Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How Not to Think About the Unthinkable - Amitav Ghosh's "The Great Derangement"

For a class I'm sitting in on this semester, I read Amitav Ghosh's book, "The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable" (Chicago 2016), so that you don't have to. The book is, for the most part, a surprisingly conventional neo-Marxist diatribe against capitalism and imperialism, blaming both for the world's climate change problem while, for no obvious reason, claiming (rightly or wrongly I do not know) that fundamental Western scientific advances came from the East, mainly India. This seems to be an author with an axe to grind, and swing.

In the first place, the attack on capitalism is under-inclusive because socialist economic systems from the 20th century to today (in China) release far more greenhouse gases per unit of production than capitalist economic systems, where competitive market pressures to improve dynamic efficiency in production are constant. Both are parts of the "carbon" economy that, contrary to Ghosh's implications, is not a innovation of the industrial era but extends back to the use of fire for land-clearing and cooking by ancient hunter-gatherers and mining activities in early human settlements.

Ghosh also conveniently ignores, especially in his call for "climate reparations," the fact that global markets have cut the rate of abject poverty in the world by 50% since the beginning of the 20th century, and have the potential to eradicate it this century. Less developed countries in Africa and Asia are seeing some of the world's highest levels of economic growth and improvements in living standards and conditions. While inequality is increasing within advanced industrialized countries, it is falling between those countries and less-developed ones.

Of course, all of that economic advance could be for nought if problems relating to climate change are not seriously managed. The one thing Ghosh gets entirely right is that the climate change problem is every bit as serious as he claims. But his tired and worn ideological bromides are not going to help solve it (if it is to be solved at all).

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