Anthropocene and Empire

A man stands by the sea during the heavy rains that flooded Mumbai, 2013. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF PUNIT PARANJPE / AFP PHOTO / FLICKR
19 October, 2016

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.”

While his historical novels offer important critiques of the colonial-imperial project and the environmental destruction that it wrought, conjuring tornadoes, much to his own dismay, is not so easy. Climate change, or what Ghosh calls the “environmental uncanny,” to refer to statistically improbable weather events, seems to be the province of “cli-fi”—a “generic outhouse,” he derisively remarks, “made up mostly of disaster stories.” A notable example is the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow in which the anomalous weather events of recent years somehow all coalesce into a single cataclysmic horror. Of course, to be fair, environmental violence is notoriously spectacle-deficient. Surely Ghosh’s portraits of beleaguered poppy farmers are less titillating for mass audiences than packs of feral wolves terrorising the New York Public Library, the latter among several absurdist tropes of the film. Hence the author’s remarks that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination.” This imaginative failure, he goes on to explain, has been many decades in the making.

The disaster films and novels that constitute “cli-fi” in fact signal a grave crisis—a “great derangement,” Ghosh argues, midwifed by the emergence of literary realism and its accompanying intellectual traditions. In the first chapter of The Great Derangement, entitled “Stories,” Ghosh traces the contemporaneous development of the modern novel, ninteenth-century theories of probability, and Freud’s concept of the “uncanny,” which he defines as “an irreducible element of mystery” well-suited to describing the bizarre weather events of recent years. Ghosh attributes our current inability to see, represent, and understand environmental crisis to a probabilistic worldview that emerged in the nineteenth century and made no room for such “uncanny” weather phenomena as freak tornadoes. Indeed, he argues that “the uncanny intimacy of our relationship with the nonhuman” would only be tolerated in the realm of the supernatural, in the ghost stories of Charles Dickens or Henry James.

In this sense, what the author terms “derangement” is both an imaginative as well as an epistemological crisis; a crisis born, unfortunately, at the same moment that the “accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.” The uncertainty of climate, he argues, was anathema to the “uniformitarian expectations” of the era. And the modern novels of writers like Jane Austen would succor those “expectations” by “offering the kind of narrative pleasure compatible with the new regularity of bourgeois life.”4

Ghosh, though, is less interested in the novel’s birth than in the “bourgeois order” that it engendered. The thrust of “Stories” is primarily an argument about form: about the way that we ought to tell stories at a moment when the “Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity.” He begins by recounting the 1978 Delhi tornado. After documenting its absence from his own work, Ghosh turns to the omission of less spectacular forms of climate violence, mounting a compelling argument for the role of fiction in the great derangement. “When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water, in Abu Dhabi or Southern California,” he remarks, “we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been midwifed by the novels of Jane Austen.”

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, waterfront during Hurricane Sandy, 2012. THOUGHTCATALOG.COM / FLICKR

Also speaking to the imperial hubris that might account for Elizabeth Bennett’s verdant backyard, Ghosh addresses a series of post-Enlightenment construction projects that are equally troubling: the development of port cities like Mumbai, Hong Kong, and New York. As we have seen lately, the consequences of such imperialist schemes have proven catastrophic. As a case in point, we might look to coastal areas like New Orleans, another colonial city, whose architects once mused that the port should never be inhabited.5 The most striking illustration of this phenomenon is Mumbai’s formerly estuarine landscape: a class four or five cyclone could bring irrevocable devastation to millions of its citizens.

Nevertheless, bar the occasional cyclone—in Sea of Poppies or The Hungry Tide, both of which occurred in the storm-prone Bay of Bengal—Ghosh’s novels are a far cry from cli-fi. His fictional worlds instead offer searing portraits of ecological imperialism, intervening radically into a discourse that too often ignores the role of empire in anthropogenic climate change. With some noteworthy exceptions—among them, Mike Davis’s 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, and Ashley Dawson’s 2016 Extinction: A Radical History—even the most well-meaning critics often dismiss the uneven history of development, opting instead for indictments of the entire species. But, as Davis and Dawson also make clear, not all nations are equally culpable for the ravages of global capitalism.

