The Nutmeg’s Curse

The reviews of Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, have not always been positive. Some have declared it to be anti-science. Yet others, like Roy Scranton, found that it “elegantly and audaciously reconceives modernity as a centuries-long campaign of omnicide, against the spirits of the earth, the rivers, the trees, and even the humble nutmeg, then makes an impassioned argument for the keen necessity of vitalist thought and non-human narrative.” I’m with Roy, with a few reservations.

The overall best review I found with a contemporary context is here, in The New Yorker.

Ghosh begins with a narrative of how the 17th century Dutch arrived at the Banda Islands in the Pacific to capture, enslave and kill the islanders in order to insure a monopoly on, of all things, the nutmeg, that highly treasured spice. He finds these events a paradigm for how colonialism and the “free” market have come to dominate trade by subjugation. The result is also tied inextricably to climate change and the rebellion of nature it embodies.

The U.S. has led this robust decadence through military and economic dominance. These are Ghosh’s carefully chosen words:

The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.

And our New Yorker reviewer Olufemi O. Taiwo finds that

Ghosh sees potential in what it calls a “vitalist” politics, and in an associated ethic of protection that would extend to “rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.” Ghosh identifies this ethos, in contrast to the world-as-resource view, with peasants and farmworkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—places and people long seen as peripheral to history.

So in one way the book is a history of vitalism, culminating in the Gaia concept: “that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”

In Ghosh’s terms:

The awareness of a Gaia-like earth did not wither away of itself because of literacy; it was systematically exterminated, through orgies of bloodletting that did not spare Europe, although its violence was directed most powerfully at the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet, not only has that awareness survived among the Indigenous people of the Americas; many of them also credit their perceptions of the Earth with having made their own survival possible, in the face of exterminatory violence. Never have these perceptions of the Earth mattered more than at this moment when the mechanistically ordered world of modernity is disintegrating before our very eyes.

As I said earlier, I have a few reservations about this really wonderful book. One is that vitalism can be undercut (and often is) by superstition and turgid magical thinking. Ghosh documents this but not sufficiently so.

Also, it’s hard for an old rationalist like me to accept this total spiritualizing of nature. Yet the alternatives seem to have led the world deeply astray. If you accept Ghosh’s arguments about our awful colonialist appropriation of nature, his approach to vitalism, or something like it, must follow.

The book makes you think of the many varieties of human wretchedness and, maybe, of human possibilities for redemption. More than a critique, this is an indictment of much Western thinking. In its way it is finally a religious statement.

Vegetable Soup

It takes a lot to get me off the news. Constant stewing about Trump and the upcoming election, however, gets all the wrong juices flowing. Following the latest Senate follies can bring on dyspepsia or worse. Case in point: the recent Amy Coney Barrett hearings in which the Democrats, with a few exceptions, rolled over and played dead.

As the proceedings concluded, senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Judiciary Committee Democrat, gave Chairman Lindsey Graham a big hug and complimented him for leading “one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in.”

After a dose of antacid to calm things down, it was time to change the channel. Cut to the Michigan Trump rally where El Cheeto was leading a chorus of “Lock ‘em up!” for Gretchen Whitmer and Hillary Clinton. Hmm, inciting violence against a sitting governor and a presidential opponent? When is too much enough?

It was time to eat some lunch and cool down. I made vegetable soup out of some old but still good stuff in the hydrator of my fridge. It was comforting to the stomach and tasted great. Here are five reasons why soup is good and good for you. No. 5 is the boost to your immune system that soup provides, helping to stave off colds and flu.

So in the age of coronavirus (another of the gifts Trump has brought you), soup can be a protector. It also relieves stress and increases bone and muscle strength. Take off your mask to eat it.

The Forgotten Zucchini

Going to the supermarket is still an adventure though not always a welcome one. Hunting for the foods you want to make a certain recipe takes a kind of focus, distracting you from the nauseating news of the day and the perils of COVID. It can give your unsettled life a temporary sense of purpose.

So you have an idea that you want to make zucchini with onions and tomatoes to go with the fish you bought. The recipe was a simple holdover from your childhood that never failed to bring back good memories. Maybe you’ll add in a poblano and some spices.

Your first stop was to pick up a can of good Italian tomatoes and then maneuver on to collect other, unrelated things. That was a mistake because it got you distracted from finding the remaining ingredients. Your first mistake was not making a list. At the store one needs to keep a sharp focus because there are so many other distracting items. In fact, a supermarket purposely distracts you so you’ll make impulse purchases.

By the time you get to the produce aisle, you pick up other items but fail to recognize those nice bulbous green zucchinis waiting in their bin. You are by then thinking about the latest Trump revelations to Woodward, the fires in the West, the disastrous election looming. You are totally distracted and pass by the zukes.

Of course you don’t realize the omission until you get home, cursing and flailing your poor memory. Thus a welcome distraction (going to the store) becomes a little tarnished because you were too distracted to buy what you came for.

Going Out for Butter: A Break from Mexican Solitude

One of life’s necessities is having butter for your morning toast. Without that you have to resort to jam or some dumb substitute like cream cheese. Toast without butter is like Washington without the Redskins. Excuse me, it’s now the Washington Football Team.

So, after some hesitation this morning I fired up the car and drove to the supermarket. (There are no butter stores nearby.) I did pause out of concern for the climate. Driving to the store would involve burning gasoline, polluting the atmosphere (if slightly) and making an “unnecessary” trip. Butter won out, naturally, and I salved my conscience by deciding to make other culinary purchases so as to prolong the time before the next trip.

