Excerpt from an interview with the extraordinarily wonderful author Amitav Ghosh, NY Intelligencer, Sept 2019
Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. It’s amazing. A truly heartbreaking and amazing book. But she’s working with these Matsutake mushrooms — these huge complex organisms that underlie forests. She’s looking at how they allow trees to communicate — the whole ensemble communicates, you know. But what is interesting is that, in Western thought, the whole idea of agency is tied to your idea of history — who has the history-making power? That’s how you judge agency. And she shows you that forests have this agency.
In a certain sense, with climate change we’ve given them even more power to shape our history.If you think about it, all of this idea that emerges in the first place, out of this mechanistic theorizing, but most of all in the late 18th century — this Hegelian idealism that human beings all have spirits and we’re advancing to a world where we disappear into spirit and God, divinity, and so on. How deeply rooted this idea has become in western thinking! It’s something to really, truly marvel at. Because you know, you think about poetry and we’re always told about the romantics and how much Wordsworth loved nature and so on. But you know the iconic poet of that age was not Wordsworth, it was Tennyson. I remember as a child in India being made to learn Tennyson. And Tennyson, in one work, he basically says, for man to move upward toward spirit, the tiger and ape must wither and die.
Can you imagine? It’s almost impossible for us to imagine today a poet calling for the extinction of tigers and apes.
On the other hand, our culture is sort of calling that into being collectively.
Exactly. And in a sense, what is this whole idea of Kurzweil’s, escaping into the singularity? Essentially that idea. You escape the bonds of earth.
Do you see a more sophisticated understanding of these systems evolving in the U.S., or do you think we’re still largely stuck in an inappropriate and insufficient paradigm that still foregrounds the individual and the human?I think it’s impossible to generalize. Because within the U.S. there are so many people who have alternate faith systems, belief systems. And we’ve seen in the U.S. most of all a sort of rebellion, an inchoate rebellion against a mechanistic modern. But that inchoate rebellion has never had anywhere proper to go. They go from New Age to something else to something else. But it is a rebellion.
But those people — are they necessarily able to change attitudes toward the world? I don’t know. Because if you look at the people who wield power, if you look at the industrial, intellectual, cultural elite, I think it’s impossible to imagine that they can ever take on the full burden of climate change. It affects everything they know. Everything they stand for is wrong. And it’s they who led us down this path.
I can both see the total inadequacy of our existing elite in addressing and reckoning with this problem, and also just have a really hard time seeing that elite being toppled at the same time.It won’t be; it can’t be. They’re much more prepared than their adversaries. I mean, they’re completely prepared. The idea that the elites deny climate change, I think it’s just a complete red herring. You think someone like Peter Thiel doesn’t work out climate change? Is he really quietly buying a place in New Zealand? You think Steve Bannon doesn’t know about climate change? He was one of the funders of that eco project …
We shouldn’t kid ourselves. They know perfectly well. Does Trump not know? Why’s he buying insurance? Of course he knows.
Or wanting to buy Greenland.
What they’re saying is that our systems are caught up in this, we have too much wealth involved in this, so let other people suffer.
That’s not really climate denial.
If I were to think of a catchy phrase for this, I would say it’s the climate unsayable. Because you can’t, within the constraints of common public discourse today, say “let them die.” It’s not sayable. But it is implicit.
Do you think we can stop warming before we get to that point? I don’t think that it’s possible that we stop before 1.5 degrees.
I’m afraid two is optimistic. In India, the public discourse is all greenwashing, but what they’re actually doing is opening up the forests, doing away with regulations, funding Adani’s coal mine in Australia. And Australia is in the grip of major climate denialism, if you like.
India’s place in this story is harrowing to me, as an outsider. How do you think about it?It’s really overwhelming. I just can’t bring myself to think about the worst aspects of it, really. Because it’s not just that it’s going to happen in the future — in fact it’s happening right now. For example, the dead zones in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Literally hundreds of thousands of fisher folk have already been displaced. They’ve had to abandon their traditional occupations. They’re moving inland into other kinds of occupations. Some are just escaping as well.
