Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, and What is Climate Action?

Amitav Ghosh Gun Island Cover

I hate to admit it, but there was a pretty large period in my life where I was one of those guys that would throw around the phrase “stick to the science” when it came to climate change. And, you, the viewer, might think that’s a great thing, a framework that everyone should have, especially so because there are a lot of climate denialists out there (though not as much as people would reckon). But, it did produce quite a bit of problems, one of which being that I actively ignored a lot of the human aspects of climate change. It got to the point where I even demonized the climate march of April of 2017 as being too intersectional. Yeah, I was one of those people, a climate Chad so to say. Dang, that was three years ago; I can’t believe that.

The reason why I bemoaned that intersectionality is because I thought it turned a lot of people off to climate action. You see, at that time, I was still tricked into thinking moderate, bipartisan actions could be achieved in the realm of climate change, mostly so because I still believed in conservatives too much. Ah, the naivety of youth. So, I thought the climate march would make climate action seem like a partisan issue, causing some people to think their politics would not be aligned with that. And, if you knew me from that time, I was all on board with making climate change the least political issue imaginable. I actively thought science could be separated from human experience, and that was my downfall when it came to my studies as an environmental science student.

Gun Island is a novel written by Amitav Ghosh that was published in June of 2019. It’s a novel that centers around how people relate to stories — how they interact with, and learn from, those stories. It’s also a novel that deals with climate change and human migration, two topics that I’ll be hopefully looking at in this video. It’s also a novel that deals with privilege, and how that privilege might manifest in a world changed by climate change. And, on top of everything, it’s also a novel that deals with love and friendship, and how, even during impossible times that seem daunting to us all, fighting for what is right and moral can sometimes help in bringing unlikely people together to spearhead miracles. If we go even further than that, the novel also shows how friendship and love can shift our perspectives to things just a little bit.

Gun Island’s main protagonist’s name is Dean, and the novel is largely told from his point of view, which allows us to fully see how his mindset changes as the story proceeds. At first, he’s a bit of a recluse very much set in his routine, save for occasional conferences. He’s also a person whose life has been marred by the presence of an unlikely and tragic love life that hampers his confidence in himself, causing him to not really seek out anyone that he perceives out of his league. The story really only begins on what seems like Dean’s usual trip to Kolkata, but which, at that time, becomes all the more unusual when he’s presented with the story of the Gun merchant. The latter is a Bengali folktale that centers around the merchant and the deity Manasa Devi, the snake goddess. After forsaking Manasha Devi by not worshipping her, the gun merchant tries to escape her wrath of poisonous snakes and other creatures, travelling to unlikely places in the process. That tale, which Dean listens to with great curiosity, beckons him to Manasa Devi’s shrine in the Sundarbans, and it is that tale that sets the backdrop of the story in the novel, and which beckons Dean himself to travel to unlikely places and meet unlikely people.

Often times, when the impacts on humans are mentioned, especially in a way that makes it seem that the impacts are occurring disproportionally to people in the Global South and to BIPOC at large, there’s a certain subset of people who were like me who pop up and scream, “stick to the science”, or who demonize intersectionality in general. Emily Atkins, a climate journalist, writes about this phenomenon in her newsletter, Heated. In that post, Atkins mentions how, when she did a story that centered around racial justice when it came to climate action, a climate Chad, as she adequately named them, emailed her saying that his concern for climate change, and his support for climate issues, was to the extent of climate. He mentioned how Atkin’s posts that dealt with intersectionality undercut her work and support for the climate movement at large. What this climate Chad was beckoning for was a newsletter that simply stuck to the science, that didn’t speak upon racial discrimination, sexual equality, or other “identity politics” issues.

What this climate Chad could not understand was that all those above issues were climate issues as well. But, since the media often treats them as separate issues, people can’t exactly see the interconnections among them. Olie from PhilisophyTube provides an example of that phenomenon in his video that deals with climate grief. In that video, he provides an example that deals with the collapse of fisheries due to climate change and general overharvesting of resources, which decreases the profits of commercial fish industries. This decline of profits causes those industries to try to pay their workers less and work in even more dangerous conditions, but to avoid any lawsuits, those industries then hire undocumented immigrants. Thus, climate change, migrant rights, and workers rights are not separate issues, but issues that are connected, and if we want to address climate change, we must address all of those issues also.

