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On Contact: In conflict with the natural world with Amitav Ghosh

Chris Hedges talks to author Amitav Ghosh about the natural world and sacred forces that sustain life and the conflict when treated by the human species as an inert commodity to exploit. In his novel ‘Gun Island,’ Ghosh explores how these ecosystems have turned with a vengeance on the hubris and collective lunacy of modern industrialized society.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the role of the novelist and the era of the Anthropocene with Amitav Ghosh.

AG: We can think of even, I think a, you know, saying in 1964 that only God can save us now because, you know, the machine aspect of the world had so outstripped our capacity to control it, you know.  So that all those things that we look at as tools, we now suddenly look around and realize that we are not in control. 

CH: There are very few writers who have written especially about our climate emergency in fiction and non-fiction as Amitav Ghosh.  He gives voice in his book, The Great Derangement, as well as his latest novel, Gun Island, to the natural world itself, to the sacred forces that sustain life, treated by the human species as an inert commodity to exploit.  But these ecosystems, he reminds us, are living entities that have turned with a vengeance and a hubris and collective lunacy of modern, industrialized society.  Tens of millions of people, especially in the global south, who's suffering, Ghosh lifts up in his writing, are already reeling and dying from the eco side.  And yet, despite the wildfires, droughts, floods, monster hurricanes, soaring temperatures, and cyclones that are making larger and larger parts of the planet unfit for human habitation, we shut our eyes to reality.  We march blindly as a species toward oblivion.  Joining me in the studio to discuss his new novel, Gun Island, is Amitav Ghosh.  First of all, it's a beautiful, moving, powerful, and important book that--and--that confronts the reality that most of us, including, I think, most writers have virtually shut their eyes to avoid.  And I'm not going to spoil it, don't worry, I won't give a plot summary, but there's so many aspects of the book, and you clearly reported, I mean--I guess, talk about that process, because, I mean, as a reporter, I sensed that you knew what you were talking about.  So just tell us a little bit about what you did, then we'll go into the book itself.

AG: Sure.  Well, first of all, thank you for having me here.  I've been reading you for years, I'm a long-time fan, so it's great to be here.  So, yes, you know, I've been a reporter myself.  I mean, I've done a lot of reporting for the New York, et cetera.  So when this--when this whole European so-called refugee crisis started in 2015, 2016, I noticed that a lot of the people who were coming across the Mediterranean in those boats, I could tell from their faces that they were South Asian.  They were not Syrian, they were not sub-Saharan African, they were from South Asia.  And that sort of rang a bell, you know.  I thought, "Who are these people, why are they running away," you know, where--these are very dangerous journeys, you know, and for a South Asian, actually, very expensive journeys because they cost, like, $6,000, $7,000, you know, the equipment of that.  So, I spent, you know, quite a long time traveling around Italy, going to the refugee camps and the migrant camps, also speaking to various NGOs that work with refugees and migrants.  And I spoke to a large number of migrants, you know, who are actually from South Asia or from Egypt.  I think--one of things where the reporting on migrants goes wrong is that the people who write about them are usually, you know, Western, white journalists, you know, who don't speak the languages, you know.  I think it's so important to be able to speak to them in their own languages.

CH: But they also don't know where they come from.

AG: That's right.

CH: Which you get in the book.  You know where they come from.

AG: Exactly.  That's exactly it.  That's exactly it.  And I did find that when I spoke to them, you know, it was revelatory.  I--you know, I went there with a simple idea of thinking that, you know, it was climate change that, you know, took them out and so on.  But it's much, much more complex than that.  You know, it's a very sort of interwoven phenomenon to do with technology, with--to do with fantasies and dreams, all of which arrive on your little screen.

CH: Well, we'll go to that because it's a part of the book.

AG: Yes.

CH: And it--I mean, you elucidated this, which--I think I hadn't articulated, but it's so true, about the phone.  How all of reality and much of your life is refracted now through this phone, even in poor villages in Bangladesh or India, or anywhere else.

