A Planet in Crisis

Amitav Ghosh explores the relationship between colonialist ideology and our global climate crisis in The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.

By Matthew Doss

Many works on climate change focus on the policy-making strategies necessary to prevent the crisis from worsening. In his new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, the much-lauded Indian writer Amitav Ghosh argues that addressing the planetary crisis requires an ideological shift away from the colonialist view that the Earth only exists to satisfy human needs.


Published last year by the University of Chicago Press, the book uses the history of nutmeg as a parable for the global climate crisis of today. The Nutmeg’s Curse 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. During the 17th century, the Dutch colonized the archipelago, which at the time was the only source of nutmeg in the world. In 1621, when inhabitants of the Banda Islands refused to grant exclusive trade rights to the Dutch, the Dutch government assigned the Islands’ colonial governor the task of wiping out the native population and ensuring a stable supply of this lucrative commodity.


Far from being confined to a bygone era, the extractive logic of Dutch colonial authorities is, according to Ghosh, as alive and well in the way many of today’s Westerners treat the earth. Ghosh writes in the book that the Banda Islands’ fate could be read as a “template for the present,” as humanity is increasingly reliant on Earth’s products. He writes that we are “completely dependent on energy” and that this energy comes from botanical matter such as coal, natural gas, and oil. He believes that our modern extraction of the Earth’s resources can be traced back to European colonists and philosophers who rendered the Earth and everything in it as inert.


“I think climate change is a problem very deeply rooted in the past,” Ghosh said in an interview with The Maroon. He searches through historical sources to retrace the root of the problem. Ghosh traces the ideological history of the way humans have viewed the Earth over the centuries, citing a vast array of sources including the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the mythology of Ancient Greece 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 locus of extraction.


Ghosh cites the poem “High Flight,” written by the young Canadian-American pilot John Gillespie Magee in 1941, shortly before his death. Magee romanticized the sensation of flight, writing, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/ And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.” Ghosh fixates on this excerpt because “few poems have lodged themselves as securely at the heart of American culture as ‘High Flight.’”


To Ghosh, the poem’s language reveals as much about the poet’s attitude toward the earth as it does about his attitude toward the experience of flight and demonstrates an “unconscious ideology.”


“Rarely does anyone stop to ask: what exactly is ‘surly’ about the Earth’s bonds?” he writes. “Or why should the planet be thought of as a home from which humans would be fortunate to escape? What can be said of such a view except that it spills over from mere contempt for the Earth into an active hatred for it?”


Ghosh observes the same contempt for the soil on which we were 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 grow out of this process of the subjugation of the Americas,” Ghosh told The Maroon. “European elite men persuaded themselves that they were the conquerors and masters of everything.… The Earth was dead; most humans were half-animals.” He pointed to the English writer Rudyard Kipling, who described non-white humans as “half-devil, half-child,” and grimly noted Kipling’s largely unchallenged status as a literary touchstone.


Ghosh is an acclaimed writer whose novels (including the Ibis Trilogy and Gun Island) and works of nonfiction (including The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable) won him the 54th Jnanpith Award in 2018, India’s most well-respected literary honor. He earned a doctorate in social anthropology from the University of Oxford.


His training as a social scientist is evident throughout the book, as Ghosh ultimately implores that society needs to “let nonhuman voices be returned to our stories.” In the midst of a global environmental crisis, Ghosh believes, we must recognize that the Earth has a voice of its own. From the Greek myth of Gaia to “the oldest living story told by humans”—an Indigenous Australian creation story about the volcano Budj Bim—inhabitants of the Earth have for centuries given the Earth an agency and vitality in stories. Ghosh laments the lack of this mode of storytelling in the present day, in both fiction and nonfiction works.


It’s not just ancient myths that give him cause to reflect on the “voice” of the natural world. Ghosh notes in the book that scientists have now shown that trees can communicate with one another. The Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrated that plants experience sensations analogous to pain and fear in the 1910s. Ghosh writes in the book that further experiments done in the modern age have proven that trees “can send help, in the form of carbon, to ailing members of their group” and can “warn each other about pestilence and disease.”


Western science, however, has historically been slow to embrace these findings—Bose was derided by many of his Western contemporaries as a charlatan. The unwillingness of the scientific community to take nonhuman lives seriously is a source of frustration for Ghosh, who writes, “Could it not be said that for a tree it is the human who is mute?” This shift in perspective, Ghosh believes, is a vital part of addressing climate change.

To gain back this respect and love for our planet, Ghosh told The Maroon, “universities should take the lead in introducing these issues to young people.… The planetary crisis should be present in everything that people do…whether 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’s agency is necessary to address the climate problem with the attention that it needs.