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Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. By Amitav Ghosh. University of Chicago Press, September 2016. 196 pages.
The Great Derangement is an important corrective in the oft-polarized dialog on climate change. Rather than take sides on the American red-blue divide, Amitav Ghosh deftly takes everyone to task, including other contemporary novelists. Given the emotion around this important issue, this review takes a co-authored dialectic approach.
As an undergraduate in Stanford’s Earth Systems program, one reviewer (Siddhartha) was a student under Professor Stephen Schneider, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007. The other reviewer (Rajesh) has long used the D x V x F >R model to inform his change consultancy and to guide clients through transformational strategy initiatives.
The change model is a rather simple means of expressing that there is always resistance (R) to change. Transformational leaders must communicate why change is required due to dissatisfaction (D) with the current state, share what the future might look like in terms of a compelling vision (V), and plan how the collective must move forward with first (F) steps.
F: First Steps
If “D,” “V,” or “F” do not exist (i.e., in mathematical terms any, or all, are zero), then resistance prevails because resistance to change is prevalent (i.e., “R” is greater than zero).
Siddhartha, who is now at the London Business School, believes that Schneider would have strongly related with the above model, especially the “Burning Platform” concept. This concept comes from a July 1988 news story about an oil rig on fire in the North Sea. To save their lives, rig workers jumped off the platform into frigid waters, running the risk of hypothermia. When asked why he jumped, one of the survivors said, “It was either jump or fry.” With the platform burning, he selected potential death over certain death. While the metaphor is not terribly original, it bluntly clarifies the dilemma: with climate change, the earth is burning, and we citizens have nowhere to jump from our planetary platform. Some type of action is required. And it is required now.
Rajesh questions the viability of a corporate top-down model for addressing the challenges of global warming. Vested interests have too much to lose, and corporate executives cannot be expected to be reformers.
Amitav Ghosh’s solution requires tripartite shared leadership: legislators must take the lead using a corporate compliance approach that privileges the utilitarian greater good; religious leaders must take the lead using a spiritual approach that gives voice to the voiceless poor that are at greatest risk of facing floods and droughts; and writers, who are by design at odds with the status quo and are able to articulate cataclysms in a visceral and believable manner, must take the lead to push, pull, and prod those in power.
Ghosh has written a brilliant manifesto for urgently changing how serious literary communicators write about global warming: “If the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over.” The less compelling second half of The Great Derangement recommends that serious political leaders shift gears in how they drive policies to ameliorate the deleterious effects of this largely man-made climatic disaster: “It is now perfectly clear that in the West political processes exert very limited influence over the domain of statecraft…this altered political reality may in part be an effect of the dominance of petroleum in the world economy.”
Ghosh skillfully opens the book with a section called “Stories” before moving on to “History” and “Politics.” Unsurprisingly, the “Stories” part of this work of nonfiction is the strongest; given his bona fides as prize-winning storyteller, Ghosh is in his element gently, but firmly, criticizing writers who have shied away from exploring the scientific, cultural, economic, and personal aspects of carbon-dioxide-based global warming: “The questions that confront writers and artists today are not just those of the politics of the carbon economy; many of them have to do with our own practices and the ways in which they make us complicit in the concealments of the broader culture.”
Concealment and derangement are at the heart of this “heart-of-darkness” book-length essay. Developed from a series of lectures given at the University of Chicago, the author climbs down from the ivory tower position of postulating and posturing and makes a shift toward galvanizing fellow writers toward creative climate action. A marvelous passage of such creative literary writing is built on research Ghosh had done for his novel The Hungry Tide, from an Indian folk epic of the Sundarbans: “The tiger is watching you; you are aware of its gaze, as you always are, but you do not see it; you do not lock eyes with it until it launches its charge, and at that moment a shock courses through you and you are immobilized, frozen.”
The Great Derangement is an imploration for us to look at the tiger—our burning earth—in the eye before it is too late, before we are paralyzed with the shock of imminent death. Ghosh’s book aims to give voice to the “mute exchange of gazes” between mindless instruments of change who have brought the earth to this unsustainable stage and mindful agents of change seeking a path out of the deadlock. Ghosh introduces the reader to the idea of the “uncanniness” of all this change: “the uncanny intimacy of [our] relationship with the non-human.” This relationship has a built-in “powerful,” “grotesque,” dangerous,” and “accusatory” feedback loop built into it as the “events set in motion by global warming have a more intimate connection with humans than did the climatic phenomena of the past—this is because we have all contributed in some measure, great or small, to their making. They are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.
From a book reviewer’s perspective, nothing is a more mysterious work of our hands than the creation of fictional worlds to bring to life nonfictional truths. To overcome collective hand-wringing about climate change, we urgently recommend reading The Hungry Tide and The Great Derangement. This (F)irst step of yours will enable you to en(V)ision Ghosh’s twin worlds of fictional and nonfictional climate crisis, internalize (D)issatisfaction with our burning planet, and (R)esist the deranged idea that there is neither karmic nor capitalist cost to our carbon (dioxide) creating cultures.
For Bob Dimicco, with whom Raj and Siddhartha had the privilege to work in Cisco’s Cloud Consumption initiative. Cloud has nothing to do with inclement weather and Consumption has nothing to do with economic gluttony. Bob’s wise application of DxVxF>R to “Shadow IT” is the type of thought leadership required of climate change stakeholders.