The Nutmeg's CurseGTA core team members, Shrishtee Bajpai and Ashish Kothari speak with Amitav Ghosh, an Indian-born scholar, novelist, and nonfiction writer. His many books include The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.

Shrishtee Bajpai Thank you for speaking to us. Let’s get straight into the questions. These are put together by Christine Dann, Ashish, and I. Christine couldn’t join us today. She’s our GTA colleague based in New Zealand.

The subtitle of “The Nutmeg’s curse” is ‘Parables for a planet in crisis’. We are curious to know why you chose the word parable, what is its intended meaning, and why storytelling-which is quite central to the book, is so important for you?

Amitav Ghosh
In my book “The Great Derangement”, I had written about trying to find new literary forms that are better suited to this age that we are in, and I had said that one such form could be the parable. The word parable has sort of biblical references for the Bible is filled with parables. Of course, I’m not using the word parable in any kind of scriptural or biblical sense. Rather, I’ve used the word parable because the structure of the book is parabolic. It’s not a linear narrative, it progresses through disjunctions and ranges very widely. So that’s the principal reason why I decided to call it a parable.

Shrishtee Bajpai

That’s useful. And so the next question that I had, which is connected to the non-human aspect. You speak a lot about the inanimate Earth which is a concept of the Western cognitive empire. Something that personally stayed with me while reading the book was that our ability to see meaning beyond spoken languages is so limited. So why do you think that is important and how can we revive it?

Amitav Ghosh

Well, this is the real problem, isn’t it? We, humans, use languages and because we use languages, we think that other species have no agency, no communicative abilities, and so on. In an ordinary sense, it’s not like you and I can communicate with, let’s say, trees, even though we know that trees have very complex systems of communication. In forests, trees communicate in very complex ways. They send nutrients, they respond to cries of distress from other trees. So all of this is known to us, yet within a certain Western tradition, language is paramount so much so that we restrict the whole idea of communication to language.

But of course, there have always existed many kinds of human beings who believe that they can communicate with other species. Some of these are specialists, like shamans. But many ordinary human beings can also communicate with animals, for example birds. There was a very interesting article recently in the Atlantic, about people who communicate with crows. Crows are among the most intelligent of birds and they do communicate with humans in all sorts of complicated ways. If you’ve ever gotten on the wrong side of a crow, you’ll see how they remember this for years! They have very long memories, and they store this information in various ways. So in that sense, to me, it doesn’t seem at all unlikely that there do exist many people who have some sort of communicative ability with non-humans. We know that there are people who can work very well with dogs or with horses. So certainly, there is some kind of communication … obviously non-verbal.

This doesn’t mean that we have to take every claim of communication with non-humans seriously, there are a lot of charlatans out there in the world as well. But many of the people who make these claims are not charlatans. In Southern India, there’s a very strong ‘rationalist’ movement which goes about debunking all such claims. But I think they are caught in a kind of myopia.

Shrishtee Bajpai That’s true …. many communities that we work with articulate about communicating with the spirits in the forests and so forth.

Ashish Kothari

Just jumping in … I recall when I was in the Sapara indigenous nation territory in the Ecuadorian Amazon, they told us how their lives are partly lived through the interpretation of dreams. They mentioned how in their dreams, both their ancestors and the spirits of the natural world around them, come to them. They try to arrange their life around a constant dialogue with the spirits of the river, of plants and animals, etc.. It is quite fascinating.

Amitav Ghosh

Yes. And there’s a lot of anthropological work on that. I am sure you know of the work by the guy who wrote “How forests think” (Eduardo Kohn).

Shrishtee Bajpai

So let’s move on to our next question, which is around the geopolitical footprint. You speak of geopolitics in a very different and interesting way, and also mention how it is harder to imagine the end of the absolute geopolitical dominance of the west. Why do you think that is the case? There are so many approaches of communities claiming rights over territories emerging now. And there are also aspects of bioregionalism. Could they be an alternative to what you mentioned about geopolitics?

