Amitav Ghosh: European colonialism helped create a planet in crisis

Amitav Ghosh can clearly remember his first interaction with the climate crisis. It was the early 2000s, and Ghosh, now one of India’s most celebrated authors and winner of its highest literary prize, was researching a novel set in the Sundarbans, a network of islands around the mouth of the Ganges Delta in the Bay of Bengal, which is home to the world’s largest mangrove forest.

Climate change had barely entered into public consciousness back then, but Ghosh clearly remembers “visible signs that something wasn’t right”.

“People spoke of their homes disappearing, of sea water levels rising and salt water erosion, but no one knew what was happening,” he said. “So I began researching. And as the years went on the signs became clearer and clearer.”

Twenty years on, the Sundarbans are widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to the climate crisis. Rising sea levels are eating away at the islands while extreme weather events have decimated the ecology and made the land salty and arid. Drilling for groundwater has only exacerbated the problem as it causes the islands to sink faster. Some predict that in less than a century, the unique biosphere will disappear entirely.

Women in the Sundarbans carry mangrove saplings to be planted after floods from Cyclone Yaas damaged nearly 100km of embankments.
Women in the Sundarbans carry mangrove saplings to be planted after floods from Cyclone Yaas damaged nearly 100km of embankments. Photograph: Avijit Ghosh/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Ghosh, who was born in Kolkata in West Bengal, less than 100 miles from the Sundarbans, never forgot the rapidly changing landscape he witnessed and has become one of the most vocal literary voices calling for the world to pay attention to the climate emergency.

While he is still known best for his novels, most notably the Booker-prize nominated Ibis trilogy about the opium trade in the 1800s, it was to a “planet in crisis” that Ghosh turned his attention in his latest work of nonfiction, The Nutmeg’s Curse.

Spanning horrific incidents of European settler colonial violence carried out across Asia, America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa, Ghosh maps out how the pillaging of those lands hundreds of years ago – and the systematic extermination of their indigenous people – laid the foundation for the climate crisis that threatens the world today.

“Why has this crisis come about?” said Ghosh. “Because for two centuries, European colonists tore across the world, viewing nature and land as something inert to be conquered and consumed without limits and the indigenous people as savages whose knowledge of nature was worthless and who needed to be erased. It was this settler colonial worldview – of just accumulate, accumulate, accumulate, consume, consume, consume – that has got us where we are now.”

Yet as Ghosh sat down to write the book in March 2020, he had no idea that the ideas that had begun to take shape in his head would begin to manifest so dramatically off the page. Suddenly the pandemic hit and New York, where he lives, was one of its hardest-hit cities. “That experience really shaped the book, because the pandemic is the most visible aspect of the planetary crisis that’s unfolding us around us,” said Ghosh. “I think the pandemic more than anything else made it perfectly clear that this is a crisis you can’t hide from. Money will not protect you, power will not protect you, we’re in the midst of it already. It gave it a terrific sense of urgency.”

For Ghosh, the survival of our planet hinges on returning to interacting with Earth as a living being to be listened to, understood and respected. “The indigenous peoples of the Americas have been saying for decades that our past is your future and now that’s exactly what’s proving to be the case,” he said.

There are signs this perception of nature is becoming more formally recognised and non-human voices are starting to be heard. Courts in countries such as New Zealand, once home to atrocious acts of violence by European colonialists, have begun to recognise the personhood and rights of rivers, mountains, glaciers and other geological phenomena. “This is one of the things that makes me hopeful because if it happens in legal language then at some point it’s bound to seep also into political language,” said Ghosh.

But he also sees some developing countries, including India, reverting to the very same approaches of greed, consumption and extraction, and alienation of indigenous communities, that were inflicted by colonial invaders 200 years ago.

“In India especially, governing elites have completely accepted the settler colonial models, and are now trying to impose them upon indigenous forest dwellers, adivasis,” said Ghosh.

Adivasi people dance during the 2020 International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.
Adivasi people dance during the 2020 International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

He pointed out that the Indian government was auctioning off sites for private coalmines, many in rich biodiverse forests with tribal communities. “They talk about environmentalism, development and progress but it only serves a middle-class, urban vision of the world,” he said. “Meanwhile, those who live off the land are made to suffer. It can only have disastrous consequences for the future of our planet.”

Ghosh said this disconnect was worsened by India’s caste system, where adivasis are seen to be at the very lowest rung of society. “Indian environmentalism has tended to be very upper-caste oriented,” he said. “They have these visions of nature as pure and pristine and these adivasis are somehow contaminants of the forests.”

According to Ghosh, there is still hope left in the fight against the climate crisis, but it is not a hope represented by large multinational bodies and institutions. Cop26 only proved his worst fears. “Cop26 really underlined that all those political mechanisms and institutions of liberal world governance that we rely on have failed us, and they’re going to fail more and more in the future,” said Ghosh.

His hope for the planet lies instead in movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Standing Rock protests and Occupy, where the colonialist viewpoints that have infused society for hundreds of years finally began to be challenged and the power and potential of global connectivity was felt.

As Ghosh writes in the final lines of the book, it is not of billionaires or technology that will save us, but instead a “vitalist mass movement”, driven by human spirit, that “may actually be magical enough to change hearts and minds across the world”.