Johannes Wessels

Listening to an enthusiastic introduction of acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, a crucial question came to mind: How do (and should) we read books? Are our brains clean canvasses for authors to fill with colours and the medium of their word brush, or do we read through filters of our accumulated insights, always full of prejudices and opinions, ranging from mellow to stringent.

Ghosh leads an unmitigated onslaught on Western culture, economic development, rational analysis and even systematic theorising and science. He becomes the Matthew, Mark and Luke gospel writer for animism and vitalism, with Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth, and the Paradise of Indigenous Harmony his inspiration.

Amitav Ghosh:  The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021: John Murray Publishers)

For Ghosh, Western culture, with colonialism and economic growth at its core, is original sin. Climate change, he claims, is the direct result of an extractive mode of production which began with colonisation and resulted in destroying the paradise of indigenous populations and their environments. He calls this sin “terraforming”, a process that upends the indigenous embracing mode of engaging with the spirits of both the physical and biotic environment. Wikipedia defines “terraformation” as the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology of a planet, moon, or other body to be similar to the earth-like environment, thus habitable. Ghosh, however, applies this to indicate any process whereby living conditions (environment, society, structures, beliefs, etc.) have been or are upended by brutal genocidal extractive colonising processes.

Terraforming affected everything: colonisers transformed places by new names, introduced domesticated animals, cultivated where there was no cultivation before, transformed common areas into private zones, erected permanent structures where before people lived in light moveable hide-covered structures, applied the axe to annihilate forests… 

Central to his gospel is the nutmeg itself, the Nutmeg Islands of Banda in the Molucca and the devious conquering and control thereof by the Dutch East Indian Company. This terraformed the nutmeg tree and its fruit from being there for indigenous enjoyment to mere commodities for export and trade. Ghosh’s vitalist view of nutmegs is central:

Like a planet, a nutmeg too can never be seen in its entirety at one time. As with the moon, or any spherical or quasi-spherical object, a nutmeg has two hemispheres… for one to be seen by the human eye, the other must be hidden” (p 11).

But Ghosh doesn’t explain what value this perspective adds: this is the reality of all objects: when viewing the page on which Ghosh wrote this, the cover is hidden from my view.

The book commences with the gory detail of how the Dutch enforced the depopulation of the Nutmeg Isles because the locals didn’t adhere to the monopoly of trade enforced by the Dutch. To ensure control, the indigenous population had to be replaced by a subdued workforce and slaves from elsewhere. The instruction (p. 23/24) to “burn everywhere their dwellings… suggests a tactic, burning peasant villages to the ground, that was widely used during the Thirty-Year War, which was then raging in the Netherlands. Known as brandscattingen in Dutch, the tactic was the military practice most feared by farmers in the region…

His understanding of “brandscattingen” (brand = fire & schattingen = estimates) is incorrect. The Dutch, in their 80-Year War against Spain, applied brandschattingen to Flemish cities to finance their liberation war efforts against the Habsburgs. It was a kind of insurance (or ransom) that a city had to pay to escape the fate of being set on fire. It was better to extract lower amounts than unaffordable hefty sums: a burnt-out city will not be able to pay anything in years to come.

The holy Geo-spirit

The burning of villages is not a Dutch invention, neither can Western industrialised culture register a trademark on that: it is part of the ugly history of mankind, committed by wave after wave of warring factions, tribes, nomads and invading armies. Some examples that precede Western industrial culture: Athens by the Persians (480 BCE), Persepolis by Alexander the Great (330 BCE), Kiev by the Mongol’s (1240). To make colonialism the culprit of this practice suggests deep-seated prejudice and historical blindness. Ghosh reckons the Western “mechanistic vision of the world” lies at the heart of the problem: earth was envisioned as “a vast machine made of inert particles in ceaseless motion” with men (not women) called to the conquest of new territories and embarking on the African slave trade. In his narrative, Ghosh ignores the slave trade in Africa that precedes the Renaissance/Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment by at least half a millennium.

He further contrasts this mechanistic worldview with those of the Aborigines, the Bandanese and others, who found spiritual guidance in volcanoes where “a volcano is almost always a spiritual as well as geothermal entity: a vengeful and angry geo-spirit”. Ghosh says Christian and Islamic fundamentalists regard such beliefs with abhorrence. He, in contrast, finds in vitalist animism his source of origin and develops a simplistic antithesis that can be summarised in the table below.

