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Amitav Ghosh explores the hidden history of climate change

 Amitav Ghosh speaks to Lounge about colonialism, capitalism, the climate crisis and his new book, ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’

Author Amitav Ghosh's new book, The Nutmeg's Curse, is out now.
Author Amitav Ghosh's new book, The Nutmeg's Curse, is out now. (Mint)

There’s a haunting line in Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables For A Planet In Crisis that stayed with me long after I had finished reading the book: “...The climactic changes of our era are nothing other than the Earth’s response to four centuries of terraforming...” Terraforming isn’t a word you would normally associate with Earth. It resides in the realms of science fiction, where planets are often colonised and “terraformed” to recreate Earth-like conditions. But as Ghosh writes in The Nutmeg’s Curse, the word didn’t just enter the lexicon out of nowhere. After all, for centuries, European colonial powers have actively invaded and recast, from the ground up and through unimaginable violence, the very biomes of entire landmasses. In Ghosh’s urgent and acutely-aware new non-fiction book, the climate crisis takes the shape of the planetary system striking back at a process of colonialism, appropriation and extraction that has been going on since the 15th century.

The Nutmeg’s Curse, which is out this month, is a successor of sorts to 2016’s The Great Derangement, the book where Ghosh first engaged with climate change. If that book worked through the writer’s own growing horror at the paradigm-shifting threat of the climate crisis, The Nutmeg’s Curse is a forensic examination of how we got here, and the myths we need to debunk if we are to avert catastrophe. Not surprisingly, a proper study of the reasons behind rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere, and the resulting galloping increase in global average temperatures, inevitably leads to the twin pillars of Western modernity: colonialism and capitalism. As Ghosh narrates the story, a clear line of causality emerges, beginning with the genocidal European push for resource and empire 600 years ago, to the horrific present of wildfires, cyclones, melting Arctic ice and all the other markers of the climate catastrophe. 

Also Read: How climate change is changing the Indian monsoon

The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables For A Planet In Crisis by Amitav Ghosh. Penguin Random House,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables For A Planet In Crisis by Amitav Ghosh. Penguin Random House, 599

He begins the narrative with the story of the humble nutmeg, a planet-shaped fruit that had grown (and was traded) for centuries in the volcanic Banda Islands in the Indian Ocean. Before, that is, Europeans developed an appetite for it, its value skyrocketed, and the inevitable colonial project (the Dutch, in this case) laid waste to the islands and destroyed its people, the Bandanese, in a generation, just to profit from the nutmeg. The other big focus of the book is the English colonisation of North America: the project’s centuries-long brutality, its systematic erasure of a landscape and peoples and how that led to the industrial-military hegemony of the US. 

This fact, Ghosh argues, combined with the rise of the petrodollar economy, global maritime fossil fuel networks guarded by the US military, and the geopolitical power of Middle Eastern petro states, constitutes the hidden history of climate change. The Nutmeg’s Curse, in many ways, is a culmination of Ghosh’s long engagement with the history of the Indian Ocean and the ways that colonialism completely transformed the world in the space of just a few centuries. 

Also Read: How climate change is wrecking the Himalaya

Ghosh joined me on a Zoom call from the US for a conversation about colonialism, capitalism and the nature of the planetary catastrophe we are facing today. Edited excerpts:

How did The Nutmeg’s Curse come about?

I have been writing about the Indian Ocean in one way or another for a very long time, and I have always wanted to visit the Banda Islands. They are very hard to get to, as they are a long way from anywhere. It finally became possible and I visited Maluku in 2016. And even though I knew a fair amount about the history of the Indian Ocean, I really did not know about what had happened there. Perhaps it’s because it happened so long ago, some 400 years ago. I also didn’t know about it because it’s not really written about or spoken about. 

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It sort of just lodged in my head and I knew I wanted to write about it. And during the pandemic, suddenly I saw a sort of coherence between many different ideas, many things that I had been thinking about for a long time, and it all sort of came together. I started writing this book about the 10th of March, writing almost in a feverish way really. I was also reading a lot. I was reading maniacally, at one point two or three books a day. 

In the book, you write about the capitalist and colonialist discourse of looking at Earth as something inert, which frames the world purely as resource, robbing environments and people who live in them of agency. How did you make these connections?

I think being in the Banda Islands certainly crystallised it. But of course we have been seeing this everywhere, very much in India as well. If you look at the protests in Niyamgiri in Odisha, it’s exactly the same story. These forest people were really the conservators of the forests. They were the conservators of the hills and the mountains, which were sacred to them. And then mining companies come in to extract bauxite, which is one of the most destructive forms of mining, where you remove an entire mountain to extract some bauxite. The people who have really been struggling to save these forests and save these mountains are the poorest, most vulnerable people in India. Who is defending Earth today? It’s so often just the poorest and most vulnerable people who have this incredible apparatus of state power ranged against them.

