The Earth Is Doing Our Thinking for Us: A Conversation with Amitav Ghosh

November 8, 2021   •   By Andrew Malmuth

KYLE POWYS WHYTE writes that, for Indigenous communities, such as his own Potawatomi peoples, it is not uncommon to look “at futures of rampant climate injustice as looking to the cyclical history of settler and other colonial inflictions of anthropogenic environmental change.” That histories of colonialism form a foundation for our current climate crises is evident to the Indigenous and colonized peoples of the world; as Amitav Ghosh notes in our conversation, the more important question is: For whom is it not evident? In his book The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Ghosh weaves together travel writing, personal narrative, historical analysis, and synthesis of expansive scholarship to tell a story about Western empire and the extermination of our world. Ghosh does not deny the links between global capitalism, fossil fuel production, and our warming planet — he is intimately aware, in fact, of how fossil fuels dominate our lives. However, he follows theorists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Cedric Robinson, and C. L. R. James who argue that capitalist modernity is inseparable from the institutions and logics built through imperial violence toward racialized, colonized peoples. Ghosh traces how colonial systems of domination shaped both racialized ideologies toward enslaved people alongside mechanistic ideologies toward the “natural” world — casting all nonhuman entities as inert, machine-like, and devoid of vitality. He quotes Ben Ehrenreich, who has observed that “only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so.” 

Colonialism, for Ghosh, is in part a “process of subjugating, and reducing to muteness, an entire universe of beings that was once thought of as having agency, powers of communication, and the ability to make meaning — animals, trees, volcanoes, nutmegs.” What have we lost by obscuring the vitality of the nonhuman? Through what collective work — e.g., the telling of stories, the rejection of Western supremacy — can we revitalize our relationship to the planet? Ghosh’s book may, unfortunately, not be widely read by those making consequential decisions at the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. However, the history that he explores — the extermination of the Bandanese by the Dutch empire, the American state’s role in maintaining the supremacy of the fossil fuel economy, the violence inflicted by the Brazilian settler-colonial state on Indigenous peoples and land — will haunt the meeting like a specter, tying our future to our past in ways both tragic and all too commonplace. 

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ANDREW MALMUTH: You started and finished this book during the COVID-19 pandemic. What was your motivation for writing about empire and the climate crisis at this particular moment?

AMITAV GHOSH: Many of these themes have been in my head for a long time. I’ve been talking about them, writing about them, lecturing about them. But I really needed to clear my desk to start writing this book. Coincidentally, right as I finished a project in early March 2020, we were in the beginnings of a global pandemic. And suddenly I had these long days and a lot of time, and I was able to find the sort of deep focus that I have had in the past, but which becomes increasingly difficult in everyday life. Now, suddenly, that returned, and I was able to completely concentrate on this book, and I wrote it in about eight or nine months during the pandemic.

In a way, the ideas began to flow quickly once I started writing — they began to cohere. Also, somehow, the writing quickened because of the pandemic and because of everything that was happening — including the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement, but also my own family crises, with my father-in-law and mother-in-law dying in quick succession and my own mother following them. Because of COVID-19, I was not able to be there with them when they passed. All of this created an incredible sense of crisis and urgency that really sharpened my mind in a way that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time.

The material resources that were and continue to be an object of imperialist extraction are central to the narrative of your book. You write that, in the Banda Islands, the tree that produces the nutmeg is a gift that is unique to the island, but you also titled your book The Nutmeg’s Curse. What were you hoping to evoke with the idea of a curse?

To put it quite simply, the nutmeg’s curse is what we now call the resource curse. The people of the Banda Islands were among the first in history to experience this resource curse, but not the only ones. The Banda Islands had a botanical resource, but the people of the Americas had other resources — land, but also minerals and so on — and they were devastated by these resources in the same way that we see in the Banda Islands, where people were exterminated for them. This is when we see the rise of a particular kind of extractive ideology for which the whole world, the whole planet, is nothing but a series of resources. It’s not just botanical goods, it’s not just minerals, it’s human beings — and in fact I think it starts with human beings. It is when European colonizers find that they can dominate and control, buy and sell, large numbers of human beings that they extend this ideology to the entirety of the earth. What we see now is that the climate crisis or, if you like, the planetary crisis, is really nothing other than the global extension of the resource curse. With the burning of fossil fuels, we have effectively used the atmosphere as a resource, because even a waste bin is a resource of sorts. Colonization has brought us to this point of dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as if it were a resource to be exhausted.

