Ursula K. Heise – Climate Stories: Review of Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement”


This review is the second in a three-part series on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. The first part was written by Jesse Oak-Taylor. boundary 2 also published a conversation between J. Daniel Elam and Amitav Ghosh in March 2017.   

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Ursula K. Heise

“Let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,” Amitav Ghosh writes toward the beginning of his book of three essays, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (9). With this still startling if no longer new claim, he places his essays into the growing body of analyses that approach climate change from a cultural, historical, philosophical, and narrative angle rather than the still more common perspective of science, technology, and policy. Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree about Climate Change (2009), Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History” (2009) and its follow-up essays, Kari Marie Norgaard’s Living in Denial (2011), John L. Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History (2014), Dale Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time (2014), Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions (2015), and E. Ann Kaplan’s Climate Trauma (2015), among others, have established a way of thinking about climate change that foregrounds historical memory and amnesia, socio-economic inequalities and cultural differences, and the story templates and metaphors that have shaped public debates about the issue.

Like many writers in this field, Ghosh uses the concept of the Anthropocene as essentially synonymous with climate change, even though it encompassed far more numerous and quite different global transformations in the original formulations by the ecologist Eugene Stoermer and the atmospherical chemist Paul Crutzen (Stoermer and Crutzen 2000; Crutzen 2003). And like other cultural theorists of global warming, he sees it as a fundamental test for established ways of reasoning, telling stories, and acting politically: “The Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our commonsense understandings and beyond that to contemporary culture in general” (9). He analyzes this challenge as it affects the writing of mainstream novels (“Stories”), the standard historical narrative of technological innovation and fossil fuel use (“History”), and social movements for climate justice (“Politics”).

The most innovative and persuasive of these essays is no doubt the one concerning history, which resolutely shifts the focus of the climate change narrative from Europe and North America to Asia, and from capitalism to empire and imperialism. Ghosh has no fundamental disagreement with leftist critics such as Naomi Klein, Jason Moore, or Slavoj Žižek, who define climate change primarily as a consequence of capitalism and its global spread. But he foregrounds how from an Asian perspective, the critique of capitalism does not smoothly align with the critique of colonialism. In Burma and China, the exploitation of oil as fuel preceded or was contemporaneous with its development in Europe and North America. Steam engines were so quickly adopted and improved in India that a carbon economy might have developed rapidly in the region. What impeded these developments from unfolding into fully fledged carbon economies was not lack of ingenuity or entrepreneurism, Ghosh argues, but the exercise of colonial power which diverted resources to the metropolis and held back technological development in the colonies. Indigenous resistance movements contributed their own to oppose the early development of industrial capitalism. Because of these factors, the carbon footprint of most Asian nations began to expand only after decolonization.

Seen from this angle, Ghosh suggests, imperialism may actually prevented climate change from setting in earlier. “Could it be the case that imperialism actually delayed the onset of the climate crisis by retarding the expansion of Asian and African economies? Is it possible that if the major twentieth-century empires had been dismantled earlier, then the landmark figure of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have been crossed long before it actually was? It seems to me the answer is almost certainly yes” (109-110). This insight, Ghosh highlights, strengthens arguments in favor of global distributive justice (formerly colonial nations indeed have a right to claim that they have to make up for time lost), but attaining such justice entails putting all human societies at even greater risk. In a gesture reminiscent of Chakrabarty’s call for a “negative universal history” in the face of climate change (2009: 221-222), Ghosh emphasizes that this paradox undermines the utility of an “us-versus-them” approach to the climate crisis – including, presumably, the approach of critics who see the abolition of capitalism as a prerequisite for solving the climate crisis. “While there can be no doubt that the climate crisis was brought on by the way in which the carbon economy evolved in the West, it is also true that the matter might have taken many different turns. The climate crisis cannot therefore be thought of as a problem created by an utterly distant ‘Other'” (114).