There was a point a couple of years ago when this huge megadrought gripped Central India. When it was really at its worst, there’s this region called Bundelkhand, a very water-stressed region, where close to a million people were leaving every week. The Indian parliament was in session. They held only one debate on the drought. Not even a tenth of the MPs showed up.
So I think of India as both a parable and a principle. What it shows us most effectively is the complete failure of modern government. That is to say, post-19th century institutional government. Just completely and catastrophically failing. And we see more and more evidence of this every single day. But it’s not just the government. It’s the entire civic culture if you like. Indian newspapers hardly pay any attention to this. Within the media it’s hardly spoken of, within literature it’s hardly spoken of. And the idea that this can be solved in the U.S. or in the West is an illusion. That boat has sailed. Fundamentally, this is going to be decided in Asia and in Africa. But the minister of environment in India recently said that these droughts had nothing to do with climate change. What can you say? At that point it’s not even irresponsibility or anything. It just means they’re living in some other alternative universe.
Do you think of them like you think of Thiel and Bannon, that they understand but choose not to address it?
I think a large number of them are exactly like that. The other aspect of it is just throughout Asia and Africa, the climate issue is completely subordinate to the narrative of development.
Which gives a kind of postcolonial or anticolonial cast as well.
What they will say to you straight away is, “Let them give up their cars.”
Well, which is a perfectly defensible position morally.
But it was not Gandhi’s position. I think one always has to remember that. It was not Gandhi’s position. And that such a position was possible then is a truly miraculous thing. He was able to say that I would rather that my country be poor than that we destroy the world. Today such a position would be … Any politician with such a position would be hounded to death.
Let’s talk about your novel, Gun Island. Is it possibly true that you didn’t begin writing this until after The Great Derangement?
You know, once you start thinking about these issues, they’re never absent, you can’t put them away, they’re just there. So I guess it didn’t begin necessarily as a book about all that’s in it right now. But it was impossible that it wouldn’t impress those things, simply because they were so urgent to me.
Does that mean you think all of your future books will be shaped by those concerns too?Absolutely. They’ll always be present. Because it’s what’s present.
I think of this as being a book about reality. That’s really what it is. It’s a book about reality.
But the book also involves some kind of mythological, magic realist elements too. How did you sort of come to deploying those? Or did they seem to you just similarly a way of depicting reality?Exactly that. Because I think we are living in a reality that is, in itself, fundamentally uncanny. I think it’s impossible. I mean by the time I finished writing The Great Derangement, there were two or three things that were clear to me about the only ways we can write about today’s world. They cannot be these individual stories of adventure. That they cannot be local. And they have to confront the aspect of the uncanny in a literary sense really. That is our great resource, the uncanny, which somehow has come down to us even through the 19th century.
You also have to remember this frog-in-the-boiling-water analogy. And one sees evidence for that all the time. Young fisherman no longer know what their grandfathers used to catch. So they think this is normal to get tiny little fish 200 miles out. They just don’t remember. Farmers don’t remember.
I come at this from a different perspective from really thinking about it in terms of nonfiction storytelling primarily, but I just think it’s both the case that we’re likely to normalize and adapt beyond what today we might believe is possible. And yet at the same time, the suffering is still going to likely be so much more intense than we imagine.I think it’s probably going to be much worse than we expect. That’s certainly clear. And it’s not just in relation to climate. You know how scientists speak about climate sensitivity? I think we should also start talking about social and political sensitivity for climate.
But the fact that 50 or 70 years from now civilization probably will not have totally collapsed, is not an argument against alarmism. In fact, it’s sort of an argument for the urgency of raising the alarm now because if we wait until 2050 to be thinking about what life is going to be like in 2060 we’ll have already normalized so much additional suffering that we won’t be able to see the next ten years of suffering as horrifying, as it should be by any moral logic.That is the difference between nonfiction and fiction. Fiction about something more than just telling. Because in fiction also there is consolation. It also provides meaning. It can suggest to you forms of meaning that might emerge out of you. And when you say suffering, yes you’re right. But really if you think about ways in which people have thought about the world, it’s only in the sort of modern era that people have come to think of suffering of being extraneous to life.