In Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable he argues we are living through a crisis of culture and of imagination. Where is the literature on climate change, he asks? Why, when climate change is the pressing issue of our time, do so few writers address it in their work? He asks –
In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities such as Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what can they do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.
Yet can we, in truth, say our plight is concealed? Reports abound in the media of the steady, sometimes sudden, degradations of the natural environment and the effects of climate change; of species decline and extinctions; threats we understand and those we can barely begin to get our heads around. We know. So why is it that we carry on, for the most part regardless, albeit with a sense of unease?
This week, there were reports of the first eight bird extinctions of 2018. The first? The title does not pretend that there won’t be more. Of course there will, and other species besides, the only question is how many. Who can read that and not feel shame? But who of us, on reading it, will wake up tomorrow morning and give it a second thought?
And also this week, a report about the almost complete loss of hedgehogs from the British countryside. Just five years ago, the doughty hedgehog was voted ‘top national emblem’ in a national poll from BBC Wildlife Magazine. Think of the people who voted for the hedgehog then – perhaps you were one of them. What could each person do, if they chose to, to bring pressure to bear to change farming practices linked to their decline?
I’m not concerned here about climate change deniers. We know some deny climate change. Wreckers. Let’s leave them to one side for the moment and refuse to debate them. They’re not the ones to blame for our inaction.
What is it about us – us who know full well what’s happening – who sign petitions, who are paid-up members of the RSPB or the National Trust, or who push a tenner in Greenpeace’s direction now and then – that explains our failure to act? To get off our backsides, those of us who can, and do something more? How bad do things have to get?
We read the papers. We listen to the news. We watch David Attenborough gently chide us about plastic pollution in our oceans – an issue a good many of us have known about for years. We cannot say we do not know what is going on. So who, truly, is in denial here? Do we blithely expect others to act on our behalf? Are we deluded? Deranged?
If anything is to change, it requires us all to change – we need to see our part in what is happening, in our patterns of consumption, and begin to take responsibility for it; to be active in small, persistent ways. To be in the world and not without it. To act.
And yes, that includes novelists too.