The Nutmeg’s Curse: Review

The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
Amitav Ghosh
University of Chicago Press, 2021

In the The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh presents a sweeping historical perspective of the interwoven crises of our times, showing us that our problems are structural, global and deeply rooted. We can’t say “It’s just capitalism” or “It’s patriarchy” or even “It’s racism”. It is everything about how we have organized this society that is based upon extracting labor and resources from people and places that we have rendered into things. It is the idea that all parts of the world are inanimate, mechanical, soulless, and therefore open to economic use and ultimately destruction. This idea affects everything, indeed it creates our story of “everything” — by excluding and occluding much of the real world. We created a dead world that is external and inferior to us so that we could take what we wish from it.

But the world is not dead. And therein lies the curse.

Ghosh uses a horror story as his framework parable. It is one more agonizing chapter of the epic project of colonization. The nutmeg, a valuable spice that is native to nowhere but a few small volcanic islands in the Indian Ocean, drew the Dutch trading empire to these remote shores. When the local people refused to hand over their lands and their lives, the Dutch exterminated them in performatively violent ways. The Dutch became wealthy on this spice trade but at great cost. Among other damages, the Netherlands today faces its own destruction in no small part due to the accumulated unpaid externalized costs of its colonization project. This is the curse of the nutmeg.

We might all accept that as an apt metaphor, but Ghosh goes a bit further. The nutmeg tree is not a metaphor. It is living being. It is a vital part of a vital nested system that includes humans, volcanoes, weather, soil and many other organisms. The tree has ways of dealing with perturbation. For all we know, nutmeg trees, volcanoes, soil, cultures — this whole interpenetrating system, it may all have intent. Ghosh shows us that this project of turning the world into an inert machine has blinded us to the obvious — that the world is alive. All these organisms regulate themselves, take in nutrients, release wastes, reproduce, heal themselves, adapt to change, grow. All of it is alive. And as such it all has ways of producing meaning, of being an active participant in life — perhaps of exacting revenge.

This might be labeled anthropomorphizing, except… that term, Ghosh tells us, is itself a product of a de-vitalized world. Moreover it is nonsensical. In a world of interdependent systems where it is difficult to even draw a line between this organism and that, it is sheer arrogance to maintain this conceit of human exceptionalism. There is no reason to assume that humans are the only organisms capable of doing anything that humans are capable of doing. It may be that reserving agency and thought to ourselves is itself anthropomorphizing — giving us qualities that we may or may not have, making us our own image of what it is to be human. Humans are not special (except maybe in hubris), so there are likely few human-like qualities that are not found in many other living organisms. To limit our favorite ideas of ourselves to ourselves is just ego — but it is also an essential philosophical tool in rendering the rest of the world inert. We must be especially alive in order to remove agency and vitality from the world we would exploit.

Ghosh calls this project terraforming. Europeans left their spaces in search of new resources and labor, but they did not want new places or ways of being. Look at the names that follow in the wake of colonizing. New England, New Zealand, New York. They brought their ideas, their cultures, their foods, and a huge number of species with them, creating little Europes wherever they settled. Europeans wiped out existing flora and fauna, moved earth and water, and introduced foreign elements into the lands they conquered. But the lands were not conquered. They operate on different, slower time scales; yet they are actively adapting to all this human scuttling about.

The fundamental assumption of terraforming is that all lands are equal — we can make new Europes anywhere, even in space! — because all are sterile assemblages of interchangeable, mechanical components. But this is patently false. All lands are not equal. Each place is a unique web of living organisms, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that they do not take kindly to interference. Many elements of these new Europes — the ones that are not in European heads, anyway — did indeed adapt to their new environments, but the environments adapted right back, creating new webs of interdependence. For those elements that did not fit into the logic of the new place, it is a different story. The lands are rejecting what does not fit, what is not in balance, what is interfering with the local web of life. This is happening at all scales because all these environmental systems are living organisms. The Earth itself is alive and is making corrections. And none of these living organisms will abide being forced out of balance. This is the message of the nutmeg tree.

To say that this book is radically illuminating is understating its importance. Ghosh’s message would alter the foundations of thought for the EuroWestern world and any society that has taken elements from that intellectual toolkit. To illustrate this point, I want to talk about a modern terraforming idea, one that is widely considered beneficial, maybe even essential. The idea is rewilding. For several years I’ve had a prickly apprehension that arises when I read about this concept that logically I should enthusiastically support. Clean up the messes and let the rest of the world relax after its long human incarceration? How can that go wrong? 

Which might be the exact question the Dutch were asking themselves about violently claiming the spice islands…

Rewilding may sound lovely, but like all forms of terraforming, rewilding is a deeply dualist approach, setting humans apart from nature, in many ways above nature. In rewilding some humans would be engineering spaces to “allow” nature to regenerate. But this is impossible. Nature is everything, including us. There is no space that isn’t connected to the natural flow of energy and materials. Even in cities we are still connected to all those flows. Conversely, there is no part of this planet that we get to claim, by setting other parts aside. The whole world — inside and outside our built spaces — is integral, connected by a multitude of flowing systems. 

