I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Part of the Theory + Practice series.
Theory + Practice is a series supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
It is by now widely acknowledged that we live in the Anthropocene, the age of human impact. During the vast period of Pleistocene, ice was the geological force that defined climate and shaped our planet. In the Anthropocene, it is men who have seized the power to sculpt the earth but also to scar it: by our sheer numbers, often short-sighted actions, enduring effects of our technologies, and, above all, relentless greenhouse gas emissions.
In his illuminating and unsettling book Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, paleoclimatologist and ecologist Curt Stager argues that, with our collective carbon footprint, we currently define the planet’s climate not only for our great-grandchildren but potentially for any creatures living hundred thousand years from now.
Novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why this staggering reality has yet to find its way not only into our daily consciousness and decision-making but also into our literature. In his gripping nonfiction work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh summons our imagination. Is our reluctance to accept personal responsibility for global warming preventing each of us, including our writers, from envisioning the devastating consequences on our planet’s ecosystems? Could fiction help us better picture, address, and alter a future that has already started—one that includes the loss of countless habitats and fellow species?
This past January, after having read each other’s books, the two authors conversed over email, sending thoughts back and forth between Asia and North America. It is a conversation that deserves to be continued—by all of us.
Curt Stager You are primarily known as a novelist. What led you to write this nonfiction book?
Amitav Ghosh Climate change became a matter of personal urgency for me while I was writing my 2005 novel The Hungry Tide. The novel is set in the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta. While working on the book I realized that this region was already being impacted by rising sea levels and a retreating coastline. In the years after that, even though I was occupied with a project of a different kind (the Ibis trilogy), I found myself becoming more and more preoccupied with climate change—no doubt because the impact was increasingly obvious. After I finished the trilogy, I felt a great need to put down my thoughts on environmental change and its bearing on my practice as a writer. I might add here, that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is itself beginning to look increasingly strained in this era of anthropogenic climate change.
CS What, exactly, do you mean by The Great Derangement? Is it related to The Great Acceleration?
AG The title is indeed a reference to other titles, like The Great Acceleration, The Great Disruption, The Great Divergence, and so on. But the reason I used it, ultimately, is that it was right for the book.
CS You contrast “serious fiction” with sci-fi, cli-fi, and so on. To me as a scientist, serious fiction sounds like an oxymoron. Can you define it for those of us who are not familiar with the concept?
AG Certain hierarchical gradations are common to all the arts, and also to the humanities and the sciences. In speaking of painting and sculpture, for example, we often distinguish between “pure” or “high” art and say, craft or artisanship. Similarly, historians distinguish between academic and popular history and scientists draw lines between theoretical, experimental, and popular science. In fiction there is a similar proliferation of categories: literary or “serious” fiction is often set apart from popular fiction and also from various fictional genres—romance, science fiction, and so on. Underlying these distinctions is the idea that genre and popular fiction are constrained by certain conventions and expectations whereas literary fiction is a product of the unconstrained imagination.
I should add here that I do not by any means subscribe to the reasoning behind these distinctions. And to many—such as yourself—these distinctions may well appear trivial. Yet it is incontestably the case that these categories are of great significance in the worlds of art and literature. And that significance is not just aesthetic: it has very important material implications—just think of the difference in the price of a work that is considered art and one that is classified as craft. Moreover, these distinctions create ecosystems that include many structures and institutions—galleries, museums, journals, criticism, festivals, prizes, university courses, etcetera.
It is this ecosystem that I had in mind when I wrote that “climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena.” Anyone who looks at the ecosystem of literary fiction will soon discover that climate change has a very small presence within it. Indeed, when climate change figures at all in serious literary journals it is usually in relation to nonfictional accounts of the subject. Novels and stories that are attentive to climate change are almost automatically relegated to genres such as science fiction, apocalyptic fiction, and so on.
CS Are you mainly criticizing the ivory tower version of literature? If so, does it really matter outside of academia, as long as the public is into Ray Bradbury?
AG Does it matter much to the world at large that the very mention of climate change is enough to remove a novel from the mainstream of serious fiction? Probably not, since the general public doesn’t care much about fiction anyway. However, it certainly does matter to me—and only partly because I am myself a writer who has, for most of his life, made his living within the ecosystem of literary fiction. It matters to me mainly because the marginalization of climate change within the ecosystem of fiction seems to me to be symptomatic of something much larger: I think it tells us a great deal about the workings of contemporary culture and our ways of thought. As I wrote in The Great Derangement, “It is very difficult surely to imagine a conception of seriousness that is blind to potentially life-changing threats.”
