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Amitav Ghosh sees a need for writers to address new realities in their work. Photo: IVO VAN DER BENT

by Charilie Smith | The Georgia Straight

July 03, 2019

Indian Summer 2019: Author Amitav Ghosh zeroes in on climate crisis and mass migration

Three years ago, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh wrote a nonfiction book arguing that fiction was the best cultural form to explore the climate crisis.

However, in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh pointed out how the literary world has largely overlooked this topic, even though it’s the most urgent issue facing humanity.

He’s now out with a new book, Gun Island, which does precisely this, bringing forth terrifying cyclones, ocean acidification, and stories of migration in a tale narrated by a Kolkata rare-book dealer.

“The reality is we are in a new world, in a new epoch,” Ghosh told the Georgia Straight by phone from his home in Brooklyn. “And I think everything that we write about this world and of this epoch has to register this new reality that we’re in.”

Scientists have been pointing out for decades that long-lasting droughts, heat waves, and atmospheric rivers of sudden rainfall would result from rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Ghosh saw the impact during a recent book tour in India. He arrived in Delhi on the day that the sprawling city recorded an all-time-high temperature. Then he went to Mumbai, where there was a devastating drought just 160 kilometres away.

“From there, I went to Chennai, which is out of water—historic drought, epic heat,” Ghosh noted.

He returned to his home in Brooklyn, only to learn of record flooding back in Mumbai. According to Ghosh, the haywire climate change, the unravelling of political systems, and mass displacements are interrelated.

“They’re effects of the same thing, which is a kind of acceleration that we’ve been going through, really, for the past 200 years—but most of all, in the last 30 years,” he said.

He also linked social media to the increasing communalism in many countries where people of one religious or ethnic group are pitted against another.

"I think social media plays a major part in these dislocations and what is going on around the world."

Ghosh called Canadian author Naomi Klein “the greatest theorist of climate change”, noting that she’s set a wonderful example for the world. Her landmark 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism  vs. The Climate, transformed people's understanding of the economic forces that are leading to disaster.

She went into considerable detail in the book about how billionaires are promoting geo-engineering the climate, even though this is likely to have catastrophic effects on South Asia's monsoon, which is the basis for India's large agricultural sector.

Yet despite Klein's contributions, Ghosh believes that there’s been a “kind of greenwashing rhetoric turning up in Canadian public discourse on climate change”—including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom he accused to "talking a good game on climate".

"There are often these gestures toward declaring a climate emergency and so on and so forth," Ghosh said, "and yet at the same time, Canada keeps repeatedly also giving in to fossil-fuel interests."

In the face of climate-created calamities, he hopes that people can learn to appreciate what is important.

“I have my friends, I have my family, I have my writing," he said. "Seeing this disaster actually makes all of that more precious and more valuable.” 

As part of the Indian Summer Festival, Amitav Ghosh will speak at the SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Sunday (July 9).

This article was originally published by The Georgia Straight on July 3, 2019.

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