By Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, Parables for a Planet in Crisis, John Murray 2021
Review by NPA Book Club
Some of us knew Ghosh as a fiction writer with a Bengali background and nature friendly perspective. Here he takes a scholarly and passionate approach to the current crisis of imminent planetary collapse. He begins with the Dutch finding nutmeg in the Banda islands in the 17th century and their subsequent dispossession and extermination of the human inhabitants.
Nutmeg becomes the pioneering ‘resource curse’ that the book identifies. Though seemingly benign, this and other spices were an early example of the widespread and sometimes brutal resource exploitation that was an important motive for western imperialism.
What is most compelling is the way Ghosh links the ‘nutmeg’s curse’ to fossil fuels and the many-faceted catastrophe we now face. The extraction of coal, gas and oil has been driven by exactly the same forces as the spice trade. He argues that fossil fuels were preferred by western capitalists, rather than power based on water or other renewable sources, precisely because they better fitted its power paradigm. ‘In short steam, and thus coal, won out over water precisely because it empowered the dominant classes and was better suited to their favored regime of property‘ (p103).
This remains the case, which might explain the furious refusal of many governments to phase out coal and gas. Furthermore the geopolitical world order is based on a military capacity that consumes obscene amounts of fossil fuels.
Not all of us found his analysis fully convincing, as it ignored the complexity of the many underlying forces at work, though we appreciated the unfamiliar history told from a non-white perspective.
Ghosh is critical of the way climate change is discussed in the West. We defer to scientists without recognising that the personal experience of those closest to the land can be just as insightful. For vulnerable people floods and fires are a question of justice, not just climate justice. He takes inspiration from a number of Indigenous voices saying the present situation is not new. To their way of thinking the earth is not an inert bundle of resources but an active force with rights.
He also criticises western environmentalism’s tendency towards eco-fascism and xenophobia. It is shocking to learn that founding conservationists such as John Muir were white supremacists. NGOs such as WWF are accused of sometimes abusing tribal people’s rights. ‘Livelihood environmentalism’ on the other hand is ‘led by people who are intimately connected with the specificities of particular landscapes‘ (p233).
We weren’t sure how coherent the book is overall, and were sorry he didn’t have more to say about Australia. But we all learned a lot, found the ideas stimulating and had a great discussion.