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Novelist speaks on climate change at annual Hesburgh lecture

| Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Bringing a new perspective to an ever-present conversation, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh spoke Tuesday afternoon in the Mendoza College of Business about aspects of climate change much of the world neglects.

The first topic Ghosh tackled was wealth and desire — using the value of cloves hundreds of years ago as an example.

“What made cloves desirable was the phenomenon that Rene Girard identifies as mimetic desire, which in his definition is rooted not in basic appetites, but in the crossing of gazes with others,” he said.

We do not, therefore, desire things because we need them, Ghosh said — we desire things because others desire them.

“Ultimately [mimetic desire] would bring into being our own era of globalization — a homogenization of desire on a scale never before seen, extending across the planet and into the deepest reaches of the human soul,” Ghosh said.

Despite the rise in the global standard of living and the increasing accessibility of these desired goods Ghosh said the world has not attained some sort of utopic state of harmony and prosperity.

“The intimate nature of the connection forged by these commodities has not led to greater cooperation or sympathy,” he said. “On the contrary, it has only intensified and deepened the resentment, anger and envy.”

These sentiments, Ghosh said, are rooted in the imperialistic treatment of nations, their people and their resources. These tendencies began hundreds of years ago but continues to today. The disregard for the land itself established a precedent not easily shaken.

“The right to consume and pollute is established and justified by the fact of it having happened elsewhere, in rich countries,” Ghosh said of developing countries’ attitude toward economic progress.

The problem is that the image of perfect, universal prosperity as we understand it is simply unattainable, Ghosh said. No political leader, Ghosh said, can tell the blunt truth — the planet cannot sustain a world population that lives according to American standards of living. Either the poor must continue in poverty or the wealthy must drastically change their lifestyles.

Ghosh also delved into some of the more hidden aspects of climate change. Capitalism and industry are not, Ghosh said, the sole cause of climate change. Power has become inextricably linked with fossil fuels, creating what Ghosh called an “energy regime.”

“Today’s status quo, globally speaking, rests not just on the use of fossil fuels, but also on their flow in both the physical and financial senses,” he said. “During the last century, Anglo-American global strategy came to be focused on the nodal points through which oil is distributed around the world.” 

The military is both the foundation and the life force of such a power structure, and maintaining a powerful military requires enormous amounts of energy, more than most of the countries of the world combined, Ghosh said. Looking at climate change through this lens, Ghosh said, is more difficult than through an economic or technological lens.

“We are happy to make sacrifices in order to solarize our houses and shrink our carbon footprint, but would we be equally willing to sacrifice our place within the power structures of the world?” he said.

Part of the issue is the concealment of the reliance of all major nations on their militaries, Ghosh said. Civilians like to believe they are in control, that they are more than parts of an institution. The truth, however, is that in enjoying our position of power on the backs of the weak, we bear a responsibility for our military’s actions and energy use he said.

When asked how we can change the trajectory our planet is on, Ghosh responded with support for the one leader whom he sees as challenging the status quo — Pope Francis.

“I think the only really effective thing we can do is to support Pope Francis,” he said. “He is the only global leader who has provided any kind of alternative framework for viewing climate change … his is the only one that looks at climate in terms of genuine justice, not in terms of a mimetic justice.”

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