CS You show how modern novels focus mainly on humans and leave out the nonhuman world. As a scientist who studies ecosystems I lament it, too, and see a human-centered view as immature and narrow-minded. You lay much of the blame on contemporary literature—can you explain?
AG The human-centeredness of contemporary literature is, to my mind, not a cause but a symptom of a broader cultural shift. Human-centeredness seems to be largely an effect of what we call “development” or “modernity.” Melville’s Moby-Dick, for example, was not exclusively human centered in the way that most contemporary novels are. Even today, people who depend on farming, hunting, and fishing for their living, must necessarily attend to the nonhuman aspects of their surroundings much more closely than city-dwellers. In other words, the industrial processes that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere seem to have blinded us to their consequences by making us ever more closely focused on the human.
CS Does this blindness stem from a cultural disconnect between people who favor science and those who favor art and literature, or more simply, thinking versus feeling? Novelists are said to “mine their own experiences,” so if they lack scientific perspectives, how can they express the broader reality anyway? Perhaps they cut themselves off from the raw materials they would need in order to do a better job of it. Does the modern novel demonize scientists and deify novelists?
AG Far from demonizing scientists, modern culture worships science and its practitioners. Indeed one of the defining features of modernity is an almost cultlike belief in science and its powers of redemption—this is, of course, one of the central themes of science fiction. But at the same time, contemporary culture seems to be unable to heed the basic, and almost unanimously agreed upon, message of climate science—that human activities are changing the global climate in very dangerous ways. This schizophrenia—a concurrent fetishization and disregard for science—is at the heart of what I call The Great Derangement.
CS Is it impossible to make a good novel that deals with climate? What would it be like?
AG It is by no means impossible to write good fiction about climate change. In The Great Derangement, I cite several examples of novels that have dealt brilliantly with the subject: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is perhaps my favorite. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway is interesting and brilliant in a different way: it is couched in a hybrid form that combines speculation with scientific projections.
CS How could literature team up with science for the greater good? We need everybody’s input on this crisis, which is too big and complex for any of us to handle alone. It was created by our actions as a group after all, and addressing it fully will require communal effort.
AG This is an interesting question because it is founded on an assumption that appears to be widely shared by climate scientists—the idea that proper communication, or “getting out the message,” will lead to decisive mitigatory action. Underlying this assumption is the belief that people and societies are rational entities and that their actions are based on accurate information. Unfortunately, this assumption probably holds good only for universities and laboratories. When it comes to societies and nation-states, I think we need to consider other, far more troubling possibilities: that it may not be ignorance that prevents people from acting on climate change, that, consciously or otherwise, most people already know. From this perspective, denial is therefore not a function of imperfect information, and “getting out the message” (whether by novelists or others) will make very little difference to popular resistance of collective action on climate change.
CS Artists and writers are often thought of as cultural leaders at the cutting edge of modernity. In the climate crisis, though, you accuse them of a failure of imagination. Can you elaborate?
AG One notable feature of modernism was the idea of the avant-garde—a conception of the artist or writer as being in the vanguard of culture and/or history. And it is certainly true, as I have noted in my book, that artists and writers were indeed at the forefront of many of the twentieth century’s most important social and political movements. Why then have they not been similarly responsive to climate change, which is the greatest threat that humanity has ever confronted? This conundrum is at the heart of The Great Derangement.
CS You contrast the “spectacle” of “baring of the soul” in the “church of the web” and in social media with the more authentic dialogue and political engagement of the past. Can you say more about that?
AG What I was trying to say is that political engagements were once directed toward issues that confronted the body politic as a whole. I completely disavow the idea of “authenticity,” which is, to my mind, a theological notion derived from Protestantism.
CS You close the book with words of hope. Are you personally more hopeful or despairing about the future of humanity and the planet?
AG Perhaps this is best answered with a quote from your book Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth: “If I had to boil it all down to one sentence, I’d consider saying ‘Don’t panic and don’t give up!’ Climate change is a troubling and complex issue, but it’s not going to kill us all off.”I suppose everybody is hopeful or despairing to the degree to which they believe that they and their loved ones will be among those who suffer.
