In The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh picks up from where he left off in The Great Derangement. His earlier short nonfiction on climate change was a plea to writers, from the literary mainstream, to confront the crisis the Earth faces in their work. In The Nutmeg’s Curse, he takes that challenge upon himself and makes the tragic history of the nutmeg a parable for our ecological crisis. The spice, incidentally, looks rather like the Earth, encased in spheres with an inside resembling geological structures.
That’s our first clue that this is a far more expansive and meandering work than The Great Derangement. But Ghosh’s core argument remains consistent. To solve our planetary crisis, he believes, we must conceptualize Earth as a living, vital force and establish kinship with rivers, mountains, animals, and other nonhumans that live alongside us. He calls upon us to reimagine Earth as Gaia, from Greek mythology, bountiful but also monstrous when she strikes back.
This way of thinking, however, requires a leap of faith for minds shaped by scientific, secular Westernized education. And to me, working our way back to the past poses another challenge: how to tell the difference between authentic “vitalism” and ecofascism, the rising movement that mixes ‘mysticism’ with nationalism and racism in the name of a glorious ancient past.
This is an important question. Knowing fully well that climate change is not a problem anyone can solve alone, every day we try to make a small difference in our own backyards with our choices. Whether it’s working toward a zero-waste kitchen or buying traditional handcrafted items directly from artisans, our actions are an antidote to our climate anxiety. That’s why I wish Ghosh had made a stronger connection between science and eco-spirituality to help readers navigate this complicated terrain.
That said, he more than makes his point by breathing life into the nutmeg with his eloquent writing. The spice arose from the volcanic ecology of the Banda Archipelago of Indonesia and in that forgotten corner of the world, “people still sing about the nutmeg and weave it into their memories of their ancestors and their lost homeland,” writes Ghosh. In contrast, to Dutch colonizers of the 1600s, the nutmeg was a lifeless source of astronomical profits, meant to be secured by hook or crook. Or genocide. In that difference, Ghosh sees the root of our planetary crisis. Across the Americas, similar horror stories have unfolded, with the extermination of indigenous people deeply intertwined with terraforming. Everywhere they went, the colonizers transformed what they saw as savage wastelands or empty wilderness into “productive land”.
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Today even though direct colonization has ended, corporate empires and the global elite’s control over resources remain intact. This brings us to India, where Ghosh challenges us to apply his lens to our domestic structural inequalities. He points out that our rigidly hierarchical caste system relegates Indians who hunt, fish, cure leather, and make pottery to the margins of society. Here, Ghosh draws upon the works of fellow historians Mukul Sharma and Ramchandra Guha to point us to the vitalism of India. It’s inherent in the Dalit, Adivasi, and poor Muslim communities whose daily lives and livelihoods are intertwined with nonhumans.
What hope is there for politics of vitalism? It’s easy to get disheartened by signs of ecofascism that are all around us, from the backlash to climate refugees in the US and Europe to fanatical caste- and religion-linked food impositions (think “pure veg”) in India. But there is also an important shift underway. More than 50 countries have signed on to the 30 by 30 plan, as part of the International Convention on Biological Diversity, committing to conserve at least 30 percent of their land- and water-based ecosystems by 2030. Slowly but steadily, mainstream conservation programs are recognizing that this goal can only be met by shifting away from ‘othering’ of nature toward integrating indigenous knowledge systems.
Slowly but steadily, mainstream conservation programs are recognizing that this goal can only be met by shifting away from ‘othering’ of nature toward integrating indigenous knowledge systems.
Ghosh’s view might sound like an improbable one, but I much prefer it to techno-optimist dreams of ‘fixing the problem’ with breakthrough innovations. If we look around us, we’ll find success stories that we can help scale up. Community-based, women-led businesses such as sustainable local fishing and less water-intensive millets cultivation are not only ecologically sound, but ensure food security and social and economic wellbeing of the historically oppressed.
By now it’s widely accepted that climate change mitigation goes hand in hand with social justice or directing resources toward those disproportionately hurt by climate change. The Nutmeg’s Curse challenges that conventional wisdom by insisting that the best hope for our planet lies in learning from and, allying with, the most marginalized people of this world.
Deepali Srivastava is a writer and editor whose articles on environmental and social justice issues can be found in Forbes Asia, MSNBC.com, NextCity.org and strategy-business.com. As founder and president of Script the Future, she also provides communications and editorial services to sustainability-focused organizations.