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‘What we have to think about, above all, is how to slow down’: Amitav Ghosh

Worrying and brooding over the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in a global crisis of never-before-experienced proportions, I turned to my mentor, fellow author Amitav Ghosh, for advice and perspectives on the state of our planet.

When we chatted the other day you predicted that “unfortunately I am sure things are going to get worse.” In what ways do you foresee things getting any worse than this?

There are many ways the present situation could get much worse. Just imagine what would happen now if a major city were to be threatened by a cyclone or a wildfire (as was happening only a few months before the pandemic).

In any case it is very clear now that the measures taken to control the pandemic will cause a great deal of immiseration in many countries, India being just one of them. What will be the social response to the worsening conditions? We don’t know at this point, but if we look back to the last great period of climate disruption — the so-called Little Ice Age of the long 17th century — we see a truly terrifying cycle of epidemic, famine, war, revolution and social breakdown. Some would say that the world is more resilient now than it was then. But it could also be argued that the world is much more fragile now than it used be, simply because of the incredible complexity of so many of our systems (the catastrophe inflicted on India’s migrant workers is an example of this). It has been instructive also to see how food distribution systems have been affected by the novel coronavirus lockdown in many countries, including the U.S. The global food system is fragile and my greatest fear right now is of a food crisis.

In much of your writing, you talk about the earth sending messages to us through disasters — already in The Calcutta Chromosome 25 years ago you hinted at the idea of malaria as some kind of entity with its own soul, like a cult god. But how are we to interpret these messages: as angry threats or anguished prayers or stern guidance? They’re certainly not polite requests, if we think of damaging floods, tsunamis, forest fires, etc. Or is the earth saying: You only have yourself to blame for behaving so stupidly, short-sightedly and egoistically?

One of the more positive aspects of the climate crisis is that it has made it clear that the Earth is not an inert entity. No one has said this more clearly than James Lovelock, who (in collaboration with Lynn Margulis) propounded the Gaia hypothesis. Here are some sentences from an article of his called ‘What is Gaia’: “Long ago the Greeks… gave to the Earth the name Gaia or, for short, Ge. In those days science and theology were one and science, although less precise, had soul. As time passed this warm relationship faded and was replaced by the frigidity of schoolmen. The life sciences, no longer concerned with life, fell to classifying dead things and even to vivisection… Now at least there are signs of a change. Science becomes holistic again and rediscovers soul, and theology, moved by ecumenical forces, begins to realize that Gaia is not to be subdivided for academic convenience and that Ge is much more than a prefix.”

Lovelock’s ideas were for a long time criticised and mocked by scientists, not least because of his choice of the name ‘Gaia’ — who was the Greek goddess of the Earth. But the reason he chose that name is that he couldn’t find an equivalent concept in the modern techno-scientific vocabulary; he had to go back to a personification of the Earth as a goddess.

That’s certainly food for thought in this day and age. Sometimes mankind is talked about as a cancer afflicting the planet or compared to a bad virus. What do you think? To put it bluntly: Are we the virus from Gaia’s point of view?

This implies that human history could have had one, and only one trajectory. I don’t think that is true. Even ‘capitalism’ had many trajectories, some of which, like the so-called East Asian model, were much less resource-intensive than the Anglo-American model. Things could have been different if certain key chapters in our history had not worked out as they have: the conquest of the Americas; Britain’s rise to global dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries — and, most of all, the near-universal adoption of the Washington Consensus after 1990. We should not forget that no less than half of all the greenhouse gases that are now in the atmosphere, were put there in just the last 30 years. This period had been called the ‘Great Acceleration’, and it’s a fitting name, I think, because all our crises are effects of this acceleration — climate breakdown, the migration crisis, and, of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic. These crises are all cognate, although there is no direct causal link between them.

But more than the greenhouse gases I’m wondering, living in India as we do, about the water situation — or the lack of it. This seems to be the most pressing matter i.e. we keep wasting a lot and using more than we should: the other year Chennai completely ran out of it, and farmers, of course, have noticed its absence for long. Since you’ve taken special interest in water-related issues (for example in The Hungry Tide) wouldn’t you say this is the main problem?

I would certainly say that the water situation is the Indian subcontinent’s most pressing problem. This is especially true in relation to groundwater. India uses more groundwater than any other country, including China and the U.S.; its economy is fundamentally a groundwater economy, and it uses a quarter of all the groundwater extracted globally. But groundwater is essentially fossil water, and once extracted it takes a very long time to replace. Today India (and Pakistan) are in a situation where their most important aquifer, the Upper Ganga Aquifer, is very severely depleted. New Delhi, by the government’s own projections, is slated to run out of groundwater some time this year. The city has already experienced conflicts over water and its future looks dire at this point.

