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‘We Are Living in a Reality That Is Fundamentally Uncanny’

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Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer is publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus, interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

With his book-length essay The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian-born novelist Amitav Ghosh became something beyond the renowned author of Sea of Poppies — perhaps the most penetrating cultural critic of a new age defined by climate change and the strange, inadequate, and often self-deluding ways we process its transformations in our storytelling. His new novel, Gun Island, is a climate-change epic, one that fulfills many of the failings and missed opportunities he identified in the dizzying essay. In early September, we spoke about both books and what’s changed in between them.

You wrote The Great Derangement in 2016, diagnosing a broad failure in literature, but also in our political culture, to face up to this story that we were all living in and yet unable to really process properly. Putting aside for a moment the subject of climate change itself and the changing nature of climate politics, how do you see climate storytelling having changed since you wrote that book?
I think since 2016 there’s been a dramatic change. And, well, your article was the inflection point. Before that, it wasn’t that the studies didn’t — or that people didn’t — try to tell these stories. It’s almost as much to do with the reception. How often did you see a book about climate fiction in The New York Times Book Review? Or The New York Review of Books. Almost never. They were just treated as marginal. I do think that Richard Powers’s Overstory was a major turning point — not just because it is a great book, which it is, but because it was taken seriously by the literary mainstream.

What do you think explains that?
I think in part it’s just his own personal reputation. But it’s not just that. Because if you look at the response to Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, it’s quite instructive. Look at the reviews, it’s “Why is she doing this? It doesn’t match up to the other books.”

And she’s a giant, too.
By the time The Overstory was published the ground had somewhat seriously shifted.

So what did change? Is it because the public has learned to think of this as a front-and-center story, rather than a fringe concern?
Going back to 2016 and Bernie Sanders saying right then that this is a major existential crisis, and then that voice being amplified. Extinction Rebellion has been a very major turning point. Greta Thunberg has been a very major turning point. The Sunrise movement. Just the fact that you know the activists could force the democratic party to actually agree to this CNN debate.

Seven hours.
Seven hours. Unbelievable. I think some sort of threshold has been crossed, but it’s not just any one thing. I mean, you just look like an idiot if you just deny the reality.

I think the California wildfires were a major turning point.
Yeah. But I don’t think anybody did a very good job actually of telling the Paradise story. These perfectly ordinary people, waking up in the morning, getting their kids ready for school … And how long did it take, a half hour?

And we can all identify with it.

You could imagine it being a great Paul Greengrass movie, in the line of United 93.
Another turning point was that movie about the priest.

First Reformed.
I can’t say I was such a fan of it.

It’s funny, I had a list of books and movies to ask you about — The Overstory was one, First Reformed was another. What didn’t you like about it?
It sort of brings the whole thing down to a personal crisis. I feel that that’s not really a productive way of doing it. But, look, it’s a minor criticism compared to how glad one feels that it’s there. And that it will do something, it will be in the mainstream. It will be watched.

And reviewed. Even more than being watched. It was written about a lot.
It was being reviewed. That’s it, that’s it. See, that’s the thing. When these films start being taken seriously in that way, that’s what marks an inflection point. The work has to be made. But then also the work has to be read and received in a certain way.

In The Great Derangement, you seem to want to see fiction that treats nature as a protagonist — that tells the story not just of a single character but of how the natural world is an active force in the lives of those characters.
I think that’s exactly what Overstory is. That’s to me what is really so exciting about the book. Climate change is such a vast thing. It can be approached in thousands of ways. But in a literary sense this is the real challenge that it poses: How do you give voice to the nonhuman? The Overstory poses it in a very interesting way, though I think in a way he’s not able to bring himself to face the........

© Daily Intelligencer