As is often the case with people who are waylaid by unpredictable events, for years afterwards my mind kept returning to my encounter with the tornado. Why had I walked down a road that I almost never took, just before it was struck by a phenomenon that was without historical precedent? To think of it in terms of chance and coincidence seemed only to impoverish the experience: it was like trying to understand a poem by counting the words. I found myself reaching instead for the opposite end of the spectrum of meaning – for the extraordinary, the inexplicable, the confounding. Yet these too did not do justice to my memory of the event.
Novelists inevitably mine their own experience when they write. Unusual events being necessarily limited in number, it is but natural that these should be excavated over and again in the hope of discovering a yet undiscovered vein.
No less than any other writer have I dug into my own past while writing fiction. By rights then, my encounter with the tornado should have been a mother lode, a gift to be mined to the last little nugget.

It is certainly true that storms, floods and unusual weather events do recur in my books, and this may well be a legacy of the tornado. Yet, oddly enough, no tornado has ever figured in my novels. Nor is this due to any lack of effort on my part. Indeed, the reason I still possess those cuttings from the Times of India is that I have returned to them often over the years, hoping to put them to use in a novel, but only to meet with failure at every attempt.
On the face of it there is no reason why such an event should be difficult to translate into fiction; after all, many novels are filled with strange happenings. Why then did I fail, despite my best efforts, to send a character down a road that is imminently to be struck by a tornado?
In reflecting on this, I find myself asking, what would I make of such a scene were I to come across it in a novel written by someone else? I suspect that my response would be one of incredulity; I would be inclined to think that the scene was a contrivance of last resort. Surely, only a writer whose imaginative resources were utterly depleted would fall back on a situation of such extreme improbability?

Unlikely though it may seem today, the nineteenth century was indeed a time when it was assumed, in both fiction and geology, that Nature was moderate and orderly: this was a distinctive mark of a new and “modern” worldview. Bankim goes out of his way to berate his contemporary, the poet Michael Madhusudan Datta, for his immoderate portrayals of Nature: “Mr Datta…wants repose. The winds rage their loudest when there is no necessity for the lightest puff. Clouds gather and pour down a deluge, when they need do nothing of the kind; and the sea grows terrible in its wrath, when everybody feels inclined to resent its interference.”
The victory of gradualist views in science was similarly won by characterising catastrophism as un-modern. In geology, the triumph of gradualist thinking was so complete that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which posited upheavals of sudden and unimaginable violence, was for decades discounted and derided.
It is worth recalling that these habits of mind held sway until late in the twentieth century, especially among the general public. “As of the mid-1960s,” writes the historian John L Brooke, “a gradualist model of earth history and evolution…reigned supreme.” Even as late as 1985, the editorial page of the New York Times was inveighing against the asteroidal theory of dinosaur extinction: “Astronomers should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the causes of events in the stars.” As for professional palaeontologists, Elizabeth Kolbert notes, they reviled both the theory and its originators, Luis and Walter Alvarez: “‘The Cretaceous extinctions were gradual and the catastrophe theory is wrong,’…[a] paleontologist stated. But ‘simplistic theories will continue to come along to seduce a few scientists and enliven the covers of popular magazines’.”
In other words, gradualism became “a set of blinders” that eventually had to be put aside in favour of a view that recognises the “twin requirements of uniqueness to mark moments of time as distinctive, and lawfulness to establish a basis of intelligibility”.
Distinctive moments are no less important to modern novels than they are to any other forms of narrative, whether geological or historical. Ironically, this is nowhere more apparent than in Rajmohan’s Wife and Madame Bovary, in both of which chance and happenstance are crucial to the narrative. In Flaubert’s novel, for instance, the narrative pivots at a moment when Monsieur Bovary has an accidental encounter with his wife’s soon-to-be lover at the opera, just after an impassioned scene during which she has imagined that the lead singer “was looking at her…She longed to run to his arms, to take refuge in his strength, as in the incarnation of love itself, and to say to him, to cry out, ‘Take me away! carry me with you!’”
It could not, of course, be otherwise: if novels were not built upon a scaffolding of exceptional moments, writers would be faced with the Borgesian task of reproducing the world in its entirety. But the modern novel, unlike geology, has never been forced to confront the centrality of the improbable: the concealment of its scaffolding of events continues to be essential to its functioning. It is this that makes a certain kind of narrative a recognisably modern novel.
Here, then, is the irony of the “realist” novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real.
What this means in practice is that the calculus of probability that is deployed within the imaginary world of a novel is not the same as that which obtains outside it; this is why it is commonly said, “If this were in a novel, no one would believe it.” Within the pages of a novel an event that is only slightly improbable in real life – say, an unexpected encounter with a long-lost childhood friend – may seem wildly unlikely: the writer will have to work hard to make it appear persuasive.
If that is true of a small fluke of chance, consider how much harder a writer would have to work to set up a scene that is wildly improbable even in real life? For example, a scene in which a character is walking down a road at the precise moment when it is hit by an unheard-of weather phenomenon?
To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic outhouses that were once known by names such as “the Gothic”, “the romance”, or “the melodrama”, and have now come to be called “fantasy”, “horror”, and “science fiction”.
Excerpted with permission from The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh, Allen Lane.

