‘View of a Coal Seam on the Island of Labuan’; lithograph from the book Views in the Eastern Archipelago

J.J. Heath-Caldwell

‘View of a Coal Seam on the Island of Labuan’; lithograph by Leopold George Heath, from James Augustus St. John’s book Views in the Eastern Archipelago: Borneo, Sarawak, Labuan, &c, 1847

Studies of literature don’t usually begin by pronouncing a large swath of it to be a failure. But this was Amitav Ghosh’s point, right out of the gate, in his 2016 book, The Great Derangement. According to Ghosh, literature, especially fiction, especially realist fiction, and especially European and American realist fiction, had failed a basic test, because it had failed to properly address the most pressing problem of all—the global climate catastrophe.

For Ghosh this was not exactly a question of method or form. It was not that novels involving environmental degradation were poorly written or that he didn’t like their individual renderings of droughts or floods. The reproach went deeper: contemporary fiction was heir to an intellectual legacy that valued the probable over the improbable, the steady norm over the turbulent exception, and so was unsuited even to conceiving the scale of the crisis. Calamity was, in the precise sense of the term, “unthinkable.” If writers were straitjacketed, it was a vast Western epistemic tradition that had restrained them. Novelists had been taught to write only about the “individual moral adventure” of character and interiority, never about a collective menace like global warming.

Nor was this a new problem. It dated back at least to the era of the great world expansion of the novel in the nineteenth century, which also happened to be the era when carbon began seething in detectable quantities into the atmosphere. Novels like Madame Bovary, according to Ghosh, cleared space for human action by casting out the climate extremes that might have seemed to their authors improbable or unthinkable. These extremes were not yet anthropogenic, but they were still a part of human experience and therefore within the novel’s remit. “Here, then,” Ghosh explained, “is the irony of the ‘realist’ novel: the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real.” This concealment was not conscious for Flaubert or anyone else circa 1850. It was—and remains, two centuries later—the novelistic symptom of a much more widespread ailment of imaginative deficiency. Ghosh gave this disorder a name, redolent of psychopathology: our inability to apprehend the reality of ecological cataclysm (much less to represent it in literature) is nothing less than “derangement.”

Ghosh was not just issuing a scolding. As the book went on, it became clear that he was offering a warning—not about fossil fuels but about novels. He wondered how the future would retrospectively view the present:

Is it possible that the arts and literature of this time will one day be remembered not for their daring, nor for their championing of freedom, but rather because of their complicity in the Great Derangement?…

When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable—for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.

This was an escalation of the charge in his opening pages that fiction was not up to the task: “If certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed.” Now, in the book’s closing section, he was indicting artists and writers not just for neglect but for “complicity” and “culpability.” This raised an interesting question: Is next year’s finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award “equally culpable” to the EPA administrator in the Trump regime? Will she seem that way in retrospect, fifty years from now, to a future person who sits, under a sky with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 500 parts per million, and reflects upon our benighted time?

The brilliance of Ghosh’s argument allowed a certain suspension of incredulity about its more totalizing claims. And the book’s minatory drive was powerful enough to permit some forgiveness of its omissions. The European nineteenth century of Ghosh’s account, which he saw as the basis for our current imaginative deficiency, seems not to include the coal-choked London fog at the beginning of Bleak House, or the storms and floods that punctuate Villette and The Mill on the Floss. There is little acknowledgment that the following generations produced books of fiction involving coal mining like Germinal and Sons and Lovers. Nor was the landscape of fiction in the years around 2016 so barren of novels contending with the emergency (Ben Lerner’s 10:04 was one). The fact of fossil extraction, and the presence of an unpredictable climate, were not quite as “concealed” by the realist novel as Ghosh wanted us to believe. But The Great Derangement’s main intuition seemed correct. Novels started to look more and more oblivious the longer you stared at them.