Another example: climate change is going to make extreme weather events all the more likely, and that includes events like hurricanes, extreme precipitation events, and heightened heat waves. Undoubtedly, people who are homeless will face the worst effects of those events at large, and they can prove to be even deadly if the homeless population can’t be provided with adequate shelter. The even more unfortunate thing is that LGBTQ+ youths are 120 times more likely to experience homelessness in the United States, and that’s according to a study conducted in 2017 by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Queer people are also much more likely to face discrimination in homeless shelters, especially if those shelters are faith based. In fact, the Trump administration, which should or should not be leaving by the time I post this video, allowed homeless shelters to discriminate against trans people, or people who don’t fit into traditional gender norms, in the summer of this year, even as a pandemic was raging. Which means climate change, queer rights, and homelessness are not separate issues, but one issue. And, when the news media doesn’t treat it as such, it can cause disastrous consequences because it can blur what climate action actually looks like, and it, inadvertently, produces more climate Chads who can’t relate climate change to human effects.

When Dean reaches the shrine of Manasa Devi in the Sundarbans, the tale is presented on the walls of the shrine in symbols, some symbols which he can make out, and others which he can’t. Remember, the tale was shrouded in mystery ever since he first heard it from Nilima aunty, who only told him what she could remember. The tale seems to be nothing more than a folktale to both of them, a mere story sort of to speak that can be used for amusement or for learning lessons — the way they can be used all around the world. This tale is particularly interesting to Dean, however, because it’s similar to another, and much more popular, Bengali folktale that Dean actually analyzed for his dissertation. And because of that, and because of a gracious push from his friend, he reluctantly goes to the Sunderbans, to the shrine that tells the full story of the gun merchant. It is also at that point where the first hint of climate change occurs in the novel.

See, Nilima aunty first went to the shrine after a category 4 cyclone hit the area of what is known as present day Bangladesh, and the province of West Bengal in India. The Sundarbans was one of the worst hit areas and was massively affected by the cyclone, which actually came to be known as the Bhola cyclone, and which killed an estimated 300,000 people in the country of Bangladesh and in the province of West Bengal in actual life. In the novel, however, Nilima aunty goes to the areas worst impacted by the cyclone to provide supplies to the inhabitants, for she runs a NGO. One day as she was working, she stumbled upon a village that oddly wasn’t affected by the cyclone at all, and the villagers attributed their blessing to Manasha Devi, as a shrine attributed to her, in that village near the sunderbans, was erected many years before by the gun merchant.

That mention of the Bhola cyclone points to how Ghosh interlays climatic events all throughout the novel. In the novel, as Dean goes on his unlikely journey, the specter of climate change follows him to the many countries he traverses to. Whether it’s wildfires, sea level rise, or invasive species migration because of warming temperatures, climate change is a haunting part of his experience. In fact, it’s because of the prospect of the shrine of Manasha Devi being destroyed by the impact of storms that Nilima aunty wanted Dean to visit it in the first place, and to create a working documentation of it so that the story of the gun merchant continues on. That story does continue on, however, and it brings Dean and everyone he knows and meets along with it.

I think Ghosh purposely sets the Sundarbans as the natural jumping off point for Dean in the novel, mostly because the Sundarbans are incredibly impacted by climate change. They are at risk from sea level rise, which brings with it salinity increases to the soil and hampers cultivation of crops. The erosion pace there is one of the highest in the world, and paired with that, the Sunderbans are also experiencing more intense cyclones and storms that put people, and their way of life, increasingly at risk. The storms and rate of erosion drives people more inward to continue their lives, but that only makes them more prone to tiger attacks. There are also a good number of young people who have moved to nearby Kolkata, and elsewhere, for the attainment of jobs and a more hopeful future. Thus, it’s a place that’s deeply affected by climate change, and also a place where a vast stream of humans migrate out of. It’s also the starting point for the gun merchant’s own journey, for that’s the place where he lost all his belongings, and the people he loved, to a storm. And it’s also the place where he forsakens Manasa Devi, having to escape her wrath.

The human effects, which are largely ignored when stories about climate catastrophes are mentioned, can’t be entirely predicted, or extrapolated, to the future. The worst of those effects depend on how soon governments act to mitigate climate change, which is a scary thought to think about because the most powerful country in the world is doing pretty much nothing. But, nevertheless, climate change mitigation and adaptation cannot be hyperfocused on technological fixes; rather, questions need to be considered that simple technological fixes can never answer for. One question that needs to be answered is the prospect of migrants and refugees who will increasingly flee vulnerable countries because of climate change, and because of violence that can be exacerbated by climate change. For instance, in Syria, droughts that were heightened because of climate change played a hand in the civil war and political violence that occurred there. Which, in a large sense, caused the massive wave of migration that saw the influx of refugees to Europe.

