Emergence MagazineYour new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, takes you on a remarkably deep journey into our collective past, exploring the root causes of climate change and ecocide, and how climate change is intimately linked to colonialism, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and structures of organized violence that you describe as being foundational in forming the modern geopolitical order. And you take us on this journey through the story of the nutmeg, the spice that originated in the Banda Islands in Indonesia. The nutmeg really becomes the lens through which you explore so much in this book. How and why did you end up choosing the nutmeg to tell this story?
Amitav GhoshWell, I think the nutmeg’s history encapsulates the history of the planet in some bizarre way—the modern history of the nutmeg. Because really, the nutmeg was a gift of volcanic earth. It was a gift of incredible forests, of Maluku. And in the end, for more than a millennium, it made the people of this tiny archipelago, the Banda Islands, rich and prosperous, and they had good lives. They were rich. They were great traders. They were trading across the oceans. But in the end, it brought doom upon them. All that prosperity and wealth was really a kind of mirage, because ultimately those people were just massacred by the Dutch colonialists. It was one of the first early modern genocides. So the people of the Banda Islands became among the earliest victims of what you might call the resource curse. And in a sense, that’s exactly the curse that’s fallen upon the entire planet, and it’s come about now because we’ve treated the planet as a sort of inert repository of resources for a very long time. But the planet is striking back, you might say, almost vindictively at us.
EMMm-hmm. You wrote that if we “put aside the myth-making of modernity, in which humans are triumphantly free of material dependence on the planet and acknowledge the reality of our ever-increasing servitude to the products of the Earth, then the story of the Bandanese and the nutmeg no longer seems so distant from our present predicament.” This seems to challenge the notion that we’re less dependent on natural resources than we used to be, that technology has removed us in part from that dependence.
AGYes, I think that’s one of the myths of modernity. You always hear people talking about how human beings have become independent of the Earth and so on, but in fact, it’s just a complete myth, because after all, fossil fuels are things of the Earth. And we are completely dependent on fossil fuels today. I mean, I’m just looking around this studio. Every single thing in this studio runs on fossil fuel energy. Today it’s not just our lighting or even the cars. Even our food comes from fossil fuels. You know, essentially, all these fertilizers, what are they? Huge amounts of fossil fuels. And you look around at—all around you—which is the most common material in this room? It’s probably some kind of plastic. Again, from fossil fuels. So in a way, our lives have become so intertwined with these fossil fuels that we’ve stopped even noticing the degree to which we are dependent on these things.
EMYou spoke about the Earth being inert, and this seems to be one of the central themes in your book, that the modern view of the Earth is that it is inanimate; and that this lies at the heart of the crisis unfolding around us; and that this view emerged out of “intersecting processes of violence”—most significantly between European colonizers and the Indigenous peoples of America, who believe that the Earth is alive, has agency, and is sacred; and that the conquest of the Americas went hand in hand with eradicating the belief that spirit existed in all matter.
AGYes. Usually when people talk about the emergence of the modern sort of worldview, in which the Earth is inert, they trace it back to certain philosophers, like Descartes, if you like, and other European philosophers of that time, Locke and so on. But in fact, I think that this philosophy rose out of human conflict. It was when Europeans began to see the incredible effect that they were having upon the peoples of the Americas and also upon Africans, when they began to enslave Africans on this vast scale and began transporting them across the Atlantic to the Americas, and when they started launching these exterminatory attacks upon Native Americans—it was at that moment that this ideology of mastery took root. It wasn’t the ideas leading to the mastery; rather, it was the mastery leading to the ideas. It just so happened that Europeans of that period, of the sixteenth century especially, had emerged out of a history of incredible violence and incredible poverty.
You know, Europe in that period was devastated by plagues. It was devastated by continuing conflicts going back to the Crusades, but especially religious conflicts in the sixteenth century within Europe. And it’s very striking that when the first Europeans came to the Americas, what struck them was the incredible good health and bounty, the bounty of the land and the good health of the people. Of course, that disappeared within a couple of generations because of the violence and also because of the epidemics caused by violence. So, in my view, it was really this violence that Europeans unleashed upon other peoples that ultimately became a violence unleashed upon the Earth. It was when they began to treat people as resources that the idea came to them that everything was a resource meant for the mastery of a very few. Because let’s not forget, the colonialists, the conquistadores, and so on, they were a tiny minority even within their own countries. They were elites really often. And they also unleashed the same kind of violence against farmers and the peasantry in their countries. Most of all, they unleashed it against women. This entire witchcraft craze in Europe is completely coterminous with this period of settler colonialism. And in effect, the violence that they unleashed upon really poor peasant women in Europe was modeled upon the violence that they had unleashed upon Native Americans.
