Tom Griffiths reviews 'The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable' by Amitav Ghosh

Tom Griffiths reviews 'The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable' by Amitav Ghosh

The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable

by Amitav Ghosh

University of Chicago Press (Footprint), $44.99 hb, 196 pp, 9780226323039

Tom Griffiths

Tom Griffiths

Tom Griffiths is the W.K. Hancock Professor of History at the Australian National University. His prize-winning books include Hunters

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The planet is alive, says Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, and only for the last three centuries have we forgotten that. This is because humans are suffering from ‘The Great Derangement’, a disturbing condition which this book analyses with wisdom and grace. Ghosh foresees that future citizens of a world transformed by climate change will look back at our time and perceive that ‘most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight’. So today’s lamentable politics reflects a more general cultural delusion. Willing and systematic blindness to the consequences of our own actions is certainly a shocking dimension of twenty-first-century life. The Great Derangement is a good title and an apt phrase, for it captures the strangeness, uncanniness, and hubris of our time, when we are knowingly killing the planetary systems that support the survival of our species.

Ghosh is the admired author of fiction – such as The Hungry Tide (2004) and the trilogy Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire (2008–15) – and also of non-fiction such as his Egyptian ethnography, In an Antique Land (1992). The Hungry Tide was set in the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal delta, a liminal place of silt and water where ‘geological processes that usually unfold in deep time’ can be experienced weekly. When writing that novel in May 2002, Ghosh scribbled the following observation: ‘I do believe it to be true that the land here is demonstrably alive; that it does not exist solely, or even incidentally, as a stage for the enactment of human history; that it is [itself] a protagonist.’

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Published in August 2017, no. 393

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