You start and end your book with the history of the Banda Islands in Indonesia. Within the expansive history of imperial conquest, violence, and extraction, what brought you to this particular set of islands? Why were they so vital to your story?

I’ve been writing about the Indian Ocean for much of my writing life. Most of my books have some sort of connection with the Indian Ocean, so I’ve been profoundly engaged with this history for a very long time. I’ve always known that the Spice Islands played a very critical role in the history of empire, but what exactly happened there I didn’t know until I went to the Banda Islands for the first time in 2016 and saw the landscape in person. And then, as I slowly began to explore this history, I realized that it was the key to the story that I was trying to tell.

I’ve done a lot of travel writing in my life and, in a sense, this book is a kind of travel book. It’s a travel book that explores history and ideas through the medium of space — through the medium of a landscape. So, my book returns to this landscape of the Banda Islands again and again. And I think this is a form that a few other writers have also used, or played with, to great effect. One of them was Sven Lindqvist, whose books I refer to often in the text. I really think he was one of the great writers of the 20th century — and I think that’s increasingly coming to be recognized. His book “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide has been made into a film by Raoul Peck. His work is certainly a landmark. Also, right before the pandemic, another very important book was published. It’s called Desert Notebooks and it’s by Ben Ehrenreich. In Ben’s case, he has a long relationship with the American Southwest. He uses the landscape, if you like, to explore ideas and history, and to tell stories that are inseparable from the medium of space.

In your book The Great Derangement, you ask: “Could it be the case that imperialism actually delayed the onset of the climate crisis by retarding the expansion of Asian and African economies?” Your answer is that this was probably the case. Yet in The Nutmeg’s Curse, you argue that Western imperialism established modes of settler-colonial extraction that have now been picked up and accelerated by expanding BRIC economies. In this sense, Western colonialists set a template for exacerbating the climate crisis. How are the two ideas in these books related to one another?

In The Great Derangement, I begin to explore some of these arguments, but, because it is a different kind of book and a much shorter book, I didn’t tell the full story. One of the arguments I made is that Western empires retarded the growth of the fossil fuel economy in very large parts of the world. That was partly what led to the great disparity that we see today between, especially, the West and the Global South. In the sense that empire slowed the growth of the fossil fuel economy, it also delayed the climate crisis.

But I think the argument I set out in The Great Derangement has been misunderstood by many people. I was not suggesting that this was a good thing. In fact, this was yet another element of the disaster. Because if, let’s say, India or China or Indonesia had started to industrialize in the 19th century as, indeed, many Indians and many Asians wanted to, we would not only have seen less wealth disparity, but we may have been alerted to the climate crisis much sooner than actually occurred. You have to remember that industrialization is mimetic. After all, Italians didn’t invent the steam engine, but within a decade they had their own steam engines. Absent Western domination, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Asians couldn’t have done what Russians, Italians, and others were doing. Asian crafts and ironmongering were at least as advanced as those of Europe well into the 19th century. They could very well have started to industrialize at the same rate as the West. If that had happened, we would have seen the greenhouse effect becoming more detectable by the early 20th century. Not that it wasn’t deduced, but it wasn’t deduced at the scale that it began to be later.

If this effect had been shown in the early 20th century, the whole world could have taken a different direction. Because the technology already existed — wind technology was making great gains in the early 20th century. Electric cars, for example, were quite a popular idea in the infancy of the automobile. At that inflection point, if these technologies had been adopted at scale, there is a possibility that history could have taken a different direction. At that point in time, people were not dependent on fossil fuels to the degree that we are now. We have today been completely captured by fossil fuels, in the sense that everything we do is dependent on fossil fuels. The food we eat. All of our transportation. This was not the case in the early 20th century. So, at that point, it was possible for humanity to take a different turn. But it was actually the colonial suppression of the fossil fuel economy in other parts of the world that prevented this realization from coming about. After all, this realization of the enormous danger of greenhouse gas emissions came about — let’s admit it — because of decolonization. It was decolonization and the adoption of the fossil fuel economies by the non-West that led to the recognition that greenhouse gas emissions are profoundly dangerous.