Those questions, on an international stage, have not been answered to a large extent, however. As the Brooking institute makes quite clear, international law right now is not equipped to protect climate migrants, for there are no legally binding agreements that will obligate countries to support climate refugees, This international non-status will basically prompt individual countries to set their own limits on refugee admittance, if they will do at all. And, since there’s a strong rise of nationalistic tendencies that are spreading across Europe and the United States, the future status of these migrants will be all the more precarious. My personal fear, and it’s the biggest one that I have, is that these tendencies, once conservative groups start to actually want to do something about climate change, will make eco-fascism a mainstream ideology, where climate action will depend on excluding people who are deemed as “others.” The latter prospect is terrifying because the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to protect national resources can have disastrous consequences for minorities, be it racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities. We might have already seen those consequences occur in real time last year. Both the Christchurch and El Paso shooters wrote about environmental concerns in their manifestos, and as motivations for carrying out those heinous acts of terrorism. The Christchurch shooter, in particular, wrote extensively about being an Ethno-nationalist Eco-fascism, attempting to reclaim and protect nature by actively halting “overpopulation” by non-Europeans, excluding them from pristine environments made exclusively for white people, and even calling to get rid of enough people to save the Earth. It is this fear of the “great replacement” that causes eco-fascists to rise up and seek to reclaim “their” lands. This type of zealous ideology Ghosh presents in the novel also, and perhaps provides an explanation as to why it’s occurring right now, and how to combat it.

In the novel, when Dean first goes to the Sunderbans, he’s accompanied by the son of a Sunderban villager, her name being Moyna. Moyna’s son’s name is Tipu, and while on the trip, he gets bitten by a king cobra that was hidden deep inside the shrine. Because of that bite, he starts to experience vivid hallucinations, which, as the novel progresses, we learn are visions. Those visions help him predict future events, some of which include warnings to Dean about snakes falling from the sky and coming after him in various countries, and also premonitions about massive die offs of dolphins that he shares anonymously with his adoptive parent, Piya, who’s a marine biologist based in Oregon. Piya, being an astute scientist, doesn’t believe that Tipu became a shaman, sort of to speak, and dismisses his predictions as mere coincidences. Dean also doesn’t want to believe them, but the strange way that those visions come to light makes him reconsider everything about the story of the gun merchant as the novel continues on. Other than the premonitions that Dean is presented with from Tipu, one thing that Dean eventually realizes is that Tipu follows the same exact journey as the gun merchant. Leaving the villages of the Sundarbans, Tipu sails and walks across a path that would hopefully lead him to Italy, attempting to evade various border agents in the process.

This theme of migration, as I’ve already noted, is strong in the novel, but what is most interesting is the right wing resistance to the boat that sails towards Italy from Egypt. As that boat inches closer and closer to the coast, more and more right wing reactionaries sail to confront that wayward boat head on, essentially attempting to pressure the navy to halt it from coming to the country. When Dean realizes that Tipu is on that boat, he’s compelled to go to him, bringing along the many friends and acquaintances that he met along his own journey throughout the novel. He also brings along Piya and Tipu’s romantic partner, Rafi, someone who went on a large portion of the journey with him, and who has already entered Italy. This whole gang of characters rent out their own cruise ship to sail towards the meandering boat, attempting to provide support and change the minds of enough of the citizens of the country. Their prospects are made all the more difficult, however, by the prime minister, someone who’s a nationalistic figure, vowing that the boat of migrants will not even see the coast of the country. But, as Dean and his acquaintances sail towards the boat, and as the right wing reactionaries scream racist expletives and hurl various objects towards them, Dean realizes what these people are intensely afraid of. As he narrates,

“that tiny vessel represented the upending of a centuries old project that has been essential to the shaping of Europe. Beginning with the early days of chattel slavery, the European imperial powers had launched upon the greatest and most cruel experiment in planetary remaking that history has ever known: in the service of commerce, they had transported people among continents on an almost unimaginable scale, ultimately changing the demographic profile of the entire planet. But even as they were repopulating other continents, they had always tried to preserve the whiteness of their own metropolitan territories in Europe. This entire project had now been upended. The systems and technologies that had made those massive demographic interventions possible — ranging from armaments to the control of information — had now achieved escape velocity: they were no longer under anyone’s control. This was why those angry young men were so afraid of that little blue fishing boat: through the prism of this vessel, they could glimpse the unraveling of a centuries-old project that had conferred vast privilege on them in relation to the rest of the world. In their hearts, they knew that their privileges could no longer be assured by the people and institutions they had once trusted to provide for them. The world had changed too much, too fast; the systems that were in control now did not obey any human master; they followed their own imperatives, inscrutable as demons” (Ghosh, page 304–305).

