Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Living (?) in the time of the 'Great Derangement'


 This month, we've been asked to muse on Climate Change, the increasing frequency with which natural disasters seem to occur around the world to-day, and whether it is still possible to believe that nations can, indeed, come together to turn their words into actions in a bid to contain or reverse the never-before witnessed changes we as a species are effecting on the planet we call home. Proof of the (increasingly visible) effects several millennia of human habitation have had on this planet are everywhere to be espied: 9 out of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000; Carbon Dioxide levels are at their highest in 6,50,000 years; in 2012, Arctic summer sea ice shrank to its lowest extent on record[1]: they don't call this the Anthropocene[2] for nothing.

I'm going to come at this from another vantage point: I'm going to leave it to you to work out whether you want to know about the back-story of the various UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) conferences and what they amounted to, because this is information readily available in the public domain. What I'm going to talk about instead is the precarity of the moment that we inhabit. Amitav Ghosh calls this the moment of the Great Derangement (also the title of his spectacular treatise on climate change and the "unthinkable", which came out in 2016). 
In this ridiculously immersive and spine-chilling text, Ghosh argues that future generations are going to deduce our derangement - collective, absolute - from our inability to contend with the fact of climate change. Our imaginations - literary (except for stray forays into science fiction), cultural, political and, ultimately 'historical' -  have failed us when it comes to articulating what it is that ails the planet we inhabit; the violence and scale of the forces unleashed by climate change. More, we've come to think of the earth as a site - a backdrop - for our lives and actions, when it is anything but a silent player. Ghosh makes a searing case for the planet as a sentient (and sapient) character/actor, without anthropomorphising it (because that would just be human hubris at play again).

What is of paramount importance here is to acknowledge that while climate change is bigger than us - bigger than anything you or I can hope to stall or solve or "do" anything about - any form of collective action necessarily has to begin with the recognition that it is here; climate change isn't something that "will" come upon us: it is now.  However, while on collective action, from the Kyoto Protocol onward in the early 90s, we've seen government after government ratify, take on bits and pieces of, move away from, or even rescind entirely the binding agreements it would take to reduce green house emissions. This begs Ghosh's eminently pertinent question, "When these institutions refuse to even acknowledge what kind of problem we're actually facing, what do you do?"[3] Weighing in on the unending arguments between the so-called 'West' and developing nations in Africa and Asia when it comes to reducing global carbon footprints, Ghosh asserts that nature simply doesn't care: "When that monster cyclone comes towards Chennai or Mumbai, what are you going to say to it? 'No you're coming for the wrong person. You should go and attack the US?' Frankly, the strange thing about the world around us is that it's neither good nor bad, nor does it care for you, it's not beautiful; it is utterly indifferent to you. You are nothing. It will crush you in the same way it crushes rocks," (Ibid).
This is what is at stake, and if our governments hesitate to act, because politics has come to resemble the theatre of the absurd; an arena where grandstanding takes precedence over the will to engage in concerted collective action, then being thought of by future generations as the befuddled or 'deranged' ones who did not know how to engage with the fact of climate change will be the least of our worries. For this to come to pass, there would have to be "future generations," in the first place.

[1] See https://climate.nasa.gov/ for more.
[2] "The Anthropocene defines Earth's most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans." For more, see: http://anthropocene.info/
[3] See http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/amitav-ghosh-the-great-derangement-climate-change-author-lifest/1/716710.html for more.

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