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Amitav Ghosh: ‘What we are seeing in India, and in other parts of Asia, is the wholesale adoption of settler-colonial practices by political and economic elites’

Writer Amitav Ghosh on the clear and present danger that is climate change and connecting the dots between colonialism, capitalism and ecological imbalance in his new work of non-fiction

Around the time that Amitav Ghosh’s new book of non-fiction, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (Penguin Random House, Rs 599), released in India this week, reports threw up alarming new data on the spiralling global climate crisis. Months after the “code red for humanity” sounded by United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and ahead of the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which begins on October 31, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released its report, “World Energy Outlook 2021”, on October 13. In it, IEA highlighted how the bid for economic recovery in a pandemic-ridden world has seen “a large rebound in coal and oil use”. “Largely for this reason, it is also seeing the second-largest annual increase in CO2 emissions in history,” the report said.

In India, Adivasis in Chhattisgarh launched a 300-km march to the state capital of Raipur to protest against the land-acquisition process and the mining projects in the Hasdeo Arand forests of central India; the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, that would ease diversion of forest land and offer exemptions to certain developmental activities from governmental clearance, even as state governments warned of an impending electricity crisis if coal stocks are not urgently replenished.

In Ghosh’s compelling narrative, such ruptures arrange themselves into a discernible pattern of violent aggrandisement that dates back to the arrival of the first European colonisers on foreign shores, and adopted since by governments and corporates around the world. Ghosh begins with the story of the nutmeg, a spice that had, for centuries, been grown and traded in the Banda Islands (now in Indonesia) on the Indian Ocean. The arrival of the Dutch colonisers in the 16th century and the violent profiteering project that takes shape destroys the islands and its indigenous community. Over the next several centuries, this model of rapacious appropriation would, quite literally, reshape, or as Ghosh contextualises it, “terraform” the Earth, and birth acquisitive cultures that thrive on narratives of unbounded growth.

Yet, writes Ghosh in the book, “As we watch the environmental and biological disasters that are now unfolding across the Earth, it is becoming even harder to hold on to the belief that the planet is an inert body that exists merely in order to provide humans with resources. Instead, the Earth’s responses are increasingly reminiscent of the imaginary planet after which the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem named his brilliant novel Solaris: when provoked by humans Solaris begins to strike back in utterly unexpected and uncanny ways.”

Taking off from his 2016 work of non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh, 65, offers an intriguing examination of the mounting climate crisis, through a prism of history, politics, economy and philosophy to show how a colonial, capitalist culture of discrimination and violence in Asia and the Americas has led to this precipitous moment of ecological imbalance.

In this email interview, he speaks of stumbling upon the story of the nutmeg on a visit to the Banda Islands, the link between climate change and ethno-nationalism and the flawed principle of climate elitism. Edited excerpts:

You have been writing about the Indian Ocean for a very long time. Do you remember what first sparked your interest in its history and geopolitics?

I, too, have sometimes wondered why the Indian Ocean has loomed so large in my imagination. Maybe it has something to do with the years I spent in Sri Lanka as a child. Sri Lanka may be a small country but it occupies a central position in the history and geography of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, as you will have seen in The Nutmeg’s Curse, small islands, like those of the Banda Archipelago, have played a key part in the history of the Indian Ocean.

When did you first become aware of the clear and present danger that is climate change?

I started to become aware of the effects of climate change while writing about the Sundarban in The Hungry Tide (2004). Even back then, 20 years ago, some of the impacts of climate change, such as salt-water intrusion, were visible there. Since then, the devastation of the Sundarban, by a series of cyclones such as Aila (in 2009), made it clear that the dangers were indeed clear and present.

You write in this book how you became immersed in the history of the decimation of the indigenous community in Banda during the pandemic. How did you arrive at the story itself, given how little was known of this event?

My awareness of this story came from my visit to the Banda Islands in 2016. Before that visit, I knew almost nothing about what had happened there, because very little has been written about it. One of the reasons for this, perhaps, is that the Banda Islands came to be absorbed into the Dutch Empire, the history of which tends to be much less discussed than the British, or even the Portuguese and Spanish empires.

How did it help you to connect the dots between market fundamentalism and colonialism?

Writing the book was indeed a process of connecting dots. And in this, I must say, the islands themselves played a significant part. It was in thinking about the terrible events that doomed the people of the Banda Islands — essentially because the Earth had given them a tree of matchless value — that I began to understand the connections between colonial conquests, race, extractivism and capitalism.

One of the most fascinating accounts in the book is the story of eco-migrations. I remember at the time of Gun Island (2019), you’d mentioned how during the course of your travels in Italy you’d come across a migrant camp in Caltanissetta where the many Pakistani immigrants had moved because of the various floods that had taken place in their country. Yet, somehow, when we think of the refugee crisis, we usually tend to look at it from a political lens and rarely from an ecological perspective.

Ecological impacts are, of course, very important drivers of the migrations that are currently underway around the planet. But, I think, we have to be careful not to be reductive in considering the causes of these migrations. As I’ve said in The Nutmeg’s Curse, in my travels I did not meet a single migrant who was willing to describe themselves as a ‘climate migrant’. Their journeys were driven by many factors of which ecological impacts were just one. It is important to remember that communications technology plays a very important role in the migrations of today. Pre-existing networks also play a very important part in enabling these movements. So, for example, among the migrants who are crossing the Mediterranean and the Balkans, there are many Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, but very few Indians. This is, I think, largely because the clandestine networks that enable migrants to move are not as extensive, or as deeply rooted in India as they are in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Both Bangladesh and Punjab have long histories of sending young, working-class men abroad, so the pre-existing migrant networks in these regions are very strong. In India, by contrast, overseas migrants generally tend to be middle class, except in Punjab, which is more akin to the Pakistani and Bangladeshi pattern. However, I think this will change, and similar networks will soon spread through India.