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Why do you suppose this colonialist view of land and people, and this need to terraform, still remains such a tantalising idea? Is it related to the idea of “omnicide” (the urge to destroy everything) that you write about in the book?

Yes, I think it absolutely is. And of course it starts, as with so many of these long-term historical vectors, with the colonisation of the Americas. When the English colonised North America, their whole project was to remake the landscape in the image of England. That’s why they called it New England, that’s why you have so many places named after England. It was a monumental project. It meant creating these networks of dams, and the project just went on until really the mid-20th century. But they kept building these huge dams in the Midwest. And now we see that what is actually happening is that the environment has woken up and it’s striking back. 

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A 19th century political cartoon depicting the cruelties and injustices meted out to Native Americans by the US.
A 19th century political cartoon depicting the cruelties and injustices meted out to Native Americans by the US. (Getty Images)

See, that’s the difference between English colonialism in the Americas and English colonialism in India. In India too there was a certain amount of terraforming. For example, the entire region around Bombay was completely terraformed. Bombay was just six or seven islands and a large parts of these islands only appeared above water during low tide. But Bombay was terraformed into a peninsula. That’s exactly why we see the vulnerability of Bombay today. 

But at the same time, if someone went to central India today and they went 600 years ago, the landscape would not be unrecognisable. Whereas, if someone visited North America 600 years ago, and came back today, the landscape would be completely unrecognisable. The same is true of Australia, New Zealand, etc. In India, the terraforming was not done on that scale. But that’s exactly what our governments and private entrepreneurs are intent on doing now. 

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The conquest of the Americas, with its centuries-long genocidal wars against the indigenous people, and, as you write, also against non-human entities like animals, plants, entire biomes, is this huge moral stain in the past of the US. Is this, and the relationship between this history and climate change, well understood in the US?

I would say there are many, many thinkers in the US, many university people who understand this. Indigenous scholars, especially Native American scholars in America, have been saying all of this for generations, going back to the 19th century. But has that awareness been brought together into a coherent narrative? I don’t think it ever has. Americans really don’t understand so many aspects of what the existence of American power in the world entails. For example, the ways in which American power is enmeshed with fossil fuels, I think that is something that’s almost never spoken about over here. I never see it.

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Within the Western discourse, climate change is almost always spoken about as a technological and scientific thing. Whereas to anyone from Asia it’s perfectly clear that climate change is primarily a political reality. 

So when we talk about the historical emissions of the US, we are in effect also talking about this history of violence that made it possible.

It’s a connection that is never made, and yet it is the elephant in the room. I sometimes think that because so much of this discourse of climate change comes out of universities, it takes a certain shape and a certain form. Within university culture there is an aversion to sort of confronting the violence as such. And therefore this aspect of a history of extreme violence and how that has led to this moment in time becomes obscured. 

The present global discourse is one of endless growth. Even when talking about shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the underlying narrative remains the same, with the talk of “green growth”. Is endless growth and stopping climate change compatible?

Let me say first of all that there is no such thing as green growth. The whole idea has been debunked again and again and again. We have to accept that. I think the only promising trajectory or agenda for the future is de-growth. I do see interesting stuff published on that, by, for example, Jason Hickel, who’s an anthropologist, and there are many people thinking along these lines. I should also add that the phrase “planetary crisis” is something that I have borrowed from the writer Alex Steffen, who has been using it for a long time. These ideas are out there and I think de-growth is something that we absolutely have to think about. 

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There again you see the nature of our derangement. Because even people who are very well aware of the nature of the planetary crisis, like for example (the economist) Paul Krugman, even he just cannot let go of this idea of perpetual growth. These systems (of thought) have become so much enmeshed in this machine of perpetual growth that it’s hard to see how you get them off that machine.

This brings me back to your earlier book, The Great Derangement, where you argued for modern fiction to start addressing climate change. Can telling stories about nature, as indigenous communities have long done, move us away from the view of Earth as an inert resource and give the planet back its “vitalism”?

I see a lot of fiction where already this is happening. I would call it a kind of vitalist fiction that we see all around us. I would also say that the reason why it must be done in fiction is because it can’t be done anywhere else. Historians can’t do it. They are tied to a kind of rationalist imaginary. Economists can’t do it. It has to be storytellers of various kinds. And it is happening. We are finally seeing it all around us, more and more, a kind of awakening after a long, long period of delusion.

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