AG: Yeah, that's the strange thing with this technology, you know, it's sort of--it's sort of leapfrogged, so that in a poor country like Bangladesh, actually, social media has a greater reach, has a great--greater penetration.  The internet has a greater penetration, this is true also of India.  I think India has more cell phones than people, more than any other place in the world.  These phones are cheap, but they are smartphones, and you don't have to be literate to use them.  You know, you can get onto the net through voice recognition technology.  So, it's completely revolutionized the ways in which people think of the world, you know.  You just imagine a poor kid, you know, he works in a rice field where it's, you know, it's extremely difficult work, but his family has one smartphone which they charge with a solar panel.  And on this, he's in touch with--through social media, with, you know, friends, relative, cousins who are in Rome or Berlin.  The way that this has actually disrupted people's ways of being is something I don't think we've yet even begun to comprehend.

CH: Well, because it essentially corrupts reality itself.

AG: That's right.  That's right.  In the most profound sense, that's exactly what's right because, you know--I'll tell you something.  You know, one thing that really struck me about these--about these kids, when I went to ask them, "Weren't you scared to make that journey in that rickety old boat?"  You know, I really had the sense that they thought, because they had their phones with them, that no harm would come to them.

CH: Uh-hmm.

AG: You know, it was as though they were leading this kind of mediated life, you know, they've begun to think of themselves as being somehow inside the phone, you know.  It's strange.  We know that these phones disrupt all kinds of neural networks and people usually connect that with, say, rich kids in the West.  But I think the impact actually on poor kids in poor parts of the world is much greater.

CH: Well, it essentially beckons them.  It has a kind of siren call, really, to their own self-destruction.

AG: It's exactly that, yeah.  Often it's absolutely to their--to their own destruction.  And even, you know, though many of them, of course, want to find a better life, in fact, the life they end up finding is, I would say, probably as bad [INDISTINCT]

CH: Which you chronicle at the end of the book, which takes part in Venice.  And you're walking around Venice, you did your reporting.  And it's the facade of Venice, but all the food and all the stalls and everything is run by South Asians.

AG: This was what really amazed me, you know.  I mean, spending time in Venice over the year, I mean, in fact, the entire working class of Venice now is South Asian, but more than South Asian, they're Bangladeshis, you know.  And many of them are from the district that my own family was from.  So it was kind of amazing for me, you know, just to meet people and to speak their own dialect, it was--it was staggering, really.

CH: And their life is awful, you know, not just the precariousness and danger of arriving, but the treatment, their lives when they live there and, of course, they're, you know, earning very little and trying desperately to send money home, living ten to a room, object of hate crimes, persecuted by the state, all of which you, I think, portray very vividly.

AG: Thank you.  Yes.  I would say many of their lives--I mean, of course, there are some who've also managed to get on quite well, you know, and who run shops or something.  And many of them do have terrible lives, and they are really persecuted.  There are gangs now of Italians, you know, who--the initiation rite is beating up a Bengali.

CH: Right.

AG: But at the same time, I think we can't forget, really, that there are also many Italians who are incredibly compassionate, generous, kind, who receive these people, who go, really, to extraordinary lengths to help them.  I mean, you've seen those young Europeans who risked their lives at sea, you know, to save these guys.

CH: Oh, that's the end of your book.

AG: Yeah.

CH: It's actually a clash of two armadas.

AG: That's right.

CH: Those who were seeking to save them, and the right-wing armadas that are--want their boat sunk, in essence.

AG: Absolutely.  But I do think that, you know, in this, really, what has made a huge difference in Italy is the Catholic Church, and most of all, Pope Francis, you know, because, you know, we always hear about Salvini and so on, and it's true that he's popular amongst, you know, a certain slice of the Italian population.  But Pope Francis is beloved, you know, Italians…

CH: I think I heard you say once, you considered him, you know, the most important world leader.  Was that it?

AG: I absolutely think so.  I think he is, in many ways, he is really the only world leader.  He's the only one who's speaking to these incredibly pressing issues.  He's the only one who's addressing the poor.  You know, that's what so remarkable about his [INDISTINCT] I mean, just the rhetoric of it, the simplicity, how he takes very complex ideas and tries to open it, you know, because, you know, as a Jesuit, he has experience of the poor.

CH: Including on issue of climate change.

AG: Absolutely.  Absolutely.