Ghosh’s argument in the “History” essay remains brilliant and thought-provoking even if one takes his suggestion that the matter of the carbon economy might have taken different turns in other directions. Certainly it is sobering to think that without imperialism (or with an earlier end to empire), carbon emissions might have reached crisis thresholds a century or more earlier. But in the same scenario, it is also possible that alternative energy economies would have developed sooner, and that they might have done so at a time when the world population was far smaller than it is today. Emissions reached 400 parts per million (50ppm above what most climate scientists deem safe) for the first time in 2014, when the world population numbered 7.1 billion. The world population was about 1.2 billion in 1850, 1.6 billion in 1900, and 2.55 billion in 1950. Even given earlier decolonization and more rapid development of carbon-intensive economies in Africa and Asia, it is not clear whether these population numbers would have been sufficient to trigger a climate crisis of the magnitude we are currently facing. Earlier decolonization and industrial development, if it went along with an empowerment of women as it has in some regions, might also have helped in themselves to alter population growth rates. Even granting Ghosh’s historical thought experiment, therefore, his own emphasis on the importance of numbers – population numbers included – make it uncertain whether an earlier end to colonialism would have accelerated carbon emissions in the way he hypothesizes. Under a variety of other scenarios, the critique of capitalism and the critique of colonialism would remain more firmly aligned than his argument allows.

In his “Politics” essay, Ghosh shifts from climate change as an issue of economic inequality to one of inequality in power. Even in the anglophone countries where climate denialism has found its most fertile territory (such as Australia, Canada, and the United States), he notes, the military and intelligence establishments have been conspicuously exempt from such skepticism, and have instead zeroed in on climate change as a major threat to national security. This is because “the nature of the carbon economy is such that power, no less than wealth, is largely dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels” (142), and climate justice would therefore imply a redistribution of power that is ultimately unacceptable to those nations who currently possess it. “From this perspective, global inaction on climate change is by no means the result of confusion of denialism or a lack of planning: to the contrary, the maintenance of the status quo is the plan. Climate change may itself facilitate the realization of this plan by providing an alibi for ever-greater military intrusion into every kind of geographic and military space,” Ghosh argues (145). In this context, he articulates his difference with critics of capitalism even more sharply by arguing that these “imperatives of political and military dominance” (146) – imperial aspirations, in other words – would persist even if capitalism were replaced by a different economic system.

Given the continuing power of empire, Ghosh sharply criticizes the rhetoric of climate change as a moral issue, which substitutes individual changes for the large-scale political transformations that are really needed. In the same vein, he holds out little hope for the success of emergent social movements for climate justice, which in his view will take longer to consolidate power than the urgency of global warming leaves room for. Instead, via a brilliant tour-de-force textual comparison of the Paris Climate Agreement and the papal encyclica Laudato Si’, both published in 2015, Ghosh proposes that the transnational mobilization abilities of major religions and a broad idea of the sacred, which he loosely associates with an “acceptance of limits and limitations” (161), may offer more promising prospects for the politics of the future. This is an odd turn of argument not only because quite a few major religions rely on the centrality of individual conversion as the key to changing the world – the individual perspective Ghosh had earlier rejected. Many institutionalized religions have also historically distinguished themselves by their expertise in pitting populations against each other at least as much as by the ability to “join hands with popular movements” and with each other that Ghosh stakes his hope on (161).

If the conclusion of the argument in “Politics” persuades less than its sharply insightful analysis, this disjunction is even more palpable in Ghosh’s first essay, “Stories.” The mainstream novel such as it arose in Europe in the eighteenth century and has dominated the literary scene worldwide since, Ghosh argues in this more literature-oriented essay, is incapable of dealing with climate change. Unlike premodern epic, the modern novel is concerned with everyday people and ordinary affairs, not the improbable and extraordinary events that climate change has already begun to visit on humans and their environments: increasingly frequent hurricanes and typhoons, floods, droughts, sea level rise. It is typically keyed to the scale of the individual, the family, and the nation – not the planetary framework climate change requires. And it is structured so as to separate human culture out from nonhuman processes and forms of agency that are instead relegated to the realm of the natural sciences. All of these tendencies entail that “the Anthropocene [resists] the techniques that are most closely identified with the novel: its essence consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel – forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space” (63). Premodern forms of narrative, of course, were not constrained in similar ways: myths, epics, and fairy tales often ranged over large spaces and time intervals, and included a wide variety of human as well as nonhuman agents. But it is precisely in the Anthropocene, Ghosh highlights, “that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human” (66).

