Anthropocene and Empire

19 October 2016
A man stands by the sea during the heavy rains that flooded Mumbai, 2013.
A man stands by the sea during the heavy rains that flooded Mumbai, 2013.

This post was originally published on Public Books.

In the autumn of 1839, an unusually strong tropical storm devastated coastal communities along the Bay of Bengal in what was then the English East India Company’s premier settlement. A decade later, Company merchant and sometime scientist Henry Piddington coined the term “cyclone” to describe this climatological phenomenon, taking a cue from the seaborne storm’s circular movement and eerily hollow center, or “eye.” So common are cyclones in that part of the world that when a tornado—a typically smaller, terrestrial storm—ravaged the land-locked city of New Delhi in 1978, local newspapers erroneously identified the storm as a cyclone.

Amitav Ghosh was a graduate student at the time of the tornado and recounts its aftermath in a new monograph entitled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. His first book-length work of non-fiction in decades, The Great Derangement began as a series of lectures delivered last autumn at the University of Chicago. Focused in part on fictional representations of climate change, the author begins by addressing the bewildering absence of such storms from what he calls the “mansions” of “serious” fiction—an egregious oversight, he argues, given the proliferation of similarly catastrophic storms like Hurricane Sandy. Ultimately he asks: “Is climate change [simply] too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?”

This may strike a familiar chord: ecocritics in the humanities, philosophers, natural scientists, economists, and geographers have devoted a great deal of attention to the question of climate change, its causes, and its consequences. In acknowledging such causes as industrialized agriculture they have achieved something like a consensus around the concept of the Anthropocene—a term coined to describe the period within the Cenozoic Era (approximately 66 million years ago to the present) during which human beings became “geological agents.”1 Many have also begun to argue that it is not humanity as such that is the primary engine of climate change, but rather historic modes of capital accumulation. But Ghosh’s argument casts a much wider net than conventional rebukes of capitalism. Indeed, more than an indictment of capital or a critique of popular fiction, in The Great Derangement folds questions about empire, colonialism, and ecological imperialism into an otherwise familiar discussion of the Anthropocene.

Readers of Ghosh’s magisterial Ibis Trilogy—a fictional saga of the nineteenth-century Opium Wars, and the English East India Company’s rapacious poppy program—will recognize this critique; although the author’s pronouncements about fiction and climate may seem somewhat quizzical.2 While the impact of human development may in fact be “too wild a stream” for some, it is surely not “too wild” for Ghosh. In the Ibis novels, for instance, he reveals the savage nature of colonial-era agricultural programs that relied on monoculture. A central motif is the destruction of local ecosystems for the purpose of planting poppy, a cash crop that consumed some 25,000 acres of arable land in Bengal.3 But the sorts of slow violence that Ghosh documents in these novels resonate rather differently than, say, a category-three storm of the sort that struck Delhi. As Ghosh admits early on in The Great Derangement: “It is certainly true that storms, floods, and unusual weather events do recur in my books … [but] oddly enough, no tornado has ever figured in my novels.”

Stacey Balkan Stacey Balkan is assistant professor of English at Bergen Community College.  She received her PhD in 2016 from the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work has appeared in Social Text OnlineComparative Literature and Culture, The Cambridge Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies, and The Global South.

Keywords: colonialism imperialism environment Amitav Ghosh climate change ecology Public Books poppy trade