Since 2016 a number of critical studies of literature and climate have followed in Ghosh’s path. Most of them have an unspoken premise: they’re uneasy about not only the reputation but the very function of literature and literary study. The question is not just “Can literature be redeemed?” but also “What exactly has literature been doing, given the circumstances?” Their characteristic approach is to talk about “storytelling” or “the stories we tell” about climate. The problem, in other words, is presented as a problem of narrative. This can mean the way a narrative within a novel might tackle an ecological theme, but it can also mean the way we might provide an account of history or literary history. The onus is not just on the novelist to get it right, but on the critic to evaluate the record conscientiously, in light of what we now know.

Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, is devoted to one version of that second assignment. Its focus is more historical than literary, but it extends organically enough from the earlier book that it serves as a sequel. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh argued that our delusional madness, in which we view the natural world as an instrument to be tamed and exploited, was a bequest from European literature and philosophy specifically, even if non-European writers like the Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had modeled their fiction on that defective example. In the second half of the book Ghosh turned his attention to Asia, a continent that is “conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming.” This is true not only because of demography or its own currently skyrocketing emissions, but because of Asia’s long history of fossil fuel extraction, the full use of which by Asians was retarded by Western imperialism starting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

There was an irony in this fact. Because Asian countries were slower to carbonize, the worst of global warming was perhaps delayed; a larger fossil economy in China or India before 1970 might have meant an earlier onset of the crisis. Ghosh’s point, however, was to castigate the European imperial powers for enjoying the full rewards of extraction—which they attained largely through their overseas colonies and their hegemonic global trade—while forbidding its benefits for colonized peoples themselves.

This idea animates The Nutmeg’s Curse. Ghosh’s title might seem surprising. Is the true curse not coal or petroleum, which start off magical but turn out to be lethal? Ghosh begins not in the Lancashire coalfield in the late eighteenth century, or in Titusville, Pennsylvania (where the first commercial oil well was drilled successfully in 1859), but in the Banda archipelago, in what is now Indonesia, in 1621. The Dutch governor-general of the East Indies has arrived in these remote islands, backed by eighteen ships and two thousand men. The archipelago was among the only places where two extremely valuable spices—nutmeg and mace—could be found, and the Dutch want to impose a trade monopoly. They demand capitulation; the Bandanese resist; the Dutch massacre them. The main island of Lonthor is largely emptied of its native inhabitants, and the Dutch establish firm control.

What was the crop that led to this atrocity? Ghosh gives both an overview of seventeenth-century conquest and a portrait of the nutmeg itself:

Like a planet, the nutmeg is encased within a series of expanding spheres. There is, first of all, the fruit’s matte-brown skin, a kind of exosphere. Then there is the pale, perfumed flesh, growing denser toward the core, like a planet’s outer atmosphere. And when all the flesh has been stripped away, you have in your hand a ball wrapped in what could be a stratosphere of fiery, crimson clouds: it is this fragrant outer sleeve that is known as mace. Stripping off the mace reveals yet another casing, a glossy, ridged, chocolate-colored carapace, which holds the nut inside like a protective troposphere….

Like a planet, a nutmeg too can never be seen in its entirety at one time.

Readers of Ghosh’s fiction might be reminded of Sea of Poppies (2008), a novel similarly organized around the control of a highly valuable crop in Asia. The opium-producing poppy, like the nutmeg, is a small object that resembles a miniature celestial body. In one scene a character notices a grain lodged under her thumbnail:

It was a single poppy seed: prising it out, she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes, past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate—but tonight her eyes dropped instead to the tiny sphere she was holding between her thumb and forefinger. She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb—at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.

This seed is the germ of the First Opium War, which will break out soon after the closing action of Sea of Poppies, much as the modest nutmeg is wrested from the Banda islands only to spur, in Ghosh’s telling, a global catastrophe of plunder and subjugation. The microcosm affords a visualization of an otherwise unfathomably large movement of history, and yet what is most telling is that both the nutmeg and the poppy are compared to a planet. They appear as complete and self-contained spheres. Before long they are put to use by people and lead to ruin. This wretched history does not happen uniformly, however: each case of exploitation—poppy, nutmeg, and planet—damages colonized people most, and each bears the mechanistic fingerprints of the West. Once the nutmeg is reduced to a commodity, it has been robbed of any “meaning in excess of its utility.”