Furthermore, the world is all alive. It is self-regulating, perhaps even conscious. In any case, the world will heal itself regardless of what we do. Why assume we can engineer some system that is better at ecology than ecology? But we can’t be a part of Earth’s healing process if we try to set ourselves even further apart from this world that feeds and supports us. Rewilding is not healing or healthy for us or for anything else.

This is just more terraforming, only instead of new Europes, we’re making new New Yorks. We’re making bigger cities to keep our messes within fixed walls. Or that is the story we tell ourselves, a story that is rooted in the belief that humans — or some humans — are different, divorced from the flows of the natural world. We can create an enclosed, simulated world for ourselves, we think, because that is exactly what we’ve been doing since we invented this notion of a mechanistic world separate from humans (or some humans, anyway).

Packing ourselves into artificial built environments, eating artificial calories, living artificial lives on screens, sealing ourselves in artificial spaces — this all means more processing and shipping of everything. It is increasing the material and energy resources necessary to meet each of our needs. Living in cities does not somehow eliminate what we need to live. It just puts us all in one place. Living cut off from any means to meet those needs requires enormous resources and generates enormous waste streams. We don’t reduce our impact by concentrating ourselves away from the sources of all our needs. It is likely we would increase both extraction and pollution. But we can’t see this when we are blinded by notions of human exceptionalism. We believe ourselves separate from nature already; rewilding would just put us in our place. We do not understand that the place — even when it is paved and poisoned and packed with all the humans — is still a living system connected to every other living system on this Earth.

In my more cynical moments, rewilding seems like something engineered by industry to benefit itself, to drive humanity deeper into the debt of extractivism. We would force the last few humans who meet their needs outside of market mechanisms into cities. We would concentrate ourselves into tight geographical spaces, the better to provide labor pools for the service jobs necessary to keeping us all fed and clothed. We would require all manner of new products and services to accommodate this increasing simulation of life, from vat-grown protein to 3D-printed furniture. And without humans living outside cities, one can imagine there will be less call for regulation on just about every sort of extraction and pollution. This all might just be my paranoia… but then we also call the agency of nutmeg trees paranoid thinking.

Terraforming — from conservation projects like rewilding 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. To continue with the rewilding example, who decides what lands are cleared of humans? What is this state we name wild? Who gets to make that determination? Where do the excess humans go? Who determines that the lives and opinions of these excess humans do not matter? And why?

The Nutmeg’s Curse answers this. Wild is what we in this divorced culture want it to be. It is a story we tell ourselves about a “primitive” world without stupidly-clever humans messing it up. The lands that are cleared? These are those places we do not inhabit, what places we have hitherto deemed worthless. Not coincidentally these are the places we’ve concentrated the last humans who embraced a vitalist world view, a perspective that does not fit in our artificial dead spaces. Their lives do not matter because they are part of those dead spaces, denatured along with nature.

But in the dark corners of our subconscious, we suspect that we are wrong, that both lands and people have stories of their own, plans that we can’t control. We fear that they are conspiring against us, that they will break up our plans and throw off our rule. That nameless fear provokes violence — from the casual dismissal of lives in lands that we would now empty of humans to atone for our own mistakes to outright extermination. Ghosh writes: 

Despite the long and tortured birth pangs of the mechanistic metaphysic… [it] has never been able to entirely swallow the remnants of its nemesis, vitalism, which has remained forever stuck in its gullet. This source of torment is still capable of producing spasms of violence. So it happens that even today cries as simple as “water is sacred” and “honor the earth” can enrage the armed security forces that guard oil pipelines. Where does this rage reside if not in the repressed awareness of earthly vitality?…

From fears like these arose that distrust and suspicion of conquered landscapes that sometimes haunted European settlers. Thus the urgency of terraforming conquered terrain, of ridding the land of its hidden forces, of transforming it into a tame and familiar repository of resources. Yet paradoxically, that annihilatory impulse hides within itself an implicit recognition of something that cannot be explicitly acknowledged by the colonist: that Indigenous people were right all along, that landscapes are neither inert nor mute, but imbued with vitality.

Like all forms of terraforming, what rewilding effectively does is separate lands and the people who understand these places. Terraforming tries to sooth our fears by breaking up any possible conspiracy against our projects. It dis-places the people who have the deepest place-based wisdom, those who can communicate and conspire with the land. But these are also the very people who can show us how to interact with the living world again. As Ghosh says, as climatic events of “unprecedented and uncanny violence” are intensifying, they have added greater resonance to Indigenous voices,

… voices that have stubbornly continued to insist, in the face of unrelenting, apocalyptic violence, that nonhumans can, do, and must speak. It is essential now, as the prospect of planetary catastrophe comes ever closer, that those nonhuman voices be restored to our stories.

The fate of humans, and all our relatives, depends on it.

We would do well to open our eyes to reality and rejoin the rest of the world in living. A living Earth will be fine; she will heal herself of the hurts we have caused. Whether we are part of her healed body is still up to us. But we’re not going to get there on our own. And that is the lesson the nutmeg tree is trying to teach us.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022