Factory or Forest, Modernity and Climate Change

Factory or Forest, Modernity and Climate Change

Where the Air Stands Still

In India, the pathology of denial about climate change reveals the real crisis at our door—one of imagination.


Winters in Delhi are synonymous with smoke. Residents wake up in the morning and find that the roads disappear after 50 meters or so, with the tops of trees and office buildings concealed. The smog is often mistaken for seasonal mist. So it wasn’t the pollution itself that was surprising at the start of November last year, when visibility was poor for days, eyes reddened in the haze, people experienced chest pains, and ash entered their mouths when they tried to speak. Instead, it was the concentration of the pollutants, which on this occasion had escalated almost overnight. During the weekend of Diwali, an annual festival celebrated with lamps and fireworks across the country, India’s air quality was among the worst in the world. For days after, the absence of winds in Delhi meant that toxic particulates remained close to the ground. The smoke didn’t disappear.

The air was stationary across New Delhi. Schools were closed, construction activity was halted for a week, and a power plant on the outskirts of the city was shut down. All through the first two weeks of November, people struggled to breathe, let alone drive in the streets—almost as if the city itself were steadily burning.

And there were fires. In the villages of Punjab and Haryana, about 100 miles away from New Delhi, farmers were setting their fields ablaze. Rice season was over; the crops had been harvested. The leftover straw had to be disposed of quickly so that wheat could be grown during the winter. Delhi’s chief minister blamed these farmers for the smoke in the city. “Fireworks during Diwali marginally added to the pollution,” he said. “But other things inside Delhi did not drastically change. So the smog is mainly due to smoke from farm fires.”

The insinuation that farmers in adjacent villages were more to blame for the crisis than the city’s residents was entirely in keeping with the way India’s economy has come to be organized. In theory, after India joined the global economy, benefits were to trickle down from city to village, but they seldom did; blame was to be admitted and apportioned equally, but more often than not, the most vulnerable paid the price. Well before 1991, the year free-market reforms were introduced in India, urbanity had deteriorated into a penchant for power and the indiscriminate use of natural resources. Independence in 1947 did not so much clear the way for decolonization: Cities, in a sleight of hand, replaced the Crown. Together with the retention of many Victorian-era laws, a system of Stalinist state subsidies and massive industrialization made sure that only one-sixth of India’s total population could flourish. Resources were already impaired by the strain of two world wars and at least a century of relentless colonial plunder. In a free republic, this process was accelerated to meet the needs of an expanding population. But the structure didn’t quite lose its imperial essence. Certain needs were still subordinate, certain regions systematically drained to support others.

Globalization further sharpened this rift. Dams and industrial projects had already displaced countless rural communities and tribes, many of which had been deprived of their traditional modes of sustenance. State protection, to them, now became a dream. The market determined not just the net worth of an individual but also his or her self-image. Crop failure meant small farmers had no way to pay back their debts. Their success, too, stood for little in laissez-faire terms: Many farmers produced food they could scarcely afford to eat, thanks to commodity trading and the pressures of a booming urban middle class. From 2014 to ’15, India’s economy grew at a rate of 7.3 percent. The number of farmers committing suicide also went up in those years, by 41.7 percent—from 5,650 in 2014 to 8,007 in 2015.

Cities, on the other hand, succumbed to different delusions. As land became more expensive and disposable incomes went up significantly, most urban inhabitants still identified as middle-class. They associated poverty not so much with a lack of resources as with their pre-1991 lives, when land was a little less scarce in the city, and goods and services a little more subsidized. More and more people migrated to the cities looking for work, so that competition grew fierce, public infrastructure crumbled, and questions of complicity were nullified. In the city, everyone was a victim. All hands were tied.

The imperative to industrialize did not have the interests of the greater rural population in mind. It unsettled those very communities—small farmers, landless farm workers, nomads, artisans, fishermen, and aboriginal tribes—that depended directly on nature for their livelihoods, the very people who could have been at the helm of protecting the country’s air, water, land, and forests. Instead, they were co-opted into the belief that India could not develop by making environmental protection paramount. Their self-sufficient local economies were replaced by sporadic public handouts. Conservationists alienated them further after 1991, framing the struggle as a choice between the factory and the forest. Those who had borne the brunt of the degradation of natural resources in India were asked not to partake in its economic success. The environmental origins of many social conflicts still go unrecognized. Meanwhile, according to Sunita Narain, one of India’s leading environmentalists, the conservation movement is “making enemies of the very people whose interest it is working to protect.”

