Much work on climate change focuses on the policy-making strategies needed to prevent the crisis from worsening. In his new book, JThe Curse of the Nutmeg: Parables for a Planet in Crisisacclaimed Indian writer Amitav Ghosh argues that resolving the planetary crisis requires an ideological shift away from the colonialist view that the Earth exists only to satisfy human needs.
Published last year by University of Chicago Press, the book uses the story of the nutmeg as a parable of today’s global climate crisis. The curse of the nutmeg delves into the history of the spice and its impact on the Banda Islands, a group of tiny, isolated islands that are now part of Indonesia. In the 17th century, the Dutch colonized the archipelago, which at the time was the only source of nutmeg in the world. In 1621, when the inhabitants of the Banda Islands refused to grant exclusive trading rights to the Dutch, the Dutch government entrusted the colonial governor of the islands with the task of eliminating the native population and ensuring a stable supply of this lucrative commodity. .
Far from being confined to a bygone era, the extractive logic of the Dutch colonial authorities is, according to Ghosh, as alive as the way many Westerners today treat the land. Ghosh writes in the book that the fate of the Banda Islands could be read as a “model for the present”, as humanity increasingly depends on products from the Earth. He writes that we are “completely dependent on energy” and that this energy comes from plant materials such as coal, natural gas and petroleum. He believes that our modern extraction of Earth’s resources can be traced back to European settlers and philosophers who rendered the Earth and everything on it inert.
“I think climate change is a very deeply rooted issue in the past,” Ghosh said in an interview with Brown. He searches historical sources to trace the origin of the problem. Ghosh traces the ideological history of how humans have viewed the Earth over the centuries, citing a wide range of sources, including the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ancient Greek mythology, and Native American legends. Over the past few centuries, Ghosh notes, a mechanistic view of Earth has emerged, one that treats its dynamic ecologies as a place of extraction.
Ghosh quotes the poem “High Flight,” written by young Canadian-American pilot John Gillespie Magee in 1941, shortly before his death. Magee romanticized the feeling of flight, writing, “Oh, I slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the skies on silvery wings.” Ghosh focuses on this excerpt because “few poems have settled so firmly into the heart of American culture as ‘High Flight’.”
For Ghosh, the language of the poem says as much about the poet’s attitude towards the earth as his attitude towards the experience of flight and demonstrates an “unconscious ideology”.
“Rarely does anyone stop to ask: what exactly is ‘snarling’ in Earth Bonds?” he writes. “Or why should the planet be considered a home from which humans would have the chance to escape? What can be said of such a point of view except that it overflows from a simple contempt for the Earth into an active hatred for it?
Ghosh observes the same disregard for the soil on which we are born in a variety of Western historical and cultural contexts:
“I think these mechanistic ideas about the world as a clock or the world as a machine stem from this process of subjugating the Americas,” Ghosh said. Brown. “The elite of Europe persuaded themselves that they were the conquerors and the masters of all… The Earth was dead; most humans were half animals. He pointed to English writer Rudyard Kipling, who described non-white humans as “half devil, half child”, and sadly noted Kipling’s largely undisputed status as a literary touchstone.
Ghosh is an acclaimed writer whose novels (including the Ibis Trilogy and Gun Island) and works of non-fiction (including The Great Disruption: Climate Change and the Unthinkable) won him the 54th Jnanpith Prize in 2018, India’s most respected literary honor. He earned a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University.
His training as a social scientist is evident throughout the book, as Ghosh ultimately pleads that society must “let non-human voices back into our stories.” In the midst of a global environmental crisis, Ghosh believes, we must recognize that the Earth has its own voice. From the Greek myth of Gaia to “the oldest living history told by man” – an Australian indigenous creation story on the Budj Bim volcano – the inhabitants of the Earth have for centuries given the Earth agency and vitality in the stories. Ghosh laments the absence of this mode of storytelling nowadays, in works of fiction and non-fiction.
It’s not just ancient myths that give him pause for thought about the “voice” of the natural world. Ghosh notes in the book that scientists have now shown that trees can communicate with each other. Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrated that plants experience sensations similar to pain and fear in the 1910s. Ghosh writes in the book that other experiments conducted in the modern era have proven that trees “can send help, in the form of carbon, to sick members of their party” and can “warn each other of plague and disease”.
Western science, however, has always been slow to embrace these findings – Bose was derided by many of his Western contemporaries as a charlatan. The scientific community’s reluctance to take non-human lives seriously is a source of frustration for Ghosh, who writes, “Couldn’t we say that for a tree, it’s the human who is dumb? This shift in perspective, according to Ghosh, is an essential part of tackling climate change.
To regain that respect and love for our planet, Ghosh said Brown, “universities should take the lead in introducing these issues to young people….The planetary crisis should be present in everything people do…be it history or science.” The global crisis is something that needs to be addressed immediately, and Amitav Ghosh points out that an ideological shift that recognizes Earth agency is needed to address the climate issue with the attention it needs.