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Climate change not a problem of future but of past too, says Amitav Ghosh

October 26, 2021 17:32 IST

As the world grapples with extreme weather events and climate change becomes the buzzword of contemporary times, author Amitav Ghosh says the crisis has been in the making since the 17th century and it is imperative to take into account history before beginning to tackle the issue.

IMAGE: Writer Amitav Ghosh. Photograph: Kind courtesy @GhoshAmitav/Twitter

Climate change is not just a problem of the future but also of the past, says Ghosh whose new book The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis comes at a time when unusually heavy rainfall has ravaged several parts of the country, particularly the hill state of Uttarakhand and coastal Kerala.


“In general, when we think about the climate crisis or the planetary crisis, we always think of it in terms of the future, we think of ourselves as being in a completely new era. But in fact, this era is completely rooted in the past. The continuities are so clear...going back as far as the 17th century. These continuities are completely clear to anyone who takes a good look,” Ghosh told PTI in a Zoom interview from New York.

In his latest book, the author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and The Hungry Tide provides much needed historical context to the modern day crisis of climate change as we see it today.

Peeling the many layers of the climate crisis, he chronicles what appears to be the history of climate change and takes his readers to the very beginning of when the planet might have begun to alter and not for the better.

That moment, according to the book, would be the 1621 colonisation of the Banda Islands by the Dutch East India Company that wanted to establish a monopoly over trading nutmegs, then indigenous to the Indonesian archipelago.

To achieve this end, the Dutch burnt down the dwellings of the Bandanese people, killing most of them and driving the remaining into the depths of the forests. The Bandanese did resist the Dutch takeover but eventually succumbed to starvation and/or diseases, Ghosh writes.

Simplistically put, the Dutch for the sake of their own profit, almost completely eradicated an entire tribe. Across the globe, in Connecticut in North America, the Pequot tribe was wiped out in a similar fashion by English invaders for the latter's benefit, he argues in the book.

It is this inherent profit seeking nature of the human race that Ghosh condemns, and blames for the current state of the planet.

“We have to try and understand that the whole idea that we as human beings exist only for the sake of profit… that's the first thing that we have to sort of leave behind," he said.

“It's only under a certain kind of capitalism that it comes to be accepted that we exist only for the sake of profit. We have to find other patterns of life, we have to find other ways of satisfying our needs as human beings,” Ghosh said.

Ghosh, 65, emerged as a reliable and influential voice on climate change following his last work of non-fiction The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable that released in 2016 to much acclaim.

He had addressed the issue many years earlier too. In fact, it was his travels across the Sundarbans in West Bengal while he was writing his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide that piqued the author's interest in climate change.

“Already back then in the year 2000, it was completely clear that climate change was having many impacts on that area,” he said.

His last novel The Gun Island (2019) also deals with climate change.

Ghosh's Bengali origins only reinforced his attention on the issue.

“I am a Bengali, and more than any other part of the world, Bengal is incredibly vulnerable. We see this continuously…the Sundarbans are basically going underwater. And we can see so many people displaced from Bengal," he said.

“Over the last 15-20 years, the working class of Delhi, Goa, and the west coast of India have become basically overwhelmingly from Bengal, Chhattisgarh, and from these regions and behind all of that is the spectre of climate change,” the writer said.

Emphasising the need to look at climate change in the context of the planet's past, not just ecologically but also politically, and socially, the author explains how and why the contemporary perception of climate change is starkly different for those who have historically been the colonisers versus the colonised.

For the global south, that is countries like India, China, Indonesia and African nations, 'climate change is a problem rooted in the past.'

“If you ask people in the west, ‘what is climate change?' The Westerner will always say that climate change is a scientific issue, a sort of technological issue…it can be fixed through technology…it has to be addressed through science…," he said.

“If you go to India , China, Indonesia , and Africa… they will say climate change is a problem created by Westerners. ‘It's created by affluent countries which appropriated all our resources when we were poor and weak',” Ghosh explained.

He reiterated that climate change could not be considered without the past and it is 'fundamental' that affluent countries take into account 'historic emissions.'

“Affluent countries constantly try to talk about greenhouse gas emissions today. They try to ignore historical emissions. It's absolutely fundamental that they have to consider historic emissions, which is exactly what the global south has always been saying," he said.

“We see such a marked division in the West (where) climate change is always about the future… in the global South and even amongst poor people in America, these issues are completely conceived in relation to problems like imperialism, racism, and the histories that create these issues,” Ghosh added.

In his book, Ghosh repeatedly makes a case for not just the tribes and communities that have been at the receiving end of imperialism, but also highlights the need to take into consideration the impact of human actions on non-human entities. including plants, animals, mountains as well as the oceans, for the sake of the planet's wellbeing.

“In any event, it is increasingly clear that the Earth can, and does act, except that its actions unfold over scales of time that shrink the 400-year-gap between 1621 and 2021…the climatic changes of our era are nothing other than the earth's response of terraforming,” he says in the book.

What is the way forward?

“I can't really tell you what the way forward in general is, nor does it particularly interest me as such for myself. The thing that interests me most is, ‘What is the way forward for writers? What is the way forward in literature? How do we start creating literature for the world that we are now in?" he asked.

“And my answer to that is quite simple… I think what we have to start doing is what writers used to do in the past, which is to try and find… to try and give voice to the non-human entities,” Ghosh said in response.

Climate experts, political leaders and others will gather at Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, from October 31 to November 12.

The Nutmeg's Curse published by Penguin Random House India, hit the stands on October 14.

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