All of Meera Subramanian’s interviews for her book A River Runs Again included the question “Do you have hope?” But halfway through her travels around the country, Subramanian admits, she realized that she ought to have been asking something else:

I was using hope as a noun when I should have been using it as a verb, as something active and ongoing. I was using hope as a thing to be possessed, something you either had or lacked. Instead of asking, “Do you have hope?” I should have been asking, “Do you hope?”

Without once interrogating the terms of her own optimism, Subramanian meets several entrepreneurs working to usher in a culture of organic farming; the “Rainman of Rajasthan,” who has inspired fresh approaches to water harvesting in an arid district; a woman advocating family planning in rural communities, while herself fending off parental pressure to get married; and a couple building enclosures to breed India’s endangered vultures. Her interviews with these people are faithfully recorded in the book. They all seem hopeful, perhaps because they found their calling very early in life. Rajendra Singh, the “rainman,” was “unduly influenced” as a child by a visitor who was a disciple of Gandhi; the young Rajendra aspired to make both the guest and Gandhi proud. Pinki Kumari dreamed of becoming a doctor in school, so her job teaching adults about birth control is a fulfillment of sorts: She sees herself now as a “social doctor.”

The chapters in Subramanian’s book are named in Sanskrit—Prithvi (“earth”), Agni (“fire”), Ap (“water”), Vayu (“air”), Akasha (“ether”)—for the five elements of the physical world. Much effort is expended in proving how a veneration of each of these elements is intrinsic to the myths and beliefs of Indians. All societies have, historically and according to convenience, merged or differentiated between ritual and reality. Subramanian portrays this well in the story of the disappearing vultures. The Parsis are a community settled largely around the western coast of India. For centuries, they have disposed of their dead by laying the bodies out on top of stone towers—called Towers of Silence—for vultures to consume. With the vultures now gone, the corpses remain exposed on the towers for months at a time, decaying very slowly. Some towers have dealt with this problem by installing solar reflectors. Others in the community have partnered with conservationists to build aviaries for vultures.

The rest of the stories in the book, however, are not so thoroughly pursued. Subramanian seems content with the guarded answers of her respondents, the neat epiphanies they claim to have experienced. Many of her observations—“the landscape is as silent as Rachel Carson’s unnamed town in Silent Spring”; “warm coffee did little to take the chill out of the air”—read like tin-eared interpolations. At best, they seem beside the point. In Rajasthan, a desert state, talk of the rains reminds her of images from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, “of men, women, and children tilting their heads back to let long-awaited waters drench them.” But Ray’s film is set in West Bengal, a state where heavy rainfall causes flooding in multiple areas every year; the climate is far from arid there. Rajasthan and West Bengal are geographically on opposite ends of the Indian landscape, much like California and New York in the United States. For the two states to seem similar, or reminiscent of each other, one must be looking from quite a distance.

Frequently in A River Runs Again, Subramanian appears to have telescoped disparate realities. The gods and myths she brings up are predominantly Hindu, unrepresentative of the country’s diversity. This would have been less of a problem if the introduction didn’t assert, “This book is India’s story,” or if the subtitle had promised something more modest than India’s Natural World in Crisis from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka. Is the town of Cherrapunji—once arguably the wettest place on Earth, but suffering now from frequent water shortages—too far to the east to qualify as “India’s story”? Is Chhattisgarh, a state where the rampant exploitation of tribal land and forests has led to an ongoing civil war, not relevant to the country’s environmental crisis? These omissions are glaring, not just because they reinforce the buoyant narrative that urban India likes to tell itself, but because they also end up rendering the issues of conservation as benign—and divorced from the country’s tumultuous past.

When Subramanian is in Punjab, for instance, meeting farmers who are gradually turning away from pesticides and genetically modified seeds, there is a throwaway remark about a labor situation:

I also heard about a general labor shortage in Punjab. The wealthy state has long been dependent on migrant workers coming from poorer regions of India, the equivalent of the Latino laborers who keep strawberries and lettuce on American dinner tables. As the economies of some states—such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Haryana—improved, the men stayed home to work, leaving Punjab with a shortage.