As with the prospect of human migration reaching towards old and pristine environments of whiteness, climate change represents another system that threatens the centuries old project. For, if the “greatest” powers in the world, even after the vast exploitation of natural resources and emissions of greenhouse gasses to power their civilizations by any means necessary, can’t fully tame nature, then how powerful are those countries really? How can the people of those countries shift the blame for climate change on the developing world, when everyone will know the truth of the real culprit for this change? How powerful will those institutions be that reactionaries will seek to rely on to preserve the whiteness of their own countries? For instance, even if those institutions try to promise actual and real forms of political violence on anyone deemed as undesirable to the state, will those actions be carried out if there is enough resistance from good people to fight with, and sometimes for, those “undesirables”? I think Ghosh answers the last question in some part as the novel ends. As he notes, a simple show of solidarity for those undesirables can yield miracles that can change people’s minds. And, an act of resistance can be as small as sharing stories of people who are the most affected by racist policies and sentiments, and as an extension, by climate change. Those stories might even make people in the global north realize that, those people who they have exploited for so long, are entitled to the same spaces as they are, especially because those undesirables’ spaces will be at risk from environmental degradation and climate change that those rich people in the global north have brought on.

Which forces me to answer a question that I’m sure is on everyone’s mind as they are at the tail end of this video: how does any of this — in fact, how does this novel — tell us what climate action looks like? The answer to the question is quite simple, and it’s shown near the end of the novel when the activists are all showing solidarity for the migrants on that little blue fishing boat. The answer is, in fact, that showing of solidarity, that act of resistance which beckons the navy to let the migrants into the country as asylum seekers. That action is precisely a form of climate action because it paves the way for refugees to receive their rights. Thus, in essence, fighting for migrant rights is acting on climate change, especially since climate change will cause huge amounts of people to be unfairly displaced from their homes, either because of natural disasters, or because of political violence that can stem from those disasters. In addition to fighting for migrants rights, fighting for workers rights is fighting for climate action also, along with fighting for queer rights, for Indigenous rights, and for racial equality among other things. The fight for climate action is an intersectional fight that spans across many additional battles, and it all ends in one place: making the world a better place for everyone in it. And, that’s something that Ghosh realizes to a large extent in his novel.

I think it’s interesting that Dean is compelled to action simply because of a story that seems tremendously mystical, but is very real at the same time. Remember, it’s the story of the gun merchant that directly caused him to meet Tipu, and it’s through that story where he learns to care for him and his partner, Rafi. The story of the gun merchant is also a story that forces him to realize the insanity of everything that’s going on around him — the insanity that is climate change and the denialism and delay that stops any real action. As his friend Cinta tells him:

“Everyone knows what must be done if the world is to continue to be a liveable place, if our homes are not to be invaded by the sea, or by creatures like that spider. Everybody knows…and yet we are powerless, even the most powerful among us. We go about our daily business through habit, as though we were in the grip of forces that have overwhelmed our will; we see shocking and monstrous things happening all around us and we avert our eyes; we surrender ourselves willingly to whatever it is that has us in its power…

…This is why whatever’s happening to you is not ‘possession’. Rather I would say that it is…a kind of awakening. It may be dangerous of course, but that is because you are waking up to things that you have never imagined or sensed before. You are lucky Dino — some unknown force has given you a great gift” (Ghosh, Pg. 237).

It is a story that forces him to finally pay attention to what is going wrong with the planet, to fully see the effects of climate change in real time, to pay attention to them. Before then, he was merely distant from those changes, a privilege that he had because he wasn’t among the many millions of people who see the climate changing around them, sensing it every day, and being compelled to leave because of it. Only the story of the gun merchant woke him up, pressuring him to go on his own journey to gun island (which is a reference to Italy from the tale), and to finally gain witness. A story was the vessel that taught him all of that, and it forced him to change his mindset because of it.

This is one of the reasons why I loved this book so much. Other than showing how climate change was connected to a human phenomenon, this book also showed the power of story. It showed how a compelling tale can share a tremendous amount of history, and also how that tale can change the narratives that surround a person, narratives that cause a certain mindset in them. Which brings me to another reason as to why this book answers the question of what climate action looks like. Climate action is also the action of sharing stories, and not just of the phenomenon itself. To act on climate change, we must share the stories of people who are affected by it, and maybe even more furiously, people who are persisting against the effects of climate change — the ones who are forcing governments to act, or who are refusing to lay down and die by leaving places where they call home to continue on with their lives. And, it is the jobs of people who are privileged to listen to those stories and share them, and to allow them to change our minds. And who knows, maybe those stories can change the minds of a bunch of climate Chads also.

A student of Environmental Science who tends to write about the intersection of climate change and storytelling.