by Padmaparna Ghosh

“Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?” I don’t remember. Chances are very few of us do. And where were you when 9/11 happened? Chances are all of us remember. And yet, these two incidents, barely a few months apart, signify similar unimaginable violence that has been created by us, by our histories. Then why is it that climate change, one of the most potent, confounding problems that we as a species have ever faced, casts no shadow on our imaginations?
With surgical accuracy, Amitav Ghosh disentangles the knots of the “wicked problem” that is climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change And The Unthinkable. A problem that, escalating terrifyingly, threatens our whole existence and yet has not entered our everyday lexicon, our stories and our politics. Ghosh puts the finger on an ache I have personally felt: “Will our future generations, standing in a rising pool of swirling waters, not beseech us with this question—‘Why didn’t you do something?’” And what will that say of us?
Ghosh, in his stupendous return to non-fiction, answers it eloquently: “In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and more urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what would they conclude? That ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

The portents of this disaster of our own making have, however, been there for a long time. Messengers of science have been breathlessly rushing back from the edges of our planet to report to the rulers of a looming catastrophe. From the top of Mauna Loa, a volcano on the island of Hawaii, an atmospheric research lab has been faithfully pinging out Earth’s carbon-dioxide (CO2) concentration levels from the 1950s. Mauna Loa’s measurements built the Keeling Curve, a rising graph of CO2 concentration that rears like a snake’s head. In 2013, we passed the 400 parts per million marker. Where were you then? (You will find the current CO2 level at ).
Such a prediction should have terrified us, but there is no evidence of this in our stories. One of Ghosh’s theories deals deftly with why that might be. Why does the literary craft of our times ignore climate change? Ghosh ties the nature of the 18th century science to the manner in which fiction evolved, from “narrative turns” on events of “unrepeatable uniqueness”, to the “gradualist approach that privileges slow processes that unfold over time at even predictable rates” or, to put it simply—“nature does not make leaps”. The modern novel imitated this change. Earthquakes, floods, typhoons, disasters, prodigious events as elements of literature, came to be looked upon as supernatural, out of this world and, therefore, “un-modern”. An increasing emphasis, in the literary movements of the 20th century, “was laid on style and ‘observation’, whether it be of everyday details, traits of character, or nuances of emotion”—of mundane life. You don’t have to look far to find this dominant feature in popular writing today, in the detailed portrayals of personal life, in chronicles of the self.
For centuries, mankind has played with nature, bounced it like a ball, oblivious to the fact that one day playtime would end and the ball could morph into a beast mid-air. Ghosh cannot shake off the uncanny feeling that global warming has been toying with us because after the three post-war decades (1950s onwards), when CO2 emissions grew sharply, global temperatures stabilized.
In climate change’s manifestations, we are not, and will never be, alone. And yet, just at a time when mankind needs to act as an indivisible force, we find ourselves in thrall “of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike”. At a time when “men in the aggregate” should be representing our cultural and fictional imaginations, our stories and cultures have come to “become ever more radically centered” on what American novelist John Updike called the “individual moral adventure”.
Probably the biggest impediment to our acting as a collective is our gradual isolation. For ease and efficiency of planning, we have zoomed in more and more on our planet and divided it into discrete packages—of nation states, of cities, of clusters of forests, designated protected areas. We have divided our rivers into sections of dams, our towns into gated communities. Not only have we transformed elements from under the ground into electronics in our hands, such is our confidence in “managing” Earth’s resources that we think nothing of moving the course of rivers.

Capitalism is mainly to blame for this age of the Anthropocene. But this is where Ghosh adds that it is also about colonization and its politics, and explains why Asia is and will continue to be at the centre of this debate—and not just because of its vulnerabilities. His hypothesis explains how imperial forces thwarted emerging fossil-fuel economies because the coal economy depended on not being imitated. The process of decolonization, therefore, meant that the erstwhile colonies followed in exactly the same steps of “development”. “The period of the Great Acceleration (Keeling Curve) is precisely the period of great decolonization in countries that had been dominated by European Imperial powers,” says historian Dipesh Chakrabarty.
If this is the case, Ghosh asks, then did imperialism actually delay the climate change crisis? The uncomfortable answer is, probably yes. Every December, at the annual climate change conference, heads of state come bearing the same arguments and stand at a position they have marked out for themselves the year before—a clear line between the global North and South. “Common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR)”, conference jargon that means developed countries need to carry a larger burden than those still blossoming into fully fossil-fuel economies, is then tied to colonial history, posing, therefore, an unshakeable ethical dilemma.
And this is how we are trapped deeper into our Age of Derangement, where every family in the world is racing towards an equal level of consumption.
It is Asia, then, “that has torn the mask from the phantom that lured it onto the stage of the Great Derangement, but only to recoil in horror at its own handiwork; its shock is such that it dare not even name what it has beheld—for having entered this stage, it is trapped, like everyone else. All it can say to the chorus that is waiting to receive it is ‘But you promised…and we believed you!’”
Ghosh charts our progress, our cultures, history, politics, and its environmental fallout, as delicately and firmly as a Buddhist monk resolutely scattering coloured sand to create a mandala. Pixel by pixel, in distant corners of a canvas, he builds his arguments. Through the three sections of The Great Derangement, he carves a picture out of seemingly disparate global and local events and trends.
And when you step back, slowly, inch by inch, a grander story is revealed—our story. We get to see a picture so grotesque and distorted that it is impossible to look away. And we look on, transfixed by a singular conclusion—climate change is on us.
Early on in the book, Ghosh imagines Mumbai under an exceptional natural disaster, the kind the city hasn’t seen because of the tame nature of the Arabian Sea. Though the chances are slim, we are living on a planet that is increasingly unfamiliar to us. He builds a scenario in which a freakish cyclone runs into Mumbai from the south, in which the “hills and promontories of South Mumbai would once again become islands, rising out of a wildly agitated expanse of water”.
The question is, where will you be then? Where will you be when the Larsen C ice shelf collapses? And will you remember?

