By Sara Patterson
Renowned historian and Humanities scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty was elected as a Corresponding Fellow to the British Academy—the highest honor for an academic not based in the United Kingdom. Much of his career has focused on rethinking working-class history in Bengal, considering how postcolonial thought has provincialized Europe, and examining the habitations of modernity through subaltern studies.
Since 2009, however, in several published articles and books, Chakrabarty has written about a fundamental problem: Why is it so difficult for human beings to respond to climate change?
“It is very interesting and puzzling that we are not doing enough to combat climate change,” said Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College at UChicago. “It is a tragic problem that human beings cannot change their attachments and respond more adequately to a dire problem. The more cities get hotter, the more we turn up our air conditioners. I look at this problem as an historian, not as an activist, technologist, or philosopher. I have a general hope that human beings will learn, but it may not happen without humanity paying the costs.”
Chakrabarty entered the climate change arena through a “happy accident.” The editor of UChicago’s journal Critical Inquiry, W. J. T. Mitchell, was short of articles for the Winter 2009 issue and asked Chakrabarty if he had an article that could be published. He did, in fact, have one published in a Bengali journal about “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” which Chakrabarty said had “sank without a trace” there. For the readers of Critical Inquiry, however, “The Climate of History” resonated and has become one of the most downloaded articles in its 50-year history.
“I vividly recall when Dipesh asked me to read the manuscript that became ‘The Climates of History,’ which was breathtaking,” said Bill Brown, the Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the College and coeditor of Critical Inquiry at UChicago. “This historian who had been such a central figure in subaltern studies and postcolonial studies, who had provincialized Europe so powerfully, was now provincializing the global to perceive the planetary. With a unique command of multiple fields, Dipesh keeps posing the most fundamental questions of our time. How can we think through the tension between the distinct human worlds we inhabit and the planet we share—far beyond the human?”
In “The Climate of History,” Chakrabarty’s breakthrough proposition was those anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the traditional humanist distinction between natural history and human history. He asks the relevant question: “How does the crisis of climate change appeal to our sense of human universals while challenging at the same time our capacity for historical understanding?”
“For a long time, climate change was seen as a scientific question,” said Benjamin Morgan, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the College at UChicago. “But Dipesh Chakrabarty understood that climate change was not just a scientific problem; it forced us to rethink the difference between history and geology. The idea that human activity could divert the history of the planet meant that we had to fundamentally reconsider how we drew the boundaries between the sciences and the humanities. That insight inaugurated a new era of scholarship.”
While Chakrabarty has continued to explore significant milestones in history in books such as “The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth” (2015), several recent books continue probing the climate crisis: “The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary Histories” (2018), “The Climate of History in a Planetary Age” (2021), and “One Planet, Many Worlds: The Climate Parallax” (2023). His thoughts on climate change have spread globally with “The Climate of History in a Planetary Age” being translated into German, French, and Spanish, with Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese translations forthcoming. A Polish anthology of his essays will be published by Universitas Publishing House, Kraków, Poland, in October 2023.
Chakrabarty lauds his UChicago colleagues for nurturing his work on climate change, particularly W. J. T. Mitchell and Bill Brown in the Department of English Language and Literature. During his 28-year tenure at UChicago, he is grateful for the university’s commitment to research and encouragement of new ideas and the generosity of his colleagues such as James Chandler (English Language and Literature) who has been a close interlocutor and often guided Chakrabarty in his reading of poetry, and productive, lively conversations with Lauren Berlant (English Language and Literature, now deceased), Daniel Morgan (Cinema and Media Studies), Fredric Jonsson, Elizabeth Chatterjee (History), Clifford Ando (Classics), Andrew Ollett and Ulrike Stark (South Asian Languages and Civilizations), Neil Brenner (Sociology), Lisa Wedeen and Jennifer Pitts (Political Science), William Mazzarella (Anthropology), Michael Greenstone (Economics), and Robert Pippin (Social Thought and Philosophy).
“Dipesh Chakrabarty has played a decisive role in making the Anthropocene a crucial category for scholars concerned about the human impact on the planet,” said Victoria Saramago, associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and the College at UChicago. “From the collapse of the distinction between human history and natural history to the task of imagining how to live in ‘an order that is not necessarily human dominant,’ Chakrabarty’s work possesses the rare ability to encapsulate and shape some of the most urgent questions, ideas and anxieties stemming from the ecological crisis across a wide range of disciplines and intellectual traditions.”
Among his many awards, Chakrabarty has received the Toynbee Foundation Prize in 2014 for his contributions to global history; the Tagore Memorial Prize in 2019 from the Government of West Bengali for “The Crises of Civilization;” and the Jadunath Sarkar Memorial Gold Medal in 2021 from the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He is a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
His forthcoming book projects include an Oxford University Press “Handbook on Cosmopolitanism” coedited with Lisa Wedeen, Sanjay Seth, and Prathama Banerjee; a book the 250th anniversary of Indian social reformer Rammohun Roy coedited with Tanika Sarkar and Rosinka Chaudhuri under consideration by Cambridge University Press; and a book expanding on the idea of “planetary life” under changed climatic conditions.
For his legacy, Chakrabarty has explored and analyzed multiple historical and humanitarian topics, but his work on climate change may prove to be the most enduring. As he wrote in “The Climate of History”: “For ultimately, what the warming of the planet threatens is not the geological planet itself but the very conditions, both biological and geological, on which the survival of human life as developed in the Holocene period depends.” He hopes a critical mass of human beings will awaken their spirit of engagement and activism to combat the climate crises.