So far, one may agree with Ghosh: the conventional realist, high-modernist and postmodernist or postcolonial novel may not offer ready-made narrative strategies for addressing climate change. Ghosh himself, however, notes that mainstream novelists have in fact addressed climate change – one might think here of such texts as Ilija Trojanow’s EisTau (Ice Thaw, 2011) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012). But mostly, Ghosh laments, climate change in the perspective of “serious literary journals” such as the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the Los Angeles Review of Books appears only in connection with nonfiction. In fiction, it has appeared more often in the “outhouses” (66) of science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction­ – genres too invested in the hybridization of nature and culture to be tolerated by a mainstream Zeitgeist invested in keeping these two realms apart, in his view (71).

But it remains unclear why this neglect on the part of a certain kind of literary establishment should be a matter of intrinsic aesthetic concern. If science fiction, for example, satisfactorily addresses the challenges of narrating the Anthropocene, why should we care whether the mainstream novel does or not? None of the constraints that Ghosh so lucidly analyzes in conventional novels handicap science fiction. Indeed, science fiction distinguishes itself generically from the novel not just by its dual focus on nature and culture, but by perpetuating many of the conventions of epic in the age of the novel. Science fiction enthusiastically embraces nonhuman agents, from aliens and sentient animals to robots and AIs. It often focuses on extraordinary events such as the discovery of new planets, the destruction of civilizations, encounters with aliens, and revolutionary technological change. And it has never limited itself in temporal or spatial scale in the way mainstream novels have: Olaf Stapledon’s novel Last and First Men (1930) covers two billion years and eighteen human species, for example; Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of novels (1950s-80s) hundreds of years; and Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos novels (1979-83) describe human history on Earth from the point of view aliens to whom the planet and its dominant species appear unusually tumultuous and short-lived, compared to their own, much vaster temporal scales. More recently, Dietmar Dath’s Die Abschaffung der Arten (The Abolition of Species, 2008) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) have taken readers hundreds of years and Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015) 5,000 years into the future to narrate technological, ecological, and biological evolutions. Constraints of probability, individualism, and scale that shape the mainstream novel, as this mere handful of examples shows, have not mattered significantly for science fiction.

This leads to the question whether “science fiction is better equipped to address the Anthropocene than mainstream literary fiction?” (72). Not so, according to Ghosh. In what is perhaps one of the most striking argumentative shortfalls in his otherwise perceptive and eloquent essay, he draws on the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s claim that “‘science fiction and speculative fiction . . . draw from . . . imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one'” (72). Therefore, he claims, “the Anthropocene resists science fiction: it is precisely not an imagined ‘other’ world apart from ours; not is it located in another ‘time’ or another ‘dimension'” (72-73). It is unfortunate that Ghosh would have chosen to rely on an author who has repeatedly incited the anger of other science fiction writers and readers by dismissing a genre in which she herself has established part of her writerly reputation. Both she and Ghosh fundamentally misunderstand the “elsewheres” of science fiction. One can argue, with the literary theorist Fredric Jameson, that science fiction’s basic narrative strategy is to present to us our present society as the past of a future yet to come (2005: 255); or one can go along with science fiction novelist William Gibson’s claim that the future is here, just not evenly distributed yet, so that the present becomes a kind of future in science fiction (Kennedy 2012). Either way, science fiction of course always addresses its audience’s here and now through the detour of imagined futures. Denying this connection to the present, as Ghosh does, implies an oddly literalist misunderstanding of the genre that is all the more surprising as he himself has pointed out in an interview with boundary2 that “much of the work that continues to be read today, that survives from the mid-twentieth century, is science fiction,” whereas the appeal and audience of mainstream fiction continue to dwindle (https://www.boundary2.org/2017/03/the-temporal-order-of-modernity-has-changed-j-daniel-elam-in-conversation-with-amitav-ghosh-on-the-anthropocene-climate-change-and-world-literature/ ). Readers, even in Ghosh’s own asssessment, seem to have no trouble in translating the imagined worlds of science fiction to their present.