CH: I'll get it into climate in a minute, but since we're on the Catholic Church, there is a very mystical element to your writing.  And, you know, harkening back to mythology for--and an understanding that the world around us is a living entity.  Yes, it was, you know, djinns or demons or whatever.  And yet, maybe not in a literal sense, I think you argue correctly that these living entities around us embody an important spiritual power that we ignore and abuse at our peril.  And of course, and that's what climate disruption is about.  It's about those entities, for--you know, ultimately, we're irrelevant in the--in the--in the greater scheme of planetary life.  But just talk a little bit about that.

AG: Sure.  See, I think it's perfectly evident to me as it probably is to you, that really, our present crisis is the fault or the outcome of a completely mechanistic world view.

CH: Right.  A rational, scientific world that was supposed to save us, and look where we've ended up.

AG: Exactly.  I mean, the continuous set of unintended consequences has brought us here.  You know, people who thought they knew everything, now they want to do more and more, you know.  But yeah, so I absolutely feel that, you know, to write, at all, truthfully about this moment, one really has to try to find something outside this mechanistic world view.  And we can see, you know, I mean, I'm not religious, but I was brought up in a very devout family, so I can certainly understand, you know, that sense of being.  But most of all, I think--now, I really draw inspiration from the native traditions of America, the indigenous traditions of the Americas, you know.  The ways in which indigenous peoples in the Americas taught about the land, about the landscape, about their relationship with animals and other beings…

CH: Well, your own epics, you know, also I think capture this.

AG: Very powerfully, absolutely.  Very, very powerfully.  I mean, you know, all the epics, the Greek epics.  You know, within the Greek epics, so many kinds of beings speak, you know.  It's only literally in the last 300 years that we've completely suppressed, as it were, the non-human, you know.  No one can speak for the non-human anymore, even though--let's say, even as recently as Melville, you know.  The non-human did have agency, did have will, he was able to represent this whale as a thinking creature, you know.  But, you know, that entire sensibility has so much faded away, and I think there are so many things we need to do about the climate crisis, but for me as a writer, it's reclaiming these traditions that has become very important.

CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about industrial society and the climate emergency with author Amitav Ghosh.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about our climate emergency with author Amitav Ghosh.  So throughout the book, the climate disruptions are constantly impacting the lives of your characters, beginning in India.  You actually--which I didn't know until I read this, mentioned a category four cyclone that hit, on November 12th, 1970, the Bengal Delta in the Indian province of West Bengal state.  It was then East Pakistan.  Later to become Bangladesh.  In terms of causalities, the cyclone was the greatest natural disaster of the 20th century.  Its toll is conservatively estimated at 300,000 lives, but the actual number may have been as high as half a million.  And what you do throughout the book, let's begin this as a kind of touchstone, is talk about the social, political, economic, and cultural consequences of climate catastrophe such as that one.

AG: Well, you know, this particular cyclone, the 1970 cyclone, happened in my lifetime.  I mean, I remember.  I remember it.  And I remember its consequences, you know?  It was--it was absolutely calamitous.  I mean--I mean, even if you look at pictures of that period, you know, of what happened, it was just beyond description really.  Though I must say looking at The Bahamas give you some idea, but, of course, Bengal is big and it's very crowded, so the impact on people was just catastrophic.  And it had very important political repercussions.  I mean, it's--people say that it actually sparked off the Bangladesh Revolution, the war of independence, because the Pakistan government was not able to respond properly.  So it set off a whole chain of events.  And that's the other thing that one notices really that I think we are going to see this happening more and more.  We saw already with Hurricane Katrina.  You know, it had profound political repercussions.  So these things don't just happen and get lost even if we try to lose them, you know?  They resonate.

CH: Displacement, that's a huge theme of the book from the Sundarbans, rising water, you used as one of the main motifs of the book, Manasa Devi.  Am I pronouncing that correctly?  The…

AG: Manasa Devi.

CH: There you go.  Okay.  Thank you.  The goddess of snakes.

AG: Yes.

CH: I mean, it works perfectly.  Talk a little bit about that, which--that's a constant kind of theme that--or undercurrent that runs through the book.