Amitav Ghosh

I think those movements are very important and that’s why I’ve written about them at some length in the book. I think they are very heartening and that we should pay very serious attention to them, and it’s quite possible that they do offer some alternatives and they’ve certainly made some headway in the world. But we can’t forget that, in the end, war is the father of all things. And every time any country has tried to shut down energy companies, they’ve faced the geopolitical might of the United States and Great Britain. That’s been a consistent theme, going back centuries. And it would be Pollyannaish to imagine that that is going to change. I don’t want to sound overly pessimistic. But it’s clear that the Western powers and especially energy corporations will go to great lengths to keep their hold on very large tracts of the Earth where they’re engaged in extractive industries. We see this everywhere. If anything, it’s expanding. Look at the recent incursions of coal mining companies into the forests of central India. So yes, I think it’s possible and is important for there to be these alternative movements, but we should be realistic. This is going to be a fundamentally conflictual process. Any indigenous person, any Adivasi in central India can tell you that because they face this violence and conflict. And in this process, the ultimate instruments of violence are in the hands of geopolitical superpowers. We cannot choose to ignore that.

Shrishtee Bajpai

Yeah, very true. And we see that happening quite a lot with recent climate COP also, how they completely dominate the discourse. Moving on … our colleague Christine suggests that for a non-indigenous person to accept the complete reorientation of the dominant definition of reality presented by indigenous thinkers, and work through the implications when it comes to effective action on climate change, would require some serious transformations. For instance, it seems to mean that our political actions should pay far greater attention to place, to knowing it and our relations there, and telling their stories, and to defending and restoring each specific place, rather than most of our energy going to the human-to-human, non-place-based activities which currently constitute the bulk of climate change activism? Or does it? It would be great to hear what your ideas on it are.

Amitav Ghosh

Well, what she is pointing to is absolutely right. For most of us who are educated – what education essentially does is destroy your sense of the non-human, the place and it replaces space with time. So, yes, it’s very hard for us to work our way back towards any kind of understanding of that sort. Almost everything that we subscribe to really over the last 100-200 years is designed to destroy those beliefs. If you just take psychoanalysis for example … for Sigmund Freud, the idea that dreams could be about real entities speaking to you would be absurd. Ultimately, for him, the dream comes back to the human psyche and human sexuality. So, yes, to recapture that sense of the land, and of non-human voices, is very difficult for most of us. The most we can do is just pay very close attention to the people who do see the world in those ways and that’s one of the things I’ve tried to do in my book.

It’s very important that movements are built around space.

As we’ve seen, the few environmental movements that have succeeded in the long run are almost all built around certain ideas of the relationship between humans and certain spaces. This is true of the Niyamgiri case in Odisha, India, and the big environmental protests around the Dakota pipeline in Canada and North America. These protests have had a certain success, and that is because they’re not purely political protests. Their successes come from the fact that they refuse the dominant paradigm in many ways. I can’t speak about the Niyamgiri protests because I haven’t read that much about them. But certainly, with the Dakota pipeline, the protests were about rituals, sweat lodges, the beliefs in sacredness of which prayer was a very important part. Relationships with elements of the land were a very important part of it. So all of this went into it in a very important and powerful way.

I think it’s possible that what we are seeing is the beginning of a certain kind of biophilia, what some scholars call green religion, if you like. These beliefs are spreading not because humans have suddenly woken up, but because the Earth has inserted itself into the conversation with great violence. We are seeing that almost everything we once believed is just nonsense. Of all ways of thinking, the most deluded is that of economics. We can see that now. And yet we live in a society that worships economics. So, it’s very clear that we have to relate to the land in different ways and I think that is happening. However, I think we do also have to state certain caveats because that kind of biophilia can very easily slide over into a certain kind of eco-fascism, with people imagining that there’s a sort of blood and soil kind of connection between people and the land. But actually, what’s so interesting about the Niyamgiri protests and also the Dakota Pipeline protest is that even though they were led by indigenous people, they were by no means limited to indigenous peoples. People from all over the world went to join these protests. So I think those are the models that we should take seriously.

Ashish Kothari

We did a small case study on Niyamgiri and the articulation of the Dongria Kondh adivasis on why they were opposed to mining in the hills. It was not simply because they would lose livelihoods, but also that, who were they to even allow or give permission for mining? The land belonged to Niyamraja, their deity, the one who laid down the laws of the land … it didn’t belong to them.