Science fiction has been at the forefront of climate change narrative, and not invariably in the guise of “disaster stories set in the future” rather than the present, as Ghosh claims (72). In science fiction film, one might usefully contrast Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which does use the story template of the disaster movie, with the much quieter and more lyrical exploration of climate futures in Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo’s Nước 2030 (Water 2030; 2014), which follows a young woman in her investigation of her husband’s murder on a floating farm in the mostly flooded southern Vietnam of 2030. In fiction, the Australian novelist George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (1987) explores how class differences persist and change as the seas rise in Melbourne. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), so accurate in its forecast that its galley proofs needed only minor edits when Hurricane Sandy translated its literary vision into reality in late 2012, recasts the disaster story in the framework of commodified risk analysis. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) has readers imagine Thailand as a bastion of resistance against both biotech plagues and climate change in the future. And Kim Stanley Robinson, without denying the challenges and disasters climate change will bring, also highlights the varied kinds of ingenuity, expertise, political engagement, and aesthetic beauty climate change will generate in his Climate in the Capital trilogy (2004-2007) and in his more recent novels 2312 and New York 2140 (2017). Building on earlier futuristic portrayals of rising seas and (non-anthropogenic) climate change in such novels as Abe Kōbō’s 第四間氷期 (Dai Yon Kampyōki, translated as Inter Ice Age 4; 1959) and J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), science fiction novels ranging from David Brin’s Earth (1990) to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (2015) have explored the upheavals and catastrophes climate change will bring, but also and above all the altered everyday experiences and psychological structures it will generate.

That science fiction is becoming the default genre for the narrative engagement with climate change is also obvious from recent environmental nonfiction. As I have discussed in more detail elsewhere (Heise 2016: 215-220), journalists like Alan Weisman (The World Without Us, 2007), climate scientists like James Hansen (Storms of my Grandchildren, 2009), and activists like Bill McKibben (Eaarth, 2011) have all adopted themes and narrative strategies from science fiction to convey environmental realities. This tendency culminated, in 2014, in the science fiction novella The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by the historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, who had earlier published a well-received analysis of climate science denialism (The Merchants of Doubt, 2010). Collapse tells the story of climate change in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries from the perspective of a Chinese historian looking back from 2393. In spite of its shortfalls as a science fiction texts, Collapse beautifully exemplifies the recent convergences between environmental nonfiction and science fiction around the issue of climate change.

Why does as astute a literary critic and as accomplished a writer as Amitav Ghosh not seem to take these developments seriously? Ghosh himself has ventured into science fiction in The Calcutta Chromosome (1995) – a novel that, in spite of its intriguing mix of colonial history and futurism, remains elusive at the end. His major achievements have come in the form more conventionally realist novels, The Hungry Tide (2004) and Sea of Poppies (2008) among them, whose genius lies in the way in which they make historical facts come alive for the present through imagined characters. Ghosh’s deep investment in history and anthropology may keep him from fully appreciating the import of more speculative approaches to the present and future that are visible in current science fiction.

Considering how many writers have engaged with climate change over the last two decades, the fact that journals such as the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books rarely review such fiction may bespeak a shortfall of the editorial rather than the literary imagination. Whatever the challenges of representing climate change in literature, film, and art may be, narrative tools for telling climate change stories at various scales and across different cultures are not in short supply. That these tools are now being developed and deployed in genres that do not conform to what Ghosh and his boundary2 interviewer, J. Daniel Elam, understand as the world literature canon may be regrettable by the standards of a certain kind of literary criticism. But is likely immaterial to most readers – certainly to those who are interested in environmental narrative and communication. The stories of climate change are being told, in print, in film, and on the internet. Ghosh’s lucid and innovative analyses of the historical and political quandaries that surround demands for global climate justice provide an immensely helpful framework for understanding when and how such narratives have been successful and where they have failed in the past, and how they might succeed in the future.


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Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35: 197-222.

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—, and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. “The ‘Anthropocene.'” Global Change Newsletter 41: 17–18.

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Kennedy, Pagan. 2012. “William Gibson’s Future Is Now.”  New York Times, January 13. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/books/review/distrust-that-particular-flavor-by-william-gibson-book-review.html?pagewanted=all.

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Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury.

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