We cannot ignore the coincidence of European imperialism and the so-called great acceleration in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. At the same time as Britain’s premier trading company acquired an exclusive writ of free trade for the purpose of growing and selling opium, Western imperialist projects became increasingly reliant on new modes of transport and production. This includes, of course, plantation agriculture. The cultivation of cotton, for example, would far outstrip the impact of poppy production: even beyond the American South, Manchester’s Cotton Supply Association was laying the groundwork for the horrors we are now witnessing in India’s cotton belt.6 Since 1998, approximately 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide because of debt incurred from free-trade policies between the Indian government and agricultural companies like Monsanto. It is worth mentioning that sugar would also play a critical role. Sidney Mintz’s 1985 Sweetness and Power offers a remarkable glimpse into its destructive path.7

Ghosh argues, therefore, that we should expand our indictment of “capitalism”—a common protagonist “on which the narrative [of the Anthropocene] turns”—to include “an aspect of the Anthropocene that is of equal importance: empire and imperialism.” Indeed, he notes, the uneven effects of climate change are the “result of systems that were set up by brute force to ensure that poor nations remained always at a disadvantage in terms of both wealth and power.”

The burden of the book’s two shorter chapters, “History” and “Politics,” is to demonstrate just this. In “History,” Ghosh offers an exhaustive portrait of the material impact of our modern worldview. With a nod to his 2000 novel The Glass Palace, he begins with a critique of the petroleum industry, citing Burma (now Myanmar) and not Titusville, Pennsylvania, as the site of its prodigious birth. He then links the above-mentioned epistemological shifts to economic models that also emerged during the colonial era and that laid the groundwork for what former World Bank president Larry Summers would call an “impeccable economic logic.”8 In a shockingly explicit endorsement of accumulation by dispossession, Summers actually suggested that it made perfect economic sense to sacrifice the third world for the prosperity of the first. As if responding directly to Summers, Ghosh notes quite rightly that “the patterns of life that modernity engender[ed could] only be practiced by a small minority of the population.” He then cautions: if “every family in the world” acquired “two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator,” we’d all be asphyxiated.

In “Politics,” he traces the ideological roots of Summers’s perverted “logic.” He locates its origin in the social contracts of the eighteenth century, which Ghosh describes as “grotesque fictions designed to secure exactly the opposite of [their] professed ends.” As Ghosh and others have pointed out, political thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau were far more interested in theorising abstract liberties than in the survival of Europe’s many colonial subjects—Rousseau’s 1762 Social Contract giving a name to Enlightenment-era notions of human rights, which then and now made no provisions for a vast majority of the world.9 Summers is but a neoliberal instantiation of Rousseau, in so far as the World Bank (and other Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund) purports to advocate on behalf of a global majority when in fact their ideas only benefit a handful of rich nations.

Notably, in the final chapter, Ghosh also comments on the recent Paris Agreement on climate change. In Ghosh’s view, the Paris Agreement is similarly grotesque when we consider that the agreed upon threshold for increases in carbon dioxide amounts to a death sentence for many African and Asian nations. Ghosh favors Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. The encyclical, unlike the Paris Agreement, attends to the economic, social, and ecological legacy of empire.

Pace Pope Francis, Ghosh’s dual focus on colonialism and ecological imperialism tells a very different story. And it is a story that comes across in his fiction as well: The Glass Palace offers a stunning critique of petro-imperialism; and his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide centers (in part) on the violent eviction and murder of refugees (in the West Bengal region of India in 1979), delivering a commentary on development models that hinge on dispossession.10 It is, however, in his recent IbisTrilogy that Ghosh most fully elaborates the connection between empire, climate, and the forms of economic thinking left over from the Enlightenment.