The comparison to Latino laborers is, like the earlier mention of Silent Spring, not helpful in this context. Punjab is a state that doesn’t receive a lot of rain, but decades of resource concentration—free electricity, dams, and fertilizer support—transformed a traditionally pastoralist economy into an irrigated prototype that, by the 1970s, was generating much of India’s food surplus. But this selective improvement of production in a small state created a new class of have-nots: In larger states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, despite the fertile soils, peasants lost their lands due to piling debts. They went to Punjab as hired workers at a huge economic cost, a shift in social status that made them, among other things, vulnerable to riots and hate crimes. Punjab is a “wealthy state,” but in the last 10 years, it has been affected by unemployment and drug abuse. Most families have at least one addict, or one member who has left India looking for work.

To point out these seemingly contradictory trends is not to dampen the optimism or the belief that a better future is possible; it is to deepen our understanding of the crisis. A response to India’s compromised ecology must also address historical and social inequalities; otherwise, there will be no lasting institutional change, and, as Subramanian does in her book, we’ll have to rely mystically on mavericks.

Along these lines, the novelist Amitav Ghosh is concerned about how we think—or, rather, haven’t thought—about the probability of drastic changes to our climate and how to respond. Ghosh’s central thesis, in his recent polemic The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is that the project of modernity has expelled the idea of “the collective” from our imagination over the last 150 years. It did so by making obsolete the many older communal forms of storytelling—like fables, legends, and myths—and by implying that most of the events they described were unlikely to happen.

The Flaubertian novel came into fashion as a result of this shift, and something similar, Ghosh argues, also occurred in the field of geology. Both disciplines have become emblematic of a worldview that perceives only slow, foreseeable change and misses completely the possibility of “short-lived cataclysmic events”:

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house—those generic outhouses that were once known by names such as “the Gothic,” “the romance,” or “the melodrama,” and have now come to be called “fantasy,” “horror,” and “science fiction.”

Much of this is inferred from a review by John Updike for The New Yorker back in 1988, in which a sense of “individual moral adventure” is said to distinguish novels from fables and chronicles. Literature—comprising primarily of “serious fiction” in Ghosh’s reckoning: novels that are reviewed in “highly regarded literary journals”—cannot persuasively imagine the unforeseeable consequences of a warmer world. This is also how, as in Subramanian’s book, personalities become more important than policies. Journalistic scrutiny can always be redirected to something private. Politics has become the sort of novel Updike might have liked: broad in principle, but relentlessly individual in practice.

If we have yet to respond coherently to climate change, it is, in part, due to the 21st-century disenchantment with forms of collective decision-making. Democracy, in too many countries, has led to an impasse where power has been ceded, by ways both fair and foul, to a nexus of increasingly unrepresentative systems of employment and governance. The promise of interconnectivity in a globalized world turns out to have little to do with cooperation or a shared sense of community. To Ghosh, these “patterns of thought” are reflected in the text of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the first part of which, across 18 pages, is awash with a sense of its own allusive potential. It consists, he writes, of “only two sentences, one of which runs on for no less than fifteen pages!” In a terrific move, Ghosh connects this style to the images of world leaders and industrialists embracing after the negotiations, as if they “could not quite believe that they had succeeded in reaching an agreement of such significance.” The treaty is too optimistic, Ghosh asserts: “the virtuosity of its composition is a celebration of its own birth.”

Derangement can, of course, manifest in different ways. In India, it is recognizable in the pathology of denial. A month after the smog in New Delhi, India’s environment minister told the Parliament that there is no “credible” study to quantify the number of deaths caused directly by air pollution. Later, he conceded that air pollution “could be one of the triggering factors” for lung ailments.

Meanwhile, according to a 2016 World Health Organization report, 10 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India. Villages are being cleared around the country to build urban infrastructure and attract more corporations. There have been a few protests, one of them partly successful. But the government has also responded with violence. The national rhetoric, too, has changed over the years. Development has come to mean more than dams—the emphasis is now on creating more cities.