AG: Well, you know, Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes, what she is really is that she is someone who's giving voice to the nonhuman, you know?  And she represents snakes, but she also represents all kinds of venomous creatures, but she also represents catastrophes and disasters.  And, you know, when I was reading these old epics that tell her story, that tell the story of her conflict with the guy who's known as a merchant, what really struck me is that in so many ways, these old, centuries-old legends told in verse describe the actual life of Bengal much more accurately than modern literature, you know?  All these storms and catastrophes and rivers and droughts and famines, and of course snakes.  Bengal is filled with snakes.  I mean, India is filled with snakes.  You can never really get away from them.  And I think, you know, in many ways, snakes keeping that real in the sense that I don't think any Indian would ever imagine that they could conquer nature in the Western way simply because you know that the snake is so irreducibly [INDISTINCT] and it's omnipresent.  You know, you never know when a snake is going to appear.  It fills it with a certain reverence, if you like.

CH: Reverence, awe…

AG: Yes.

CH: …that's a central theme.  And the laws of reverence, and the laws of awe, and the consequences of that.

AG: Yes.  Yes.  Absolutely.  I mean, you know, it's--I'll tell you, there's a--there's a conflict going on right now with--to me, it really symbolizes what's--what--what's gone wrong, what's happening so badly in this world.  You know, it's the Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii.  So Mauna Kea is a mountain.  Scientists and various contortions want to build another giant telescope on top of this mountain.  But the indigenous people, the elders--and these are not sort of habitual protesters.  You know, they're just sort of like elderly people.  They've been protesting again and again that, "This landscape is sacred to us.  You know, this mountain is sacred to us."  And they're constantly brushed aside.  We've heard this so often also at Standing Rock and--you know, resonating, you know, for the past 200 years of American history.  And, really, you know, it's so curious that within the Western tradition, sacredness is never associated with landscape or such.  You know, it's associated with built objects and with buildings, so that nobody would, I think, propose building a telescope on top of Saint Peter's Cathedral, you know, because that--they're recognized to be sacred.  But what does it take within the West for people to recognize that land also has a certain sacredness.  And there I took heart actually from this funeral that the ice--the Icelanders has had for a glacier, you know?  It's--there's some way in which people are beginning to mark that, in fact, the land we live in has characteristics which are not inert, you know?  That we live in collaboration with them.  And if that collaboration disappears, a very important part of own lives will disappear.

CH: The voices of ancestors.  And in the book, you said Cinta--am I pronouncing it…

AG: Cinta.

CH: Cinta.  Thank you.  Her daughter is killed.  And her husband as well.  But those are very real and powerful forces for you.  And important forces.  And you actually write about premonitions.  You talk about the Aztecs, predicting that in--white invaders would come and would be carrying sticks of fire and--talk a little bit about that.

AG: Yeah.  That's one the curious things, you know.  I mean, the--so many of the native peoples of the America seemed to have had intuitions of this invasion, you know, of ships coming across the sea and so on.  And far from preparing them, it actually made them more vulnerable.  I mean…

CH: Yeah.  That's an interesting--explain why.  That's right.

AG: I--it's kind of impossible to explain.  And I--I'm, by no means, an expert on Aztec history and so on, but we do know that Moctezuma, you know, faced with 500 conquistadores just gave up, you know?  His people just gave up, even though they could have easily overwhelmed them, you know?  And we see similar patterns again and again.  But to come back to the--to the question of the--of intuitions and so on, you know--well, we can think of even Heidegger, you know, saying in 1964 that only a God can save us now because, you know, the machine aspect of the world had so outstripped our capacity to control it, you know?  So that all those things that we look at as tools, we now suddenly look around and realize that we are not in control, you know?

CH: You have a line at the end of the book which is just beautiful.  You say, "The possibility of our deliverance lies not in the future, but in the past, in a mystery beyond memory."

AG: Yes.  Well, you know, that's actually taken from something that's inscribed on the floor of…

CH: That's right.  That's right.  In Latin.

