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Sleepwalking Towards Disaster

Over the last couple of decades, largely because of changes in technologies of communication, the political sphere has become larger and more intrusive than ever before. The digital media have made it almost impossible to escape the sound of haranguing voices; not a day seems to pass but we are asked to post or re-tweet or sign some petition or the other. Digital activism has in fact become a big business, in which companies profit from stoking our indignation. Small wonder then that they should wish to keep us stewing constantly, at a low simmer, like ever so many pots of daal.

Yet, astonishingly, the intensification of political activity has not led to a wider engagement with what is self-evidently the single greatest threat that humanity has ever faced: climate change. This is understandably a matter of despair for the activists and scientists who have been battling to warn the world about what lies ahead. Their mounting anguish and frustration at the world’s continuing indifference is itself an instructive commentary on our institutions and the myths they are built upon. Many scientists and activists have gone from combativeness to rage and then to a quiet resignation in the face of what they now believe to be an inescapable catastrophe – or rather a series of catastrophes which will consume tens, if not hundreds, of millions of lives.

Disjunction in India

How can this be? There is no threat to any society, anywhere, that is remotely comparable to that of climate change. How can people summon so much indignation on so many matters and yet remain indifferent to a process that threatens their very existence?

Nowhere is the disjunction more confounding than in India, which is likely to be one of the worst-affected countries in the world. Over the last couple of decades, as television has penetrated into once-remote areas, India’s population has become highly politicized. Millions of people regularly take to the streets on account of matters ranging from religious outrage to corruption. Yet climate change does not seem to have sparked mass outrage in the country. This despite the fact that India has many eminent climate scientists, some fine environmental reporters and several excellent environmental organizations. Nor is ‘denial’ an issue in India as it is in the Anglosphere: the majority of the population is aware that the climate is changing – yet that awareness does not seem to translate into a major political concern.

What is true of India is true also of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal: climate change has not been a significant political issue in those countries either, even though the impacts are already being felt across the Indian subcontinent, not only in an increasing number of large-scale disasters but also, and perhaps more significantly, as a slow calamity that is quietly but inexorably destroying livelihoods and stoking social and political conflicts.

Subcontinental drift

Across the subcontinent the media have allowed the meta-crisis to be largely obscured by the noise and dust of ‘breaking news’. When crops fail the focus is usually on political and human stories, not on changes in climate; that erratic rainfall may have been a factor in the Maoist insurgency in Nepal is rarely reported; when factory buildings collapse in Dhaka, killing hundreds of workers, it passes almost without notice that many of those workers are ecological refugees from districts where formerly productive land is being gradually invaded by saline water. Climate change may also be a factor in the insurgencies of central and eastern India – but to what degree we do not know, for one of the failures of global knowledge systems is that they have yet to provide us with a means of gauging the effects of climate change on human conflicts.

It is a certainty however that climate change will cause an intensification of conflict in the subcontinent. What, for example, will happen when Pakistan’s lifeline, the Indus, is affected by the shrinking of Himalayan glaciers?

A satellite's view of the Indus river. Image: NASA

This question is no doubt already being discussed in think tanks in both New Delhi and Islamabad. But in the wider public sphere there is scarcely any mention of climate-related issues except in connection with global conferences where the focus is, quite rightly, on issues of justice, historic responsibility and restitution.

But some dimensions of the crisis are quite specifically domestic. Sea-level rise, for instance, will continue and even accelerate in years to come, no matter what the actions of the global community. It is therefore not just a possibility but a certainty that cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Visakhapatnam and Kochi will face catastrophic, possibly even existential, threats. These possibilities require local preparedness and mitigatory action, and in that sense they belong squarely in the domain of national and regional politics. Moreover this is an issue that can only be confronted collectively: to frame it as a matter of individual consumption decisions is to capitulate to a kind of denialism.

Stealth war against environmentalists

In the run up to the elections of 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi did indeed make passing reference to climate change, which was encouraging. But since coming to power his government has exerted itself to support and expand the coal industry, not just in India but also in Australia, where an Indian-funded mining project has begun to pose a significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef. At the same time the Modi government has also launched what can only be called a stealth war against environmentalists and green organizations, preventing their representatives from addressing audiences abroad and taking measures to cut their funding.

If right-wing positions were balanced by vigorous advocacy elsewhere in the Indian political spectrum, there would be some reason for optimism. However, the indifference to climate change is a feature also of the centre and left (and this is true globally). Nor is it only the old, moribund institutional left that is silent on the matter of global warming: the silence extends to the independent or alternative left, which is otherwise eloquent on many issues.

Strangely, none of this is anomalous: in India as elsewhere it would seem that the broadening of the political sphere has led to an ever-greater engagement with issues of personal liberty, equity, identity, free expression and so on, at the cost of matters related to collective well-being. In other words, in extending its reach into our lives the political sphere has itself been transformed, in ways that make it very difficult to address issues of long duration even when they involve the most elemental human need: survival.

That our political systems have failed utterly in this regard has been noted by many. But a broader failure of imagination is also at work in this crisis – and inasmuch as writers, journalists and artists have not reckoned adequately with our collective predicament we too are at fault.

Amitav Ghosh’s forthcoming novel, Flood of Fire, the last volume of the Ibis Trilogy, is to be published on June 28, 2015, by Penguin India and John Murray (UK).

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Comment (1)

  1. a broader and deeper failure of imagination and our our collective predicament indeed. Without an adequate resolution of the malaise!

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