Amitav Ghosh’s Message to Oxford: Give Up

Fatalism must be selling well in New York these days. I eagerly waited for Amitav Ghosh to offer some shred of leadership, or at least insight, as he responded to a well-articulated question by an audience member in response to his lecture, “Earth as Literary Critic: Climate Change and the Limits of Imagination.” She inquired about his view on taking action against injustice, and if he had any message or suggestions for the young people in the room who had energy to take action. She recalled a hadeeth in Islam that says, basically: If you see an evil, change it with your hand (by taking action), if you cannot, then with your tongue (by speaking out), and if you cannot, then condemn it with your heart (by believing it is wrong). Amitav Ghosh resolutely defended his position of political inertia by saying there is no justice in the world, that justice is a lie and a fool’s errand. Why make an effort, when the powers-that-be (the Earth, the CIA, the Oil Industry, the Mega-Rich) have already condemned most of humanity to sure death?

Yet, Dr. Ghosh still seems to have enough energy to pump out another award-winning book and make sure they are neatly set up for sale to bewildered audience members.

Amitav Ghosh, a DPhil in social anthropology from Oxford and celebrated literary figure, stood up at the podium in the Olof Palme lecture theater at St. Antony’s College yesterday evening to address an enthusiastic crowd. The host introduced his long list of accomplishments as evidence that he is a leader in his field, adding the caveat that the introduction would last an hour if she was given time to name all of his literary accomplishments and prizes. Prior to his introduction, she said a few words on Olof Palme, the namesake of the lecture. Olof Palme was the former Prime Minister of Sweden, a major critic of the cold war superpowers of his time and a leading force against apartheid in South Africa. He was assassinated in the process. Given Olof Palme’s legacy, Dr. Ghosh’s lack of will seemed all the more stark.

Ghosh’s lecture was called “Earth as Literary Critic: Climate Change and the Limits of Imagination.” He started the lecture with a story about a river in his ancestral homeland in Bangladesh. This river changed course and swallowed an entire village. Only a few escaped, and his ancestors were among them. He followed this story by recounting Han Solo in the film The Empire Strikes Back, when upon landing on an asteroid, he finds that he is inside the digestive system of a giant worm. Ghosh gives these examples as context for the argument of “Earth as Literary Critic.” Ghosh argues that mainstream global society today fails to see nature as an agent. He points to the lack of nonhuman actors in novels since the 1980s. He argues that despite a long history of human artistic engagement with the “earth as a protagonist” in social narratives, nonhuman actors are strikingly absent in the contemporary novel.

Ghosh sees this absence of the earth as a protagonist, which “does not share our consciousness” as an example of partitioning. He draws on Latour’s critique of the partitioning of nature and culture, and Latour’s methodological focus on the agency of nonhuman actors in actor-network theory. Ghosh argues that the failure of artists and writers to engage the earth as an agent is striking, given that climate change is anticipated to be one of the most powerful agents of change now and into the foreseeable future. He sites CIA reports that name climate change as a major security threat. These reports anticipate that climate change will lead to the dissolution of South Asian states by 2030. Ghosh reports that his native homeland of Bangladesh is one of the most at risk from rising sea levels caused by climate change, though the population of Bangladesh has contributed very little to global emissions. Despite high vulnerability to climate hazards, Bangladesh continues to expand its economy and accelerate the devastating effects by investing in coal energy and destroying the mangrove forests. Ghosh likes this to Bangladesh’s “self-immolation,” where “we will asphyxiate in the process” of pursuing a vision of modernity based on a model in which everyone in the world owns a home, car, refrigerator and washing machine. This pursuit of modernity is what Ghosh calls “The Great Derangement,” where the victory of the idea that individual pursuit of self-interests in conditions of freedom will lead to the good of all is, in effect, a death sentence. He suggests that humanity needs a compelling alternative to this idea and that artists and other actors in the cultural sphere need to think creatively about what these alternatives might look like and how they might be enacted.

Problematically, however, Ghosh refuses to offer any of his own ideas for alternative imaginings. This silence is excruciating given the many alternative imaginings that do exist. The entire literature on the Anthropocene is a place to start, see Jamie Lorimer’s work. Or films such as Bear 71, an interactive documentary by the National Film Board of Canada. Jonas Wolff writes about post-liberal democracy movements in Latin America, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador. Frédéric Neyrat writes provocatively of “twilight imagination.” In upstate New York, local people have worked tirelessly to halt companies like Halliburton from hydrofracking for natural gas on rural land by pursuing “home rule” governance campaigns. These many examples provide only some evidence of the many alternatives being imagined and politically pursued. How about alternative imaginations around energy sovereignty? Ghosh calls for alternatives, yet falls prey to a discourse of “inevitability,” and in doing so defeats his own message.

Ghosh admits that he feels that the world’s elites are well educated in the threats posed by climate change, and these people have come to the decision to let the chips fall where they may as they prepare their own personal lifeboats to safety (recall Ian Klinke’s seminar on the bunker and NATO post-human annihilation survival strategies created by the political elite during the cold war)…Does Ghosh’s apologetic admission in a belief that world elites are buying time to develop self-preservation strategies, as if this is a big secret, while busying activists with campaigns to “inform the public” sound like anything new? Haven’t we been faced with the threat and reality of holocausts before? And does the ‘inevitability’ of human extinction and certain death (a certainty in any case) mean that we should stop making an effort to create vibrant, inclusive communities?  As a member of the literary elite, Dr. Ghosh seems comfortable to admit that he sees no future in making an effort. The answers lie elsewhere. As usual, this hard labour will have to be done by those less privileged to have a choice, and in the process, perhaps the meek shall indeed inherit the earth.


About ariell

A GCRF-ESRC postdoctoral fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Researching changing patterns of work, social relations, and value in rural and suburban Mongolia.
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