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Amitav Ghosh: geopolitics are key to understanding the climate crisis

March 30, 2022
portrait of Amitav Ghosh.Amitav Ghosh, author of both award-winning novels and nonfiction histories focused on climate change, is this year's Distinguished Visiting Humanist. (Ivo van der Bent photo)

This year’s Distinguished Visiting Humanist says humanists have a vital role in reframing the climate crisis as rooted in history and culture as much as technology and economics.

Distinguished Visiting Humanist Public Lecture

Thursday, April 7 at 5 p.m.
Hawkins-Carlson Room, Rush Rhees Library
Free and open to the public

Amitav Ghosh speaks on his latest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. In it, he traces the dynamics of today’s planetary crisis back to the discovery of the New World and the sea route to the Indian Ocean. At the center of his narrative is the now-ubiquitous spice nutmeg, with its history of conquest and exploitation—of human life and the natural environment.

Essayist, novelist, and climate change activist Amitav Ghosh will be on campus in April as the University of Rochester’s 2021–22 Distinguished Visiting Humanist.

“Amitav Ghosh’s work is truly genre-defying,” says John Osburg, an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Anthropology. “It employs the tools of fiction, anthropology, history, and philosophy to address the most pressing global concern of our times: the climate crisis of the Anthropocene.”

Born in Kolkata, Ghosh grew up in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including the award-winning novels The Circle of ReasonThe Calcutta ChromosomeThe Hungry Tide, Sea of Poppies, and Gun Island, as well as the nonfiction books The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.

His work has been translated into more than 30 languages and his essays have appeared in The New YorkerThe New Republic, and The New York Times. In 2019, Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the most important global thinkers of the preceding decade.

The Humanities Center’s annual Distinguished Visiting Humanist program—returning after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19—brings eminent scholars and public intellectuals to Rochester’s River Campus to engage with students, faculty, staff, and community members.


Q&A with Amitav Ghosh

There’s striking attention to historical and ethnographic detail in your fiction. How has your training as an anthropologist influenced your work as a novelist? What do you think about the relationship between historical nonfiction, literary fiction, and ethnographic writing?

Ghosh: I consider myself fortunate in having been exposed to many different forms of writing at different points in my life. I would say that my work as a journalist (which started with my first job and continued through many years of writing for The New Yorker) played a greater part in my career as a writer than anthropology or history. The attention to detail comes, I think, from a reporter’s habit of taking notes, as much as from my training in anthropology and history. But at the end of the day, I am first and foremost a novelist. I am drawn to fiction for many reasons. One is that to me, since my childhood, this was the form that I loved best. I like telling stories. The other is that fiction allows you access to a more complete form of experience than any other form of writing, in that it gives you the possibility of imagining the inner lives of your characters. Also, you can make worlds.


In the last decade or so, the term climate fiction, or “cli fi,” has come to describe literature that tackles issues of climate change, even though such literature predates the term itself. While genre writing on climate change has emerged, you’ve argued that mainstream literary fiction has yet to engage with the climate crisis in a significant way. Can you tell us about your own turn to environmentalism generally—and to the climate crisis specifically—in your writing?

Ghosh: I am not really a fan of this term, largely because I think it diminishes the magnitude of the planetary crisis. As Margaret Atwood famously said, “It’s not just climate change, it’s everything change.” So to limit our concerns to climate change is to defeat the purpose. I don’t think we need a different genre to address the reality of what is happening in the world today. In fact, the very existence of such a genre suggests that climate change is something that is not occurring in the here and now.


In your 2016 work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, you examine—across the domains of stories, history, and politics—our collective inability to understand the implications of climate change and to act accordingly. You conclude on a note of cautious optimism and hope. In the years since, the world has grappled with a global decline in democracy, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which some have called a “fossil fuel war.” What is your current outlook on humankind’s ability to address the climate crisis through collective understanding and action?

Ghosh: I have long believed that it is impossible to understand the planetary crisis without taking geopolitics into account. It’s been clear for a long time that there is a huge gap between the pieties that are regularly mouthed at COP [Conferences of the Parties] summits and the steps that are actually being taken by the nations of the world. Just consider that at COP 21 in 2015 affluent nations promised to contribute $100 billion to a fund to help poor countries deal with climate impacts. Not even a tenth of this has materialized in the years since. But in that same period those countries increased their defense spending by $1.5 trillion. In my last book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, I wrote: “To look these facts in the face is to recognize that it is a grave error to imagine that the world is not preparing for the disrupted world of the future. It’s just that it’s not preparing by taking mitigatory measures or by reducing emissions: instead, it is preparing for war.” The truth of this is being borne out every day.


You’re coming to the University of Rochester as the Distinguished Visiting Humanist. What role can or should education in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences play in addressing the climate change crisis? 

Ghosh: I think it’s a tragedy that the humanities have allowed themselves to be marginalized in the discourse on the planetary crisis, which has come to be largely framed by science, technology, and economics. But in essence the crisis is deeply rooted in history, culture, and global geopolitics. It is vitally important for the humanities to reframe this discourse.


What are you reading?

Ghosh: I just read a really wonderful novel by a young British writer called Laline Paul. It’s called Pod, and it’s about a pod of whales. She succeeds splendidly in rising to what I believe to be the most important literary challenge of our time—restoring voice and agency to other-than-human beings.

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Category: Society & Culture