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.

Bites That Itch to Be Scratched

I came home from a week’s vacation to find that cockroaches, at least four or five, had taken over my kitchen. Cursing and swatting them ultimately makes no difference, since they will thrive no matter what you do. Just stay out of the kitchen at five a.m.

Similarly, despite your insistent urge to scratch mosquito bites, you know that will only make them worse. The bugs continually remind us of our powerlessness over them. And of course they will be here long after we humans are swept away by climate change or another disaster.

For me and many of you, we now live in a world that seems driven by forces we can no longer control, if we ever did. Nature responds with unmistakable signals. So does Covid; so does our politics.

Trump, the biggest cockroach of all, has created a movement that will thrive even without him. His political opponents keep trying to find new kinds of bug sprays that won’t work. It’s like those who defend growing organic food by claiming they use organic bug sprays—a ridiculous contradiction in terms.

The planetary and political disasters we face are all man-made. They are a consequence of hubris—that is, trying to be godlike, flying too near the sun and, mostly, presuming that man’s law supersedes nature’s. We see it everywhere, from the proliferation of space and plastic junk to political movements denying the will of voters.

We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.

I have been harping on this in the blog and referring to Amitav Ghosh frequently, as he is one of the few who sees the impending danger very broadly.

The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.

Ghosh has a new one out, called The Nutmeg’s Curse, to be reviewed here when I finish it. Basically he argues that western colonialism through centuries of “omnicide” (murderous conquest and exploitation) has now brought us to a crisis not only of the environment but of our culture.

The same thing is true with the crisis in our politics and geopolitics. The recent ills that have come to beset us have a deep and complex history. The many racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, the flaws of capitalism—all comprehended in climate change—are confounded by the predilections of many who believe in lies, rumors and fantasies, and the propensity of tech and media to intensify them.

It would be nice to find a grand solution to all this confusion, but that doesn’t appear likely. Are the cockroaches really going to take over?

“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”

Ed Murrow, the great newsman and commentator, said this. So did Bertrand de Jouvenal, a French philosopher. Everybody knows it’s true, even the sheep.I used this cartoon in an earlier post on Trump, because sheep are smarter than you think. In Rhode Island some years ago we lived near  a wealthy guy who kept a small flock of sheep and I got to like them. They are friendly, dumb and loyal.

They resemble the bikers who keep on rallying in Sturgis, South Dakota, despite the grave Covid risks they cause to themselves and others.

I want this blog henceforth to focus more on such people, whom we liberals clearly fail to understand. We are just too smug about them.

I also will be taking a more personal tone in some of these posts. I looked over logs from posts past and found the ones that clearly got the most interest were indeed the most personal. Also, my political punditry is something you can likely find elsewhere; there are limits to my brilliance and my approach. We all read too much of that stuff anyway. I’m also trying to find different ways to indulge my bent for politics. It’s not easy.

Climate is where we started with this blog. I’ll try to come back to it,  but again the subject is best dealt with by others who aren’t so  intimidated by its deep complications and overwhelming importance. We all have our limits.

 

 

 

 

Biden Assessed

If you look at how the Republicans are responding, the Biden presidency has been a major success. If you look at its prospects for passing more expansive legislation, you find little hope. All our broken mechanisms of government are responsible for that.

Joe Biden, the liberal standard bearer, could end up like Don Quixote or Walter Mitty, a failed visionary. We hope that doesn’t happen because the stakes are way too high.

How has Mr. Folksy become our Last Best Hope? Even as he confronts an impossible political situation, Joe Biden’s mastery of politics so far has been decisive. A big test came in his meeting with Vladimir Putin last week. As Susan B. Glasser wrote, “The triumph of Geneva is that it was not Helsinki.” Biden carried it off, mostly with aplomb.

The contradictions in how Republicans viewed this event are telling. They called it “appeasement” and worse. Which, after Trump’s blatant gaslighting at Helsinki, is just laughable. They call Biden “a dangerous radical” while most Americans consider him a moderate and an establishment figure.

Biden’s moderate image will give him the space to advocate more liberal ideas and still prevail, while Republicans struggle to convince voters that his proposals are extreme and dangerous. As one Republican lawmaker conceded, “it’s hard to hit someone who reminds you of your grandpa.”

But they keep trying by advocating harsh voting restrictions and gerrymandering, which Biden has few tools to deal with. He has been dealt a razor-thin majority in both houses and must work with deadheads like Joe Manchin. He has not pushed hard enough on climate change and taxing the wealthy, issues on which he has public backing.

For example: the administration has proposed a significant clean electricity standard, which is key to countering climate change. But getting that through Congress will be a major hurdle, “a moon shot kind of thing.” One advisor said that “Biden’s team will fall short of their goals unless they can put a policy in place that gives renewable energy the advantage over natural gas, which, because of fracking, is likely to be abundant and cheap for the foreseeable future.”

Issues like this will require a major effort by the administration to make its case in strong but uncomplicated ways to the public. So far it hasn’t done this. The impacts of climate change are still an abstraction for most people; they acknowledge its importance but not its urgency. Biden would rather address something like Juneteenth (thoughtfully appraised here) by making it a federal holiday. That has immediate payoff.

The prospect of getting major legislation passed depends on Biden’s willingness to play political hardball, something that has become more obvious with each passing day. He seems temperamentally disposed not to play that kind of game. But he surely knows that the game can’t be won any other way.

Winning it will require all of Biden’s considerable skill as a politician, plus continued Republican stumbles, plus a lot of public pressure. If you think it’s just politics as usual, I urge you to read this analysis: “Are Democrats Sleepwalking toward Democratic Collapse?”

