environment Reviews

‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’ review: Listening to nature’s voice

Amitav Ghosh opens The Nutmeg’s Curse with soldiers from the Dutch East India Company unleashing their savagery on the people of the Banda Islands in the 17th century. Bandanese chiefs were mercilessly massacred, and the extermination of the people lasted 18 years, with “not a vestige of their language or peculiar customs” remaining.

Ghosh then moves from Indonesia to the heinous crimes of genocide of Native Americans in North America. His polemic links settler colonialism and its barbaric values to the sustained culture of domination and destruction of the land and people. For over three centuries, Europeans and Native Americans fought a “total war” in which “races, cultures, worldviews and ecosystems were pitted against each other”. In 1550, Charles V of Spain held a conference at Valladolid to resolve whether Amerindians had souls, but the question remained unsettled.

White man’s burden

Colonialists’ claim to the “savage”, “wild” and “vacant” land laid the seeds of climate change, believes Ghosh.

Since the 16th century, the ideology of conquest has been built on the belief that white Europeans are superior to the natives in intelligence, culture, and language; these theories have been strengthened and celebrated by poets, philosophers and thinkers (e.g., Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Bacon, Francis Galton) and manifested as part of the colonial zeitgeist.

Ghosh describes all this in his now familiar lyrical, slightly melancholic, picaresque style. In this gripping read, a tour de force, his words are sharp, avenging, and often find their mark. The terraforming colonial project has been extended across the planet, which has become a resource to be devoured. What would it be like to live on earth as if it were Gaia, a living, vital entity, Ghosh wonders? Native Americans lived like that and believed that their landscapes were alive.

Ghosh seeks a global politics of ‘vitalism’ — the belief that living beings have a vital force. With storytelling at the core, vitalism is built around the landscape, imbued with meaning, and its politics encompasses different elements of performance and participation, occupation and alternative modes of dwelling (as in Gandhi’s ashram). Recent examples of vitalist politics are the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, and protests at the Dakota Pipeline.

Science and reason

Ghosh’s thesis can stand on its own without some of his gratuitous potshots at science and scientists. Interpreting nature requires varied language, including that of science. The articles and reviews by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change include papers about local global warming experiences by farmers and fishers, which are not being ignored in the pursuit of climate models. But numbers too are crucial, not a fog. Ignore them, and you will silence reason along with the voices of nature and landscapes. We also know that vitalism gone overboard can sink into superstition and we must be well aware of the dangers of that.

Ghosh writes, “there exists no other sphere of contemporary life in which there is so great an overlap between a phenomenon and the credentialed literature that frames it.” He goes on to say that not just economists but ordinary people speak and write about the economy. Presumably, he might add that both farmers and scientists have views about growing crops. Why don’t ordinary people play a more prominent role in climate conversations? But he seems to forget that climate change will express itself over multiple generations well into the future and we are barely beginning to see its impacts.

He follows the story of migrants who have been undertaking the arduous journey to Europe in increasing numbers.

Surprisingly, he finds that a good proportion of them are from Bangladesh and tries to uncover the reasons for their migration. He follows the life of one young man, ‘Khokon’ from Kishoreganj district, who he meets in Parma, Italy. Khokon describes his oppressive life, which was overlaid with one disaster after the other. He undertook a nightmare of a journey, having to pay large sums to traffickers for their arrangements. But when asked why he had migrated, was it climate change, he resolutely points to other troubles: political violence, the bad job scene, family problems and aspirations for better living standards. And the new communications technologies made it convenient for him to connect with traffickers.

Polarised view

Ghosh falls into the familiar but now dated polarised thinking on the social and the natural sciences. Assuming that natural scientists are positivists, that they equate their models with reality, is a common mistake. True, the natural sciences originated with a view to gain mastery over nature, but even anthropology has dubious origins as a knowledge-collecting enterprise to spy for colonial powers.

The prevailing ‘social constructivist’ tendency in the social sciences has pivoted around an obsession with epistemology. While thumbing one’s nose at scientism might be valid, when the planet is facing climate change, we cannot dismiss scientists’ understanding and their estimates. Ghosh and some in the humanities and social sciences now try to perform the indelicate dance of mistakenly accusing climate scientists and their scientism, but he personally, perhaps condescendingly, admires scientists for their courage! While the upswell of vitalism has lifted Greta Thunberg, her success, he believes, is despite her mantra, “listen to the scientists”. Harken to the words spoken by nature, Ghosh says. Therein lies the wisdom to address climate change.

The Nutmeg’s Curse; Amitav Ghosh, Penguin Random House, ₹599.

The reviewer is a scientist who lives in Chennai.


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