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Turning the Page on Climate Change: Why Literature Holds the Key to Shaping Our Response

In the face of an impending climate crisis, Amitav Ghosh's "The Great Derangement" serves as a poignant exploration of artists, specifically writers, collective failure to address the most pressing issue of our time. Ghosh, an acclaimed Indian author known for his insightful narratives blending history, culture, and environmental themes, brings his unique perspective to bear on the urgent challenges posed by climate change. The book is based on a series of lectures given at the University of Chicago in 2015. They are loosely connected together but are best understood as Ghosh's thoughts on "Stories," how they reflect or don't reflect "histories," and in turn how they influence "Politics." This book proved to be a great book club read, with lots of connections, and conversation about different aspects that spoke to each reader. It was a great third book as well because it tied together many of the structural questions and comments we had as a group about our first book (The Future We Chose), and first fiction book (Weather). Reading this after having a background in these two works, helped launch a great conversation about what we wanted and needed to see in our future readings.

Amitav Ghosh Background

Born in Calcutta, India, in 1956, Amitav Ghosh is a prolific writer whose works have earned him international acclaim. With a diverse body of work that spans both fiction and non-fiction, Ghosh has established himself as one of the most influential voices in contemporary literature. His novels, including "The Glass Palace," "The Shadow Lines," and the "Ibis Trilogy" ("Sea of Poppies," "River of Smoke," and "Flood of Fire"), often explore themes of colonialism, globalization, and environmental degradation, offering nuanced perspectives on the complexities of modern life.

"Our collective failure to address climate change is only partly a failure of political will; more deeply, it is a failure of imagination."

Drawing on his deep understanding of history and culture, Ghosh challenges readers to confront the limitations of our current narratives and envision new possibilities for addressing climate change. His wide ranging examples of authors and their works, and how each shaped the history and use of fiction for culture creation is illuminating. My personal favorite was the discussion on how weather played a significant role in Mary Shelley's writing of "Frankenstein." Ghosh suggests how the unusually cold and dreary summer of 1816, known as the "Year Without a Summer," influenced Shelley's creative process. During this period, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia led to widespread atmospheric disturbances, resulting in abnormally low temperatures and incessant rain across Europe. In all my own study of fiction, I have never come across this perspective, and it did make me want to revisit with climate eyes novels and writers from my past again.

"The colonial origins of carbon capitalism have profound implications for the politics of climate change."

One of the most compelling aspects of Ghosh's work is his exploration of the historical and cultural factors that have contributed to our current predicament. By examining the legacies of colonialism and capitalism, Ghosh sheds light on the systemic roots of the climate crisis and encourages readers to consider alternative ways of organizing society. This is an important component to understanding how we need cultural products (stories, music, art), to show alternative realities or futures to be able to break away from the past, know why we are breaking away, and forging a better tomorrow. In "The Great Derangement," he argues that literature has the power to transcend disciplinary boundaries and evoke empathy, making it uniquely suited to address the complex and multifaceted dimensions of the climate crisis. He also broadens this analysis to include non-fictional writing, like the Paris Climate Agreement, proving that a solid basis of writing and language choice can help people understand what is and what is not being said in important documents, reports, and policies that will affect our future.

The impacts of climate change are no longer just theoretical: they are unfolding in real time, before our eyes, in our own lives."

"The Great Derangement" offers a compelling critique of our collective failure to confront climate change and provides valuable insights into the role of imagination, history, and literature in shaping our response. As we grapple with the existential threat posed by climate change, Ghosh's work serves as a timely reminder of the urgent need for bold, imaginative, and inclusive solutions.

Next meeting is Wednesday, April 17th 7:00-8:30pm

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