As Mort Sahl once said, “The future lies ahead.”

The Climate Won’t Let Us Forget

There Is Only One Existential Threat. Let’s Talk About It.

Tropical Storm Iota Deals Devastation to Central America Still Recovering from Eta

What Keith Richards Can Teach Us about Beating Our Donald Trump Addiction

The election naturally commanded our public thoughts; now it’s done. Trump perpetually has commanded our attention; finally the fixation may be waning. COVID more than ever forces itself on our presence; a quarter of a million people have now died from it in the U.S.

But the issues of climate change, more formidable than ever, keep bearing down on the world with dreadful frequency and energy. For many, climate issues have recently gotten displaced by politics, but nature is not about to let us discount her power.

Those who live in California won’t soon forget the massive fires that swept their state and are still a threat. Two massive hurricanes a week apart just pummeled Central America, saturating the same areas (an unheard-of event) in Honduras and Nicaragua, “seriously affecting” some 3 million people, and causing many deaths. Hurricane Eta alone in a few days “cost Honduras the equivalent of around twenty per cent of its gross domestic product.”

The campaign and the election have turned into a major distraction from climate change. The political media, the voters and the candidates all gave climate short shrift. Biden was the exception. He has offered a $2 trillion clean energy plan, and proposes to incorporate climate into most other policy areas. If any of this gets done, at least through regulation (if the Senate is a nonstarter), it will be a good beginning.

New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo puts it in context:

But passing a climate plan wouldn’t be a partisan win for Democrats—it would be a win for human beings. Climate change isn’t a policy issue—it’s a reality that every other political question hinges on: jobs, tax policy, national defense, and the size and scope of the welfare state. As climate change becomes increasingly damaging, we will have to think about all of these issues through the larger response to a changing planet.

It’s just too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about climate. The enormity and extent of what it represents are simply daunting, maybe beyond the ken of most of us. Moreover, our political culture, the media pundits, and of course social media all tend to trivialize and downplay the issues of climate in favor of the latest political sensation.

Well, clearing the ground by getting rid of the Trump addiction might be a first step. John Harris of Politico had some thoughts on this and used the old drugmeister Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones as an example of how to get clean and kick the Trump obsession. Keith learned not only to ignore the junkies around him but to sit back and enjoy their performance.

Harris puts it this way: Trump learned early on

that once you provoke someone into an emotional response they are in a contest on your terms. So he learned how to surprise, to entertain, to confuse and distort, to offend. As he moved to the political arena, Trump exploited one more psychological reality: His supporters are attracted to him precisely because he so easily outrages his opponents.

This means that Trump’s power—just like Keith Richards’ drug transactions—requires two sides to work. His hold on supporters will wane at the same time his hold on political foes and the news media does. Just say no and watch their faces.

This is not like Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no.” It’s the satisfaction in watching a performance that you no longer need to participate in. Maybe that would be a first step to reclaiming the climate values that so drastically need our attention.

Biden the Trimmer

In Praise of Trimmers

Biden’s debate-night comment on oil highlights the delicate tightrope he must walk on climate change

Biden Pledges Ambitious Climate Action. Here’s What He Could Actually Do.

Trimmer is a good old English word, usually meaning “a person who adapts their views to the prevailing political trends for personal advancement,” a flip-flopper in other words. There are other meanings too, according to Cass Sunstein. He describes two kinds of trimmers: compromisers and preservers—those who would pursue a middle course and those who would keep the best of competing positions.

In the last presidential debate (and its consequences) we saw Joe Biden caught up on a comment he made that he would “transition from the oil industry” to fight climate change. Trump jumped all over this, of course, and Biden was later forced to backwater, at least somewhat, from the controversy his comment generated. You know the old phrase, “hoist by his own petard.”

Biden and his aides quickly tried to clean things up, saying that he was talking about ending federal subsidies for oil companies and underscoring the long arc of his plan. “We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” he told reporters later that night.

The liberal climateers were very pleased with the transition remark. House Democrats in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas were quick to take issue with it. Biden has also had trouble with some ambiguous remarks about fracking. And he has sometimes behaved like what Sunstein would approvingly call a compromiser.

There are plenty of Democrats as well as Republicans upset with his stance on oil. Yet many back his $2 trillion climate plan to counter global warming. Biden knows the politics of this are going to be extremely difficult, and so he is walking a tightrope. Should the Dems win the Senate, the existing filibuster rule will be his biggest obstacle. Some of the pitfalls and difficulties are laid out here.

Several commentators have encouraged Joe to “go big” on the Green New Deal. If he doesn’t he will come off as a trimmer—in the negative sense of that term. But his whole experience in politics has been to seek compromise, work across the aisle, and enlist opposition support.

I think Joe is sincere but in my view he has to stop the trimming and stick to his “transition” sales pitch. In a recent interview with Dan Pfeiffer he made an elaborate defense of his climate plans. As usual, he’s good on the goals but glosses over the political problems in getting there.

You know, we cannot discount the concerns of people, what it means for their well-being and not only in the future and now, but what about how they make a living? That’s why I’m the first person I’m aware of that went to every major labor union in the country and got them to sign on to my climate change plan, which is extensive. We’re going to get to zero net emissions for the production of electricity by 2035. It’s going to create millions of jobs. But we’ve got to let people—we can’t be cavalier about the impact it’s going to have on how we’re going to transition to do all this. But I just think it’s a gigantic opportunity, a gigantic opportunity to create really good jobs.