While I maintain this argument from The Great Derangement, my new book shows, as you say, that settler-colonial models of violence and extraction are responsible for environmental collapse. Looking at Brazil, we have to remember that Brazil was a settler-colonial state. Of course, the model of settler colonialism in South America was somewhat different from that of North America. It was perhaps somewhat less interventionist with the landscape and so on. But Brazil was very much a settler-colonial country, and those practices and states of mind exist there in a very powerful way. Bolsonaro, and what he is doing in the Amazon, expresses that settler-colonial mindset just as much as Trump’s policies did in America. We can’t forget these realities and how they have been shaped by colonial pasts.

You build on the perspective of thinkers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Cedric Robinson who argue that colonial violence and extraction were constitutive of modernity and should be central to any analysis of our current political moment. While Robinson showed how imperialism shaped a racialized modernity, you focus on how Western imperialism constructed a vision of “nature” as mechanistic and lifeless. How do you think this process of meaning-making created the conditions for our current crises?

In some ways, it is difficult to trace the way history shapes ideology. I suppose this is partly because of the way that universities and the humanities are constituted. In universities, philosophy is spoken of quite separately from history. Ideas are seen as evolving on their own, whereas history happens somewhere else. But it seems to me that what the philosophies central to empire — the Western, mechanistic philosophies — express is absolutely a philosophy of conquest. It was when elite Europeans began to see that they could dominate, and indeed exterminate, large numbers of people — that they could move millions of people through enslavement — that a mechanistic ideology toward the planet began to arise. Just ask yourself: How do they even begin to get this idea that they are going to steal millions of people from one continent and move them to another for forced labor? Before the conquest of the Americas, nobody had ever imagined anything like that. The very idea was inconceivable. That experience — the apocalyptic violence that was unleashed through empire — becomes, ultimately, an ideology of supremacism. The leading European philosophers of the time create this idea of humans as masters of the earth, as the sole the agents of history. But by “human” these philosophers didn’t mean people of every kind — they meant white men. Because all the rest were just brutes who were incapable of making history or making meaning. It is sometimes said that Linnaeus’s ideal type for the human was himself. Many of these philosophies are really nothing but ideologies of conquest. It’s important to note that the mechanistic, materialist philosophies are a radical break even within European traditions of thought.

The book closely traces the formation of these mechanistic ideologies, but you emphasize that the materiality of place — the meaning created by space and land — was a fundamental link between imperial expansion and environmental crisis. How did empire remake place in a way that shapes our current moment? 

Empire uprooted, if you like, the links between people, place, and material goods. For example, the Dutch wanted to gain control of the nutmeg tree and thereby of nutmegs and mace. So, they decided, let’s just do away with the Bandanese and that will get us our nutmeg producing factory, which is the Banda Islands. But it would never have occurred to the Dutch to say, okay, down in Burgundy they make some very good wine, which can also be very profitable. So why don’t we just go down to Burgundy and kill all the people and take all the grapes and start making that wine ourselves? This would never have occurred to them. Why? Because they understood that between the grapes of Burgundy and the terrain and the people there was an inseparable link. The wines of Burgundy wouldn’t be the wines of Burgundy without the people of Burgundy and the soil of Burgundy. It’s that spatial logic that comes to be completely erased after colonialism.

People from everywhere went to trade with the Banda Islands because of the nutmeg tree. From China, India, Africa, the Middle East. People made long and dangerous journeys. Many of the merchants lived there for years. Those merchants could have taken the trees from the islands, planted them at home, and cultivated them there. Why didn’t they do that? They didn’t do it because, for them, a nutmeg wasn’t a nutmeg unless it was from the Banda Islands. Because it was the place that made it what it was. There was a time when human beings thought of everything in this way. I even remember such a time. When I was a kid, if you were driving around Bengal, every time you drove through a town there was something specific that you would eat that was special to that place. You went to certain places to get certain products. And, actually, that is still widespread in certain parts of the world. So, in a sense, that way of thinking of the world is not unrecoverable. But what the colonial botanical exchanges do is that they absolutely sever the relationship between place and product. The product becomes just a lifeless entity that exists only as commodity.

You write in The Nutmeg’s Curse that “an essential step toward the silencing of nonhuman voices was to imagine that only humans are capable of telling stories.” While The Great Derangement called on writers to embrace the uncanny and tell the story of climate change, this book seems to call more attention to the need to listen to the stories that more-than-humans have always been trying to tell us. How might we create more opportunities to hear the stories nonhumans are telling?

