Parables For a Planet in Crisis
By Amitav Ghosh
(University of Chicago Press, 2021)
Review by JoeAnn Hart
Many of you know Amitav Ghosh from his 2016 book The Great Derangement in which he bemoaned that the most serious issue of the day, climate change, was being ignored in fiction. I still think it’s not addressed nearly enough, although the NYTBR reviewer Hamilton Cain, in a recent review of The Deluge by Stephen Markley, believes there is a tsunami of recent climate-change literature. Perhaps. If he means more than there used to be, that is certainly true, and much of the credit for that goes to Ghosh for banging the crisis drum loud enough for writers to hear.
Now, in The Nutmeg’s Curse, Ghosh, with historical and academic precision, examines the degradation of the Earth as framed within the dynamics of global power, particularly the colonization of the world by the West. The nutmeg in the title stands as both a cautionary tale and as a symbol of unrestrained capitalism. In the 1500s, a handful of the small round spice, the size of an acorn, could buy a house or a ship, and pretty much only grew in one place, the Banda Islands in Indonesia. The Banda natives considered the volcanic land where the trees grew a sacred place, but colonizers “envisioned nature as a vast mass of inert resources” to be bought and sold. When the Dutch arrived at the islands demanding exclusive trading rights to the nutmeg they were met with resistance, so the Banda natives were killed and dispersed down to the last one. A entire culture wiped out for the sake of a commodity, the islands occupied by the colonizers who had no love or understanding of the land and the living things upon it. They saw only the nutmeg. This pattern continued everywhere the colonizers travelled in pursuit of wealth, including North America. When the U.S. Army set out to eliminate Native Americans, they first “eradicated the web of life that sustained them,” most notably by slaughtering all the buffalo that they depended on, then depleting the land itself with herds of imported cattle. “The genocide of the Amerindian peoples was the beginning of the modern world for Europe – bringing vast wealth to those countries.”
It is this very wealth that Ghosh maintains is preventing any decisive action against climate change. He writes that those in the former settler colonies have no interest in slowing down climate change because they believe they will be protected from the worst of it, and that they will even reap rewards from catastrophic disasters in poorer countries. According to Ghosh, they are deluding themselves. In many ways, wealthier countries could be hit hardest. They have hardly been exempt from the extreme rains and tornados that are the result of a rapidly changing climate, and if what they value most are their material goods, then they certainly have the most to lose. At any rate, when disaster strikes in one part of the world, those surviving humans will move to another part, as they already have, and, like the settlers before them, they won’t very much care who is already there. The nutmeg’s curse is this: As long as we treat the land and its resources separate from all beings that inhabit the living Earth, we will only accelerate the destruction of it all.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the prize-winning collection of short fiction, Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, from Black Lawrence Press. Other books include the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s.