‘The Great Derangement’

The most urgent existential risk facing the world today has received barely a footnote’s worth of attention in this presidential campaign. Over the course of the past three presidential debates, a grand total of five minutes and twenty-seven seconds were devoted to discussing climate change and the environment. (That equates to 2% of the total time.)


Monsoon cloudsImage by NASA, International Space Station, 2002.

But it’s not just us Americans and our presidential candidates who are slouching away from the looming climate crisis: a recent global survey done by the United Nations reveals that climate change ranks dead last on a list of the issues that matter most to people around the world.

Global Survey


Climate scientists have sounded the alarm and the world has responded by hitting the snooze button. What’s going on here?

amitav-ghoshThe novelist Amitav Ghosh says our inability to grasp the scale of climate change is a failure of imagination. It’s a long story that’s tangled up in the spectacle of global politics, western imperialism, and a world-wide obsession with growth. In his new book, The Great Derangement, Ghosh examines how the public consciousness has been made impotent by a neoliberal machine. We must be deranged, Ghosh says. “We live in an era that worships science. Scientism is all around us, but we can’t take on the lessons science is teaching us.”

Later, we’re joined by the acclaimed biographer Andrea Wulf who tells us about the remarkable life and mind of Alexander Von Humboldt — an 18th century Prussian scientist, who Emerson once hailed as “one of the wonders of the world.” We’ll find out what environmental insights one of the greatest scientists of the 18th century has to offer the 21st. Journalist and naturalist Michael McCarthy enters the conversation and shares with us the abundance of joys to be found in nature, as well as the heartbreaking realities of contemporary species loss.


Contemporary illustration of Alexander von Humboldt – from the cover of ‘The Invention of Nature’.

We’re joined also by transgender signer Anohni, whose politically-charged new record Hopelessness takes direct aim at the Obama administration and its failure to bring sanity to our deranged situation. Anohni urges us to look past the charade of identity in this campaign season and turn our attention towards the existential threats to our planet. Hear an extended part of the conversation:


Illustration by Susan Coyne 

Main Photo: Isaac Cordal’s “Follow the leaders,” Berlin, Germany, April 2011.

Guest List
Amitav Ghosh
Indian-American author of Sea of Poppies and The Great Derangement
Andrea Wulf
German author of The Invention of Nature and The Founding Gardeners
Michael McCarthy
British journalist, naturalist and author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy 
English singer, composer, and visual artist

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  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    As citizens of these USA our principal mission is to ‘secure a more perfect union and establish justice…’ As Americans we agree the best way to strengthen our union and ensure justice is through liberty and equity i.e. a “Just Society.” Do we not? On what grounds then do we tolerate the severe wealth-income inequality we know today? Do we still cherish the words uniquely identified with the Statue of Liberty , “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Dystopia flows from a myopic, irrational, neoliberal infatuation with GDP (See Joseph E. Stiglitz’s Mismeasuring Our Lives). If individual reality is constructed and interpreted and governed by agreement, from whence arises such enthrallments? Can we not fashion a more pleasant agreement? A more vivifying social contract? Our stories are broken. We are storing the wrong values in our core zone, and thus promoting a vicious cycle rather than a virtuous one. We, the people, are gravely ill? Where are our communicators and thought-leaders (besides here at ROS!)? Perhaps if the elites of the left and right coast have let us down, it’s because they’re about to drown?

  • Pete Crangle

    “We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet.” — Joseph Campbell

    Thank you Chris, team ROS, and guests — and great guests they were. This is a conversation that is as rhapsodic as it is distressing. This is about confronting the sublime horror with an unflinching gaze at a situation largely of our own creation. We continue our slouching towards oblivion.

    • A in Sharon

      That is a curious quote and I find it troubling. Firstly, how can we say we need myths when the main complaint is that we are not looking at facts? Also, I see no way in which individual humans will ever identify on a global level. Our senses do not accommodate social connections on that scale. It’s like trying to call someone in China with string and cans. Actually, I think much of our dysfunction now is caused by global thinking when we need to focus on our local communities through direct human contact. This quote made me think of globalized, Orwellian oppression, not universal goodwill. Climate change is happening and I think many will suffer for it. But, I don’t believe a single, coordinated and global plan will ever work. China is not going to slow down for anyone. Neither will India. India is making 9% more automobiles every year. We have to hope human ingenuity and innovation helps us, like we did when anti-biotic drugs were invented.

      • Potter

        Myth, in the sense of beliefs, or a kind of religion as for instance practiced by indigenous peoples living close to the Earth. I love Joseph Campbell’s work. It was said in this show that the separation between man and his environment, man having to “conquer nature”, rule it, started with the Enlightenment. I think before, way before. I agree it would be hard for humans to identify as one, connected, and with the planet/ and the natural world, but this is to our peril. We will see suffering and turmoil in the world. we see it now.

  • Potter

    Depressing. Thank you for Ghosh, the relevance of Melville’s incredible “Moby Dick”, for Andrea Wulff’s intro ( for me) to Alex von Humboldt, and Michael McCarthy for the quick mention of Thoreau. It’s true, one has to immerse oneself in nature to appreciate it. The loss has to be experienced over time and geography-of which most of us do not have a good grasp. Wordsworth in 1806 comes to mind:

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

    But as the world becomes smaller and it’s apparent how uneven or unequal we are things, we cannot undo our level of development.Can we halt scientific and technological progress ? As well, can we halt the poorest most “undeveloped” who are trying to leave their situation, leave their idyllic communal life close to nature (as we may see it) or their lost community, for what they see as a survival issue and a more developed life elsewhere? These are enormous trends.

    I don’t think there ever was or will be peace. Steven Pinker says we are getting better.
    Anonhi’s cries nor hopeful ending did not do anything to lift me. Regarding his complaint about Obama, he could only do so much all by himself.

    I find myself having no choice but to vote for Hillary Clinton, no savior, to put out the fire that is Trump. No choice but to believe that she will act differently. Trump and his supporters would do nothing to cure our planet’s ills, not for it’s peace nor it’s environmental health. These things thankfully are no longer up to the US alone. I think Obama led us further away from that mirage. So let China or India lead the way. Thank you.

  • Potter

    The moth snowstorm is also a metaphor for this election season and the meager time devoted to climate change in the debates. To be sure, Hillary Clinton has been talking about climate change on the stump, along with Al Gore in Florida, for instance, at least once that I know of, where it should be on people’s minds. Trump has been talking about bringing coal back in coal country, and steel furnaces back to Pittsburgh. But this period has not been about the important issues anyway. People have been entertained with the help of the media and their attention diverted, One candidate has plenty to talk about and would rather. The other kept saying he would rather talk about the issues ( such as getting rid of Obamacare and replacing it with something “really great”) but the same time he has raised a whole host of alarming issues regarding his fitness to govern, while he lies outright and shows he knows next to nothing or shows no interest in policy or achievable solutions, never mind having a vision.

    The issues are still there though and will be there. This has been a moth snowstorm of lies, accusations, diversions appealing to our basest emotions producing hate and division.

    We are in sad shape and must hope for some sort healing before we can get to thinking creatively and communally.

    • ‎NX-74205

      What is a “moth snowstorm”? I’ve never heard the term before.

      • Potter

        You have to listen to the show. I never did hear of it either.