My official policy on book recommendations is, briefly: you will find it worthwhile or I’ll refund your money. [stderr] I note that nobody has ever taken me up on that offer in many years (I had a similar offer on my personal website before I started stderr here) so either my recommendations are awesome, or nobody cares. And, my official recommended books list, with this new entry, is [stderr]
This is climate change as beautiful literature. It’s also a very important perspective on the topic, being non-US-centric and therefore non-imperialist. Writing from the perspective of a novelist, Ghosh starts out by asking “why isn’t there more climate change fiction”? It seems to me that the answer is pretty obvious: other than preppers and fascism-leaning American gun nuts and computer programmers who want to imagine the collapse of civilization – it’s just not a very good story.
It’s a lead-in to some very profound thinking about climate change and what it means and will mean. Some of what Ghosh has to say is terrifying in its implications. It’s beautiful and devastating. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I consumed the audiobook version, and the narrator’s voice is soothing and gentle as he tells you all this really thought-provoking and fear-inducing stuff. Ghosh doesn’t just talk about the simple stuff like how much the water is going to rise; he looks at the problem inherent in any effective response to climate change: it will require a re-factoring of the global distribution of power. Put that way, it’s obviously true, and the implications are a whole lot worse than the implication that Miami will look like Venice, someday soon.
The maintenance of dominance outweighed any other imperative of governance, and it was toward these ends that statecraft was primarily oriented. When seen through this prism it does not seem at all improbable that certain organs of state, particularly the security establishment, would adopt an approach that is quite different from that of the domestic political sphere. Global warming is unique, after all, in that it is simultaneously a domestic and global crisis. A bifurcation of responses is only to be expected. Nor is it conceivable that institutions of governance in any contemporary nation could be indifferent to global warming. For, if it is the case that buyer politics is central to the mission of modern governments, as Michel Foucault argued, then climate change represents a crisis of unprecedented magnitude for their practices of governance. To ignore this challenge would run counter to the evolutionary path of the modern nation-state. Moreover, the climate crisis holds the potential of drastically re-ordering the global distribution of power as well as wealth. 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. The world’s most powerful countries are also also oil-states, Timothy Mitchell notes, and without the energy they derive from oil, their current forms of political and economic life would not exist, nor would they continue to occupy their present positions in the global ranking of power.
This being the case, if the emissions of some countries were to be curbed, or the emissions of others were allowed to rise, then this would lead inevitably to a re-distribution of global power. It is certainly no coincidence that the increase in consumption of fossil fuels in China and India has already brought about an enormous change in their international influence. These realities cast a light of their own on the question of climate justice. That justice should be aspired to is widely agreed; it could hardly be otherwise since this ideal lies at the heart of all contemporary claims of political legitimacy. How such an end could be reached is also well-known – an equitable regime of emissions could be created through any one of many strategies such as contraction and convergence, for instance, or a per capita climate accord. Or, a fair apportioning of the world’s remaining climate budget. But, the resulting equity would lead not just to a re-distribution of wealth, but to a re-calibration of global power and from the point of view of a security establishment that is oriented toward the maintenance of global dominance this is precisely the scenario that is most greatly to be feared.
From this perspective, the continuance of the status quo is the most desirable of outcomes. Seen in this light, climate change is not a danger in itself, it is envisaged as a threat-multiplier that will deepen already existing divisions and lead to the intensification of a range of conflicts. How will the security establishments of the west respond to these threat perceptions? In all likelihood they will resort to the strategy that Christian Parenti calls “the politics of the armed lifeboat” – a posture that combines preparations for open-ended counter-insurgency, militarized borders, and aggressive anti-immigrant policing. The tasks of the nation-state under these circumstances will be keeping blood-thinned tides of climate refugees at bay and protecting their own resources. In this world-view, humanity has not only declared a war against itself, but is locked into mortal combat with The Earth.
The outlines of an armed lifeboat scenario can already be discerned in the response of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia to the Syrian refugee crisis. They have accepted very few migrants even though the problem is partly of their own making. The adoption of this strategy might even represent the logical combination of the bio-political mission of the modern nation-state, since it is a strategy that conceives of the preservation of the body of the nation in the most literal sense, via reinforcement of boundaries that are seen to be under threat from the infiltration of the pathological bare life that is spilling over from other nations. The trouble, however, is that the contagion has already occurred, everywhere. The ongoing changes in the climate and the perturbations that they will cause within nations cannot be held at bay be reinforcing man-made boundaries. We are in an era where the body of the nation can no longer be conceived of as consisting only of a territorialized human population. Its very sinews are now revealed to be intertwined with forces that cannot be confined by boundaries.