In Western thinking, Ghosh claims, colonisation is regarded as a brave and “unselfish” service to open up backward areas, aimed at educating savages that believe “in the vitality of natural and celestial object… To be civilised was to accept the Earth as inert and machine-like and that no aspect of it can elude human knowledge” (p 87).

This is making a caricature of Western scientific analyses that entail an unending process of renewal of insights and perspectives: whether with genome mapping or the James Webb telescope, scientific “discovery” (I prefer the term “unfolding” or “opening up”) every time expands insight but simultaneously also the unknown, e.g. the further we see into space learning about new galaxies, stars and planets, the larger the agenda of unknowns.

Scientific indexing is an imperialistic campaign

Even the binomial nomenclature developed by the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus is considered by Ghosh as, well, functional, but actually, an imperial strike by Western culture: “Blessed by empires, Linnaeus’s system became the foundation of a way of knowing that would claim, from very early on, a monopoly on truth, discounting all other knowledge systems and their methods…” (p 95). The animistic descriptions of plants and trees by song and poetry are pushed to the periphery by this Western rationalistic onslaught.

Ghosh maintains Western science claim everything can be perceived objectively, ignoring the Western scientific acknowledgement of paradigmatic subjectivity in Western science and knowledge. For Ghosh there is no objects: stones, volcanoes, trees, birds, fruit – including the nutmeg – are subjects and actors themselves with their narratives. “Even the most sensitive of scientists are prevented by the conventions of their disciplines, from seeing their objects of study as protagonists in their own right, fully capable of generating forms of narrative and meaning” (p 96).

And for Ghosh the non-Western, non-scientific approaches, are better: “As humanity faces the possibility of a future in which living will indeed have turned into a battle for survival, it is becoming increasingly clear that indigenous understandings of terraforming were far more sophisticated than those of today’s techno-futurists…” (p 71).

The testimony of goosebumps…

In the chapter on Utopias, Ghosh describes the force of Gaia: the resettling of the Nutmeg isles by the Dutch with slaves from all over Indonesia didn’t result in an “estranged or uprooted people” since “the vitality of the landscape itself helped to forge a sense of rootedness among the people.” The spirits of founder figures (including the volcano) were “unseen beings” linked to particular locations and even after the original population was in effect eliminated, these spirits continued to “animate the earth” and inspire the slave population who worked the plantations. The goosebumps experienced at specific places attests to this spiritual presence. 

Ghosh, however, fails to explain why this bonding of the “new” Bandanese only lasted until 1990 when under post-colonial rule the Christians were massacred despite the spiritual voices of the volcano and trees and had to flee the Nutmeg Isles.

For Ghosh, Western wealth and prosperity are due to genocidal overpowering of indigenous populations that objectivised them as “Untermenschen”. The settler-colonial communities not only desecrated the Nutmeg Isles but also annihilated the Amerindian population. The latter might even have contributed to the Little Ice Age (late 16thC): “Recent research suggests that the catastrophic decline in the Amerindian population might have contributed in some degree to the drop in global mean temperatures during the Little Ice Age” (p. 53).

So, how do we read? Not through filters of our accumulated insights but according to Ghosh through the lense of slavery as the basis of capitalism (pp 117-119) and a Manichean antithesis between the Bad West and the Good Rest. He fails to explain why capitalism didn’t develop during other episodes of genocidal overpowering of indigenous populations and mass enslavement, e.g. the Roman Empire, Arabia, Persia and India, areas that depleted Africa with slaves long before the Atlantic Triangle even commenced to produce sugar and cotton for Europe and North America based on slaves from Africa.

Black Lives Matter and Heart of Darkness

His demonising of the West brings Shakespeare’s Caliban, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Sven Lindqvist (Exterminate all the Brutes) and Hitler all together as central to Western culture and colonialism: extermination was not incidental, it was a ground motive.

Contemporary Western populations should, in his view, now pay for this: Black Lives Matter, Rhodes Must Fall and Occupy Wall Street are in his view, manifestations of people fighting back against this Western infused objectivising of humans.

Nowhere in the 260 pages one finds a broader historical view of how even African chiefs “objectivised opposing tribes” or even their own subjects.

For Ghosh, the fundamental cause for climate change is colonisation’s terraforming force. The melting glaciers and rising temperatures are the result of the sins of the (Western) fathers… No longer are natural cycles a factor in global warming: it is the direct result of economic activity.