It is hard not to view these circumstances as the outcome of modernization—indeed, as the outcome of modernization’s very success. The utopia of mass production and endless choices was meant only for the few. Democracy provided the illusion of individual redemption to more and more people in the last hundred years; perhaps decolonization had never been about bridging the gap. (Paradoxically, for all the suffering that they caused, empire and capitalism may have also delayed many of the effects of climate change by suppressing the growth of many Asian and African economies.) Ghosh believes that literature was especially expedient to such a fundamental reordering of the human consciousness. Through their trajectories of identity and the quest for personal authenticity, novels offered a “vision of the world as a secular church, where all the congregants offer testimony about their journeys of self-discovery.”

Yet, to view the self in this way, as an idea inherently opposed to society, is also partial. Ghosh misses out on the enormous suffering that the collective has inflicted in the last two centuries, be it in the form of empire, religion, race, or the nation-state. If novelists have “shunned men (or women) in the aggregate” during this period, the shift can be attributed as much to the acceleration of carbon emissions and the development of an economic system “designed to produce isolation,” as to the simpler and starker truth that the collective is not an imaginative possibility anymore, but a horrific and inescapable reality. Individualism was a refusal, even during Enlightenment, to be dragged ceaselessly back into the past. Ghosh finds solace in Pope Francis’s clarity, and concludes the book by suggesting that “religious worldviews are not subject to the limitations that have made climate change such a challenge for our existing institutions of governance.” But religion has been complicit for long in the loss of human lives and habitats. The Catholic Church itself has enabled exploitation—both state and corporate.

Besides, Ghosh’s notion of “self-discovery” is quite circumscribed. It seems to have no space for the kind of curiosities that propelled his own writing career to a large extent. Self-discovery is as much about discovering oneself as the “active and ongoing” way—in Subramanian’s words—in which we go about finding things for ourselves. The realization of the self is a central idea in post-industrial modernity, but in much of cultural modernism, the discovery itself is not as remarkable as the process. The modern novel is marked for that reason by a degree of self-effacement. Flaubert himself insisted that the author, “like God in the universe,” is everywhere present but nowhere visible in his work. Ghosh ignores the more perceptual aspects of being modern. He is interested in genres and themes:

…when novelists do choose to write about climate change it is almost always outside of fiction. A case in point is the work of Arundhati Roy: not only is she one of the finest prose stylists of our time, she is passionate and deeply informed about climate change. Yet all her writings on these subjects are in various forms of nonfiction.

Here, the “yet” is baffling—even if the implication is that there is something less imaginative about Roy’s nonfiction, or perhaps all nonfiction. It dilutes the “finest prose stylist” tag, given that Roy has published one novel (“imaginative”) so far, and four works of nonfiction (“not so imaginative”). In order to trust Ghosh’s indictments, one begins to doubt the sincerity of his praise.

We see this also when he says that the mere mention of climate change relegates a novel to the “generic outhouse” of science fiction. That science fiction is literary, and seriously read by critics and readers alike, is an argument that holds little water with him, because not many sci-fi novels are reviewed by the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, or the New York Times Book Review. Elsewhere, the absence of novels about climate change on literary-prize shortlists is enough for him to conclude that writers are not engaging with the crisis. These are vague generalizations. As with the Paris Agreement, the targets and assessments both feel wayward. Ghosh appears to be merely skimming the surface.

The absence of novels about climate change is a constant refrain in The Great Derangement. Identifying the absence is only part of the problem: One should also consider what such a novel might look like. It is instructive that in Updike’s characterization of the novel as an “individual moral adventure,” Ghosh takes issue with the adjectives. He seems to share with Updike the confining sense that the novel is, when all is said and done, a story, an “adventure.” Ways of telling are not as important as the tale: A novel is distinguished by its aboutness. There is little room for doubt or prevarication in such a novel—little room, as it were, for imagination.

An imaginative response to global warming may not even be in the form of a novel. It may be a poem, a play, an essay—we have to be open to multiple possibilities. The imagination cannot exclusively be the terrain of the novelist, just as development cannot only mean more dams and more cities. We must resist these convenient classifications before we can approach the unthinkable. Works of art must at the same time be allowed their autonomy and characteristic elusiveness. The artist’s allegiance is not to the theme of his work; his responsibility should continue to be to the work itself. Ghosh’s ire is understandable. The crisis is at our door. All the more reason, perhaps, not to substitute art for action.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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