The Nutmeg’s Curse
This week: a conversation with Amitav Ghosh about omnicide, vitalism, and the history of a planet in crisis. Hear it today at 2 pm or anytime at our website.
As the COP26 climate conference unfolds in Glasgow, Greta Thunberg has described the proceedings as “a global north greenwash festival.” In his new book The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh presents a challenge to that kind of greenwashing, recounting the hard truths about connections between politics and climate, or between trade, imperialist conquest, and environmental crisis.
Ghosh’s book begins with the violent Dutch spice trade in the seventeenth century, specifically in the Banda Islands, known for their nutmeg trees. European interest in the Banda Islands’ nutmeg had horrifying results. Says Ghosh:
Exactly how many he Dutch killed with swords and so on: we don’t know. But they use swords as well as fire and also artillery. But of course, early modern technology was not such that you could just kill a very large number of people with technological means. So what actually happened is that a lot of the islanders fled into the mountains where they starved to death. Many killed themselves. But some, a few hundred, managed to flee. But nonetheless, I mean, it’s clear that the Dutch basically either exterminated or enslaved something like more than 90 percent of the population.
I mean, it’s a really grim and horrible story. And what makes it so horrible, particularly, is that the whole thing was precipitated by a tree. In every civilization in the world there are these stories of the Tree of Life, and for the Bandanese the nutmeg really was their tree of life, and it brought them prosperity. But in the end, it also brought them doom.
Ghosh’s history of commerce, conquest, and violence across the globe has a through-line, a grim and consistent theme: omnicide. To explain that term on our show this week, Ghosh brings up the example of the character Kurtz, in Africa, from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
What Mr. Kurtz really wanted was to obliterate everything there. The landscape, the trees, the jungle: everything. He just felt the deepest antipathy and hatred towards it. That’s something you see constantly in colonial ventures. For example, early settlers in New England: they hated the swamps; they wanted them drained as soon as possible; they didn’t like the forests, even, they wanted the forests to be gone. They wanted it all to look like England.
That idea is really what is behind now, this strange, bizarre sort of millenarian movement to go and settle on Mars. I think that’s really what it is. What they’re actually saying is that everything on Earth must be abandoned. Everything on Earth is worthless. Let’s go off and try again on another planet. You would think that they would ask themselves: “Humans had a wonderful planet filled with life and filled with beauty, and they’ve wrecked it. How do you expect them to make a great success out of planets that are actually much more impoverished than Earth?”
For Ghosh, a mode of thought—with adherents and promulgators throughout history—can counter omnicide: vitalism. One of the heroes among vitalist thinkers in The Nutmeg’s Curse is Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami shaman in Brazil. Ghosh says on this week’s show, of Kopenawa:
He’s making this argument that you can’t treat the forest merely as an object to be managed. So basically, his ideas about the forest and his ideas about the Earth are completely vitalist. Within that Native American worldview there is actually no difference between people and animals and other beings. They’re all spirits of a certain kind. It’s the bodies that are different, but in spirit, they’re all the same. And I think this is a very important sort of alternative view.
Open Source on Patreon
Over on our Patreon, hear producer Adam Colman’s conversation with Darren Lone Fight, professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In Carlisle, Lone Fight’s worked to bring attention to the history of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a “reprogramming camp, basically,” as he explains in this installment. It was an institution where children died, far from their families, a school where education took on “a new form of violence and warfare.”
Lone Fight also looks to pop cultural developments that work partly with the stuff of history’s catastrophes to build something new. This conversation, accordingly, ranges from history to pop culture (film, television) of the past few months.
Read: Tom McCarthy
There’s a new Tom McCarthy novel out now, which means a new chance to meditate on systems that harmonize with one another, from hydropower to political power. It’s called The Marking of Incarnation, and it maintains the eerie thoughtfulness of Remainder and Satin Island.
This week’s ephemeral library
Kinzer on a green wave of outrage in Latin America. Jhumpa Lahiri on translation. Ben Smith, the NYT columnist is a chaos muppet (that is, everyone is either a chaos muppet or an order muppet; which are you?)Nikole Hannah-Jones Keeps Her Eye on the Prize. Energy, and How to Get It.
That’s all for this week, folks. Stay vital ! Stay tuned next time for Rebecca Solnit.
The OS Vitalists