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196 pages, Hardcover
First published July 12, 2016
But cli-fi is made up of disaster stories set in the future, and that, to me, is exactly the rub. The future is but one aspect of the age of human-induced global warming: it also includes the recent past and, most significantly, the present. [...]
[Climate change] is precisely not an imagined ‘other’ world apart from ours; nor is it located in another ‘time’ or ‘dimension’. By no means are the events of the era of global warming the stuff of wonder tales; yet it is also true that in relation to what we think of as normal now, they are in many ways uncanny; and they have indeed opened a doorway into what we might call a ‘spirit world’ - a universe animated by non-human voices.
...the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics, as thus practised, is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness. Contemporary culture in all its aspects (including religious fundamentalisms of almost every variety) is pervaded by this expressivism, which is itself ‘to a significant degree a result of the strong role of Protestant Christianity in the making of the modern world’ [writes Roy Scranton].
The public politics of climate change is itself an illustration of ways in which the moral-political can produce paralysis. Of late, many activists and concerned people have begun to frame climate change as a ‘moral issue’. This has become almost a plea of last resort, appeals of many other kinds having failed to produce concerted action on climate change. So, in an ironic twist, the individual conscience is now increasingly seen as the battleground of choice for a conflict that is self-evidently a problem of the global commons, requiring collective action: it is as if every other resource of democratic governance had been exhausted, leaving this residue - the moral.
The world was void,- Lord Byron, ‘Darkness’, written in 1816- sometimes referred to as 'the year without a summer.'
The populous and the powerful- was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless-
A lump of death- a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths.
envisages time as an irresistible, irreversible forward movement. This jealous deity, the Time-god of modernity, has the power to decide who will be cast into the shadows of backwardness…and who will be granted the benediction. It is this conception of time…that allows the work of portioning to proceed within the novel, always aligning itself with the avant-garde as it hurtles forward in its impatience to erase every archaic reminder of Man’s kinship with the non-human.Ghosh has a really interesting point about the difficulty human beings face in engaging with volatility, in accepting that non-human forces have roles in determining our fates as well, in our collective tendency towards habit, inevitability and teleology. I guess it makes sense to me that the 19th century novel may have been one factor that habituated this mode of thinking (then again- Moby-Dick? There were some pretty volatile events in War and Peace...), but I find his assertion that 21st century literary fiction (whatever that is, exactly) needs to get its act together on climate change to be really puzzling. I’m sorry, but literary fiction, however you define it (I guess it’s supposed to mean good, but I’ve always assumed it referred to books written in a certain overly elaborate MFA style that signals group affiliation), doesn’t need to do anything, because not enough people read it to make it electorally significant. As far as forms of entertainment go, literary fiction can’t even begin to compete, in terms of individual consciousnesses reached and influenced (or is it mirrored?) with, say, superhero movies. Is this because superhero movies take on the pressing issues of our day in realistic ways? Of course not- just the opposite. It’s pretty clear that as a society we prefer stories in which there’s always some planetary, existential crisis, and benevolent superhuman beings to rescue us from it- in other words, escapism. Even the very predictability of plot and banality of dialogue seem to serve the purpose of sheltering us from the improbable, the volatile, the uncanny.
The boost that fossil fuels provided to Western power is nowhere more clearly evident than in the First Opium War, in which armored steamships…played a decisive role. In other words, carbon emissions were, from very early on, closely related to power in all its aspects; this continues to be a major, although unacknowledged, factor in the politics of contemporary global warming.This maintenance of power, naturally enough, required those countries with power to prevent others from developing it. In the case of the British in India, for example,
It was the very fact that India’s ruling power was also the global pioneer of the carbon economy that ensured that it could not take hold in India, at that point in time…The appetites of the British economy needed to be fed by large quantities of raw materials. Had a carbon economy developed synchronously in India and elsewhere, these materials would have been used locally instead of being exported.This dynamic may have delayed both the climate crisis and a broader understanding of the limits of modern, industrial society. Even back in the 1950s, Ghosh writes,
the carbon footprint of the West was growing rapidly enough to ensure that the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would continue to increase. But that rise would not have been so steep if mainland Asia had not launched upon a period of sustained economic expansion in the late 1980s. It is this acceleration that has dramatically shortened the time available to adapt…what we have learned is that the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every human being.What would happen to a leader who suggested to his or her people that “the universalist premise of industrial civilization was a hoax”, and that maybe our country should take one for the team (the opposite of Donald Trump, essentially)? Gandhi not only seems to have understood this, but
…he was willing to carry his vision to its logical conclusion by voluntarily renouncing, on behalf of the nation, the kind of power and affluence that is conferred by industrial civilization. This was perfectly well understood by Gandhi’s political enemies on the Hindu right, who insistently characterized him as a man who wanted to weaken India. And indeed it was for this very reason that Gandhi was assassinated by the former member of an organization that would later become the nucleus of the political formation that now rules India. This coalition came to power by promising exactly what Gandhi had renounced: endless industrial growth.This has ominous implications. I don’t know if transitioning to a non-carbon based economy necessarily means a loss of modernity- I suspect some people disagree with that, but it will mean changes in lifestyle and changes in leaders. Putin, for example, would be nowhere without Russia’s oil and gas revenue; the implicit contract he’s made with the Russian people- higher standard of living, safety and security, in exchange for political freedom- would have been broken long ago. The leadership of the United States, meanwhile, recently joined Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait at the U.N. Climate Summit in refusing to endorse a new landmark study on global warming, which seems like a statement of intention of planetary suicide pact- whether the rest of us like it or not. We’re going to ignore reality and ride in the armed lifeboat for as long as possible. I think Hollywood can safely bank a few more Avengers movies.