EMHmm, yeah. You speak a lot about how it was really in the hands of elites that so much of this unfolded, that it wasn’t necessarily the West as a whole, or Europe as a whole, that was unleashing these ideologies of the Earth being inert, but it was really in the hands of just a few.
AGYes, very much so. And, you know, it’s particularly interesting when you see the philosophers who sort of start articulating this ideology. This is entirely an ideology of conquest and an ideology of supremacy, really. What else can you call it? But the philosophers who start articulating these ideologies are almost always connected with colonial states and with the colonial project. It’s very striking that Descartes was a Frenchman, but in fact, he spent a large part of his life in Holland. So he knew very well the processes of colonization. Holland was then, in the seventeenth century, the most important colonizer. And he was perfectly well acquainted with those processes of colonialism. Locke, for example, had investments in colonialism. Bacon was lord chancellor of England, and he articulates the colonial project and the project of science in exactly the same way. For him, the ideal method of science is the vexation of nature, in fact, torturing nature, as Carolyn Merchant has shown in a very brilliant book. So we can see that these projects are completely interconnected.
EMYou talk about how the genocide of the Indigenous peoples of America was really the beginning of the modern world for Europe. As you said, they were dealing with plagues and violence and extreme poverty, and it was not a highly developed continent, or highly developed nations, at that point; and that without the pillage of the Americas, there would be no capitalism, no Industrial Revolution, and perhaps no Anthropocene; and that discussions about climate change are often dominated by capitalism and other economic issues but that geopolitics, empire, and its histories are often secondary; and that the era of Western military conquests predates capitalism by centuries and it was really these conquests that fostered capitalism. Can you talk about why it’s so important these histories be revealed and are part of the discussions about climate change?
AGIt’s not that capitalism is not important; obviously, it is. But I would say, really, what’s absolutely fundamental, in a sense, is what Cedric Robinson called racial capitalism. Because that’s really the circumstance that we are talking about. In any case, these early periods of conquests—let’s say the seventeenth century—they were not really carried out by capitalists as such, though the Dutch East India Company certainly was a prototypical capitalist organization, perhaps the first multinational. But they were carried out under an ideology of mercantilism, state-controlled mercantilism. So it’s a very different kind of situation. We don’t really get capitalism as such until the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. But the essential geopolitical framework under which capitalism came to be was really established long before. It was established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And it’s really strange that for years and years, economists and economic historians were always sort of trying to claim that capitalism was something which had no connection with slavery; but now we know, through the work of dozens of scholars, that in fact without slavery you don’t get capitalism. It was within the context of slavery that many of the prototypical forms of capitalist credit, et cetera, emerged. So what Black scholars and historians, especially, have been saying for a long time is now shown to be true without a doubt—that you don’t get capitalism without colonialism and slavery. The geopolitical framework for the emergence of capitalism was, I would say, temporally anterior to the emergence of capitalism, and it was essential. It was essential. Without that you don’t get capitalism. So again, let me say that, of course, capitalism is fundamental to the incredible destruction we’re seeing across the planet. But I think in focusing exclusively on capitalism, we are really ignoring the entire geopolitical framework within which capitalism has operated and continues to operate to this day.
In Asia, climate change is not seen in the same way. In Asia, Africa, I would say Latin America also, climate change is not seen in the way that it’s seen in the West. In the West, climate change is conceived of as a technocratic thing, a technological thing, a sort of techno-scientific thing. So when you get these COP meetings, who are the people who are there? They’re basically a lot of technocrats, bureaucrats, economists, and now increasingly also billionaires of various kinds, big corporations, and so on. If you go anywhere in Africa or Asia and speak to ordinary people and say, “What is climate change all about?” they’ll say it’s all about keeping us poor. It’s all about the great disparity that’s occurred in the world during the period of colonialism. So what I’m saying is actually just the common sense that prevails outside the West.
EMIn the book you spend some time interviewing and speaking with migrants who come to Europe from Asia, and none of them seem to describe climate change in a siloed manner. They always put it in the context of its relationships with so many other factors—economic, political, and so on.
AGThat is absolutely the case. In fact, Margaret Atwood famously said about climate change that it’s not just about the climate, it’s “everything change.” And this is something that all these migrants instinctively understood. And it was very interesting talking to them, really, because many of the people I spoke to—many from Bangladesh, and some from Pakistan—are very well educated about climate change, especially the Bangladeshis. They know a lot about climate change. But every time I would ask them, “Would you call yourselves climate refugees?” they would always say no. There are so many other factors involved. People don’t make that kind of journey because of a single motivating factor. There’s a whole range of things that drive these great movements.
EMIn the book you ask this question—and you just spoke to this—“Why then does capitalism so often come to be abstracted from its wider geopolitical contexts?” And part of the answer is it’s “a way of avoiding the real ‘nastiness’” that lies behind it. And there’s this well-known saying—that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism—which you say is patently untrue, and you argue that what is really harder to imagine than the end of the world is “the end of the absolute geopolitical dominance of the West.”
AGYes, yes. I think it’s absolutely the case. You’ll see this statement sort of constantly circulated—“easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”—but in fact, in the twentieth century, the great majority of mankind didn’t live under capitalism. I mean, China was not capitalist, the Soviet Union was not capitalist. And many other countries were sort of semisocialist, like India, and also Indonesia, and other countries. So the idea that capitalism was the only thing that existed in the twentieth century is not true. And the reality is that socialism as practiced in both the USSR and China was just as maniacally destructive as capitalism, in an environmental sense. What the Soviets did to their environment—it’s unbelievable. Now entire lakes have disappeared, rivers have disappeared. So they were completely driven by the same sort of industrial logic as capitalism.
There’s a very powerful book by historian Bathsheba Demuth where she talks about whaling in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Those whalers had their quotas. They would go and senselessly slaughter vast numbers of whales. What they were doing in the mid-twentieth century was what Americans had done in the nineteenth century, as we know from Herman Melville and so on. It’s also true that during the two world wars, capitalism was suspended in Germany as well as in the UK and in the US. You basically had a statist model of economy. So the normal functioning of capitalism has been suspended many times. What has never been suspended is the geopolitics of Western empire, and, I mean, that’s just patently the case. Even the world wars were essentially fought over geopolitical dominance.
EMAnd that geopolitical order is also shifting right now, as you describe—yet another challenge looming large as we confront climate change and the unfolding crises around us.
AGYes. I think it’s instructive to look back at the seventeenth century, which was another period of great climatic disruption. What happened then was a major geopolitical shift. The Spanish and the Portuguese had been geopolitically dominant in the sixteenth century, but in the seventeenth century, Holland became dominant in large measure because the Dutch were very good at figuring out how to use wind power, in windmills as well as in navigation. So there was a major geopolitical shift in that period. Similarly, England’s mastery of fossil fuels was crucial to its dominance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So what we are seeing now, I think, is in fact a similar major geopolitical shift. We can see it already. I mean, just in terms of economy, China has already reached a point where the size of its economy is probably the same as that of the United States, which was inconceivable thirty years ago. In per capita terms, China may not have the same per capita GDP as the US, and perhaps never will, but in terms of the absolute size and weight of its economy, clearly that’s shifted. And again, if you put together the economic weight and industrial weight of China, Russia, India, Japan, and South Korea, it’s clear that there has been a major geopolitical shift away from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Rim.
EMThere’s an important point that you make in the book, which is that, as many Indigenous voices have reiterated again and again, this planetary crisis is not new at all: it’s the Earth’s response to the globalization and development that was set in motion by European colonization. And part of what has changed in the last few decades is that these processes have escaped the boundaries of the three colonized continents and become planetary forces.
AGYes. Because in effect, the path of so-called development that India, China, Indonesia, et cetera, are launched upon today is exactly the settler colonial model of economy. But there’s a huge difference. The settler colonial model of economy emerged in continents that had been, as it were, forcibly depopulated, and the resources seized. But in China, India, those options aren’t there. And yet they’re operating on this logic of cornucopianism, which is an ideology that emerges again in America essentially out of the Anglophone-settler colonial experience, which is the idea that you can perpetually grow, that there’s no limit or horizon to growth—you can just keep growing, growing, growing. And, of course, that was possible in America with this vast land and its endless resources. But now we see that, even in America, those resources are reaching certain natural limits. And so this is the terrible sort of quandary that now faces countries like India, Nigeria, and so on: that they’re pursuing a model of growth which emerged in a completely different historical context.
EMYou talk a lot about this term “terraforming” in the book, which I guess can be described as the process of remaking the living world through ecological violence, development, and modernity. And that many of the places dealing with the extreme impacts of climate change are in some of the most intensely terraformed places on Earth: Florida, California, the American Midwest, southeastern Australia—places that are being hit repeatedly by fires and hurricanes and flooding. And that it’s hard not to wonder whether these landscapes have now decided to shrug off the forms imposed on them by European settlers.
AGNow, terraforming, I should explain, is not just interfering with the land but trying to remake other continents in the image of Europe. The settlers who came to New England really wanted to make their land look like England. This is quite explicitly announced by them several times, that this land—this savage, barbaric land—“is looking more and more like our own dear England.” And in fact, it’s a strange thing. Early colonists, if you look at the discourse about North America, they’re often kind of horrified by the land because, especially on the East Coast, so much of the land is swamp, swampland. And English settlers were quite horrified by swamps—they hated swamps. And in fact, swamps became refuges for escaped slaves as well as for Native Americans. They just withdrew deeper and deeper into the swamps, because Native Americans certainly made very productive use of swamps.
But what is very striking today is that it’s exactly these areas that have been worst affected. I mean, you can see that. There’s a sort of myth about climate change; the climate movement’s always sort of making the point that the parts of the world that will be worst hit are the poorer parts, like in Asia and Africa and so on. And it’s true that those parts will be very badly hit—everywhere will be badly hit—but what we can see now is that it’s those parts of the world that have been most intensively terraformed to look like Europe that are now being worst hit. I mean, where you are in California. No one can say that California is a poor region. But look how devastated it is. And as you know, one is now constantly coming across people who are leaving California because the uncertainties have become so great that they just can’t manage anymore. I’m sure you yourself have felt this anxiety that now haunts so many people in California. The same is true of Florida, and it’s also true in the Midwest. Look at these terrible floods.
So, in fact, across America there’s a huge movement now for dismantling dams. Dams were thought to be ever such a good idea in the mid-twentieth century. And you see the same in southeastern Australia. But curiously enough, you also see the same in Europe. One of the countries that’s worst hit by climate change is Italy, and in the Po Valley, which has been so extensively terraformed—in fact, they had a huge flood in the fifties in this region called Polesine, which is around the Po Delta. And in fact, back then in the fifties, 250,000 Italians were displaced. They became climate refugees. Nobody speaks about them, nobody writes about them, but that’s what happened.
EMYou know, as we have more and more eco-disasters, it becomes “ever harder,” you write, “to hold on to the belief that the planet is an inert body that exists merely to provide humans with resources.” And as you say, recognizing that the Earth is alive is key to responding to the climate crisis. It seems like you’re suggesting in the book that it’s not going to be recognized as alive by purely greening the economy or driving electric cars; that it is much deeper than that, and that “the planet will never come alive for you unless your songs and stories give life to all the beings seen and unseen that inhabit a living Earth”—which is a beautiful line. And this seems like a very different task than what’s being debated at COP or by governments: the importance of songs and stories.
AG[laughs] Well, that whole technocratic discourse about climate change, I mean, it’s like a stuck record, isn’t it? We see the same things happening year after year in these COP meetings. And it’s curious that even the scientists, many scientists, in the last twenty years have been speaking about the Earth as a living thing. Even very hard-headed types of scientists. You’ll never see economists, for example, speaking of the Earth as a living thing, because their entire mindset is tied to statistics of a certain kind. But you will see many scientists speak of the Earth in this way.
In my case, I’m not an expert, I’m not a technocrat, I’m not a scientist, but I am a writer. I’m a novelist. I write fiction. I write nonfiction. So for me, that’s what is important. We have to find ways to restore life to the beings of the Earth who have been silenced over the last two hundred years. In this whole period that we call modernity, all these beings have been silenced. There’s a huge movement now called TEK, traditional ecological knowledge, which is again being appropriated and treated as a kind of resource, trying to use, as it were, traditional wisdom for “managing the earth,” as they call it. But this is exactly it. They don’t realize that this kind of wisdom exists in the context of stories, in the context of storytelling, in the context of songs. And all of that is what we’ve lost and what we have to try and bring back.
EMThe role of stories is something that’s very central to this book, as it was to your previous book, The Great Derangement. And not just human stories, as you say, but the stories that are told by nonhuman voices that have been silenced. And the essential step toward silencing nonhuman voices was imagining that only humans were capable of telling stories. And there is a point you make that really stayed with me, which is that what is at stake is not so much storytelling itself but, rather, who can make meaning, and that we’ve put the ability to make meaning purely within the human realm.
AGWell, it’s not just the human realm. I mean, the whole idea of making meaning is tied to language, it’s tied to the idea of humanity, if you like. But in this ideology of conquest that we were talking about earlier—where the Earth was treated as an inert resource and, indeed, humans were treated as inert resources—the idea was that, in fact, those people weren’t fully human, that Native Americans weren’t fully human, Africans weren’t fully human, Asians weren’t fully human. So, who was human? [laughs] Poor European women weren’t fully human. What those philosophers were really saying is that only a tiny minority of educated European elites were fully human. The rest of humanity wasn’t human, and the basic thing about their nonhumanity was that they could not make meaning; I mean, they could make sounds, but sounds are not meaning.
Similarly, the Earth also makes sounds, but that’s just noise. It’s not meaning. Whereas before that, in Europe as elsewhere, people had always thought of many other kinds of beings as being capable of making meaning. But what’s interesting is that many people today may be willing to accept that animals are fully sentient beings, that forests are sentient, that many kinds of trees are sentient, that they communicate—I mean, they have incredibly complex communications and so on, which we are now discovering. But I think once you open the door to the other beings that exist, it quickly opens the door to all kinds of unseen beings as well. And humans have always believed in the real presence of these unseen beings.
EMIn The Great Derangement, which, as I said, I really resonated with, you wrote about the need for literature to take climate change seriously and to move away from human-centered narratives, and your work has clearly made an impact and been a driving force in shifting this. And in the last five years alone, we’ve seen a steady stream of powerful ecological and climate-change-themed fiction: Richard Powers’s The Overstory and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, to name just two. I feel like in The Nutmeg’s Curse you’re taking this further. You write, “This is the great burden that now rests upon writers, artists, filmmakers, and everyone else who is involved in the telling of stories: to us falls the task of imaginatively restoring agency and voice to nonhumans. As with all the most important artistic endeavors in human history, this is a task that is at once aesthetic and political—and because of the magnitude of the crisis that besets the planet, it is now freighted with the most pressing moral urgency.” That really stayed with me, and that’s really quite a call to action for storytellers as well.
AGYeah, because I do feel that this is fundamentally the basic challenge the planetary crisis poses for storytellers and for people who work in the arts. That is, how do we give, how do we restore, voice to nonhumans. And I think Richard Powers does this brilliantly in his Overstory. I find that other certain kinds of fiction being written, even though they’re about the planetary crisis, are not really about that. They’re not about restoring voice and agency to nonhumans. Some of them are speculative. Some of them are what the future might be and so on. And that is really not of that much interest to me. But I think there are many, many very interesting books being written right now. I can tell you, I have, like, three or four manuscripts arriving every day from people who say, “Oh, your book influenced me so powerfully that this story came out of it. Now you must read this—now you have to read this book.” And I wish I could read them all, but of course I can’t. I mean, there’s just too many. But I do read some of them, and some of them are really quite exceptional. I just read an absolutely exceptional novel set in the present, completely in the present, and it was a really powerful book. And, you know, at the end of the day, a novel has to be relatable. It has to have relatable characters. It has to have relatable predicaments. And that was true of this novel.