The wrath of Gaia on the evil doers…

Like an Old Testament Prophet of Doom, Ghosh envisions the destruction of the evil doers: the wrath of the god of Gaia will dawn on the spoilers of paradise: The growth of Miami, Mumbai, Houston and Phoenix has been made possible by extensive alterations to their surroundings and for him that precisely makes them vulnerable:  

“This may well be an indicator of how climate change will unfold: the locations that will be most adversely affected are those that have been most intensively interfered with – terraformed in other words… It is as if climate change were goading the terrain to shrug off the forms imposed on it over the last centuries… The planetary crisis will manifest itself with exceptional force in those parts of the Earth that have been most intensively terraformed to resemble European models.  Essentially these landscapes are throwing off the forms that settlers imposed on them…” (pp143/144). 

That is the redemption and salvation Ghosh is longing for. And that will also start ringing in the resurrection of new life on a new earth with the wicked turned into something useful: “If trees possessed modes of reasoning, their thoughts would be calibrated to a completely different time scale, perhaps one in which trees would flourish as never before on soil enriched by billions of decomposing human bodies” (p 198).

And he celebrates signs of the second coming: A court in New Zealand bestowed juristic rights on the Whaganui River that the Maoris consider as “our ancestor”. Jubilantly he proclaims that “the influence of the subterranean river of vitalism, after having been driven underground for centuries, is now again rising powerfully to the surface around the world” (p 238). It is important “in the face of unrelenting apocalyptic violence that nonhumans can, do and must speak. It is essential now that nonhuman voices be restored to our stories…” (p 257).

Ghosh regurgitates Rousseau

To summarise:  The Nutmeg’s Curse is a confession of faith. Ghosh believes in non-human vitality also in the physical field or stones and volcanoes and mountains with humans not the only beings endowed with souls, minds, language and agency. Are humans, from the trees’ perspectives, the mutes? The current world is dismal. It is a paradise lost and whilst the words are from Ghosh, the philosophy is Jean Jacques Rousseau and his Discourse on Inequality (1755).  Rousseau viewed development of society as regression: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one has saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” (p 23).

Since the arrival of mankind, life has been a battle for survival with widespread poverty, rather than wealth and comfort, the trademark of existence despite Ghosh’s perspective of an indigenous paradise before the fall into sin. For at least 95% of the time humans have bestrode the earth, it was rather a fight for survival than readily having sufficient shelter and food, not to mention living in harmony with no fear for marauding hordes. As with Rousseau, Ghosh’s paradise of the innocent, living in harmony with all the beings of stone, plants and birds, is not a kingdom of earth, but an ideological construct.

The romantic longing for the indigenous mode of existence fails to take note of the exponential expansion of the number of humans since 1750. The earlier subsistence modes of nomad living or cultivating peasantry cannot sustain such population numbers. It is intellectually lazy and untruthful to hark back to that lifestyle without indicating how to get rid of the “surplus” population that cannot be sustained by a subsistence existence mode.

To hell with goodthink…

On the choice of religion that grasps one’s heart: Ghosh is welcome to have communion with the spirits of the volcanoes, the nutmegs, the stones, the streams and trees and to celebrate these with song and poem, rather than with Western-born rationalistic analysis and systematisation like the Linnaeus binomial nomenclature.

David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of Nations) remarked that there are two versions on the inequality between the West and the Rest. “Some see Western wealth and dominion as the triumph of good over bad. The Europeans, they say, were smarter, better organised, harder working; the others ignorant, arrogant, lazy, backward, superstitious. Others invert the categories: the Europeans, they say, were aggressive, ruthless, greedy, unscrupulous, hypocritical, their victims were happy, innocent, weak and hence thoroughly victimised. (B)oth these visions have elements of truth as well as ideological fantasy.

“That still leaves the moral issue.  Some would say that Eurocentrism is bad for us, indeed bad for the world, hence to be avoided.  Those people should avoid it.  As for me, I prefer truth to goodthink. I feel surer of my ground”.

Before Ghosh – a far more talented author than a thinker – writes his next book, he should at least read David Landes and the three volumes by Fernand Braudel: Civilization and Capitalism 15th – 18th Century

An even more important question than “how do we read?” is “how do we write?”

Western culture is far more diverse and layered than the caricature Ghosh is operating with: the way he is viewing it disallows him from seeing the whole and gaining proper insight. It is an amazing shortsightedness for someone purporting to see Western imperialism and exploitation in the Linnaean binomial nomenclature and the cause of global warming in the Western colonisation thrust.

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