Book Review: The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh

By | August 17, 2022

Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse is a lucid, well-written synopsis that rapidly introduces the reader to the legacy of the colonial and imperial narratives that destroyed Indigenous ways of living with the natural environment and the living planet, for profit, trade, and glory. I was moved last night to bookmark various passages from Ghosh’s book that illustrate my review. Other reviewers, such as Andrea Wulf in the Financial Times, have been similarly moved,

“The planet will never come alive for you”, Ghosh urges, “unless your songs and stories give life to all the beings, seen and unseen, that inhabit a living Earth.”

As Ghosh rightly notes, it is only ‘today’ – in the 2020s – that Western science and belief system is willing to consider the agency and needs of non-human life, and, to grudgingly look for ways to incorporate “IKS” – Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems in transdisciplinary climate sciences. Clearly, Gaia is revolting against the past 400 years of having been demoted to a dead, inert ‘natural resource’ that must be exploited to the fullest as a symbol of one culture’s beliefs of man’s place on earth. In my classes from the creative sustainability program at Aalto University I’d been introduced to the legacy of the West’s Enlightenment et al., on the strictly enforced suppression of beliefs rendered backward and primitive if they did not consider man (and christian european white man at that) as the only power to shape the planet. Ghosh not only synthesizes this legacy into a brief synopsis that captures well the argument but links it to terraforming efforts that technobillionaires crave for themselves today. As another reviewer, this time on Resilience.org, writes:

Terraforming — from conservation projects to colonizing Mars — is dependent upon denaturing nature, but it is also dependent upon dehumanizing most humans. As long as there is a “we” who decides, there are Others who are rendered voiceless. Or dead.

Ghosh traces biopolitical warfare to the works of 16th century Francis Bacon, who argued for ridding the planet of primitives and savages as the spiritual purpose of European Christians. Considered one of the father’s of the “scientific revolution”, is it any wonder that the story of rational science is deeply intertwined with beliefs of which living beings are worthy of life and which are to be exploited as beasts of burden? This is a story is worth reading, and reflecting on, for every university educated person pondering the future of our shared planetary home today. This is where decolonization of our thinking and belief systems begins – by tracing the emplaced and profitable narrative for Elizabethan swashbuckling and piracy to the dehumanisation and devitalization of all other life on the planet, all in the name of god and the scientific method. Decolonization of the mind is not just for the Others but begins at home with the roots of western science. As Ghosh says in an interview,

…in my view, it was really this violence that Europeans unleashed upon other peoples that ultimately became a violence unleashed upon the Earth. It was when they began to treat people as resources that the idea came to them that everything was a resource meant for the mastery of a very few. Because let’s not forget, the colonialists, the conquistadores, and so on, they were a tiny minority even within their own countries. They were elites really often. And they also unleashed the same kind of violence against farmers and the peasantry in their countries. Most of all, they unleashed it against women. This entire witchcraft craze in Europe is completely coterminous with this period of settler colonialism. And in effect, the violence that they unleashed upon really poor peasant women in Europe was modeled upon the violence that they had unleashed upon Native Americans.

One can see the lingering legacy of this narrative in the ideological/political battles raging across the digital zeitgeist today, as those who wish to continue with their right to exploit and profit battle with those who are waking up to the fact that the primitive brutal ones are themselves. As Ghosh says

“This is entirely an ideology of conquest and an ideology of supremacy, really. What else can you call it? But the philosophers who start articulating these ideologies are almost always connected with colonial states and with the colonial project”.
[…]
We have to find ways to restore life to the beings of the Earth who have been silenced over the last two hundred years. In this whole period that we call modernity, all these beings have been silenced. There’s a huge movement now called TEK, traditional ecological knowledge, which is again being appropriated and treated as a kind of resource, trying to use, as it were, traditional wisdom for “managing the earth,” as they call it. But this is exactly it. They don’t realize that this kind of wisdom exists in the context of stories, in the context of storytelling, in the context of songs. And all of that is what we’ve lost and what we have to try and bring back. [source]

The era of rendering things that you want to exploit and profit from as inert economic resources without soul, spirit or meaning – whether the human being who looks and thinks differently from you or whether the whales in the sea or the nutmeg in its tree – is obsolete. In the end, Ghosh’s parable is about rediscovering our ways back to making meaning of the world in which we live, together with all other life. And, this meaning will not emerge without deep resonance and wisdom, of our role and place in the complex systems that support life. Man’s footprint on earth must resize and reposition itself in its authentic humble and respectful place in this life support system.

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