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The Nutmeg's Curse - Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh

Account of the environmental crisis caused by capitalist firms and European empires

Book cover with waves washing on coral shore.
Book by Amitav Ghosh

Published by John Murry Press, 2022

Amitav Ghosh is the celebrated novelist of several meticulously researched socio-political histories most famously the Ibis trilogy that detailed the three-way 19th-century opium trade between the UK, India, and China.

The Nutmeg’s Curse is an environmental history that dissects the searing injustice suffered by local communities experiencing environmental collapse. The book amplifies themes from Ghosh’s 2019 novel Gun Island which chronicled the plight of refugees fleeing the disintegrating and oft-flooded Sundarbans in Bangladesh.

The planetary crises chronicled range from the over-exploitation of sought-after natural resources, like the book’s eponymous nutmeg, or the predation faced by communities fleeing their environmentally collapsed districts. Ghosh reminds us that climate change is the experienced reality for many unfortunate people and not climate sceptics’ disavowed future. The book zigzags through academic fields including Gaia theory, ecological economics, political economy, sociology, and anthropology drawing on examples from Indonesia, India and the Americas.

Between the historical examples, Ghosh threads contemporary observations from his peripatetic travels between his New York and South Asia homes during COVID and heightening climate protests. The journalistic snippets remind us that the environmental crisis and civil society reaction are ongoing, and we live at a tipping point.

The book’s protagonist - the nutmeg - was cultivated in the Banda islands by indigenous tribes. Tragically for them, it was sought after by the world’s first joint stock company the Dutch East India Company (VOC). VOC’s failure to procure sufficient volumes and a desire for higher shareholder returns provoked an escalation of theft, bullying, torture and eventually genocide with the intent of replacing the wilful local population with more docile slaves transplanted from other parts of the Dutch empire. Jan Coen’s account of the massacre he masterminded is phlegmatic – “all towns and fortified places of Banda had, by God’s grace been taken, erased, burned down and about 1200 souls caught.” Despite initial discomfort from company directors back at home, the 400 per cent return on investment ensured Coen was awarded a gratuity of 3000 guilders and statues were erected to honour him. Thus, the purpose of the first-ever corporate investment was not in innovation, but in looting a weak island state. The shareholder structure shared the proceeds of the theft widely avoiding censure back home. Robin Hood in reverse.

Terraforming” - replacing colonies’ indigenous flora and fauna with European varieties –is modernity’s other major environmental desecration. Settlers enclosed land in Connecticut utilised by the Pequot community (the traditional inhabitants), slaughtered or forced them to relocate and rebranded the environment’s sacred features with European identities. The attack’s architect Colonel Kit disposed of the Diné by systematic biocide cutting their orchards, burning their food stocks, exterminating their livestock, and deliberately exposing the native Americans to European infectious diseases. There is a fascinating description of the contrast between the commoditisation of land by the settlers and the indigenous people’s love for every sacred fold of the river and ridge. When asked to sign a treaty the Indian Chief refused because “he felt it excluded the voice of the Earth”. Kit’s own accounts of his actions betray no malice towards the culture he exterminated just pity borne of a belief in the superiority of western culture. Such wars of extermination were a common feature of 19thculture infiltrating even science-fiction like H. G. Wells War of the Worlds.

Ghosh sees “ecological interventions …as central to the project” and invites the reader to consider whether climate change is Gaia’s efforts to fight back after centuries, if not millennia of terraforming. Such a ‘monstrous Gaia’ is more consistent with the original myth than Lovelock’s benign incarnation. In the Greek myth, the goddess Gaia engineers the overthrow of her murderous husband Uranus.

The book exudes rage at European colonists' maltreatment of the environment. Under the cloak of free trade, proto-capitalist companies undertook armed conquest, enslavement and drug trading to enrich shareholders. Few Europeans are spared Ghosh’s scorn. He despatches poet Tennyson and biologist Darwin alongside more conventional villains.

Ghosh is not surprised at capitalism’s inability to tame Big Oil and Big Coal. This reflects western societies’ centuries-old tradition of turning a blind eye to anything that fundamentally upsets the world order. There is a scathing criticism of rich countries’ hesitancy to contribute the $100 billion promised at COP21 to the Global Climate Fund to collectively help the global south decarbonise and adapt to climate change. He points out, since COP21, military expenditure on defence grew from $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion. Much of this ongoing military spending, like investments into the Royal Navy by 18th century Britain, guarantee access to resources coveted by western consumers.

Capitalism is just as rapacious at exploiting poor communities within Europe. There is a fascinating account of how coal-fired weaving displaced water-powered looms during Manchester’s industrial revolution “The steam engine was a superior medium for extracting surplus wealth from the working class because unlike the waterwheel, it could be put virtually anywhere” and the industrialists thus avoided sharing profits with landowners holding rights to flowing water.

For many readers, perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of Ghosh’s analysis is that environmentalists are also capable of ruthless nativist policies. Pukka fascists like the Nazis often cherished nature and did not love free markets.

There are occasional bursts of optimism including Ghosh’s assertion that extractive capitalism is on its last legs and initiatives by groups like the school strikes signal a shift in young people. Maybe this is a hope rather than a prediction. This book is a call to arms for the progressive green movement reminding us that the system we want to change has a pedigree going back centuries.

I thoroughly recommend this book.