An award-winning writer tackles the environmental crisisby Jon Day / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
Despite the increasing acknowledgement that we are living through a man-made climate crisis, argued Amitav Ghosh in his acute and engaging work of eco-criticism The Great Derangement (2016), this has not fully registered in literature. When climate change has become a subject for novelists, it has mostly been addressed in the form of speculative fiction (Ghosh cites JG Ballard and Margaret Atwood as outriders of the burgeoning sub-genre of “cli-fi”) or high farce, as in Ian McEwan’s toothless satire Solar (2010). In what Ghosh calls the “mansion of serious fiction”—by which he means contemporary literary novels in the realist tradition—climate change barely features.
This absence is attributable, he says, to the origins of the form. The modern novel is, like climate change, a product of industrialisation. It developed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries to satisfy a growing readership created by the increasing affordability of mass-printed books, rising literacy and the expansion of leisure time: changes that were made possible by the carbonisation of the economy and colonialism’s exploitation of global resources. These social and technological developments altered the kinds of stories that were considered worth telling. “It was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the Earth’s atmosphere,” says Ghosh, “that the literary imagination became radically centred on the human.”
The co-dependency between climate change and modern subjectivity—united under the broad category of the anthropocene—is most visible in fiction in terms of how it accommodates chance. (Ghosh notes in passing that mathematical theories of probability were invented around the same time as the novel.) In a secular world, with the shackles of religious predestination removed, fictional characters were granted freedom of choice and, subsequently, psychological depth. Just as people began to feel they had control over their own destinies, so did literature start to dwell not on the doings of heroes or gods, but on the humdrum experiences of everyday individuals. The novelist’s job was to arrange those elements of what came to be thought of as “plot” in ways that were both believably likely and satisfyingly unpredictable.
Recently, argues Ghosh, the delicate balance between individual autonomy and plausible improbability that once allowed us to categorise a novel as “realist” (or, at least,…