Again, there was nothing inevitable about any of this. The situation has come about because of a storm of unintended consequences. Before the Green Revolution, the share of groundwater in Indian agriculture was half of what it is now. In the 50s, it was decided, for good social-justice reasons, that farmers should be given subsidised electricity. So there was a huge boom in the use of electric water pumps, and surface irrigation came to be neglected. Today, there are farmers who spend their days pumping up groundwater, to sell to tanker owners who then make a profit by selling it to cities. They know that the water will run out soon, but they do it anyway, because if they don’t their neighbour will.

What we are witnessing is the unfolding of a catastrophe.

So is it the deadly combination of air pollution and water-related issues that we should beware of?

As we can see from the Indian experience, it’s possible to carry on as normal even when the air quality is disastrous. The human body can adapt to bad air, at least for a while. Humans can also go without food for a couple of weeks. But the human body cannot adapt, in any circumstances, to a lack of water.

So then, is everything wrong with the planet? Isn’t there any glimmer of hope that you see?

Personally I think it’s not productive to look at the state of our world through the frame of ‘hope/despair’. We need to try to cope with the crises that are unfolding around us because it is our duty to do so, not because there is (or isn’t) a magical solution.

Okay, but assuming that the end of the world might just be around the corner — when can we expect it to happen? Or has it already started knocking on our doors and we’re right now seeing it unfold before our eyes?

‘The world’ is not the same for everyone. There are many worlds: some have already ended and some are ending, while other worlds are being re-born. It’s often been pointed out that for many indigenous peoples the world they knew ended a long time ago. However they have managed to survive and have drawn on their experiences to create new worlds. I think we have a lot to learn from them at this time.

Worlds also end and begin in small ways sometimes. For most of my life I lived in a certain kind of literary world, one that followed certain practices and methods. That world ended for me when I began to understand the reality of climate change. But that doesn’t mean I stopped thinking or writing — quite the contrary. So you could say the passing of one world led to the birth of another also for me.

That’s extremely interesting. As for the present crisis you earlier said to me: “I think we will all have to rethink our ways of life, our ideas of travel and so forth.” How do you view each person’s responsibility in this regard, if we are to do this rethinking in concrete terms?

To begin with I think we need to recognise that the planetary crisis requires collective action. It has now been established that the idea that it could be addressed by individual lifestyle changes was thought up by an advertising firm, as a conscious strategy, so that fossil fuel companies would not be subjected to regulation. In that sense our most important responsibility, if we live in a democracy, is to bring pressure to bear upon our politicians.

At the same time, changing our lifestyles is important too, because it does, at the very least, foreground important issues in our own minds and in the minds of others. Greta Thunberg’s approach is exemplary, to my mind: at the same time that she has created a global political movement she has also made very important lifestyle changes.

Any list of handy suggestions you can share for people who might be wondering what they themselves as individuals can do about things? For example, what rethinking are you yourself doing in your own life?

To be honest, when this lockdown began I felt something akin to the relief one feels when one falls sick with exhaustion after a long period of hyperactivity. Suddenly it became clear that we were all caught, almost inadvertently, in a spiralling cycle of acceleration. And of course, it is this acceleration, on a global scale, that lies behind the pandemic. What we have to think about, above all, is how to slow down.

Slowing down seems right now to be one of the best things to do. And especially when we middle-class people have so much time at our hands sitting at home, reading something sensible might put sense in our heads. But apart from your own books (which I feel are essential reading for everybody), are there any other authors you’d suggest we study to understand the current crisis better?

One obvious reading is J.R. Macneil and Peter Engelke’s The Great Acceleration.

Okay, I’ll try to download it today. But will it be enough if a large number of individuals rethink? In my experience, except for a very environmentally conscious clique of people, the larger part of humanity are not rethinkers, or are likely to do little thinking over this matter, but instead try to put the COVID-19 experience behind themselves as soon as they can.

I think, unfortunately, that you are right. What the history of epidemics shows is that while they are raging people imagine that they will rethink everything. But when they are over they go back quite quickly to their old ways.

Do you think intellectuals, artists, writers can play an important role in this situation? We’re not exactly experts on saving the world… I mean, writers in general are not practical-minded people and if you’d ask a writer to hammer a nail into a wall, it’s likely that both the writer’s hand and the wall will get damaged, and only the nail will survive without blemishes.

I am always a little wary of the idea of writers, artists and intellectuals setting out to ‘change the world’. We are, as you point out, not very practical people. But on the other hand, the world cannot do without its dreamers.

The interviewer is a detective novelist based in Bengaluru. He is the author of the Majestic Trilogy: Mr. Majestic, Hari a Hero for Hire, and Tropical Detective.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 2:59:11 AM |

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