14-20 April 2017 #854

Horror story for a climate calamity

Where is the fiction about the facts of global warming, asks Amitav Ghosh
Kunda Dixit

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

by Amitav Ghosh

Penguin Random House India 2016

275 pages

INR 399

he novelist Amitav Ghosh published his most recent non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, before Donald Trump and his merry bunch of climate refuseniks assumed power in Washington. Yet, the key message of his book about the nature of empire in an age of globalisation that is driven by populism and climate denial is eerily prophetic.

Climate change negotiations like the 2015 Paris Agreement threaten the global power status quo, and voters in some western democracies are convinced that this will result in an erosion of their power and wealth. Global disparities have widened in the post-colonial world. But to attain true climate justice, industrialised countries would need to cut their emissions by 80-90 per cent, something that is politically untenable for petroleum addicts.

Since he was so accurate in predicting how climate denialism in America could lead to someone-like-Trump, we have to believe Ghosh when he draws a parallel between the carbon economy and militarism. The irony is that while the political-corporate complex in Washington backpedals on the environment, the American military sees increased instability around the world due to global warming. It is addressing the new challenge of ‘green security’ through greater surveillance of environmental activists and an ‘armed lifeboat’ mentality.

‘Corporations and energy billionaires’ are funding research to sow confusion about anthropomorphic climate change so that the corporate media underplays the dangers of warming by trying to be ‘balanced’. Such false equivalence has parallels in the way the US media covered Trump during the election campaign last year.

Ghosh wrote the following lines at a time when a Trump victory was not even a remote possibility: ‘The denial and disputing of scientific findings has become a major factor in the climate politics of the Anglosphere.’

Ghosh sees the laissez-faire philosophy of the pursuit of individual happiness that underpins Anglo-Saxon cultures as central to the climate crisis. Although he may be accused of extrapolating a bit, there is merit in the argument that ‘the rate of climate denial tends to be unusually high’ in the US, UK and Australia. It is the Anglosphere that is driving the global carbon economy of the anthropocene to protect the western ‘way of life’. Ghosh acknowledges that official denialism in these countries exist in direct contradiction to a growing citizens' movement and global environmental activism.

The grip of fossil barons on the new US administration is so strong that it has failed to see the potential to make money from renewables. Under public opinion pressure, the Nordics are weaning themselves off petroleum: new car sales in Norway will be 100-per-cent zero emission by 2025, and one breezy day last July, Denmark produced 140% of its electricity from wind farms and exported the surplus to neighbours. China has discovered that ‘green’ is not just synonymous with environment but also with ‘greenbacks’, and is already the world’s largest exporter of wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaics.

But under Trump, America risks being left behind in the global race for green energy. India, for its part, will soon be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is relying on what Ghosh calls the ‘politics of attrition’ – the argument that the poor are more used to adapting to hardships than the rich. The author forces us to think about industrial agriculture that is burning hydrocarbon energy to provide carbohydrate energy for seven billion humans.

The less compelling chapters in The Great Derangement deal with Ghosh’s somewhat intricate attempt to unravel why novelists do not write about climate change. He asks: Where is the fiction about the facts of global warming? Readers may question why this navel gazing is even needed, except for an esoteric class in Contemporary English Literature. Ghosh admits that he himself has failed to incorporate in his novels the geological scale of the changes humans have wrought during the anthropocene. ‘The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination,’ he writes, ‘intimately linked with the wider histories of imperialism and capitalism that have shaped the world.’

Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama-era gains on climate action show how fast politics can move. Global warming is also much more rapid than scientists predicted, with CO2 concentration in the atmosphere crossing 406 ppm this month. Perhaps Ghosh needs to bring out a new edition of The Great Derangement because, however dire his prognosis, it has already been overtaken by events.

In 1998, after India conducted its first underground nuclear bomb test, Ghosh wrote a slim volume of non-fiction titled Countdown on how fallout from a full nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would contaminate the Himalayan icecap, turning rivers that irrigate half of Asia radioactive. A future update of Derangement could look at the accelerated deposition of soot from coal and diesel burning in the subcontinent, hastening the melting of Himalayan glaciers in Asia’s water tower.

Ministry of Alternative facts

Nineteen Eighty-four

by George Orwell

Harvill Secker The UK, 1949,

Adarsh Book India Reprint 2008,

available in Kathmandu

290 pages

NR 224

t has been 33 years since Nineteen Eighty-four, for which George Orwell imagined a dystopian world where every citizen is constantly under state surveillance, where two truths co-exist, thought is controlled, history and language manipulated.

Orwell wrote the book in the post-war gloom of 1949 England, when Stalinist totalitarianism was providing strong competition to Nazism for man’s inhumanity to man. At that time, 1984 must have seemed so far in the future that the novel was seen as a kind of science fiction. But here we are in 2017, and there is still North Korea under Kim Jung Un which has outdone Oceania under Big Brother. Or, as has been remarked by many liberal opinion makers, the United States under Donald Trump.

