Hailing from the Eastern part of India, Amitav Ghosh has had numerous encounters with natural disasters. The severity of it, however, hit home when he was penning his sixth novel The Hungry Tide set in the Sundarbans. The award-winning writer's latest non-fiction book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, exposes the scale and repercussions of climate change. He talks at length to Sarika Malhotra about the vulnerability of the Asian region, its under-preparedness to deal with climate change, and the need to bring these issues to the fore. Edited excerpts:
Why climate change?
I have been concerned about climate change from a long time. It started with my book The Hungry Tide set in the Sundarbans, which is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and was very badly affected by cyclone Aila. Areas that were producing rice, vegetables were completely inundated by water. It takes 15-20 years to rehabilitate agricultural land that is invaded by salt water. We talk about climate change as if it is only about natural changes. These changes, in fact, profoundly impact the way human beings live. Since the cyclone, there has been a huge migration from the Sundarbans - many women have had to join the sex trade in Kolkata. Most workers in the West coast of India - Karnataka, Kerala, Goa and Maharashtra - are climate refugees from the East. Because of the historic drought in Bundelkhand, Delhi's flyovers are filled with refugees from Bundelkhand. Delhi's infrastructure is already strained; how will it sustain thousands of these people? As a nation, we are not prepared for the impact of climate change; the world is also not prepared. We think of climate change only in terms of natural impacts, but we will have to speak about the political and demographic impacts, too.
This huge disruption that is happening in Europe is through the migration - the whole destabilisation and unravelling of Syria started with the drought in 2008 and has profoundly destabilised not just the Middle-East but also Europe. The ramifications of these are going to keep spreading outwards. What we are seeing is a process of global destabilisation coming about. We should really try and create global systems to deal with disruptions that will arrive because of climate change.
How significant will these disruptions be?
Life-threatening, to say the least. The Pentagon has done a study that predicts by 2030 state institutions in South Asia will be close to collapsing. Very few state institutions will be able to cope with disruptions of this scale. Unfortunately, we have become so used to growth numbers - politicians giving us good news of development - that we are just not paying attention to what is happening around us. Why is it so hard for people to think about climate change? I am from the East, we are accustomed to seeing natural disasters on a great scale?sensitised to it to some degree. I have seen what Hurricane Sandy did to New York. Once you see that, you can't help but ask yourself what about Indian cities? are they at all prepared to deal with such situations? Mumbai, for instance, is extremely vulnerable...cyclonic activity is increasing in the Arabian Sea because of climate change. Unprecedented things are happening.
You talk about capitalism as a driver of climate change. Is there an option to strike a balance?
Capitalism has many versions. Japanese and Korean capitalism was founded on the idea that there are very few resources, but lots of labour? hence it was labour intensive and not resource intensive. Japanese capitalism was not based on intensifying consumerism? it was more about providing employment and welfare to people. It was very different from American capitalism. Similarly, Swiss capitalism is very different, involving use of resources wisely, while Dutch capitalism is always addressing the question of resource use.
These questions of resource use have not been addressed essentially in places where people have gone and conquered huge resource-rich continents, and created this predatory model of capitalism - basically the Anglo-American model of capitalism, which is very resource-intensive and extractive. It is now collapsing. This model of capitalism after the 1990s got enshrined as the Washington Consensus and was sold to people around the world as the only answer. However, we have to understand that it is not the only answer and cannot be for places such as India and China. We are much closer to East Asia, have enormous resource constraints and burden of population; we should be approaching this from a different direction.
In India, it is simply not viable for every family to have two cars. One of the strangest things to have happened in the last 20 years is this huge cloud of aerosols that has appeared over the subcontinent and it is spreading across the Arabian Sea. You may think it is just pollution; but it is interfering with the monsoons. As an economy, the Indian subcontinent is critically dependent on the monsoons. And the monsoons are changing because of climate change. We are looking at grim long-term projections.
So we have to look at other models of capitalism?the Swiss, German, Japanese, Dutch - how to allow people to have a good life, within smaller spaces and less-damaging environmental impacts. What is really worrisome is that ours was a culture, until recently, which hated wastage and debt. But now we are jammed with emails and calls of people who are trying sell a credit card or give a loan?pushing loans on people who do not know better. Anyone can see that this is not a sustainable model.
What is your view on the corporatisation of climate change?
It is happening all around us. People are trying to sell climate change as a business opportunity. And this is essentially what the Paris Agreement is all about. It's bringing the new liberal approach to climate change. A large part of the agreement was written by large corporations and billionaires across the globe. There is very little concern for the poor; there is no concern for economic justice; the biggest polluters of the world are no longer held responsible for the pollution. The Paris Agreement was a huge departure from the past and people don't seem to recognise that. It's an agreement similar to the big trade agreements. Look at the case of scarcity of water: the technocrat will advise to build a dam, use desalinated water, but there is a much easier answer available rather than spending endlessly on building infrastructure.