism: in The Glass Palace (2000), he focused on the effect of the timber and rubber trades on Myanmar, Malaya and India; in The Hungry Tide (2004), it was the Sundarbans, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal beset by floods and hurricanes. These books are not “environmental” stories. Instead he depicts nature and ecology as powerful forces that can’t be pushed aside to make room for people.
More recently, Ghosh has turned to non-fiction. In The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021), he describes the devastation the Dutch brought to the Banda Islands, now part of Indonesia, in the 17th century, when the Netherlands sought to control the nutmeg trade. Ghosh calls this strategy “terraforming” – a term he attributes to the US science-fiction writer Jack Williamson. But while Williamson used the phrase to refer to the transformation of planets to make them habitable, Ghosh means shaping other continents into neo-Europes. You can see this approach at play in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, he told me. The destruction of Brazil’s rainforest has reached record levels, as ranchers take advantage of lax environmental protections to burn protected indigenous territories and turn them into intensively farmed land.
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Ghosh is mild-mannered, dressed in a jumper and waistcoat, but there is nothing gentle about his views on humanity’s inaction in the face of the climate crisis. “Nationalism, military power and geopolitical disparities are fundamental to the dynamics that have repeatedly stymied efforts to reach a global agreement on rapid decarbonisation,” he said.
“The whole climate discourse is elite. It comes out of universities and from scientists, and is centred on the West. What about fishermen in India? They understand climate change. Many of us trust scientists but, as we saw in the pandemic, there is also scepticism about who these people are, telling us how to live our lives. The voices of fishermen carry credibility too.”
Ghosh cited Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, and George W Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, as examples of Western nationalism hindering climate action. But he also pointed to the way poorer nations use nationalism as an argument against decarbonisation: why should they curb growth when the West has profited at their expense? For these nations climate action “is not about the future, but about the past”, he said.
“When you come from a poor country such as India, you learn not to listen to what politicians say, but to look at what they do. Politicians around the world talk a good game, but they are basically preparing for war. Climate change is essentially becoming an all-out war and this is just the beginning.
“Even before Ukraine, we were seeing the disintegration of our global institutions. At Cop26 in Glasgow, three of the biggest players didn’t attend [Xi Jinping of China, Jair Bolsonaro and Vladimir Putin]. Whatever you think of them, you can’t address climate change without them. Bolsanaro thumbed his nose: he was in Italy at the time.”
No one is even pretending any more, said Ghosh, citing China’s decision to halt talks on climate change with the US in retaliation for Joe Biden’s support for Taiwan. “Our political systems have failed,” he said. “It isn’t surprising – if you heap sanctions on countries for other reasons, you can’t expect cooperation to arise.”
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Ghosh included Cop27, which begins on 6 November in Egypt, in this damning assessment. “Cop27 will be just another talking shop. Greta Thunberg got it right when she called it ‘blah blah blah’. For those of us who have been watching negotiations for years, that has always been clear – but it came as a shock to her. One hope is that young people create a cultural change, and quickly.”
Ghosh named Pope Francis as another influential voice. “Dealing with the planetary crisis is a matter of unlearning. Pope Francis’s Laudato Si [his 2015 encyclical on ecology] is about the collapse of a certain world-view.” The British, Ghosh claims, are especially ill-suited to “unlearning”. “British people were educated for generations to think that their technological interventions were the best. To recognise that these created climate change requires an unlearning of so much that is foundational to their identity.”
He likened the British government’s “neoliberal” policies to the Road Runner cartoon, in which Wile E Coyote repeatedly plunges off a cliff. He was equally critical of those on the traditional left, whom he believes have paid “little attention” to the climate crisis. “This is one reason why the left are incapable of appealing to the young. There is an incredible energy from the young on these issues. I couldn’t believe that Keir Starmer came down so hard on activists.” (In April, the Labour leader called for the government to impose a nationwide injunction to prevent Just Stop Oil – an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion – from blockading fuel depots in England.) Ghosh continued: “There is a real rage against the political classes in Britain. It should be the left that is harnessing this rage, but instead it is the radical right.”
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With Bolsonaro polling better than expected in the recent Brazilian elections, and Giorgia Meloni’s success in Italy, I asked if he thought we were experiencing the last panicked gasps of national populism and of some national leaders espousing policies incompatible with a carbon-constrained world. “They have a death grip on the world,” Ghosh said. “Because they are from rich, powerful countries, they assume that the people who will be affected will be black and brown people in faraway places. This is another great delusion. The richest parts of the US – California, Texas – are some of the worst-affected. At a certain point they will realise they are heading towards disaster.”
Considered through a colonial and geopolitical lens, the climate crisis looks even worse than when assessed on the science alone. “The picture is grim,” Ghosh agreed. However, “action shouldn’t be framed around hope and despair, but around duty,” he said. “It is our duty to do what we can for the future”.
Amitav Ghosh will continue to raise the alarm through his books. “Once you’ve tuned into this stuff, you can’t tune it out,” he told me before we parted. “It is there in your head. And there is nothing more important to write about.”
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This article appears in a special issue of the New Statesman guest edited by Greta Thunberg and featuring contributors including Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Ai Weiwei and Björk. Read more from the issue here.
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency