The Deep History of Climate Change

The Deep History of Climate Change

An interview with Amitav Ghosh, the author of The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.

Fort Belgica on Banda Naira. Built by the Dutch in 1611 and restored in the early 1990s (Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. In this edition, Siddhartha Deb talks to Amitav Ghosh, the author of The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (University of Chicago Press).

In The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Amitav Ghosh combines his anthropologist’s training with a novelist’s sensibility to engage with the relationship between climate change and the hidden histories of colonialism in Asia and the Americas. Ghosh gives voice to the Pequot in New England, to the Bandanese on an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and to the earth itself. Given the ongoing failure of powerful elites—including Western powers like the United States and the United Kingdom, formerly colonized nations like China and India, and global corporations—to address climate change in a meaningful manner, Ghosh’s book offers us a sense of the relationship between past and present in order to help us comprehend the nature of our present crisis.

Siddhartha Deb: You start with an account of the Banda Islands, an archipelago that is today part of Indonesia. In 1621 officials of the Dutch East India Company decided to expel its inhabitants to secure a profitable trade in spices, including nutmeg.

Amitav Ghosh: Expelled is hardly the word!

Deb: Right. They burned the villages, killed many of the inhabitants and enslaved the rest, and all to turn nutmeg into a commodity that could be traded in the world market. Why is this story so central to your book and its attempt to untangle our current climate crisis?

Ghosh: I wanted to figure out how and when human beings first started treating the world as a giant repository of inert resources that existed primarily for their use. That inflection point in history comes about not just in relation to the earth, but in relation to violence between human beings. The violence initiated by the conquest of the Americas, and the enslavement of Africans, birthed the idea that all kinds of people—Africans as well as Amerindians and Asians—are non-human.

The case of the Banda Islands is very revealing. What happened there is entirely brought about by a product, by a gift of the earth; because the Bandanese had this extraordinary tree, they were essentially wiped out. In effect, the Bandanese were among the first people on earth to suffer the impacts of the resource curse. You can look at climate change as the globalization of the resource curse. The whole world is now laboring under this curse.

Deb: The phrase “resource curse” is usually used in the United States to refer to countries with oil, like in the Middle East, that are “rich” in natural resources, but where the wealth does not find its way to most people. The word “curse” has something nonrational and magical about it. Yet the Bandanese world you describe has relations far beyond the rational; their relationships with the landscape, with the trees, and the volcanoes, are not a product of the Enlightenment. In fact, what the Dutch bring is the curse of rationality.

Ghosh: The whole concept of the resource curse is thought up by hard-headed economists. It’s true that in the United States, it’s normally used in relation to oil. But there have also been very good accounts of the effects of the resource curse on the parts of India where opium was planted. The poverty of states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is, I believe, directly traceable to the opium industry that was set up in the region by British colonizers. The whole idea of thinking of the earth’s gifts as resources has brought us here. And it’s not just in relation to non-human things. When you start treating humans as resources, this is what comes of it.

In relation to the Banda Islands, yes, you’re right. Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who launched the Banda genocide, was a contemporary of Descartes, who spent a large part of his life in Holland. Holland was not just a very rich country; it was also a cauldron of ideas. It is remarkable how many of the European philosophers of that time were closely connected with the processes of colonialism. So when Coen decided to launch upon this exterminatory policy, it must have felt very rational to him.

In fact, there is nothing at all rational about what they did. Their whole process of extermination was linked to the witch craze, which was then raging in Europe. The city that Coen grew up in had one of those weighing centers for detecting witches, as they thought witches would be lighter than other people. These beliefs were held and even spearheaded by European elites. In the Banda Islands, it was the islanders who were completely rational, in any sense that you and I would recognize. They were trying to calm the situation—they were acting in predictable ways—whereas the Europeans were seized by a kind of frenzy.

Deb: You see this focus on extraction, this treatment of the earth and people as resources, as an irrational process at the very heart of the Enlightenment. You see a similar irrationality in the refusal to switch from fossil fuels.

Ghosh: What I’m trying to say here, Native American intellectuals been saying for centuries. If you treat the earth only as something to be exploited, you’re bringing doom upon yourself.

Deb: You connect the Banda Islands massacre to the extermination of the Native people of the Americas, including the genocide of the Pequot in Connecticut. If the European settler-colonial project in the Americas is central to understanding our current predicament, why is it still so marginal in our mainstream culture?

Ghosh: The dominant culture has a huge investment in suppressing these histories. And the new elite culture is our globally dominant culture. It has colonized the whole world. It exists precisely by suppressing these histories, because they are so ghastly that it’s very hard to reconcile them with all the liberal pieties that are spread around.

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch and English empires fought over New England and the Banda Islands. The Dutch gave up most of their claims in New York in order to cement their hold on the Banda Islands, because they were the prize. Nutmeg was one of the most valuable spices of all, and thus one of the most valuable commodities in Europe. The violence that resulted in these far-off places was connected through personnel; it was connected through imperial practices; it was connected through huge companies, the precursors of our multinational companies. I think that the Dutch wouldn’t have embarked on this policy in the Banda Islands if they didn’t have the institutional memory of what Europeans were doing in the Americas.

Deb: That was “globalization” then. Let’s move to globalization now. How was your thinking about the book affected by your own experience of the pandemic and what you were seeing, both in the United States and India?

Ghosh: The pandemic gave me an incredible sense of urgency. In New York, between last March and August we were in a state of terror. The fear that we had, the fear with which we went anywhere, even just walking outside, felt life changing. It certainly affected my thinking a lot, but it was also kind of uncanny. There I was, thinking about the connections between colonialism, extractivism, inequality, and so on, and suddenly, I saw the same connections being made all around me. These connections were being talked about in the 1619 Project and in the Black Lives Matter movement. While these histories have been marginalized within elite and dominant cultures, Black Americans and Native Americans know this history intimately, because they live it every day with their bodies, through the kinds of violence that they face all the time. To them, this history is not the past.

There’s an elite myth in America that Americans are not interested in history. What the Black Lives Matter movement really showed us is that, in America, history matters more than anywhere else—the whole identity of America is composed around history. In a country like India, you don’t have to pin your identity to history in the same way. The reason for the importance of history in America is that it gives you a narrative that helps you create your identity. Marginalized people understood that the history they were being taught was not the reality of what had happened. All of that came suddenly bubbling to the surface in this brief, dramatic period.

Deb: India is an intermittent presence in your book as a place of severe climate crisis; you write about how Kolkata, where your mother lives, is the victim of the colonial and imperial histories that you’ve teased out. It is also a place of brutal inequality, especially now, under the Modi government and its response to the pandemic, its militarization, and its obsession with the extraction of fossil fuels. How should we understand India, and especially India’s ruling elite?

Ghosh: India’s ruling elite have completely absorbed and accepted settler-colonial practices. And the world’s powers are largely responsible for that. The Washington Consensus is nothing other than the economics of settler colonialism: extract, extract, extract. All resources are limitless, everything is limitless.

What we’re seeing in India now is a kind of state capture by a few billionaires and a few very powerful corporate entities. They are intent on destroying every kind of environmental regulation, destroying the forests, and doing crazy things like building a coastal road in Bombay. What could be madder than that? Much of Bombay is going to be flooded by 2050—a fact that the municipal authorities in Bombay have acknowledged. When I said that Bombay was going to be flooded in 2016, in The Great Derangement, people laughed at me. But you don’t have to be a genius to figure this out; you can see it just from the layout of Bombay. Yet they’re building this coastal road. The only way that it makes sense is if you realize that it’s a boondoggle. Considering the glacial pace at which things generally work in India, how are these massive construction projects hurtling ahead? It’s the cement and construction lobbies, which are just as powerful as the fossil fuel lobbies. And cement itself is, after fossil fuels, the substance that releases the most greenhouse gasses.

Deb: This book is kind of a continuation of The Great Derangement. You wrote there about the inability of realism—the dominant style of literary fiction since the nineteenth century to the present—to reckon with climate change. Has anything changed since then? Has the world of literary fiction, or publishing, adjusted to represent these massive concerns of climate collapse?

Ghosh: You and I are both writers of fiction and nonfiction, so I think we know exactly how sclerotic the publishing establishment—the whole ecosystem of literature—is. The industry encourages this idea that they’re of the avant-garde. But it seems to have only just struck them during the Black Lives Matter movement that there were very few nonwhite people in these publishing houses. Now, the publishing world is trying to take these little baby steps to fix itself, but at the same time, it’s held back by all its prejudices. At this moment, the prejudice is that only certain kinds of writings have a market, especially writing related to identity issues. Those issues are important, but I don’t see why that should prevent people from also writing about the realities of the world around them. There are, after all, very important elements of gender, race, and class in the climate crisis.

Still, I do feel that there has been a major change. Starting around 2018, a lot of novels have been published that go in different directions. I’ve just read a novel by Bruce Holsinger called The Displacements, and it’s very good, almost a contemporary Grapes of Wrath.

Deb: That sounds promising. To go back to your point about opium and India, I was in Uttar Pradesh last month to write about a new temple being built. People kept telling me that “You must see the Afim Kothi”—a palace turned into a British opium house. So, I did go to see it, but I couldn’t go inside. It’s in ruins and all locked up. This building, where the British collected opium to sell to China, the terrain of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, is now where the Hindu right wants to build the biggest Ram temple in the world.

Ghosh: Now Uttar Pradesh is one of the poorest parts of India, but it was historically one of the richest, most prosperous, and most creative parts of India. It’s the resource curse.

Deb: These ongoing, contemporary conflicts are connected to these hidden histories rather than the histories that right-wingers like Trump or Modi use. They are in fact connected to the past, but in completely different ways than what is being sold.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of two novels and the narrative nonfiction book The Beautiful and the Damned. He is a member of Dissent’s editorial board.

Amitav Ghosh is the author of two books of nonfiction, a collection of essays, and ten novels. In 2018 he became the first English-language writer to receive India’s highest literary honor, the Jnanpith Award. His most recent publication is Jungle Nama, an adaptation of a legend from the Sundarban, with artwork by Salman Toor. His latest book is The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Deborah Baker.