The first novel of the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, opens in 1839 on the eve of the first Opium War. Hailed by critics as the first subaltern history of British rule in the region, the novels’ unlikely heroes include poppy farmers, lascars, opium addicts, fishermen, and sepoys (the name given to Indian soldiers forced into British service). Illustrating the economic origins of contemporary forms of ecological imperialism like Monsanto’s cotton trade, the trilogy offers a commentary on the establishment of free trade in the region, the concomitant enclosure of peasant land, and such instances of epistemological violence as the cooptation of local language systems.

The novels likewise attend to the impact of imperialism on local flora, a logical correlate of the opium and cotton trades. In River of Smoke,Ghosh creates a series of fictional botanists who regard plants as no different than “doorknobs, or sausages, or any other object that could be sold for a price on the market.” Sea of Poppies bears witness to the human cost of free trade—as poppy farmers are forced from their land and onto Indian Ocean slavers—while the second novel depicts a veritable ecocide. One character goes so far as to liken the East India Company’s botanical gardens to the hull of a slave ship. The final novel takes a slightly different tack: in Flood of Fire, readers are introduced to the Company’s cavalry—an uncomfortable reminder that current multinationals differ only in their inability to marshal their own armies.

Perhaps Ghosh devotes the bulk of The Great Derangement to stories and narration because novels like Sea of Poppies achieve something rather different than even the best economic histories. If works such as Ranajit Guha’s 1963 A Rule of Property for Bengal introduced readers to the economics of land seizure, Ghosh offers us the oft-forgotten voices of actual farmers.11 As with the humanities more generally, his stories offer us rich glimpses into seemingly distant lives, glimpses too often proscribed by the narrow limits of bourgeois realism.

Narrow to a fault, our greatest derangement seems to be one of scale. Throughout the book, Ghosh returns again and again to John Updike’s infamous definition of the novel as an “individual moral adventure”—a phrase coined in Updike’s damning review of Abdul Rahman Munif’s 1984 Cities of Salt, in which the author refers to the novel as “insufficiently westernized.” Pointing out the surfeit of “Western novels” that foreground what Ghosh terms “men in the abstract,” among them War and Peace and Moby Dick, Ghosh mounts an exquisite argument for the collectiveboth politically and aesthetically. He contests the primacy of the individual at a moment when hope resides only in those abstract masses who have long “pose[d] a powerful challenge to the idea that the free pursuit of individual interests always leads to the general good.”

Ghosh skewers American individualism and its toxic political fruit.12 He then reminds his readers that the “Pentagon devotes more resources to the study of climate change than any other branch of the U.S. government,” a fact that ought to ignite political engagement among voters with a seemingly unshakable faith in the wisdom of our military. Unfortunately, the populace is routinely paralysed by the latest cli-fi blockbuster—terror quickly transformed into inertia.

View of flooded New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 2005. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE US NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

I wonder, though, what to make of such films: 2015 was the hottest year on record; there were, for the first time in history, as many cyclones in the Arabian Sea as there were in the Indian Ocean; and the proliferation of “unprecedented” weather events has made it so that the very word “unprecedented” is starting to sound a bit foolish. Perhaps such dystopian stories are appropriate responses to the nightmare of global climate change.

Ghosh, though, arrives at a different conclusion. Arguing against any fantasies about state-level intervention, he turns to the sacred. Perhaps, he suggests, religious communities are our last resort. Their transnational frameworks offer us potential models for collective political action. While I would disagree with Ghosh’s assertion that “religious worldviews … do not partake of economistic ways of thinking,” it is in fact in the realm of religion that we find an “acceptance of limits and limitations,” and an embrace of a power beyond ourselves. In any case, before any real change can occur, we must first be able to imagine a possibility beyond the limited horizon of our deranged imaginations.


This article is a part of a collaboration between Public Books and The Caravan.