I like how he doesn’t explicitly predict that the dominant nations are going to adopt the armed lifeboat strategy; he leaves it as obvious that they are already doing so, and the consequences are going to be what they are going to be.
For the last few years I have been increasingly aware of the fact that the US government’s strategy on climate change has been to keep doing business as usual, but making some effort to hide that fact. Action, I used to think, would come only after it’s thoroughly too late but now I wonder if it will come at all.
This is the first book I’ve read on the topic that wraps imperialism into the picture. Imperialism which must, obviously, be part of the history – but for some reason the US and other countries prefer to talk about this whole thing as if it’s some kind of unfortunate series of decisions someone made (not that someone made, realizing that oil was the easiest and most portable and pumpable form of energy to power a navy) (That was Winston Churchill’s big strategic idea) It’s obvious once you think of it and I’m embarrassed that I did not.
Why did the developing world not develop? Easy. They were being farmed as brute labor for empires. India, China, and Africa didn’t need tractors because they could dig in the dirt by hand. I could add Ireland, Scotland, and parts of central/eastern Europe to that list, but the point remains unchanged: the history of global warming is intimately tied to the power structures established during imperialism, which have mutated to maintain themselves using high-energy military economies. [Note, the previous extract came earlier in the book than the first one I quoted; it was part of the set-up for the conclusions. For whatever reason, I decided to work backward.]
If it is the case that the climate crisis was precipitated by mainland Asia’s embrace of the dominant mechanisms of the world economy, then the critical question in the history of the anthropocene is this: why did the most populous countries of Asia industrialize late in the 20th century and not before? Strangely, this question is almost never explicitly posed in accounts of the history of global warming, yet these histories do often offer an implicit answer to the question of why the non-western world was slow to enter the carbon economy. It is simply that the technologies that created this economy, e.g.: the spinning jenny and the steam engine, were invented in England and were therefore inaccessible to much of the world. In this view, industrialization comes about through a process of technological diffusion that radiates outward from the west. This narrative is, of course, consistent with the history of global warming over the 19th and 20th centuries when the carbon-intensive economies of the west pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at ever-accelerating rates. It is therefore perfectly accurate to say as Anil Agarawal and Sunita Narain did in their seminal 1991 essay on climate justice [oxford] that the accumulation in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases is mainly the result of the gargantuan consumption of developed countries, particularly the US. Yet these truths should not lead us to overlook the fact that this economy had a very complicated prehistory. Before the advent of the carbon intensive economy the populations of the old world were not divided by vast gaps in technology. For millenia, trade connections were close enough to ensure that innovations in thought and technique were transmitted quite rapidly over long distances. Even deep long-term historical processes unfolded at roughly the same time in places far removed from each other. Vernacularization of languages is an example of one such.
What we have learned from this experiment is that the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population. Asia’s historical experience demonstrates that our planet will not allow these patterns of living to be adopted by every living human being. Every family in the world can not have 2 cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator. Not because of technical or economic limitations, but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process. 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, but 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 slides back and forth between literary history, the history of some of the great cities in India, and humanity’s literary response to climate change. If I kept extracting the good bits, this posting would be the whole book. One part, I could not find again, is a brief little vignette in which Ghosh describes the writing of one of the climate accords – dozens of pages of technically correct English comprising only three complete sentences and a whole lot of semi-colons. He also talks about Mumbai and Kolkata, which were (I did not know this!) built on island archipelagos that have since been merged and filled in. They are one direct hit from a cyclone away from unthinkable mass casualty events. Here in the US we are familiar with the tremendous whining that we send to the skies when New York City flooded, but haven’t spared a thought for cities with 11 million inhabitants. At least they have some public transportation, assuming there’s enough time to warn people to evacuate. In 2005 the public transportation flooded out and people died.
One other little moment in the book that stuck with me was a little comment Ghosh threw aside in passing, to the effect that if we were serious about our response to climate change, the US would try to talk the Chinese and Indians into shutting down coal plants but if they did not, the US should shut down a coal plant for every new one the Indians build. It’s an absurd idea, really, but it’s actually not – which, I suppose, is the point.
I read the text version, and absorbed the audiobook through multiple listenings. The audiobook is also excellent; the narration is crisp and comprehensible with a slight Indian British accent.
US politicians’ response to global warming will probably consist mostly of attacking Greta Thunberg.