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“The discourse on climate change continues to be deeply Eurocentric. But we Asians bear some of the blame because we do not pay enough attention to this subject…”

April 28, 2019

Asia represents one of the fastest growing economies of the world. With growth comes deteriorating climate in the most natural catastrophe prone geography. According to Swiss Re 104 catastrophic events hit Asia last year – accounting a third of all natural catastrophes worldwide. Yet there seems to be a serious sense of prevailing apathy. I turned to Amitav Ghosh (www.amitavghosh.com), one of the foremost contemporary authors in English language, to seek some answers.  He not only lends climate change the much deserved & desired narrative but also highlights the urgency. The Great Derangement: Climate Change And The Unthinkable, his last book, is dedicated to climate crisis!

With his gracious permission I have drawn from his recent profound observations made elsewhere. These stand out as both philosophical as well as pragmatic. Asia can afford to ignore them only at its own peril!

Does one need to get rid of the bourgeois mentality if we are to tackle the climate change issue?

  • The general thrust of bourgeois culture has been towards a kind of triumphalism, a sense that the external world had been overcome and tamed. These attitudes are of course, intimately connected with issues of race, colonialism and conquest – for ‘Nature’ too was seen as a domain to be conquered, dominated and used. The prevalence of such attitudes is an obvious barrier to effective action on climate change.

Why Asia’s centrality fails to be reckoned with and the existing discourse on global warming remains largely Eurocentric.

  • The discourse on climate change continues to be deeply Eurocentric. But we Asians bear some of the blame for this because we do not pay enough attention to this subject.

His strong objection to the carbon economy and quoting Gandhi, holding the idea that Asia should cease to embrace their developmentalism oriented approach. An idea that would invite strong criticism in countries like India and China…

  • I think we have to question the meaning of ‘rich’. If you can’t breathe the air, drink the water, or sleep peacefully at night for fear of extreme weather events then you are not rich. In fact your quality of life is very poor.

On the belief that climate change has not resulted in an outpouring of passion in India. Instead, people’s political energy has increasingly come to be focused on issues that relate to questions of identity- religion, caste, ethnicity, gender rights, et al.

  • I don’t know about the situation in China but in India it is simply a fact that climate change hardly ever figures in political discussions. We have only to open a newspaper, or turn on the TV, to see that dozens of issues receive more attention than, say, the droughts, or the agrarian crisis more generally. Within the Indian political class there is a terrible indifference to climate change.

His conviction that the poor may well be more resilient, is the major reason why global warming is not framed as such a serious issue in India.

  • There are many in India who say “oh it’s the poor who are going to suffer.” But in India too it’s quite possible that the people, who will suffer the most, are the middle classes. Look at the extreme downpours (‘rain-bombs’) that have hit Mumbai and Chennai in recent years. They certainly did not spare middle class people. In India the urban poor are often very mobile. They have rural connections, they constantly go back and forth to villages, and they know how to use the trains. They can move at a moment’s notice.
  • In a city like Mumbai, the urban poor will be able to leave in the event of a major storm surge, but that’s not the case with the middle classes. Not only will they not be able to leave, they won’t want to leave. For many middle class people their house or flat is their largest asset. They can’t just abandon that and go away. Their whole life is based on a certain kind of stability. That’s what bourgeois life is. But that stability is no longer available anywhere. The basic guarantees that the modern state offers – stability, security, safety – have all gone up in smoke.

Does he think an identity politics approach is necessary if we are to ignite people’s passion towards climate change?

  • Whether you look at India or you look at the US, the left or the right, this is the discourse of politics today. It’s actually not about politics at all – if we consider “politics” to be, in the first instance, about issues of survival, collective betterment and so on. When we look at politics, or what politics has come to mean, we see that it is now largely about issues of identity. These issues have completely eclipsed global climate change which concerns our collective survival.

How he differs with those who identify capitalism as the principal fault line on the landscape of climate change. And even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action.

  • Climate change is often framed as an economic problem, caused by consumption, production, distribution and the emissions that these processes entail – ‘capitalism’ in other words. The dominance of this framework may be a consequence of the fact economistic ways of thinking have come to pervade every sphere of contemporary life.
  • But in my view these economistic framings of the issue frequently serve to mask other, equally important aspects of it, such as military competition, relationships of domination and subordination between and within countries, and indeed, the dynamics of Empire, broadly conceived. This masking happens at multiple levels and in many different ways. Consider, for example, the idea of capitalism as the principal driver of climate change – a view articulated by Naomi Klein and many others.
  • The trouble is that capitalism is not one thing: we know now that East Asian capitalism for instance, was labor intensive, rather than resource-intensive, and it had a much smaller ecological footprint than the version of capitalism that was prevalent in Britain and the United States. Yet, it was the Anglo-American version of capitalism that became dominant around the world – and this cannot be understood without considering the history of imperialism and global conquest.

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