EMJames Lovelock’s Gaia theory plays a prominent role in the book, including what you describe as the monstrous Gaia, the Gaia that is responding to the terraforming and treatment that the Earth has suffered over the last few hundred years. And there is a question about Gaia you explore that I wanted to ask you here, and I think it ties into this call to action you issued to storytellers: What does it mean to live on an earth as though it were Gaia? That is to say, a living, vital entity in which many kinds of beings tell stories. And how does the planetary crisis appear when seen from that perspective? And I know that’s a very big question, but I’m asking it nonetheless.
AGLook, for many of us, no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to be in communication, if you like, with beings of other kinds. That faculty has been educated out of us. You could say all of modern education is essentially aimed at suppressing that faculty. But there are people in the world—and there have always been people in the world—who have been able to communicate with nonhuman beings. We know that. There are shamans in North America, and there are also many kinds of shamanic traditions among Native Americans in South America and, indeed, in Africa, India, and so on. And they’ve been regarded by modern people as superstitious, ignorant, stupid, as charlatans, and so on and so forth. You see this most clearly in North America. The sort of violence that’s unleashed against Native Americans isn’t just about taking their land or whatever. It’s also about destroying their beliefs, because European colonizers felt so profoundly threatened by Native American beliefs, most of all by their beliefs in the life of the Earth, if you like, or the life of landscapes and the lives of many different kinds of beings. Most of us will never be able to recover that kind of voice.
But I think what it says to us is that we have to be doubly attentive to those people who have not lost that ability. And after all, why should they not have that ability? I mean, why is it such a great stretch? I know that some people are incredibly good with dogs, for example. I’m not, but I know that some people are, and they can really understand and, as it were, communicate with dogs, with cats, with elephants. They have a faculty, they have a facility, just as mathematicians have a certain facility with numbers. So why should it really surprise us? I mean, human beings have all kinds of abilities. And why should we disregard these abilities? Human beings have had these abilities forever. And many of the people who make these claims about communication with nonhumans were some of the most respected people of their times—take Saint Francis of Assisi, for example, and all the great Native American shamans, and so many others. They communicated with other kinds of beings, whether it be animals or spirit beings or whatever. And it’s also very striking that usually this is not done unaided. Often in the case of Native Americans, it is done along with a botanical substance. In the Sufi tradition, it goes along with bodily exercises like spinning and trance states. Why should this be so difficult to believe? I don’t find it difficult to believe.
EMNo, I don’t find it difficult to believe either. And one thing that stuck with me toward the end of the book was where you’re talking about how we can find a way forward with the recognition that the Earth is alive, and the need to regain the ability to listen to the nonhuman and to express the importance of the nonhuman through stories. And you talk about, or hypothesize about, the process in which human beings became indigenized and assimilated into landscapes many, many, many thousands of years ago, and how that’s part of what needs to happen: to again become assimilated into landscapes, to build those relationships with place. And the question I was stuck with is, How do we do that in the modern world when so much has been shifted and so much has been altered, and when even a relationship to place for so many people has been removed?
AGYes. Those relationships to place have been profoundly altered. But I do also find encouragement when I look around North America, when I look around the United States, because in many invisible ways Americans have absorbed an enormous amount from Indigenous people. And what they’ve absorbed, they’ve tried to hide, they’ve tried to deny, they’ve tried to obfuscate, if you like. But they have learned many, many lessons from Indigenous peoples. And I do think some of this also has to do with ways of relating to land. If we look at the work of Wendell Berry, for example, I think we see it very clearly that in some ways, he’s relating to these landscapes. I mean, we may be strangers in this land, but people are learning. If you look at the Standing Rock movement, many of the people who were there were not Native Americans, but they developed an equally intense feeling—maybe not equally intense, but certainly a very powerful feeling—for the land. So I think it is possible, and I think it probably can come back.
I’ve just come back from the Eastern Shore in Virginia. It’s basically swampland, and it was one of the first areas to be devastated by settler colonialism. But when you see the fishermen who work there, for example—they’re just ordinary fishermen, many of them are African Americans—you can sense that over the years as they work in these swamps, some feeling for the land returns to them.
EMAmitav, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today about your work. Thank you so much for joining us.
AGThank you, Emmanuel. It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you.