Natural Disasters

`We are teetering at the edge of a new era'

It is very hard to understand why we do not seem to grasp the immensity and urgency of climate change that is already unfolding around us, says Amitav Ghosh in an interview with S S Jeevan

By S S Jeevan
Published: Sunday 31 July 2016

Photo by Special Arrangement

You are returning to non-fiction—after a decade—with climate change. Looking back, did the tornado of March 17, 1978, spur you to write this book?

The tornado of 1978 certainly heightened my awareness of extreme weather events. But my engagement with climate change dates back to 2000 when I started writing my novel The Hungry Tide, which is set in the Sundarbans. Even back then, the impacts of global warming were already being felt in the Sundarbans. Since that time it has become clear that this is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced.

Why is that, as a collective existence, we are not in the grasp of such a tragedy? Is it because we are an increasingly unequal society—as climate change affects the poor the most, and usually gets out of public discourse, which is usually dominated by the rich?

It is indeed very hard to understand why we do not seem to grasp the immensity and urgency of the changes that are already unfolding around us. This is particularly true of India since ours is a region that will be particularly badly affected.

One way in which inequality contributes to this indifference is that it helps create the illusion that privilege will provide some protection against the severest impacts of climate change. But this is a complete delusion: the fact is that climate change will not spare the middle classes or the wealthy. Consider, for instance, two recent extreme weather events with a climate change fingerprint: the downpours that hit Mumbai in 2005 and Chennai in 2015. Many, if not most, of the people who live in these cities are privileged in relation to India’s rural population. But this did not protect them from the floods. On the contrary, many wealthy and powerful people were very badly affected. And these very people will be even more severely impacted by future sea-level rise because they have chosen to live in locations that are highly vulnerable. Nor can there be any doubt that a great number of middle class people will also be rendered homeless by sea level rise. These are educated people who are exposed to a wide variety of media; many of them pride themselves on being globally connected. Yet they have chosen to ignore a threat that is already at their doorstep. How this kind of blindness arises is exactly the subject of The Great Derangement.

You say climate change has not resulted in an outpouring of political passion in India. Why is this so, when the country is witnessing numerous impacts of climate change?

It is simply a fact that climate change hardly ever figures in political discussions in India. We have only to open a newspaper, or turn on the TV, to see that dozens of issues receive more attention than, say, the ongoing drought, and the agrarian crisis more generally.

One illustration of this is the recent Lok Sabha session on the drought—only a few MPs participated. But the same indifference is evident also in the wider political sphere—the media for instance.

Do you feel contemporary literature is increasingly using development and environmental issues like climate change as the new plot for storytelling?

I wish this were the case, but unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Consider again the epic downpours that hit Mumbai and Chennai in recent years. Both these cities are home to many writers, actors, directors, poets and so on. Needless to add, they are home also to huge film industries, some of which were badly affected by the floods. Yet, so far as I know there are no films, novels, stories or poems about the floods—not a single one!

So why is the `unthinkable' happening—creative writers vacating `thinkable' spaces?

We are teetering at the edge of a new era in which many of our past habits of thought and practice have become blinders which prevent us from perceiving the realities of our present situation. Writers, artists and thinkers everywhere are still struggling to find the concepts and ideas that will make it possible to engage with the unprecedented events of this new era.

You say religion/religious groups joining the environmental movement may be our last hope to save the planet. Is there an economic-moral code/model that can be arrived at?

The problem in relation to climate change is that the window for effective mitigatory action is very small and there is very little time in which to mobilise people. Under the circumstances, already-existing organisations have an important role to play—and religious groups can certainly mobilise people in large numbers. This is evident from the example of Pope Francis who has done more to bring climate change to the forefront of the global agenda than anyone else. He is a true visionary; a really remarkable thinker and leader. The Dalai Lama, too, has spoken eloquently on the issue of climate change.

A few Hindu and Muslim groups have also taken stands on climate change. But unfortunately in India, as in many other countries—Turkey for example—the dominant forms of religion have become completely enmeshed with consumerism and neo-liberal ideology.

Sadly many of those who speak for Hinduism today are gurus and godmen who seem to be mainly interested in marketing themselves and their products. But even in the recent past, Hinduism has had some leaders and spokespersons who were cast in a completely different mould. Consider for example the late Veer Bhadra Mishra, the former Mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi: he was passionately engaged in environmental issues, especially in relation to the Ganga. We can only hope that someone like him will emerge again. After all, treading lightly on Earth is—or used to be—one of the core values of Hinduism.

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