In your section on the Lake Nyos tragedy you write in reference to your visit to the lake shortly before, “If we had gone to the trouble of studying the lake properly, we could have warned people of the danger.” How do you think the people of the area would have responded if you had indeed informed them? Do you think they would have evacuated their villages and moved out of harm’s way?
CS I have often wondered what would have happened if we had been able to warn the Cameroonian public back in 1985 of the risk of a deadly carbon dioxide gas release from Lake Nyos. Many people might have taken the risk seriously, but most of the local residents would have had few options for responding to it. Arable land is difficult to come by in the Cameroon highlands and many people who live by subsistence farming there lack the financial resources to move elsewhere. Most would probably have stayed put and hoped for the best. Spiritual and cultural beliefs added to the complexity. Local traditions hold that ancestor spirits control every aspect of the lakes, so for some people the threat of an explosive outburst from angry spirits was a chronic situation that was best dealt with by shamans. Suspicion of scientists was also amplified by the legacy of European colonialism. Because we white foreign scientists were known to have visited the lake before it exploded, some people blamed us for the disaster.
I also doubt that the cash-strapped Cameroonian government would have done much in response to a warning. There was little response to a previous gas burst from Lake Monoun, in part because officials suspected that it was a terrorist act by rebels that should be concealed from the public to hide signs of political discontent. Much of this may sound familiar in the context of global climate change: the disempowerment of the poor, a widespread short-term wishful thinking, political or faith-based science denial, and the tendency of governments to take decisive environmental action only when forced to.
AG In your book you note that “environmental professionals today are being called upon to use their scientific credentials as intellectual weapons […] Once you step over that line you have left the fortress of objectivity to become just another mercenary whacking away at people.” You are probably aware that Bruno Latour, for one, has argued that science has always been political and that the “fortress of objectivity” is an illusion. Do you have any comments on this?
CS At a time when scientific objectivity is under serious assault in the political arena, I think we can ill-afford more theoretical pronouncements that objectivity is an illusion, that science is just another political game, or that facts are indistinguishable from values. Modern science is a precious gift to humanity that is fundamentally different from other activities and ways of thinking. It demonstrates that the natural world is real, that empirical facts are true regardless of what we make of them, and that a scientific approach to knowledge is our clearest window on reality. I challenge writers who seem to think otherwise to try to demonstrate that atoms are a political construct, that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas, and that our fossil fuel emissions do not really affect the climate of the planet, the chemistry of the oceans, and the isotopic balance of our bodies.
Of course, people sometimes cherry-pick scientific information for political purposes, misinterpret data, and mistake poorly supported conclusions for solid ones. But good scientists are very careful to recognize such risks. We subject ourselves to peer review, statistical tests, and other rigorous investigative methods that give modern science a unique power to pierce illusions. However, most people simply take scientific information on faith from people they trust. Scientists who use their credentials to push a political agenda can erode that public confidence in science itself, thereby degrading one of the most important survival tools ever invented by our species. The value of that trust is affirmed for me when people come up after my presentations and say things like, “Don’t tell my friends, because we are all conservatives, but you just changed my mind about climate change by sticking to the science and avoiding the politics.”
AG A number of scientists, including Naomi Oreskes and Venkatachalam Ramaswamy, whom you mention in your book, have been advising the Pope on climate matters. Do you feel that they are in danger of blurring the boundaries between science and religion in troublesome ways?
CS It depends on what version of religion you are talking about. Young-Earth creationism orattributing thunderbolts to Zeus are incompatible with modern science. But when Pope Francis called atheistic scientists such as myself “precious allies” in caring for creation, he brought tears of relief to my eyes. To me, scientists are like mapmakers whose duty is to provide the best possible empirical information to anyone who needs it. In that view, political and spiritual leaders are more like navigators who put that information to use, and the faith community has the language and moral authority to speak of climate change as an ethical issue in addition to a scientific one. I am thrilled by this emerging alliance, which has been energized by a Pope trained in chemistry. It seeks to strike the fire of faith from the rock of science, and in that spirit I have reached out to faith-based environmental groups and offered my services as a scientist. Last year, for example, I convened a gathering of seven of the nation’s Catholic climate ambassadors here at Paul Smith’s College to hone their climate communication skills and to offer presentations on the science-faith alliance to the general public.