Product Details

  • Series: Berlin Family Lectures delivered in October 2015 and then edited into this book
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (Pub date: September 22, 2016)

Editorial Reviews


“For a long time, we have been talking about climate change as a scientific question. In this magnificent book, Ghosh changes the conversation, moving it out of the narrow corridors of science and into the wide precincts of culture, politics, and power. Climate change, he argues, is the result of a set of interrelated histories that promoted and sustained our collective dependence on fossil fuels, and it is a kind of derangement to say we want a different world but act in a way that ensures the continuance of the present one. A clarion call not just to act on climate, but to think about it in a wholly new way.”
(Naomi Oreskes, author of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future)

“With the deftness of a master storyteller and the powerful vision of a keen political observer, Ghosh traces the complex ways that globalization, empire, and the bourgeois novel are entangled with the history of carbon and our contemporary climate crisis. A thrilling, often brilliant work of synthesis and imagination, The Great Derangement is essential reading for anyone trying to understand what the Anthropocene means for our human future.”
(Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization)

“Ghosh’s analysis of the ‘era of climate change’ is fascinating, erudite, and unflinching. The Great Derangement is a profoundly original book that spares no one.”
(Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History)

“Captivating. . . .The lightness and agility of Ghosh’s writing succeeds in keeping all  the urgency  and the shadows of something we cannot really look at: the destiny of mankind.”
(Giorgio Agamben)

“On very rare occasions, a writer marshals such searing insight and storytelling skill that even a well trodden subject is blown wide open. New connections are made, new futures appear. Ghosh is that kind of writer, and this is that kind of book.”
(Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything)

“Ghosh has written brilliant fiction, impactful essays. But this work on climate change is the most transformational and powerful piece of writing to come from his pen. The Great Derangement is a book on our burning planet for those who are burning it and are being burnt with it. Ghosh gives us, in scalding anguish, a masterpiece that reflects the Buddha’'s Adittapariyaya Sutta or ‘The Fire Sermon’ that T S Eliot so plangently re-affirmed in ‘The Waste Land.’ We have here a book that seeks to chastise, challenge, and change our brain's clogged circuitry.”
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi)

“For decades Ghosh has been telling us exquisite stories of unlikely human connection across geographical and historical boundaries. In The Great Derangement he goes a step further and sets us amidst the great collectivity of a living and dying planet. This intensely lyrical work from a visionary writer at his best calls for a restitution of the sacred—in its most inclusive form—so that we can face the climate crisis of our times with our finest remaining resources.”
(Leela Gandhi, Brown University)

About the Author

Amitav Ghosh is an award-winning novelist and essayist whose books include The Circle of Reason, The Shadow LinesIn An Antique LandDancing in CambodiaThe Calcutta ChromosomeThe Glass PalaceThe Hungry Tide, and the Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and  Flood of Fire.


New Delhi: Novelist Amitav Ghosh examines the inability at the level of literature, history and politics to grasp the scale and violence of climate change in his new book, his first major book of nonfiction since "In an Antique Land" of 1992.
"The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable", published by Penguin Books imprint Allen Lane, serves as Ghosh's summons to confront the most urgent task of our time. That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish, the author says, adding to see that this is so one needs to only glance through the pages of a few highly-regarded literary journals and book reviews.
"When the subject of climatic change appears in these publications, it is almost always in relation to non-fiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon," he argues. "Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind
that is taken seriously by serious literary journals; the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel."
Ghosh says he too had been preoccupied with climate change for a long time, but it is true of his own work as well, that this subject figures only obliquely in his fiction. "In thinking about the mismatch between my personal concerns and the content of my published work, I have come to be convinced that the discrepancy is not the result of personal predilections: it arises out of the peculiar forms of
resistance that climate change presents to what is now regarded as serious fiction."
Are we deranged? Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so.
The extreme nature of today's climate events, Ghosh asserts, make them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining. This is particularly true of serious literary fiction: hundred-year storms and freakish
tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel; they are automatically consigned to other genres.