How culturally deranged is our climate today?

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Climate change has been the deepest, most challenging cognitive puzzle for humans in these past years. It is the system at the top of the system, which has emergent properties that can easily turn intuitive assumptions into catastrophic dead ends. Every action has a reaction or ten, and improving one part of the system almost always leads to vulnerabilities elsewhere.

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Unsurprisingly, given the scope of the challenge, complexity theory and “systems thinking” have become critical to understanding Earth. It also happens to be a popular framework for technologists, which fits well with software engineering and technology products, as well as society at large. Instead of looking at every small feature or change in the world atomically, systems thinking makes connections between them all, finding connections where others see only disparate phenomena.

In his deep and entertaining book The Great DerangementIn , renowned Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh trains his sharply analytical and attentive mind on the interrelationships between humans and the planet, exploring counter-intuitive relationships wherever they roam. An edited collection of a series of lectures he gave at the University of Chicago in 2015, it’s a taut and stimulating meditation, and one of the best I’ve read in recent years.


Ghosh’s main argument focuses on the role of culture, and especially literary culture, in the context of the climate crisis. He is amazed to find it completely absent, which leads to the title of the book The Great Disturbance: that climate change is all but incidental to culture, a fact that is paranoid in a world that is under stress in the daily life of a planet. Shaking fast from the crisis. In fact, “it can even be said that climate change-related fiction is almost by definition not taken seriously by serious literary magazines: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to dismiss a novel or short story as science fiction.” for the style of.”

He describes his own brush with climate change: a strange urban cyclone that nearly killed him when he was younger. Yet, as he recounts the event, he realizes that his random brush with death would be impossible in the context of a plot. Too arbitrary, a narrative device that would seem hackneyed to even the most open-minded reader. Their own experience – an authentic, genuine experience – is impossible to write about because it seems almost impossible to happen.

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The totality of each of those many rolls of the dice, unlikely but likely resulting from climate change, guarantees successive disasters. This leads Ghosh to focus on the history of probability. “Probability and the modern novel are in fact twins, born at the same time, among the same people, under a shared star, which destined them to serve as vessels for the prevention of the same kind of experience. ,” they write. The randomness of life that had been a characteristic of humanity for millennia became routine with the rise of the Industrial Age – we took control of our environment, our destiny, after struggling to stop the chaos of our world. Thus the possibility became less relevant in the modern era.

Undoubtedly, it was precisely this trend towards control that has led to the decline of our present climate. Along with our advanced standard of living comes the price of the quality of regularity that we demand. The idyllic nature of the San Francisco Bay Area is now beset by persistent climate crises from drought to wildfires. Our interconnected global community is now staggered with supply-chain disruptions, trip cancellations, border closures and policy changes. Our system of regularity has become a system at war with itself.

Part of the challenge in Ghosh’s mind is that culture has become centered on the narratives of individuals who are unmatched by the forces of the earth today. He borrows the phrase “personal moral adventure” from John Updike, which describes much of modern literature, especially produced in the West. We want a hero, a hero, someone we can visually connect with and understand their sufferings as they begin their quest against the challenges they eventually overcome.

However climate is a system, and thus, practically impervious to individual action. As I mentioned in my review of Kim Stanley Robinson ministry for the future Today, it is nearly impossible to engage the reader on the bureaucratic conflicts that form the basis of any change around climate. There are no villains, but we all are, and it doesn’t quite match the kind of narrative readers and audiences expect.

Worse yet, the narrative requirements of “personal moral courage” lead us into a world in which the essence of the matter is not even the heart of the story. Ghosh denies where this leads, writing that “fiction, for one, is reimagined in such a way that it is a form of witnessing, testifying, and charting the career of conscience.” Thus honesty and authenticity become the greatest virtues in politics in the form of literature.” This leads to a decline in the level of agency for individuals and groups as well. “As the public sector becomes more performant at every level, from presidential campaigns to online petitions, its ability to influence the actual exercise of power is increasingly eroded,” he writes.

While systems thinking can easily be limited to only technical and scientific relations, Ghosh has successfully expanded the boundaries to include culture in the equation (the three parts in this section are “Stories,” “History” and “Politics”). titles, which gives some idea of ​​their intended contribution). It’s not enough just to peek into our natural ecosystems and see what’s going on, but we also have to understand how humans conceive and connect to these systems in the first place. His analysis provides a more important take on an already deeper level of problem.

So where does this entry into culture, power and politics take us? Ultimately, Ghosh sees an important place for traditional religious authorities to take charge of the climate. As he writes:

Religious worldviews are not subject to the limitations that have made climate change such a challenge to our current governance institutions: they transcend nation-states, and they all accept inter-generational, long-term responsibilities; They do not share in economistic ways of thinking and are therefore able to visualize non-linear change—in other words, catastrophe, in ways that are perhaps closed to the forms of reasoning deployed by contemporary nation-states.

Ghosh touches on a myriad of other topics in this thin book, but his scholarship and sometimes contradictory thinking successfully turn many debates and context around climate and future governance. As with all good systems thinking, its analysis is ultimately somewhat synthetic: the various lenses through which a wicked problem can be understood. We should be lucky that maybe there is a way out of the swamp.

Or not. Because it is clear that the climate debate has been going on for decades, but we are still doing little to address the fundamentals. Ghosh quoted U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United States and the first Secretary-General of Asia in 1971:

When we watch the sun set, after dusk, through the mist in the poisonous waters of our native land, we must seriously ask ourselves whether we really want to tell a future universal historian on another planet about us. are: “With all their talent and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,” or, “They kept doing politics until their world collapsed around them Went.”

That history is now being written, and while the puzzle before us is indeed formidable, it is neither impossible to understand nor impossible to solve.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghoshi
The University of Chicago Press, 2016, 176 pages

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