Nineteen Eighty-four takes place in Airstrip One of the totalitarian superstate of Oceania, ruled by an elusive Big Brother (who may or may not exist) with four ministries: Love, Truth, Peace and Plenty, known as Miniluv, Minitrue, Minipax and Miniplenty respectively in Newspeak, the official language created solely to meet the requirements of the political ideology of Ingsoc (English Socialism).

This is all Dear Leader Land, and the similarities to the ‘alternative truth’ hyper-reality of Trumpian America is stark. Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) may have analogies in post-revolutionary societies like present-day Nepal where the former comrades resemble Napoleon and Snowball, and His Former Majesty could be compared to Farmer Jones. And there may be hints of the world of Duterte, Erdogan, Trump or Putin in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but it is Nineteen Eighty-four that gives readers an uncannily prescient look at how democracy can degenerate into demagoguery.

The Newspeak of White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway or President Trump himself are shockingly similar to the language used by Orwell’s Minitrue, the propaganda ministry tasked with concocting alternative facts.

One could take the analogy a bit too far, but the way media is threatened and manipulated in Washington press conferences these days is eerily familiar to Miniluv. It enforces loyalty to Big Brother through fear, intimidation and brainwashing. Minipax declares war alternatively with Eurasia (Russia) and Eastasia (China) much in the same way that Trump launches cruise missiles at Syrian air bases, or moves the US Navy Pacific Fleet to the Korean coast. Miniplenty has similarities to Trump’s crony capitalism in fanning paranoia of immigrants.

Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite history to change the facts as they suit the party in the present scenario. Sound familiar? Winston is 39 years old and an Outer Party member, the middle class considered potentially subversive by the nomenklatura. Their every action is scrutinised, luxury is limited to cigarettes and victory gin, physical intimacy is only for procreation, emotions are controlled and children are raised to spy on parents. The Thought Police (Thinkpol) arrest and punish comrades with thoughts unapproved by the party.

But Winston is a secret dissident, despises the regime and supports the beliefs of Emmanuel Goldstein, an enemy of the state and defender of freedom. He soon finds a kindred spirit in O’Brien, a high-level inner party member, and starts a relationship then falls in love with Julia, the girl in the Fiction Department of Minitrue. Winston rents a room in the prole (proletariat) area to escape constant surveillance. But the Thinkpol inevitably catch up with him and Julia. They are arrested and discover that O’Brien is an informer at the Ministry of Love.

Orwell was a social democrat who served the British colonial system in Burma, and his dark vision is of a future that has loud resonance today. That must be why Nineteen Eighty-four is a best-seller again in bookshops in Europe and the US. We may have to re-learn the Newspeak vocabulary of Doublethink, Thoughtcrime and Crimestop.

Sonia Awale

Thamel Tales

Thamel: Dark Star of Kathmandu

by Rabi Thapa

Speaking Tiger, 2016

174 Pages

NPR 640

Everyone knows Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist ghetto. With Nepal’s emerging literary scene, an account of the neighbourhood that is the pulse of the city was long overdue.

Rabi Thapa has now stepped in with a beguiling biography of a neighbourhood transformed by globalised travel. Thamel: Dark Star of Kathmandu turns it from a location on Google Maps to a ‘mental artefact’. Thapa explores and guides his readers to tales of the past and fuses them with narratives of the present, trying to get to the root of Thamel’s where, when, whys and hows.

As the reader gathers, there are no simple answers to these questions but Thapa leaves its audience knowing a whole lot more about Thamel that is not part of the consciousness of today’s generation. We journey with him to when it was an open paddy field, travel through its Hippie history, it's time as a flourishing business district for Managis, then as a hotbed of crime and drugs. Yet, there are also parallel tales of Thamel as the setting of the emerging rock and roll culture and a spiritual and a cultural hub, all described via the author’s anecdotes and interviews with the community.

Thamel is also a poignant tale of the city we lost to time. Thapa reminisces about the good old days. His almost lyrical words transport the readers to a bygone era, away from its concrete present (‘… the new, brash Thamel that spins every which way from Narsingh Chowk fades from the senses, giving way to a typical Newar tol of cramped brick houses with tiled roofs …’).

Interspersed with accounts of real people – a recovering junkie, a band member, a sex worker, a nonagenerian shopkeeper who has been witness to changes in the area and many other interesting lives – he lays Thamel’s soul bare. For a book that has covered the area and its multiple facets, it is surprisingly not a complicated read. What adds extra value and depth are the small excerpts from works of King Pratap Malla, Shakespeare, Nietzche, different proverbs and text at the beginning of the chapters written by the author.

The book does get tedious at times as Thapa tries to pack too many details into one sentence or one page, making it difficult going. However, He compensates with thorough research skills and a precision with words. The book is much more than a biography of Thamel, it is an exploration and rediscovering of a love for the neighbourhood which was lost somewhere along the line: ‘I grew out of it, like, a decade ago, and you want me to go sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll on you?’.

Smriti Basnet

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