Climate change is a geopolitical problem: Amitav Ghosh

With the rise of China and Russia, the geopolitical equations are shifting dramatically. There will be winners, and there will be losers. Perhaps the shift is not going to favour India


Aditya Anand

In this final part of the interview, celebrated author Amitav Ghosh underlines that those parts of India where autonomous rulers invested heavily in education -- such as Travancore, Mysore & Indore -- are much wealthier today, their human potential is much greater.

He adds sardonically that people who talk about the Malthusian prophecy that over-population would get corrected through deaths and destruction “never mention the fact that it takes 33 Bangladeshis to produce as much greenhouse gases as a single American.” Excerpts:

Climate change – is it a technocratic problem as perceived by the West or a geopolitical issue as the rest of the world looks at it?

I look at it as a geopolitical problem. And I think it's not just me, anybody that you speak to in India, China, Indonesia, will say the same thing. If you ask them, are you willing to make emission cuts to shrink your carbon footprint because of climate change, the first thing they will say to you is, why should I do it? This problem is of the West's making.

They created this problem in the period when our countries were poor and defenceless. Now it's our turn to say that it's a problem of inequity and of geopolitical inequity. And it's in that sense that you can never divorce geopolitical realities from climate change. That is exactly what the West doesn't want or perhaps even India doesn't want it.

We are actually seeing a massive geopolitical shift, a historic geopolitical shift. And we just don't know which way it's going to go. With the rise of China and Russia, it's the first time in, let's say, 500 years that power is dramatically shifting away from the West. There will be winners, and there will be losers. And right now, I don't know where India will be. I think this particular geopolitical shift is not going to favour India.

What is your relationship with climate change deniers? We hear that your inbox has a lot of things that people have to say.

I think deniers really aim the big gun at the scientists. Those are the ones they really like to fight with. People have complicated feelings about science and about experts and so on. Nowadays, because of the internet, everybody thinks they're an expert. The scientists are the ones who really faced incredible hostility. I think many scientists are actually very brave in the way that they deal with the deniers.

As for me, I do get quite a lot of trolling and so on. But I just either mute them or block them. That's it, I just ignore them. I have no interest in getting into Twitter fights. That's not my thing.

In your latest book, how did you get the idea of connecting Banda islands to the resource curse? What were the ideas in your mind before setting foot on Malaku, the spice island province?

When I went to the Banda islands or when I went to Morocco, I had a very dim understanding of what had happened there in the past. I didn't really know the details very well. It was only on arriving there that I began to find out about the details. This is a chapter of history that is completely forgotten and systematically sort of blanked out of the global consciousness, though the facts are well known.

You can, if you just Google Banda islands! So, it's not like it's a secret, but it's again not something that people engage with. Just being in the Banda islands helped me to see and helped me to understand how the world has been approaching the issue of resources.

The issue of colonial extraction became very clear to me in the Banda islands, because the Islands are an extreme case of something that is repeating itself globally.

We see it most clearly in relation to oil. Oil provides incredible riches. But look at what it's done to Iraq. Look at what it's done to Iran. Or look at what it's done to Nigeria. I mean oil is very much an element of the resource curse.

On the other hand, you look at a completely different model of capitalism that emerges in, let's say, Japan and South Korea. This is what is often being called the East Asian model, where Japan has no natural resources as such, nor South Korea, but what they did instead was to pursue a model of economy that is not resource intensive but labour-intensive. And they created a completely different reality. They invested very heavily in human potential through education, through healthcare.

That is the model that I would have wanted India to pursue, not this kind of heavily resource intensive sort of capitalism. But you look at how much India invests in education, it's very, very little. Even the Southeast Asian miracle was largely the product of education.

Thailand, because of the Thai ruling dynasty, from the late 19th century onwards, began to invest hugely in education to create this human potential, we can see that also in parts of India; the Maharaja of Travancore also invested hugely in education. We also saw it in Mysore, in Indore. These were princely states and they had a certain degree of autonomy. The rulers of the states invested heavily in education, and that's why you can see that those parts of the country are much wealthier, their human potential is much greater.

You take those parts of the country which were actually directly ruled by the British. The best example is Purvanchal, that is Bihar and Eastern UP where the British cultivated opium on a large scale.

In fact, historically Bihar and eastern UP were the richest, most productive parts of the country. All the ancient empires were based there. But after colonization by the British, this region became what we now call as Bimaru (sick). Basically, it was because it was this region that was producing the biggest resource for the British, which was opium. So again, Bihar and Eastern UP are also victims of the resource curse.

Do settler colonist countries and climate change have a special connection based on extractavist economies?

Absolutely. The settler colonial economic model is absolutely one of extractivism. You were asking me about the phenomenon of denial. Denialism is most widespread in settler colonial countries like Canada, US and Australia. These are the countries that have been most obstinate about dragging their feet on climate change.

President Biden is trying to change things, he is trying to make a difference. But, you know, there's a lot of opposition to that even in the United States. We just don't know whether his policies will actually stick. That's the unfortunate thing.

Many seem to believe that a Malthusian case appears stronger as it has reached a global scale. Is such a Malthusian correction necessary to be part of the discourse for climate change?

The whole idea of Malthusian correction is that a lot of people will die. That is certainly not something that I agree with. That's the eco-fascist sort of position and people do talk about it. They think that if a lot of people die, then the problem is solved…that it is essentially a problem of a population, so that if the world's population were to be limited, then the problems would be solved, and they could keep on expanding the carbon footprint and maintain their lifestyle.

People who talk about this never mention the fact that actually it takes 33 Bangladeshis to produce as much greenhouse gases as a single American.

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