But also, can we expand a little further on different notions of time? Compared to the linear time frames the Western civilizations have used, many Indigenous peoples or non-western cultures have very different notions of time. So is that also something important that we need to bring in?

Amitav Ghosh

Yes, certainly because Western ideas of temporality are so brief, everything has to happen within one electoral cycle. Whereas people historically always thought about the generations ahead and that’s what we’ve lost. Our time is not just intensely linear, but it also doesn’t wait for anyone. So everything has to be done in this sort of mad hurry and that’s one of the problems of proceeding with business as usual.

Ashish Kothari

So in terms of the sources of counter-power that we can see in the world, what do we have? We’re faced with incredibly powerful forces like the military, market-economy among others. In the last century, there was a lot of counter-power that was built around just the ability of workers’ unions to mobilize and to say that they would simply stop production if our needs and demands weren’t met. What do you think in this century would be the sources of power? Would they be material, cultural or spiritual sources?

Amitav Ghosh

I think you’re probably much better placed to answer that question than I am because you’ve been involved in activism for a long time. One thing that strikes me, though, is that the analogy with trade unions doesn’t hold, because one of the things that have happened over the second half of the 20th century is the breaking of trade unions. The whole manufacturing process has become so dispersed that you don’t have the huge concentrations of people in one factory or in one place. Now you have this up-to-the-minute manufacturing, which brings a huge range of subcontractors together, each producing a single thing, and they’re all connected by logistics: I’ve written about this at length in The Nutmeg’s Curse.. So in that context, I would say it’s rather difficult. But even with trade unions, I think we have to remember that from the 19th century onwards, the relationship between trade unions and the capitalist class was very conflictual, and I’m sure that is what it’s going to be again.

Ashish Kothari

Yes, I’m thinking that with this dispersed nature of work, you don’t have the physical force to do the kind of mobilization that was possible earlier. But then there is some sort of a global, transnational or cultural phenomenon, that could include stories and parables. This whole thing that we are in some sense united or should be united against the structures that are bearing down on us becomes more of a cultural connection …. is this true?

Amitav Ghosh

Well, I certainly do feel that that’s the case. There’s a certain kind of biophilia in the world today. There are also movements such as Fridays for the Future, led by Greta Thunberg and others. So, yes, I do think that’s very possible, but let’s not underestimate the difficulties. After the Bhopal disaster, the trade unions opposed pushing Union Carbide out of India because they saw it as a bread and butter issue, they felt that the company provided jobs. We see something similar playing out today as well. In many places, people who are worst affected are often the most reluctant to let go. We are talking about movements led by indigenous peoples but very large numbers of indigenous peoples also actually work in pumping up petrol and other extractive industries. And that’s been the case for a long time. Some of them have also conspired with energy corporations because in any community there are some who want to make money. That happens everywhere, doesn’t it? So we can’t really underestimate the challenges that these forces pose because they’re actually capable of disrupting anything.

Ashish Kothari

Absolutely. This again tells us the importance of alternatives, because if we can give some sort of possible security to people who are going to be laid off because of factories or coal mining being shut down, and if there are alternative sources of employment, including rebuilding the earth in different ways, then perhaps that kind of resistance or internal divisions within the working class would be less? That’s why movements talk about just transition, that includes issues of employment and livelihoods. Is that something that you think is possible?

Amitav Ghosh

Yes, of course. But here again, when we talk about the energy transition, often the assumption tends to be that you can just replace one source of energy with another. And of course, you should be able to. We know that alternative energies are cheaper than coal. They are cheaper and less polluting. They employ more people now than coal. There’s every reason why people should embrace this transition and yet we see that Joe Biden’s plan failed on exactly this. There was every reason to embrace the plan. There would have been more jobs and yet it failed because of resistance from coal mining interests.

From a vitalist point of view, it’s important not to underestimate fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels interact with human lives in very complex ways of creating not just structures of power, but intense loyalties. So the loyalties of coal miners in West Virginia, whose lives have been destroyed by the mining, are still very much tied to that way of life. Similarly, with fossil fuels; in Brooklyn, where I live every day around three or four o’clock, these are these huge motorcycles, making this tremendous noise going down the street. What is the point of that, of that noise? If they had electric motorcycles, they wouldn’t make that noise. But to think in that way is to underestimate or to misunderstand what fossil fuels are. The people who ride those bikes like the noise. It’s an assertion of power. This is the weird thing about the whole fossil fuel economy. Now there are people who deface Tesla cars in the US simply because they feel that they are a threat to the internal combustion engine.