AG: Yes.  Of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice.  And the Latin tag is unde origo inde salus, from the beginning salvation comes.  And it's a reference, I think, to the Earth as womb and so on and so forth.  I think really, at this point, in the sense of looking for possibilities of redemption, we can only look backwards, you know?  We can only look to other parts of the--to humans who've actually perhaps lived through the end of the world.  And, again, people who have lived through the end of the world--end of their world, our Native Americans.

CH: Well, you talk about the plagues, for instance.

AG: The plagues?  And that, again, I find so interesting, you know?  I mean, if you look at say--I mean, the Plague in Venice in the 1630 seems to have had some connection with the--with the--a climatic variation known as the Little Ice Age.  But, you know, when the Plague was at its worst, the people--the Venetians felt so powerless that they promised to build this great basilica.  And, in fact, they did.  And this basilica is incredibly beautiful as you know, as anyone who's seen it will know.  But, in fact, what it does, is that it memorializes a moment of incredible vulnerability, you know, human vulnerability in the face of death really.  I think that's, in a way, one of the things we've really lost.  I mean, can--is there a monument to Hurricane Sandy?

CH: Right.

AG: You know, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the lives of so many that we know, but we just let it--let it fade away.

CH: You picked Venice on purpose.  I mean--I mean, one could say Venice was perhaps the beginning of the modernity.

AG: Yes.

CH: I didn't understand that half of old books were printed in Venice.

AG: Yes.

CH: I just want to read a pass from the book.  "It would seem that the intellectual titans of the Enlightenment had no inkling of what was getting under way.  Yet strangely all around the Earth, ordinary people appear to have sensed the stirring of something momentous.  They seemed to have understood that a process had been launched that could lead ultimately to catastrophe.  What they didn't allow for was that the story might take a few hundred years to play out."

AG: Yeah.  That's exactly what it is.  I mean, you can see in the 17th century and in the late 16th century.  I mean, so many of these movements--you know, even Western movements really were positive around the idea of sacredness being violated.  You know, the Chartres and so on.  There's--the Fifth Monarchists in England.  I mean, people could sense that something had been let loose in this world, which was perhaps untamable.

CH: Well, what you'd call demonic possession?

AG: Well, my character…

CH: Oh, your character?

AG: It's just--but, you know, I think…

CH: I didn't sense that you disagreed, you know?

AG: Well, you know, if it--if it fits the description then that is what it might be.  In the sense--you know, what is possession?  Possession, I mean, historically was regarded as a loss of agency.  And that's what we face today, a collective loss of agency.  We all know what needs to be done but we can't do it.

CH: And let's talk about, just to close--I'll probably do another show on the other brilliant book, The Great Derangement.  You call it a kind of derangement what we've come to, courtesy of the Enlightenment.

AG: Yes.  Absolutely.  To me, it seems absolutely a kind of derangement.  For example, you know, that--property prices on Miami Beach are going up.

CH: Right.

AG: Even as we that the floods--the sea level rise is going to--going to claim it.  But I see this, I must say, most of all and most worryingly, in India, you know?

CH: Uh-hmm.

AG: I mean, with this catastrophic sea level rise that's going on, the Indian government has recently relaxed coastal regulations limits.

CH: Mumbai?

AG: Mumbai is a--I mean…

CH: It's waiting.

AG: It's just waiting to happen.

CH: I think--were there two roads out of Mumbai?  It's on the coast?

AG: Yeah.

CH: There's 20 million people?

AG: More.

CH: More?

AG: Yeah.  I mean, in Greater Mumbai, it's more than that.  Yeah, I mean, it's…

CH: A cyclone hits Mumbai, what happens?

AG: If a cyclone like, say, what we recently saw, like cyclone--like Hurricane Dorian were to hit Mumbai, you know--I mean, heaven forfend, but, you know, the catastrophe would be beyond imagining.  I mean, it would completely destroy India's economic infrastructure, and take more lives than you could imagine.

CH: And yet unchecked, that's where we're headed.

AG: Not only is it unchecked, people haven't even made an evacuation plan, you know?

CH: Yeah.  Right.  Thank you.  That was Amitav Ghosh speaking about his new novel, Gun Island.

AG: Thank you.

CH: Thank you so much.

AG: Thank you.  It's--this was great.  Thank you so much.

CH: Yeah.  It's a really great book.