AG In your book you’ve taken the position that although climate change is regrettable and worrisome, catastrophes are not in the immediate offing and human beings and many other species are likely to adapt and survive. Do you feel then that the alarm with which many in the climate science community have greeted Donald Trump’s election is excessive and unnecessary?
CS We live in a media environment that survives by spreading hype and fear, so it is easy to be surprised by the sober tone of my careful overview of the scientific evidence regarding our situation, and some readers mistake it for complacency. I do not at all suggest that catastrophes aren’t imminent. Far from it. I have personally uncovered and disseminated evidence that massive downpours such as the one that recently destroyed my neighbors’ homes in the Adirondacks are becoming more frequent, and that weather-related catastrophes will become more common as our population grows, the oceans rise, and the world warms. I sometimes say that “people will live through this,” meaning that our species will not go completely extinct from global warming. This seems obvious to me because we have not lost the ability to adapt to climatic extremes from the icy polar regions to the blazing Danakil Depression, where our forebears lived for hundreds of thousands of years and where people still live today. However, it also means that future generations will have to live through the effects of our impacts on the earth today. Many such effects will be harsh for those who will endure them, but the global-scale changes will mainly involve a slow but massive accumulation of isolated problems over centuries, not a sudden total collapse of the entire planet within a human lifetime. To claim otherwise, I believe, is unrealistic and unhelpful. Our situation is serious enough without exaggerating it, and sound scientific perspectives are critical to our future.
Part of the problem is time perception. Without a deep sense of history, individual disasters along the coasts, for example, are easily seen as “acts of God” or unlucky accidents rather than what they really are: the result of ignoring the danger of living on the edge of the unstable ocean even without climate change in the mix, as you yourself wisely note in your book.
The language we use to describe the effects of climate change is another problem. When a glaciologist says that the West Antarctic ice sheet could “collapse” or an oceanographer says that rising seas will “flood” Florida, it doesn’t mean that those changes will occur within just a few months or years. Most will play out over many decades to centuries, too slowly for most people to notice directly. Such change becomes massive in the long term but it can fool some of us into denial because it is so slow. The Trump election is shocking for me not only because the associated anti-intellectualism, “post-truth” culture, and hate speech undermine everything I stand for as a scientist, educator, and ethical human being. I am worried that our civilization is more fragile than I wanted to believe, and I’m horrified by the social and environmental damage that the new administration seems likely to set in motion. Therefore, I do not find a sense of alarm to be “excessive and unnecessary.” My country seems to be stepping backward when we should be moving decisively forward. Nonetheless, this is not a time for fear or despair, which paralyzes people and can trigger dangerous irrationality. We need to face global climate change with resolute, ethical decision-making supported by the best science, and we will need everyone’s input. Fortunately, the Anglosphere is not the only player on the planet, as you make clear in The Great Derangement. China and India may well lead the way into a carbon-free future (and also profit from it) while the United States dawdles. If so, I say more power to them.
AG You write that “aggressive activist stances among prominent scientists make me nervous.” What would you say to climate scientists who feel that it is they who have been at the wrong end of “aggressive activist stances” and that they are now likely to be targeted once again?
CS I am among those targeted scientists, having endured much hate mail and even a telephoned death threat. People like me have already been targeted for years, and I do not anticipate anything new in that regard with this new administration. Bring it on, I say. If the assault on reason and decency becomes even more public now, it will also become clearer that it needs to be dealt with more decisively in the long run—like a formerly hidden infection requires a cure.
My loyalty is to science, not to any particular ideology. When science itself becomes a target because it is thought to be partisan, we all lose. I prefer not to take political stances in public while wearing the label of “scientist” rather than plain old “citizen.” Mine is not a passive stance but an active one, and I firmly defend good science against anyone who seeks to deny its validity or value, regardless of their politics. In this Age of Humans, the contents of our hearts and minds have become a force of nature. I therefore draw hope from the new crops of youth who see climate change as the great challenge of their generation, and I support them as best I can through my teaching, research, and writing.
Amitav Ghosh is a novelist and essayist whose books include The Glass Palace (Random House, 2000), The Hungry Tide (HarperCollins, 2004), and the Ibis Trilogy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). His most recent book is The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Curt Stager is an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and science journalist. He is the author of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (Thomas Dunne Books, 2011). Since 1990, he has cohosted Natural Selections, an internationally syndicated weekly science program on North Country Public Radio.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee