According to Amitav Ghosh, the literary world has failed to respond to the existential threat of climate change. His starting point is clear: “the climate crisis is…a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” Known for his great historical novels (notably the recent Ibis trilogy), in this book Ghosh reflects on his own craft and finds writers complicit in the continuing concealment of global warming.

This short and punchy book is made up of three loosely connected essays. The first focuses on Ghosh’s core concern of literary fiction. He then turns to another great narrative tradition, that of history, and the way in which climate change forces us to rethink our past. The final section focuses on ways to embolden our political response.

For Ghosh, the modern novel is stuck in a rut where Nature is seen as forever passive, a mere backdrop for human drama. What climate change does, he argues, is to dispel this illusion and restore a vital agency to Nature. Ghosh’s own experience in his ancestral Bengal, with its shifting rivers and floods, makes him conclude that the land “is demonstrably alive” and “is itself a protagonist”. For him, the great peculiarity of the modern age is the belief that the planet is inert. Like C.P. Snow in his earlier identification of industrial society divided into two cultures – one scientific and the other artistic – Ghosh also sees a fundamental rupture, with Nature consigned to sciences, forever off limits to the world of culture.

Of course, this omission of climate from the world of the novel is not complete. Indeed, there are the beginnings of a new trend in climate fiction (cli-fi). Ghosh himself cites a range of English-language writers who have engaged powerfully with global warming, notably Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Barbara Kingsolver and Ian McEwan. Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World, is perhaps the most spectacular, as it set out the terrifying impact on the human mind of runaway climate change decades before the issue had hit the headlines. In Kingsolver’s deeply moving Flight Behaviour, the monarch butterfly becomes a key character in a world where “sensible seasons had come undone.”

Yet the invisibility of climate change in the vast bulk of novels speaks to two deeper and more fundamental fault lines. The first is the cultural turning in literature away from collective experience – the kind of engagement that produced works such as John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In the 20th century, the rupture caused by the combination of brute capitalism and empire not only prompted a literary outpouring, but also stimulated efforts to reconnect literature with the world of the dispossessed. For the Bengali poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore, this meant building from scratch an international university at Santiniketan and then seeking to drive rural reconstruction at nearby Sriniketan.

Just as problematic is the second fault line, which lies deep within our human psychology. As George Marshall and Per Espen Stoknes have argued in their insightful books on how we think about climate change, the conventional way we conceive of global warming is fundamentally at odds with what motivates us. We are driven by things that are urgent and close by, but climate change is continually presented as distant in time and space. Add to this the wilful mischief of the climate deniers, the obscure language of climate science and a visual framing in terms of telegenic polar bears, and it is perhaps no surprise that novelists have stayed silent.

In light of all this, a question that Ghosh does not ask but that now seems pressing is, what would it take to produce climate literature with the equivalent cultural impact of earlier classics? Who will write the novel that encapsulates the generational breaking of climate change similar to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in 19th-century Russia? Likewise, what will inspire the invention of a polemical morality tale about climate change as universal as George Orwell’s Animal Farm? We can easily imagine a tale of heroic struggle against fossil fuel infrastructure as passionate as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. (‘A Farewell to Fossils’, perhaps?) But it has yet to be written. Equally, we still lack a compassionate account of the loss felt by coal communities as their industry collapses, which could historically bookend Emile Zola’s great novel of coal mining, Germinal.

The place where we should perhaps look for this literature is in Asia. Ranging beyond the narrow world of the novel, Ghosh uses the essays on history and politics to trace the centrality of Asia to the climate crisis. Here the shadow of empire looms large. Of course, it was the nations of Europe and North America that first used coal and then oil on an industrial scale, in the process building up an ‘ecological debt’ to the rest of humanity. But it was in China that coal was first used widely, and in Burma that oil first became commercialised, creating the foundations for one of the world’s largest multinationals, Burmah-Shell. What prevented these first forays from flourishing, according to Ghosh, was imperial exploitation.

This delayed the great acceleration in Asia’s emissions, which not only is now creating an “airpocalypse” across the cities of China and India, but also has become the major driver of global carbon emissions. In addition, Ghosh’s Bengali heritage makes him particularly alert to Asia’s acute vulnerability to climate shocks. Nearly half the world’s people depend on the Himalayas for water – a source that is now threatened by the melting of its glaciers. The partial inundation of just one island in Bangladesh has led to the displacement of more than half a million people.

For Asia, this creates a painful lesson. Just as its populations embark on the path of resource-intensive industrialisation, they learn that “the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practised by a small minority.” More than this, the prevailing logic of unfettered market freedom is wholly unsuited to solving this crisis. As Ghosh writes, “at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike.”

This conundrum creates the need for a fresh ethical strategy, not just for the likes of China and India, but for the world as a whole. Here, Ghosh turns to religion as a source of inspiration. He praises Pope Francis’s Laudato si for the way in which it draws on a faith tradition that far predates the carbon economy to first challenge the idea of infinite growth and then insist that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach.”

The Great Derangement is clearly not Ghosh’s final word on the clash of climate and culture. By urging us to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, he points the way to a resurgent literature that builds a new kinship with the rest of creation. In this way, we can begin what a character in The Drowned World foretold: the “careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance”.

Nick Robins is co-director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s inquiry into the design of a sustainable financial system, author of The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational, and a Resurgence Trustee.