Certainly, these stories cannot be told by philosophy. Most Western philosophies are deeply tied to mechanistic understandings of the world. Most of all, that kind of philosophy is tied to language. Whereas, historically, people who have had intuitions of nonhuman agency have always had those intuitions outside of language. I do think that these stories can’t be told by anyone but storytellers; and it was historically storytellers who told these stories about nonhuman agency and nonhuman vitality. Really there is nobody else who can do it. Of course, there are some people from the social sciences, especially from anthropology, who have taken up this work. Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s book The Falling Sky is a very powerful testament to the vitality of the earth. But then so is Black Elk Speaks. We do have to look at poetry, at stories, to construct these narratives. But telling those stories will mean, in many ways, undoing the education that we have all had. We have to ask: For whom are these stories hardest to hear? University-educated people, particularly in the West. They are the ones who can’t or won’t believe such stories. Whereas ordinary people everywhere do believe these stories. Well over 50 percent of Americans, for example, believe in all sorts of beings — the paranormal, etc. If you imagine who the people are who can’t believe these stories, it is a small, minority elite. Unfortunately, it may be a small minority, but it is an incredibly powerful minority.

As you write in the book, while you were experiencing your own personal loss, you were also uncovering and reliving moments of violence and extermination in imperial history. What did the context around you bring to the writing of the book? 

At one level, I feel incredibly grateful that I had this book to work on through the pandemic. It would have been much harder to get through it without the book. One of the reasons I was able to write it was because it was nonfiction. Fiction would have been much harder. It was very hard for many novelists and short story writers. Whereas I had this project. But also, you know, there was a constant sense of uncanniness as I was writing. Just to run out into Black Lives Matter demonstrations and see the signs and what people were saying. Connecting the carceral state of today with the plantation economies of the colonial period. My whole book was, in a sense, about this — that that period has not ended. What we are living through is in fact the legacy of colonial domination. And suddenly I am out in the world and everybody is saying that! It’s not just me. Everybody at those demonstrations, on some level, realizes that. And that’s when you realize that in fact this is the historical perception of Black, Indigenous, and colonized peoples everywhere. For them, of course it’s apparent. It’s evident. Again, the question should be: To whom is this not evident? It is, again, this tiny minority of university-educated people. 

You write in the book about the need for a “vitalist politics” — distinct from colonial ideologies that cast the planet as a lifeless resource — that embraces the vitality of the planet, including its human and nonhuman elements. You call on writers to be part of shaping a vitalist narrative, but you also identify the geopolitical dominance of the West as a primary barrier to any meaningful shift toward vitalism. Since writing The Great Derangement, have you seen changes in the world that you think have broken down — or perhaps strengthened — the mechanistic perspectives of the colonial era?

Since the writing of The Great Derangement, there has been a major shift. In 2016, for example, no “serious” American review publications — except for LARB — were covering my writing on the climate disaster. Nowadays, the inquiries are abundant. Why? It has not come about through any intellectual process. It has not come about through any rethinking. It is coming about because our earth is doing our thinking for us. It is challenging us. It is forcing us to accept that we were wrong in almost everything that we thought. And when this truth is so patently apparent — literally scrawled upon the world through these horrific events that are unfolding all around us — you suddenly begin to realize, of course, that something is horribly wrong. That is really the point of a vitalist politics. It’s not that we can go around selectively adopting elements of vitalism. The first thing we have to recognize is that a certain pattern of thinking — a pattern of thinking which is rooted in the West and goes back hundreds of years to the dawn of the colonial area — is collapsing all around us. Some people are responding to that collapse by trying to think in different ways. And we should not underestimate the people that are trying to do that. But, again, a small but very powerful minority is continuing to double down on the extractivist, mechanistic approaches of the past. Geoengineering, which is now being pushed concertedly by elites, is a case in point. Even though everything we see tells us that large-scale engineering projects of the past have created catastrophic unintended consequences. In fact, our entire crisis is rooted in the unintended consequences of the fantasies of engineering — of terraforming. And yet, this small, incredibly powerful minority is intent on pushing this down our throats. Against all this, writers have to be part of telling a different story.

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Andrew Malmuth is a writer and a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Sociology.