Review: The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh has a story to tell. It’s the story of how we entered a planetary crisis – climate change, extinction, war, division – but it is not necessarily the familiar version of that story. It begins on the Banda Islands in what is now Indonesia in 1621. It was then that one night in April Dutch governor Martin Sonck saw a lamp fall in the dark and had his men open fire on the village around him. The event was part of a wider campaign to wrest control of the islands from the Bandanese and gain control of the nutmeg trade. At the same time, Europeans were exterminating Indigenous populations in the Americas and replacing them with enslaved Africans, and would soon attempt the same in Australia. Later capitalism would arise to prop up these structures of power and deepen the exploitation of land and people while spreading them around the world.

In the present, Ghosh writes from his New York home under lockdown in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no coincidence, he writes, that the people worst affected by the virus in places like the US are Black and Indigenous people, and equally no coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement gathered steam following the murder of George Flloyd during the pandemic. He becomes entranced by these historical rhymes as he researches from his desk, finds that “two nonhuman entities, the internet and the coronavirus … had come together to create a ghostly portal to transport me … to the Banda Islands”.

If it all sounds a bit weird, dare I say, a bit new age, strap in, because Ghosh is going even stranger places. Through the nutmeg Ghosh spins an ever-widening weave, finding in it the origins of colonialiasm and imperialism that have shaped the world over the past five centuries. The trading networks and power imbalances that were formed in this time, Ghosh argues, are the same that have enabled the exploitation of fossil fuels, heating the planet and sending us down a new and deranged path. Ghosh suggests that we suffer in the West from the myth that “the modern era … has freed humanity from the Earth … human-made goods take precendence over natural products” but in reality we are “more dependent on on botanical matter than we were three hundred years ago” thanks to our dependence on fossil fuels.

Ghosh’s fundamental argument is that we cannot understand the present state of the planet without understanding the origins of these power structures. So far, so uncontroversial. More spiritedly, he argues that our attempts to explain the planetary crisis through an economic lens, and particularly a Marxist economic lens, do not get to the heart of the problem. This is a challenge to anyone who would see class politics and revolution as a primary tool in doing something about our crises, but Ghosh is persuasive, tracing the linkages between empires, trade and war, with a particularly eye-opening look at the linkages between fossil fuels and conflict. “Capitalism is, and always has been, a war economy,” he writes:

It is easier to talk about abstract economic systems than it is to address racism, imperialism, and the structures of organised violence that sustain global hierarchies.

Ghosh’s boldest and most liberatory proposition though is to look at this entire history as an epistemic conflict, or a “biopolitical war” between different ways of understanding the planet and the nonhuman entities we share it with. He traces this conflict once again from the Bandas, where the volcanoes are imbued with agency of their own and it would be perfectly obvious to people that the land, water and nonhuman lifeforms were active participants in history. “The mechanistic vision of the world had only just begun to take shape,” Ghosh writes in considering the colonisation of the Americas and the slave trade:

it was the rendering of humans into mute resources that enabled the metaphysical leap whereby the Earth and everything in it could also be reduced to inertness.

Even as modern, industrialist Europeans were distancing themselves from “vitalist” ways of seeing the world they understood them implicitly, Ghosh argues, knowing that to take control of new lands they would have to destroy “the entire web of nonhuman connections that sustained a certain way of life”, which he brilliantly analyses through the science fiction concept of terraforming: “the frame of world-as-resource, in which landscapes (or planets) comes to be regarded as factories”. Moreover our fundamental ways of understanding the world, particularly the sciences, were borne from these same historical events and are hopelessly entangled with them. The result is that these ideas, of vitalism or animism or whatever you want to call them, are “a violation of one of the most powerful taboos of official modernity”.

I was raised on a bed of secular, scientific inquiry: the gentle words of David Attenborough, the fiery polemics of Richard Dawkins, and many others (not coincidentally most of them old white guys). Reading Ghosh’s argument I felt a kind of bristling as I felt my supposedly rational and objective worldview tensing. Ghosh is by no means a scientific sceptic or an anti-science conspiracist; indeed he pays tribute to the climate scientists who have helped us understand what on earth is going in. He is arguing though that we’re only getting half the story. Some of his most powerful arguments centre on his reporting on European migrants and refugees, many of them displaced by events compounded by climate change. Climate change is a war, Ghosh argues, but one that is “more akin to the biopolitical wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” and we will not understand it or begin to address it unless we understand that history. There is an inherent possibility to this story, and Ghosh explores what a “vitalist politics” might look like with more optimism than you often find in discussions of the planetary crisis.

If it sometimes feels that Ghosh is painting his brushstrokes a little broadly, drawing his bows a little long, that may be forgivable in the context of his broader purpose. That purpose is the story. Western thought, Ghosh calls it “scientism”, has become so reduced to facts as narrowly defined and numbers that we have become blind to other possibilities. “What is of the utmost urgency at this time,” Ghosh argues, “is to find points of convergence on Earth-related issues between people whose concerns, approaches, life experiences, and identities that may otherwise be completely different”. His argument gets to the core of what stories are. They are not, or not merely, factual. Stories have moral dimensions. They provide meaning. They are playful and sometimes only through the freedom of play can uncover new relationships. Above all they are alive. Ghosh quotes Yanomami activist Davi Kopenawa on the pitfalls of Westerners’ written language:

this way they just stare at their own thoughts and only end up knowing what is already inside their minds. Their paper skins do not speak and do not think. They are simply there, inert, with their black drawings and their lies.

Reading this book is like throwing open a window and letting in some light. Who knows what might sprout from the darkness.

Gay rating: not gay.

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