Fossil fuels can generate a culture in extremely insidious ways. I remember when I first went to the United States in the late 1980s, I would see a single person driving by in a car. And I would think to myself that this will never happen in India because in my memories cars there were always filled with at least four or five people. There were always people who needed to go somewhere, so if a car was going it would never go empty. But you look around now, 30- 40 years later, everywhere in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, you see cars with just one person in them. What happens is that the cars become ends in themselves. They are not there only to serve as a means to an end. If you go around suburban America now, or even fairly lower-middle-class neighborhoods, you’ll see outside even quite modest houses, there are four or five cars. People just collect cars. Why? It’s because people change cars as the mood takes them. You see this phenomenon also now in Delhi. Households have not just one car, but two or three cars and also motorcycles and scooters. So depending on their mood, they take one or the other. So we cannot forget that fossil fuels interact with human societies in very complicated ways. We think we control fossil fuels. But some botanical materials can exert a great degree of control over us. This has been the case with opium and then we see that with fossil fuels as well.

Ashish Kothari

This also points to what are the sorts of ethics, values, and principles that take hold in society in particular moments in time. I remember because you were talking about when you were in your earlier days and I was in my childhood, our parents always used to tell us that if you’re using a pencil, use it until it is very short and you can no longer use it. We used to call it a Gandhi pencil! So there wasn’t a throwaway culture at all, which is now very prevalent. So our second last question is about ethics, values, or principles. What we see in many people’s movements, especially the ones we’ve been working with on alternatives, there is an attempt to try and bring back a certain level of ethical sharing and caring, working collectively, of knowledge and nature as part of the commons rather than privatised and individualized. How important is this? Also, how do you think one can through literature, bring back dialogues on ethics?

Amitav Ghosh

Well, I think it’s very important to try and do that. As a writer, I try think of those possibilities. But again, let’s not be Pollyannaish. I think the one thing that we see in India, most of all, is that culture does not protect you against any of this. In my childhood, I used to see my father roll a tube of toothpaste down right to the bottom. Nothing would be wasted. If you left the fan going when you left the room, you got into real trouble. But that has completely changed. Young middle-class Indians are just as wasteful now as people in the west. If I think back to India, one of the values that we were always taught was never get into debt because there was such a fear of money-lending. But today, if you open your computer, there’s always some bank that’s trying to push that on you. The so-called affluence that we see around us in India is completely debt-fueled.

The other day my sister, who teaches in a college in Calcutta, had to attend a virtual meeting with the chief minister. The CM was trying to push poor rural students to take out credit cards to finance their education. Trying to force them into these debt traps with absolutely usurious rates of interest, like about 29.5%. Can you imagine? It’s unbelievable. Indian villagers don’t know about these debt traps. They’re brought up to believe that, unlike money lenders, banks are trustworthy. But what we’ve seen since the debt crisis is that the banks are not at all trustworthy, and that their whole business model is built on ensnaring naïve people. When I was bringing up my children, I would make them watch videos to show them how dangerous these debt traps are. This is something I would strongly recommend to you – whenever you have these with villagers, you should try to warn them against these debt traps.

Ashish Kothari

Finally … can you mention two or three writers of the last 15-20 years who young people should read, to inspire some of these thoughts about the planet, ourselves, and our collective futures?

Amitav Ghosh

In India, we have a long tradition of environmental writing. Gopinath Mohanty was a great writer, and I think his book “Paraja” is a wonderful book about people and forests. Mahasweta Devi was a great writer in the same way. Just within the Bengali tradition also there is Adwaita Mallabarman. In the English tradition as well, there are many. I would say that Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” is in a sense of a climate change novel. So there’s a lot to read.

Ashish Kothari and Shrishtee Bajpai

Well, thank you so much for this conversation. Truly grateful.

Amitav Ghosh

Okay, thank you. Goodbye.