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For an exciting dinner party, put catastrophe on the menu

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

Amitav Ghosh, an Indian novelist and winner of numerous honors and awards, including honorary doctorates from the University of Puget Sound and Maastricht College in the Netherlands, is a brilliant novelist and thinker. Ghosh writes that “Studies have shown that a mention of global warming at the dinner table is almost certain to lead to a quick change of subject.”

It doesn’t have to be that way

Read The Hungry Tide, for an introduction to Ghosh’s fiction, and then immediately follow with The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Next, organize a dinner party. Ghosh’s book is sure to add a new potency to your conversation.

Ghosh invites readers into his intellectual and imaginative inquiry, asking questions like “What is it about Climate Change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its pattern of evasion?” His questions probe underneath the surface of politics, denial, and even capitalism, to ask why the arts, literature, civic planning and other cultural forces fail to consider the reality and reach of climate catastrophe that is our current reality.

A space where we make the future

Ghosh’s local-to-global perspective offers something like seeing a map of the world where Africa is central for the first time. As one friend aptly put,  “It will blow your mind!” Ghosh blows open an in-between space between climate deniers and climate activists. This is the space in which most of us live and work. This is where we act in the world and contribute to culture. We make the future here.

He also reminds us of the relationship between empire and colonialism, not just capitalism (Naomi Klein) that drives our understanding and responses to climate catastrophe.

Making time to read

I bought this book last summer after reading The Hungry Tide, and until February it remained on my shelf, looking rather bleak. I’ve read dozens of books on climate change, and I didn’t think my winter mood could stomach another. Then I broke my wrist and settled into reading all the books I’d purchased and hadn’t yet read.

Taking time to talk

Now, it’s spring and I want every smart person I know to be talking about this book, about the catastrophes in our midst and the ways in which we are connected and complicit: climate denial and concealment is not about them; it’s about us, all of us. Ghosh confronts the reality of climate catastrophe with nuance and imagination and an appropriate dose of rage: “A special place ought to be reserved in hell … for reckless planners who build with such disregard for their surroundings.”

Language that reveals rather than conceals

Ghosh’s exposition of the modes and varieties of climate concealment closes in the last section “Politics” with an illuminating critique of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change whose “diction … is borrowed directly from the free-trade agreements of the neoliberal era.” This gives “the impression of language being deployed as an instrument of concealment and withdrawal; in contrast with Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato Si, which “challenges contemporary practices not just in its choice of words but also in the directness of its style” which “returns over and over again to the theme of “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.”

Ghosh reminds us that as dire as our predicament is, every crisis is an opportunity. The opportunity now is to see reality and to spread words that reveal rather than conceal. In recent weeks, I’ve followed Greta Thunberg and listened to her direct and visionary wisdom. The Great Derangement is divided into sections that were originally presented as four lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015. As the book advances, Ghosh connects stories, cultural habits, and land use planning, to our knowledge of history and to structures of power at local, national, and global levels.

An honest and hopeful analysis

I hope that Ghosh’s book becomes the subject of many dinner conversations, along with Thunberg’s vision, as they offer a more accurate map, a more honest and hopeful analysis of our current predicament. It might not make you comfortable, but it might help to wake you from a sleep of despair.

Kathleen Byrd is a teacher and writer who has lived and raised her daughter in Olympia.


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