By starting in Banda, in The Nutmeg’s Curse, and pulling the camera back from there, Ghosh provides one explanation of his subtitle. The pillage of Banda offers a “parable” of a crisis that is still with us, bearing a moral about environmental-colonial devastation, encased in narrative like a nut inside its carapace. “The story of the Bandanese no longer seems so distant from our present predicament,” he writes, for “the continuities between the two are so pressing and powerful that it could even be said that the fate of the Banda Islands might be read as a template for the present, if only we knew how to tell that story.”

The last phrase is revealing, for it suggests that knowing how to tell the story is knowing when and where to begin it—knowing how to locate the crucial antecedent for the present. Ghosh’s premise is consistent with other significant recent accounts of our “present predicament” of ecological collapse. In Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015), a work of Marxist ecology that proposed substituting the term “Capitalocene” for “Anthropocene,” Jason Moore held that “how we conceptualize the origins of a crisis has everything to do with how we choose to respond to that crisis.” Andreas Malm, in his superlative Fossil Capital (2016), also sought out a point of inception, tracing the “origins of the fossil economy” to the rise of the coal-powered steam engine in the late eighteenth century, which allowed manufacturers to relocate production away from the land and into the cities, where labor was cheaper and more easily subordinated. Two years later, in The Progress of This Storm, Malm began with another origin: the British discovery of coal in Labuan, an island off the coast of Borneo, in the 1830s. Malm included a contemporaneous lithograph depicting the scene—two white men stand in an Arcadia, pointing ominously at a coal seam, as if to say a new era was beginning there (see illustration on page 23).

The present state of the emergency, to say nothing of its imminent future, is so monstrous that one finds oneself asking how, or when, it really began: sometime around 1780, maybe, when English factory owners started burning fossil material in significant quantities, or in the following century, upon the discovery of new overseas coal sources and the steep growth of extraction. (Many other starting points have been proposed.) In this respect Ghosh falls closest to Moore, since both emphasize origins or exemplary scenes in the early modern period—Moore principally in the spread of global trade and the transformation of landscape in the sixteenth century; Ghosh in Banda in 1621. All these books suggest that the source can be pinpointed, and that by choosing one germinal moment we are choosing the means to understand the current crisis.

Ghosh is sympathetic to writers like Malm and Naomi Klein who identify capitalism as the culprit lurking at the source of the climate crisis. But both The Great Derangement and The Nutmeg’s Curse are conceived to limit this emphasis in favor of a focus on colonialism. He disputes the “hold of the economy on the modern imagination” that elevates capitalism as the “prime mover of modern history, while geopolitics and empire are regarded as its secondary effects.” In The Nutmeg’s Curse he reverses this causality, concluding that “it is easier to talk about abstract economic systems” than about racism and imperialism. To take Ghosh’s prime example, colonial terraforming of the New World, in which the landscape was remade in the European image, was an ecological devastation inseparable from the genocide of indigenous peoples. Altering Fredric Jameson’s famous aphorism that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, Ghosh writes, “That which is really harder to imagine than the end of the world is the end of the absolute geopolitical dominance of the West.”

What is much easier to imagine than any of these, though, is the plummeting of reservoir levels, the acidification of the oceans, and the deforestation of Earth’s surface. These things are not just imaginable; they are in clear view. Ghosh argues that “climate change is but one aspect of a much broader planetary crisis,” but this last phrase is vaguely defined, including nearly every contemporary iniquity. Ghosh is not using “planetary” in opposition to “global,” as does the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, in order to distinguish between an Earth system and a humanocentric idea. Chakrabarty argues that our interference with climate has begun to swell the scope of human life from the global to the planetary, but this is not Ghosh’s point. “The crisis that now grips the planet,” Ghosh writes, “is a crisis that is all-pervasive and omnipresent, in which geopolitics; capitalism; climate change; and racial, ethnic, and religious divides interlock, each amplifying and accelerating the other.”

Are we in the grip of a single, unitary crisis, or many crises that are different even if they’re sometimes interlocking? Ghosh says that “climate change is…not the prime cause of dislocation” because it is just one “cognate phenomenon” among many calamities. That may be true for now, but it will probably become less and less true in the coming years, as carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere proves itself to be ever more the basis and the accelerant of all other miseries.

