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Guest Column Review: 

The Great Derangement

by Amitav Ghosh

Reviewed by Andrew Walzer


Amitav Ghosh, the distinguished Indian novelist, argues in The Great Derangement, that the humanities—the arts, literature and popular culture—rarely acknowledged until recently the reality of climate change because it views nature as a largely passive entity that has little impact on our lives. Ghosh rejects this, suggesting instead that the non-human presence of nature greatly influences our lives, all the more so with the advent of climate change.


Ghosh evokes the idea of nature as a sentient force by describing a scene from The Empire Strikes Back in which Han Solo lands on what he thinks is an inert, lifeless planet, only to realize that it is alive. It almost consumes him and his ship. He suggests that future generations will look back and see humanity as similarly ignorant of the earth as a living entity.


Ghosh also illustrates the presence and awareness of nature when he describes the unseen presence of tigers in the forests of the Sundarbans, a huge area of swampy forest in Bangladesh and India. The people living there are aware of the presence of tigers lurking and watching them, but they rarely see them. But then periodically someone gets attacked by one of them and suddenly the forest is alive and threatening.


Similarly, we view nature as a relatively benign presence in our lives, unitl a climate event occurs and we are suddenly awakened to the presence and force of nature in our lives. With the advent of the Anthropocene—the current time period in which humans have become a force fundamentally altering the world’s climate and habitat—this is becoming increasingly frequent. As a result, our culture is being forced to come to terms with nature as a powerful force shaping our lives. Ghosh suggests that the ubiquitous presence of zombies, vampires and aliens in popular culture is a reflection of our subconscious awareness of the presence of non-human forces in our lives.


Ghosh concludes by warning us that we ignore nature at our peril. He takes hope in the many activist groups and communities that have woken up to the reality that we need to live with greater awareness of the natural world.


The Great Derangement. By Amitav Ghosh The University of Chicago Press, 2016. 196 pages. $10.98 (paper).

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