The Nutmeg’s Curse: Colonialism, Capitalism and Climate Change
The anti-colonial rhetoric is stronger than ever before, in everything we read or watch. The Nutmeg’s Curse uses multiple examples of colonial oppression across the world, to show how it laid the foundation for extractivist capitalism, leading the planet to its present state of irreversible damage. The book starts in 17th century in the Indonesian Island of Banda, which the Dutch invaded in the lure of Nutmeg, a spice that grew exclusively in this island. Ghosh moves on to the European occupation of the Americas and Asia, using stories across the past four centuries, to talk about how colonialism led to capitalism and the present state of planetary crisis.
There are multiple interesting linkages that Ghosh draws between the path the conquerors took and what is happening in the world today. Unlike his earlier work on the same topic ‘The Great Derangement’, Ghosh has been more true to his original style — that of narrating stories of supernatural phenomenon, occult and sharing alternate beliefs that may not be acceptable to the more data-driven reader, in The Nutmeg’s Curse. But the ‘scientific’ readers needn’t be dissuaded. There are data points and extensive research of Climate Scientists, Historians, Anthropologists shared throughout the book.
Without taking away from the fun of reading the book, I present sections from the book that made me reflect on where we, as a global community, are today:
‘“Savage” and “Brutish” people understood something about landscapes and the Earth that their conquerors did not.’
Ghosh tells us about the etymology of the word ‘brute’. The conquerors believed that the native was ‘backward/primitive/savage/uncivilized’ and even a ‘brute’ because she lived with the land and non-human beings rather than enslaving them. Quoting an Indian Chief in Omaha, “We didn’t think of our animals as wild and something that needed to be tamed. They were part of our lives and we respected them”. Indigenous people are5% of the world’s population and they protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. It makes me wonder that as we continue to ‘civilize’ them and push them on to ‘modernity’, are we losing their invaluable wisdom of living in tandem with the planet and its beings?
‘Wars of Extermination (conquering through complete annihilation of native population) were biopolitical wars, in which weaponization of the environment was a critical element of the conflict.’
Ghosh compares normal wars (is any war ‘normal’?) with the wars raged by the conquerors on Native American Indians or the Natives of Indonesia etc. While the first one is fought between humans and ended when the objective was achieved, the second one only stopped when the entire population of the occupied territory was obliterated, by wiping out their existing beliefs and practices. The book gives instances of disease and famine in the occupied territories, which resulted in ecological imbalance as the natives original pattern of food production was changed to grow crops or meat that the conquerors were used to.
Today in our country, as we move away from our traditional Millets to Quinoa and prefer Glass/Chrome to natural structures more suitable for Indian climate, we are doing the exact same thing. A homogenised lifestyle in a non-homogenous planet, is a dangerous thing.
‘Why is the slogan “Drill, Baby, Drill” still gaining traction in the United States? Is it that those who support these policies are stupid and cannot understand the rising risks? Or is it because they believe that the odds will be on their side, because of what they imagine to be their biological and technological advantage?’
Ghosh explores the reason behind the Western world continuing activities leading to Global Warming, despite most of the research and innovation on Climate Change coming from the same region. The conjecture he arrives at is an interesting one — could it be that the erstwhile colonial powers still believe that they are superior in race and technology and therefore will somehow remain untouched by all adversities such as Climate Change? Ghosh also points out how these very same countries suffered the most during the Pandemic, maybe because of the same belief.
This chapter brought to mind the film ‘Don’t Look up’ which represents this in a fantastic satire.
‘Military and security assessments of Climate Change project images of catastrophe into the future in a fashion that negates the possibility of confronting it in the present day.’
This book is the first one I’ve read which provides conclusive evidence of the environmental impact of military operations, which is rarely available in Climate Change reports. More importantly, it boldly talks about military strategies that actively make the fight against Climate Change harder. Two dedicated chapters on this, was the deal clincher for me in this book.
While we know that Colonialism, Capitalism and Climate Change are undeniable connected, we sometimes miss the connection between the first two. What the conquerors started centuries back, trying to erase all that wasn’t a replica of themselves, continue today in the form of ‘aping’ the food and habits of the self-declared modern countries. And You and I continue to lose a bit of ourselves and the relationship with the planet and its beings, every time we scramble to conform.