“If only we knew how to tell that story”: when Ghosh reflects on the task of following the thread, from origins to emergency, it sounds partly like an aspiration. But it also sounds like a lament. There is a perceptible despair in climate narratives, not because the narrative quest itself might fail but because even success brings uncertain rewards. There is no indication that even the finest sleuthing will lead to any amelioration of the circumstances for which it has provided the origins.

And so it is startling to come upon a book about climate and storytelling that is not only upbeat but downright jaunty. In Literature for a Changing Planet, Martin Puchner explains that “humans are born storytellers; they want to know where they come from and who is to blame for their difficulties.” For decades climate scientists have been telling stories about carbon emissions, but this hasn’t led to significant changes in policy. So now they are “asking for stories that pinpoint agency.” Who should step in where James Hansen has failed?

What is needed are new stories as well as new ways of understanding old ones. The power of stories—seductive, misleading, and potentially transformative—needs to be harnessed to a new purpose: mitigating climate change.

The good news is that there is an entire discipline devoted to storytelling: literary studies.

The stories that Puchner has in mind aren’t the histories (by Malm, Moore, Klein, Ghosh, and others) that do actually pinpoint agency. Nor are they the stories, now ubiquitous in contemporary fiction, that depict looming ecological disaster in lurid detail. Puchner instead wants to make a case for Weltliteratur, following Goethe’s well-known call for a cosmopolitan “world literature.” Puchner’s scope is large, taking him on an ecumenical tour from the Epic of Gilgamesh (which includes a flood and scenes of trees being felled for timber) to the Odyssey (with its tales of the Cyclopes’ agricultural practices) to the sacred Mayan narrative Popol Vuh (which tells of the miracle of maize) and beyond.

In Puchner’s curious argument about climate, world literature represents both the problem and the solution. It is the problem because it keeps showing humanity’s “complicity” in what we now understand as an ecological crisis: literature since Gilgamesh depicts people building settlements, using resources, and pursuing, in his preferred phrase, a “sedentary lifestyle,” which seems to mean any non-nomadic way of life. He writes that “the deep history of literature can be seen as so many documents that describe and justify resource extraction…. I believe that the entire canon of world literature would lend itself to such an investigation.” At first this seems like breathtaking hyperbole. It is difficult to see how Finnegans Wake is a justification for resource extraction. Puchner would disagree: “The claim is that all texts and genres can be subject to an environmental reading because of literature’s complicity with the lifestyle that has led to climate change.”

Ghosh, in The Great Derangement, also used the word “complicity,” but Puchner seems to mean it more literally and more indiscriminately, sweeping all writers into its dragnet. Yet to represent something in literary form is not perforce to be guilty of that thing. Puchner insists that “literature is not a neutral observer but a deeply compromised participant,” as if those were the only two options. If all literature were a document of immanent ecological devastation, then we might try taking this Joyce novel, or that Mallarmé sonnet, and forcing it to reveal every hidden complicity. But will we be disappointed when they fail to yield a lesson about the human roots of the climate emergency? A small problem in Ghosh is that he doesn’t acknowledge the lurking presence of climate where it does exist in the literary record; a larger problem in Puchner is that he sees it everywhere.

Yet literature’s stain is the literary critic’s advantage. For if world literature is an unbroken record of complicity, then all we must do is read it tactically—in Puchner’s words, we must harness the power of stories to mitigate climate change. But it is not stories that need to be harnessed; it is political action and an immediate elimination of carbon and methane emissions. We are asking too much of literature to suggest otherwise: Puchner is mistaking a diagnostic capability for a remedial one. At the same time, though, it is rather condescending to literature to claim, as Puchner does, that we must learn how to read “great works of literature…with a sustained attention to climate change,” or, rather coercively, that “works of world literature can be made to yield their significance if we ask the right questions.” A claim about the potential of all literature begins to look like a plan to force it into obedience.

