In a way like the concerns about climate change are all around us. We recently had the Paris Summit of 2015 where the nations met with the aim to sign an official agreement to control climate change. The writer Amitav Ghosh thinks that the magnitude of climate change hasn’t yet hit us and we haven’t yet understood the gravity of the situation because our media is fixated on other things. Here is an excerpt from the conversation Samanth Subramanian had with Amitav Ghosh on how the media has functioned over the issue of climate change.
Samanth: To have a conversationabout the conversation about climate change, I think the obvious place to start is the media, right? I mean, the media is what we rely on to communicate the urgency and gravity of what’s happening around us. And I think you make the point that the media is letting us down, particularly in India…
Amitav: Absolutely right, and one sees an evidence of that all the time. For example, there are these terrible floods happening in Assam and you don’t see that reported so much on the Indian media, I mean it is in the Guardian, its elsewhere, id sort of found out about them through my twitter feed. Its just so strange that the Indian media doesn’t seem to be paying attention to many of these events.
Samanth: But this disconnect between the media and the real urgency of climate change – isn’t that visible in the western media as well?
Amitav: It’s true that there is often a disconnect in the west as well as in India but, in the US of late i have seen that the events like the Houston floods, the wildfire in Canada and the wildfire that is currently ongoing near Los Angeles these are covered in considerable detail. It is often carried on front page and sorts. But in the Indian press there is this sort of fixation with three things, one is cricket, the other is bollywood and the other is what you might call politics except that it is politics in a very constructed sense.
Samanth: Politics as a circus, almost.
Amitav: Yes, yes, exactly.
Samanth: If we had to hunt about for reasons for this, what would they be? Is it, for example, the fact that the brunt of these climate events is being borne by people who live far away from India’s big cities, where the newspapers are located?
Amitav: But that’s by no means the case. Let e put it to you like this, that in fact it appears, that our major cities are creating sort of local environment which actually predispose them towards these terrible events. So one of the most noted aspects of climate change increasingly is this rain bomb phenomenon, when you have very heavy precipitation in very short period of time and both Chennai and Mumbai have had these. And we saw in Mumbai in 2005 to what terrible effect the flooding occurred. Similarly we saw this happen also in Chennai. And these floods affected a lot of wealthy people, middle class people, people who by Indian standards in comparison to the rural poor are immensely wealthy and they suffered a great deal.
Samanth: Thats definitely true, I mean if you looked at those images of those two floods there really was an apocalyptic feel to them.
Amitav: And what’s also curious in that context is that so little was written not just in the press, of course the press covered it while it was happening, but so little emerged afterwards. When i was writing this book, i wanted to write about this Chennai flood as well and I tried to look for material, i tried to look for firsthand accounts, there were literally none. There were no memoirs, no personal reminiscences, no accounts, no stories and its actually completely bewildering.
Samanth: I live in Delhi and when the floods were beginning in Chennai, i was seeing a lot of updated on social media and so on, but the daily newspapers to even gotten on to the seriousness of these floods. And this is for a major city like Chennai. You mentioned the Mumbai floods of 2005, was there a similar absence of its effect in writing or art there as well?
Amitav: In Mumbai, I met these old friends of mine. They are amongst India’s most famous artists. And they suffered terribly in 2005. Their house was swamped, they lost a lot of their work and their daughter was marooned for 2 days. They had a completely traumatic experience. So I asked them that, “Has this experience in any way figured in your work?” And not only had it not, but even this question hadn’t occurred to them.
Samanth: The other point you make in The Great Derangement is that literature itself, by which we mean fiction for the moment, literature itself is failing to reflect this dominant concern of our age. And perhaps the fact that climate change is a change in nature itself, at a scale much vaster than we’re used to, perhaps that has something to do with it. Because literature has kept up with other events on a smaller scale, you know, I mean, 9/11 happened, and American fiction for example has spent the next decade and a half trying to produce the great 9/11 novel.
Amitav: You know, you framed that very well because of course there was 9/11 and as you say that American fiction has been grappling with that for decades afterwards. But you know hurricane Sandy happened and it also had this kind of traumatizing effect on New York. I mean nay people lost their homes, many suffered in various ways and there have been 2 or 3 books I think which are the product of hurricane Sandy, but I don’t think hurricane sandy has actually entered the imagination in the same way that 9/11 did.
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