The Nutmeg’s Curse takes aim at Colonialism, Capitalism and Climate Change

B. Nary Narayanaswamy | Updated on October 30, 2021

Amitav Ghosh’s new book is non-fiction with attitude – it is a rich, eclectic, wide-ranging, brilliant, erudite narrative

‘Those worried about the Greenhouse effect, must first worry about the White House effect’. That was George Bush Sr., the then US president, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (‘Earth Summit at Rio’). The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change emerged from this conference. Although President Bush did sign the treaty, it was clear that US was going to be a problem case when it comes to commitments to cut down Greenhouse emissions.

It would take another 25 years for any pretense of the US’ commitment to this to just vanish altogether. President Trump dismantled the provisions – and indeed the whole edifice -- including winding up many of the scientific panels and commissions working on Climate Change.

According to the New York Times “Mr Trump’s environmental policies … erased or loosened nearly 100 rules and regulations on pollution in the air, water and atmosphere”. And that the “damage done by the greenhouse gas pollution unleashed by President Trump’s rollbacks may prove to be one of the most profound legacies of his single term.”

This is the political backdrop in which the signatories to the framework convention (‘Parties’) shall meet at the UN Climate Change Conference (the 26th “Conference of the Parties” or COP 26) in November at Glasgow.

Meanwhile, the science is clear. As the COP26 explainer puts it, “If we continue as we are, temperatures will carry on rising, bringing even more catastrophic flooding, bush fires, extreme weather and destruction of species. …. We have made progress in recent months to bend the temperature curve closer to 2 degrees; but the science shows that much more must be done to keep 1.5 degrees in reach.”

And to achieve this “The world needs to halve emissions over the next decade and reach net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century if we are to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. “

Amitav Ghosh’s new book The Nutmeg’s Curse -| Parables for a Planet in Crisis takes aim at this mess. It traces the origins of the Climate Change crisis and lays it straight at the feet of Colonialism – Western colonialism – and the Capitalist paradigm built entirely on exploitation: the slave trade and the brutal exploitation of people; and the mindless exploitation of nature without any thought to consequence.

Things may have mellowed down over the last two hundred years, but the essence of the paradigm has not changed one iota. Even in the response to climate change, the basics have not changed: Cars will still continue to be made and used – only this time they will be electric; runaway energy consumption will continue – the only change is that they would be generated using renewables, or maybe by nuclear reactors.

This book is a sequel of sorts to The Great Derangement that he published some four years ago. There Ghosh had explored how literature simply does not seem to have absorbed climate change as one of the crises of the human condition. The Nutmeg’s Curse is a rich, eclectic, wide-ranging, brilliant, erudite narrative that is highly engaging, and equally demanding. It is extremely well written, but it’s not an easy read.

It has a vast canvas across both space and time and it’s not an ‘objective’ reportage -- it’s a spirited attempt to persuade with facts and polemics. And the Nutmeg of the title forms a running theme, highlighting the various colonial excesses, follies, and lest we forget – inhuman treatment and torture of the locals. This is non-fiction with an attitude, so beware of mood alterations wrought by the narrative!

He brings not just an amazing scholarship, but the energy to follow up and talk to experts, travel all over the world pursuing some quirky historical fact. An amazing array of facts, opinions, observations, polemics, call it what you will, tumble out pretty much from every page. There are all sorts of excursions and side trips into various nooks and crannies of history, geography, sociology, current affairs …it’s an encyclopaedic, intellectual sauna bath.

The thesis is something like this:

¨ The roots of today’s problems lie in its origins, viz. Colonialism and the brutal exploitation of nature and of people, both via the mass massacre of locals (in the Americas), and slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas.

¨This forms the very basis of Capitalism as it is practiced. Starting with the Dutch East India Company, the Spice Trade, all the loot and plunder of the colonies, and down to today’s inequalities and the Occupy Wall Street protests – the few (1 per cent) have always exploited the rest (99 per cent)

¨ The world is even more dependent on extractive resources today than ever before – be it oil or lithium; be it palm oil or coal. So the task of reducing the greenhouse emissions has, if anything, just got more complex.

¨ In any case, the global response to Climate Change aims to change consumption styles only at the surface; and not dismantle the very basis of a consumption-led lifestyle.

¨The methods of traditional societies is the only way to come out of this. The ways of traditional societies respected nature as a part of the larger whole – and not just as an infinite source of ‘stuff’ to be just mined out and consumed.

This book is then an important contribution to the debate on bringing down carbon emissions. But I am not optimistic about the impact the book will have in changing anything at the level of policy or industrial practice. Those who truly need the perspective that the book lays out will likely tire of the polemics and the various excursions into arcana. And those who already do have an idea – need tips on what to do next; not an intense lesson on how things have come to be so.

Also, given its global perspective and historical canvas, he doesn’t particularly examine India’s position on climate change. I am not clear how India can solve its economic problems rooted in poverty and unemployment and soaring aspirations and yet stay close to a carbon-neutral way of life.

We have to generate jobs – and that means making something that is amenable to mass production the Schumacher defined it – as ‘production by the masses’. And aspirations unfold once the income flow starts. And the inexorable journey to owning Air conditioners and Cars then begins. (the consumption list now includes ‘fast fashion’ as one of the major contributors to the carbon footprint too.)

I hate to bring this up here, but I should note here that Bill Gates has also written a book – ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’. I have not read the book – but I can see that he is mounting a promo. on the occasion of the COP26 meeting: The e-book is available free for students.

From what I can tell that book takes an entirely ‘ahistoric’ approach, focused only on the next steps, and predicated on technology in the main. ‘We generate 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, and we have to bring it to zero... This book is about why I think we can do it’. This is the sort of thing that decision makers like to hear.

Meanwhile, the bad news is coming relentlessly: Just this week we learn that Planktons are moving to cooler climes because the oceans are warming. Being as they are at the foundation of the ocean ecosystem, no one has any idea what the consequences may be. And it was reported last week that the various lockdowns all over the world last year led to clearer air and skies, but have not made a difference to the warming of the atmosphere, which continues apace.

(B. ‘Nary’ Narayanaswamy is a specialist in Consumer Behaviour and Strategy. He is the founder of Myth + Math, an IP Lab; and is a member of the board of TARA ( Technology and Action for Rural Advancement ) a part of the Development Alternatives Group.)

About the Book

The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis

Amitav Ghosh

Penguin Allen Lane

339 Pages

Check out the book on Amazon here

Published on October 30, 2021

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