What an odd paradox, underestimating literature while also overestimating it. To rely on the unbounded category of “stories,” and to believe that comparative literature (not ConocoPhillip’s annual report) will provide the prosecutorial documentation we need, is to propose a solution that is too good to be true. “Stories” from literature may be pertinent, but surely it’s reported stories about fossil fuel executives that have a better chance of moving us to join climate strikes on Friday mornings.

Puchner instead promotes world literature anthologies (he is a general editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature), a plan to submit our reading to a seven-point “protocol” prohibiting us from ever forgetting about literature’s complicity, and the reorganization of literature departments away from national traditions. He acknowledges that “the fate of the humanities, large as it looms to those connected with them, pales in comparison to the fate of the humans.” But there is something disconcerting even in the comparison.

It may be genealogically true that today’s fossil-burning hominid has an ancestor in the ancient Mesopotamian who cut down trees. But it requires us to ignore the specific and contingent history of the last couple of centuries to accept that the roots of the disaster lie in the establishment of any early human settlement, or that the rise of agriculture made the fossil economy inevitable, or that any ancient representation of climate patterns foretells our current predicament, which is unambiguously anthropogenic. In The Nature of Tomorrow, Michael Rawson, a historian writing about literature, proposes a more defined scope of analysis: futuristic works of fiction since the seventeenth century that imagine the complete human development of Earth, sometimes as triumph and sometimes as nightmare. His aim is to provide a “better understanding of how the stories that people have told themselves about the future—and continue to tell themselves today—have helped to shape and sustain an expectation of limitless growth.” Storytelling is still the subject, but the ambit is clearer.

Rawson’s survey ranges from Francis Bacon’s utopia New Atlantis (1624) and Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s novel The Year 2440 (1771), with their buoyant visions of terrestrial cultivation, to Émile Souvestre’s The World as It Shall Be (1846) and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), with their darker view of resource depletion and ruin. Some futurists are sanguine, others are cautionary, but as the centuries go on the ecological arc bends ever more toward catastrophe, with H.G. Wells’s 1904 dream of “growth that goes on for ever” sounding more and more like a malediction. Rawson makes the important observation that Mercier’s book marked a shift from locating imaginary societies in distant parts of the contemporaneous world (as had been the case in Gulliver’s Travels and Candide) to situating them in the future. Progress, that elusive ideal, was thus deferred to some later time—and so the depredations of endless growth were seen as a crisis always on the horizon.

For Rawson, these various books across the centuries are all the work of “fiction writers.” This catchall term includes futurists and philosophers, urbanists and novelists; fiction writing seems not exactly a literary category. This is understandable—Rawson’s book is a history of futurist prognostication that declines to make any literary judgment—but imprecise, and revealingly so. His quarry is what we now call “speculative fiction,” which critics have typically kept siloed off from the more respectable precincts of realism. That haughtiness has itself faced criticism: from the speculative novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, who has often said that “science fiction is the realism of our time” and who has provided stark evidence for why this may be so in epics about climate devastation set in the next few decades, like The Ministry for the Future (2020).*

Maybe this hunt for stories that expose the sources of our predicament, finding them in a tradition that eschews realism, corroborates Ghosh’s allegation in The Great Derangement that realism has failed. To read literary criticism about the climate emergency is to get the sinking feeling that we have been doing things all wrong. What have we been paying attention to all this time? We may feel confident that we can distinguish between the enduring books and the ephemeral ones. We may know which novels to include on our syllabuses and why. But if the cataclysm turns out to be even half as bad as we expect, then our certainties of judgment may no longer matter. This does not mean that literary value derives from some prognostic power. Yet a future of 2.5-degree warming will so disturb our ways of fathoming the world that a literature that seems outmoded or indifferent may also seem unreadable.

Will that future also make literary studies look antique? Plenty of novels are now published each year about the emergency, many more than when Ghosh said they were scarce six years ago, and plenty of works of criticism now exist to greet them. But these works are suspended awkwardly between evaluating the past literary record and dreading the future state of criticism and of the planet. The warning from critics to novelists has been that negligent books today will prove culpability tomorrow; maybe we critics now fear the same fate ourselves.