In one of his first interviews after his Nobel Prize for Literature win this year, Abdulrazak Gurnah spoke of how the Western imagination of migration is limited by a belief that ‘there isn’t enough to go around’ and that there could be a way around it if one could conceive that these people have something of value to offer in return. This limitation of the Western imagination is something you address, too, in your writing. But you serve a warning note when you say that it could spur on eco-fascism or ethno-nationalism if left unchecked.

Migration tends to create a strange kind of double-think in places that become destinations for migrants. Once migrants start working in a certain sector, it often happens that local people stop doing those jobs. So, for example, in Italy, the caregivers who look after elderly people are almost all migrants; native-born Italians just don’t do that kind of work anymore. That’s also true of some kinds of agricultural work. In the US too, native-born Americans (including the children of migrants) have stopped doing certain kinds of agricultural work. I met a Midwestern farmer recently who told me stories about how, in his teenage years, he would work on a farm for pocket money. He said that today it’s almost impossible to get American teenagers to do that kind of work, even if you pay them well. They would rather work indoors, as cashiers in a supermarket chain. I’ve seen this pattern evolve also in Goa, where the workers and labourers are now mainly from Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Many native-born Goans are reluctant to do certain kinds of work now, like gardening, masonry or waiting in restaurants. Yet, these very regions, which have become completely dependent on migrant labour, also often generate nativist movements, calling for the exclusion of migrants. The UK is a good example: the nativists thought that after Brexit, British people would rush to take the jobs that migrants once held. But this has not proved to be the case, as they have found to their cost.

The nutmeg tree (Photo: Amitav Ghosh)

How do you see this ethno-nationalism play out within nations with regard to climate change?

That dynamic is visible everywhere, even in India, where Bangladesh is constantly being vilified in relation to migration. Yet, Bangladesh now has a higher per capita GDP than India, and has better social indicators as well. In fact, India is hardly an attractive destination for Bangladeshi migrants. In Europe (and also in India), hostility to migrants is often superimposed on religious divisions, creating a really toxic mix.

Countries such as India, with their traditionally animistic approach to nature, could have chosen a different approach to conservation. Where did we falter?

In India, as elsewhere, vitalist beliefs have largely been kept alive by people who have a close connection with the land. These people are generally those who live in forests or belong to disadvantaged castes. In India, many of these people are absolutely under attack by middle-class urbanites who are intent, not only on destroying their ways of life but also in seizing their lands. What we are seeing, essentially, in India, and in other parts of Asia, is the wholesale adoption of settler-colonial practices by political and economic elites.

Do you see the history of violence that shaped the Americas play out in a new form but with similar end results in Asia, now that the coloniser’s focus on ‘terraforming’ has been adopted by corporates and governments?

Yes, sadly this is absolutely the case. Throughout Asia now, there is a mania for building dams, for instance. Yet, in America, where dams have been used extensively to terraform the terrain, it is now becoming clear that dams will exacerbate the effects of climate change. Indeed, many dams are now being dismantled in the US. Unfortunately, this lesson has not been widely absorbed.

Two things that have emerged out of this pandemic are the erosion of public trust in institutions and a heightened awareness of the deep inequality that exists in society today. In India, for instance, the sight of the migrants walking back to their villages when the lockdown was declared remains emblematic of the first phase of the pandemic. What do you foresee as its impact in the coming days, given that climate elitism relies on the belief of the survival of the richest?

What happened in India in relation to migrant workers was completely horrific: it was an all-out declaration of a class war, waged by elites against the poor. The long-term effects will be terrible, in terms of climate resilience. One of the things that this pandemic has shown is that an absence of social trust creates terrible outcomes. So, for instance, the US, which led the way in coming up with vaccines, has been unable to vaccinate large sections of its population, simply because of a lack of social trust. In general, the countries that have been worst hit by the pandemic are those with high rates of inequality, and low social trust — most notably the US, Brazil and India.

The spice that spurred on a colonial invasion (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In The Great Derangement, you’d written that future generations would hold not just leaders and politicians accountable for their failure to address the climate crisis, but also artists and writers because ‘the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.’ Do you see writers addressing this crisis of vision better since?

Yes, I think there has been significant change in the literary and artistic worlds in the last few years. Many more writers and artists are paying attention to climate change. Nowadays, I receive books and manuscripts every day that say ‘this book was inspired by The Great Derangement.’ I wish I could read all of them but the sheer volume is overwhelming.

Moving away from The Nutmeg’s Curse, how was it to write in verse about the Bon Bibi legend in Jungle Nama (HarperCollins)? Have you always been a closet poet?

Working on Jungle Nama was completely wonderful, a new experience in many ways. Writing verse was one part of it, but another was collaborating with an artist and a musician. That too was a completely new experience for me. As you may know, the audiobook of Jungle Nama is out now, and I think it is absolutely fantastic, with music specially composed by (Pakistani artiste) Ali Sethi.

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