At the store I donned my ill-fitting mask and walked up the nonfunctioning escalera móvil. The butter selection at the store was, as usual, disappointing: a whole lot of tasteless Mexican mantequilla and none of the stuff I like, Danish Lurpak or French Président. They used to carry those brands off and on, but no more. I had to settle on something called Lynncott unsalted, which is not too bad.

Completing the rest of my purchases (I forgot the milk) and heading to checkout, I reflected that settling for second-rate butter was God’s punishment for a) being so choosy and b) making a self-indulgent trip to buy it. While I was there, I thought I’d check out the gin and found Boodles on sale for thirty percent off! God was smiling after all. Gin and butter, nothing better.

So the trip was a success after all. A break in the viral solitude is worth a lot, and even something as mundane as going to the supermarket is a welcome diversion. You get to see other people in ill-fitting masks, driving their carts fast to get in the shortest possible checkout line. You see the checkout clerk, patient behind her face shield while a customer badgers her for a few more pesos discount. Like cattle we wait to get through the line and out to pasture. Human nature in the supermarket is worth watching.

Hard Truths about Climate Change

Climate math: What a 1.5-degree pathway would take

How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class

Op-Ed: The McKinsey I hope the world gets to know

Do we really have any chance to come to grips with climate change? Like many of us, I go back and forth on that one. Some recommend throwing out the whole capitalist system. If that seems a bit unlikely, you’d need to know how to redirect the system and what it would really take to decarbonize global business.

A pretty convincing roadmap for that is provided by McKinsey, the firm some love to hate. The critics hate its high-pressure culture, its stress on process, its success. But the business of America is still business, and McKinsey’s leaders have recently tried to transform their firm’s role to reflect the totally changing world we’re living in. I almost went to work for McKinsey in 2006, which would have been to the delight of my capitalistic forebears, but that didn’t happen and I’m grateful.

Anyhow, McKinsey recently issued a report on Climate Math that challenges business to meet the demands for a 1.5-C degree warming limit. This is very much worth your reading so you can understand in some coherent detail the challenges in achieving that goal.

 . . . With further warming unavoidable over the next decade, the risk of physical hazards and nonlinear, socioeconomic jolts is rising. Mitigating climate change through decarbonization represents the other half of the challenge. Scientists estimate that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would reduce the odds of initiating the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change.

The report offers five necessary and difficult steps to get to that goal. “The good news,” they say, “is that a 1.5-degree pathway is technically achievable. The bad news is that the math is daunting.”

None of what follows is a forecast. Getting to 1.5 degrees would require significant economic incentives for companies to invest rapidly and at scale in decarbonization efforts. It also would require individuals to make changes in areas as fundamental as the food they eat and their modes of transport. A markedly different regulatory environment would likely be necessary to support the required capital formation.

The report traces five needed interdependent “shifts” in areas that we all know, with varying means and prospects of achieving reform:

    • reforming food and forestry
    • electrifying our lives
    • adapting industrial operations
    • decarbonizing power and fuel
    • ramping up carbon capture and carbon sequestration activity.

Each of these areas plays out in three scenarios the report envisions, not as predictions but as “snapshots” to get where we have to go.

All the scenarios, we found, would imply the need for immediate, all-hands-on-deck efforts to dramatically reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. The first scenario frames deep, sweeping emission reductions across all sectors; the second assumes oil and other fossil fuels remain predominant in transport for longer, with aggressive reforestation absorbing the surplus emissions; and the third scenario assumes that coal and gas continue to generate power for longer, with even more vigorous reforestation making up the deficit . . . .

Relying so much on reforestation seems to me dubious at best, despite the report’s qualifications. The final pages state in bold type, “It is impossible to chart a 1.5-degree pathway that does not remove carbon dioxide to offset ongoing emissions. The math simply does not work.”

The challenges here are immense and the report does not shy away from them. But finally we are getting serious analysis of how feasible (or unlikely) the 1.5-degree goal is.

Flight of the Bumblebees

Climate Change Could Push Bumblebees to Extinction

Bumblebee Decline Linked With Extreme Heat Waves

Climate Change: It’s a Buzzkill for Bumblebees, Study Finds

A major study has documented what has long been suspected: the bees are dying, and the world’s plants and biodiversity will suffer from that. Bumblebee extinction seems to be underway, and populations have declined across Europe by 17 percent and in America by some 46 percent.

The study found that over a 115-year period nearly half of the North American regions home to bumblebees lost all their populations. That’s called extinction, and it’s irreversible. The pattern was observed across a number of studies.

Bees are the great pollinators, as we know. According to one report:

Tomatoes, squash, and berries are just some of the crops we can thank bees for pollinating. Animal pollinators like bees, birds, and butterflies could be responsible for up to 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat, the US Department of Agriculture says.

Honeybees have also been affected. Climate change and its consequent heat waves are the major cause, since bees can’t tolerate a rapidly heating climate. The study predicted “with surprising accuracy” how changes of bumblebee communities and species have reflected the pressures of increasing heat. More detailed studies are called for. Changes from farming, land use and pesticides are another factor.

Said one of the study’s authors: “What I suspect is that you wind up with this really terrible one-two punch. Climate change is making bees want to move to new places, and then you have things like pesticides and human land uses that are stopping them from moving.”